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HAWA is building queer Hmong community in Milwaukee

A Southeast Asian man in a white collard shirt stands and smiles in front of a colorful mural
Lina Tran
HAWA queer justice director Zong Yang at the HAWA office.

On the last Friday of every month, members of the queer Hmong community gather around food, stories, and chosen family. Queer Roots Space is a program of the Hmong American Women’s Association, or HAWA — just one of the many queer justice programs that the organization offers.

According to Zong Yang, HAWA’s queer justice director, the gathering is often the first time and space in which many participants have interacted with other LGBTQ+ Southeast Asian people. Yang spoke with Lake Effect about building queer community and transformative siblinghood in Milwaukee.

On transformative siblinghood

A lot of times we see patterns and trends where survivors and community members are not building in a way that's healthy. For example, we see a lot of older folks trafficking younger Southeast Asian LGBTQ people, and those kinds of relationships are really harmful. Even though a lot of the time what we've seen is that young people just need support and healthy relationships. For us, transformative relationships means cultivating a space for our people to be able to build beyond just surviving. To break the silence of what they're going through, but also lean on each other in ways that transcend coping mechanisms.

On the importance of queer Hmong community in Milwaukee

A lot of times, when people think about LGBTQ spaces, or support and resources for LGBTQ people, Milwaukee is not a place that people think about. For the Hmong community in particular, a lot of people think about Minnesota or the West Coast.

Through our Queer Roots Space, what we’ve heard and seen is that this is their first moment and first time interacting with other LGBTQ Southeast Asian people. It’s the very first time they're hearing other people navigating very similar issues that they went through. That has been really great because we want people to build with each other, lean on each other, and hear from each other. Like, you navigated your parents like this, I navigated coming out like this, I navigated transitioning resources like this.

On his path to advocacy and justice work

I finished high school here in Milwaukee. Then I transitioned into college at UWM. Then I transitioned out to the University of Minnesota. At that time I was experiencing a gender identity crisis. My family wasn't in a position to really support me to navigate that. I was looking for community too. This was like 10 years ago.

There was another Hmong LGBTQ organization, they were the first LGBTQ Hmong organization in the Midwest, but they were in Minnesota. So, I knew there was a community out there. I actually moved there to find community. That's how I entered this work.

My heart was always in Milwaukee because I've seen what I didn't have. I've also seen what a lot of other people around me — young people around me who were also queer — didn’t have. Not everyone was privileged enough to get up and move to find community. I felt a sense of responsibility to come back. In many ways, Milwaukee was really supportive. I wanted to come back and make sure that I do my due diligence to the community here, and build queer justice and queer power here.

On allyship

In the political climate that we're in, we have to go back to being old school. What I mean by that is we have to center deep-dive learning and deep-dive involvement to learn the nuances of people’s stories. If you're looking to volunteer or you're looking to be involved, I want folks to not just look from a broader sense and volunteer short-term. Think about your long-term volunteer plan, your involvement plan, because you learn so much when you spend time with people.

We have to spend time with our people in the garden. It's only then that you actually know the nuances. I also encourage people to not just get involved with the bigger organizations. Pride Month — it's definitely something to celebrate. But the work that is ongoing to support LGBTQ people happens year-round. A lot of amazing work to support marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community happens year-round, but it goes unnoticed. I encourage people to think deeply about their involvement, but also look closer to pick a focus on where they want to get involved. Because there's deeper communities even within the LGBTQ community.


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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