Hmong, Queer, Woman: UW Alum Lives in the Intersections

For many people the American Dream is a goal. A goal that means a better life, freedom, or safety. It means a chance to rebuild and remake.

Doua Kha is a Hmong American woman and a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. She now works in special education in Minneapolis.

Kha was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and lived there shortly before she moved to the United States with her parents and six siblings. Her parents came along with thousands of immigrants to seek a better life for themselves and their children.

Kha grew up in Milwaukee until she was 12, but moved to central Wisconsin for a couple of years because of the gang violence prevalent in her neighborhood. Although it was safer, it was culturally “depleting” because it was less diverse than Milwaukee. Kha experienced racism in Wisconsin where her family was one of two Hmong families in her small town. She was gawked and stared at by people.

Growing up, Kha faced educational barriers because she was bilingual. She was put into English As a Second Language (ESL) classes and was restricted to only reading books that were at her “level” of reading. She remembered when she wanted to read the third book of Harry Potter, her teachers told her it was too advanced and that she couldn’t read anything that was higher than her level. Kha began reading several books to prove her teachers wrong and that her reading skills were not characterized by the level that she tested in.

“When I got taken out of ESL, a lot my friends said, ‘Doua you’re so smart because you’re not in ESL anymore’ because being in ESL became synonymous with being less intelligent. So growing up, I had a very negative experience being labeled as an English Language learner,” Kha tells Madison365.

Kha struggles most as a Hmong American woman with not being “Hmong enough.” Having naturally curly hair and an outspoken voice, many of her Hmong peers described her outspokenness and the way she dresses and carries herself as acting black or ghetto.

“I was never Hmong enough to my parents, and I was never American enough to my peers and even my teachers,” Kha says.

Kha believes that Hmong culture perpetuates stereotypical gender roles and she has witnessed homophobia within Hmong culture growing up. Often, Kha and her sister did the cleaning and cooking while her brothers didn’t have those duties.

“They always told me I’m too loud for a Hmong woman, I’m too assertive. I’m always too much and I was always told to be quiet. It always bothered me because there’s no right way to be a Hmong woman. I don’t need the validation, but it still hurts when I hear those things,” Kha says.

The idea of the bride prize was something that Kha was conscious of while growing up. Her parents told her and her sisters if they did not uphold the traditional role of a wife or woman such as taking care of the house, no man would marry or pay any amount of money to marry her.

“As we’re getting more ‘Americanized’ some of the values have changed, but some still stick. We still talk about hefty bride prize when you get married. I don’t need to cook and clean for you to pay $10,000 for me as a bride,” says Kha.

Kha confronted one of the most difficult things in her life: telling her parents that she’s pansexual, or being attracted to anyone regardless of sex, gender, or gender identity.

“There aren’t words to translate LGBT terms in Hmong so that makes it even more difficult. How do I translate what being pansexual means?” Kha says. “I didn’t come out to my parents until spring 2016 and that was disastrous. My mom became very violent and hostile towards me because she didn’t agree with it. My dad was very angry about it too. For a week I actually lived with siblings because I actually feared for my life being around my parents.”

Kha’s journey towards identifying as pansexual started with a crush on a girl in high school. She denied her attraction because of the heterosexual norms she was raised with, but openly identified as bisexual when she entered college. She credits her confidence and openness to embracing her sexuality to her sorority, Sigma Lambda Gamma National Sorority Inc., who were the first community she had that accepted and supported Kha through her journey. After dating and exploring her sexuality, she identified as pansexual after she realized she was attracted to men, women, and people who were gender-queer or non-gender conforming. Kha, however, prefers the term “gender-queer” because it is more fluid.

Kha’s mother has become more accepting of her pansexuality, but her father has not. Her father gets along with her more now because her current partner is a cisgender Hmong man. But if they ever broke up, Kha believes if she dated someone that is non-gender conforming her relationship with her father would become rocky again.

“We still see being queer as a white thing,” Kha says. “Things like queer Asians don’t exist, but we do exist, we’re just not represented in the media. I remember when I was a part of the Asian American Student Union back at UW-Madison I wanted to do a workshop discussing queerness in the APIA community and a lot of the E-Board members pushed back on it because they were uncomfortable with it. So I feel like our generation still has queer-phobic views even though we claim to be ‘open.’”

For the APIA community, Kha feels there is still a lot of work to do to confront anti-blackness and homophobia. She believes that Asian folks should be open to helping other communities and build solidarity with them because they have a shared goal. She is tired of seeing AAPI’s complain about other communities not supporting events or Asian issues when Asians themselves often don’t do that for other communities of color or for the LGBTQ community.

“It’s a journey, you’re not going to wake up one day and know who you are. You’re going to keep changing. Don’t be afraid to embrace change and accept who you are,” Kha said.

Written by Nicole Ki

Nicole Ki is a reporter for Madison365 and a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison pursuing journalism with a certificate in Asian American studies.