What Can We Do When Bad Things Happen to Us?

Hello this is Rev. Dr. Trinity.  So why am I here?  I am an activist and academic with over 50 years in social change movements. But I am not a psychologist. When I asked the Organizing Committee, why me? They replied that, as a lesbian, I could bring a perspective, focused on intersectionality. Truthfully, that story, that perspective from which I speak begins with the sad fact that 50-40-30 years ago, WE queer and trans Asian and Pacific Islander people were in the margins.  We were NOT welcome in our families and communities.

We have come a long way from that isolation, rejection and shame that was the common fate for most of us.  . . .It is therefore from the experience of being in and yet organizing against the multiple, intersectional marginalizations of our lives that I hope to share some thoughts and perspectives that will benefit you—professionally, personally and culturally.
* * * * *

So, let me start with the theme, Throwing Rocks  & Building Bridges. Well, I must admit. This was a doozy of theme to understand, at first. What meaning can I help you draw from this theme? Fortunately, as a student of Taoism, I remembered a story that is very relevant, to this conference, and more broadly, to one of the vexing social and political problems we face. Especially today when there is lot of “rock throwing” and “NO bridge building” in the growing political, social, cultural and economic polarizations here in the U.S. and around the world. . . .

There is a Taoist tale (translated by Derek Lin), “What Can We Do When Bad Things Happen to Us,” or, for our conference: “Rocks, Bridges & A Donkey”

“Once upon a time in ancient China, the people at a village received orders from the regional governor to build a shrine for the emperor. If they could meet the deadline, the governor would reward them handsomely.

“The chosen location for the shrine had a well, so they needed to fill it up before construction could take place. They brought in a donkey to transport piles of sand and mud for that purpose.

“An accident occurred. The donkey got too close to the exposed well, lost his footing, and fell into it. The villagers tried to lift him out but could not. After many failed attempts, they realized it would take too long to rescue him.

“Keeping the deadline in mind, the villagers decided to sacrifice the donkey. They proceeded to shovel sand and mud into the well, thinking they had no choice but to bury him alive.

“When the donkey realized what they were doing, he began to wail pitifully. The villagers heard him but ignored him. The value of the donkey wasn’t much compared to the rewards they would get, so they continued to shovel. 

“After a while, the wailing stopped. The villagers wondered about this. Was the donkey dead already? Or did he just give up? What was going on?

“Curious, they looked into the well. A surprising sight greeted them. The donkey was alive and well. When the mud and sand rained down on him, he shrugged them off, and then stamped around until they were tightly packed below him. This formed solid ground that lifted him a bit higher each time.

“Eventually, the donkey got high enough inside the well. With one powerful leap, he jumped out of it. Amazed, the villagers watched as he trotted off with his head held high.


• Lesson 1: Take Action. Wailing is of no help. When we get in trouble and the sand and mud of daily problems are failing upon us, wailing is of no help. The best thing in the midst of adversity is to take action.

• Lesson 2: Find a way that strengthens us in the long run. We can make use of trouble and find a way out that in the long run strengthens us. This Taoist teaching story gives us hope that we can cope with the bad things that happen to us.

The story of how queer and trans Asian and Pacific Islander people went from being stigmatized, ostracized and rejected by our families to understanding, pride and family acceptance is a living example of how we – API people—did just that. We – queer and trans API people AND OUR FAMILIES & FRIENDS – found a way out that in the long run, strengthened us.


INTERSECTIONALITY. We are all racial, sexual and gendered beings. Yet, SOCIAL HIERARCHY – inside and outside – simultaneously creates privileged and marginalized groups of racial, sexual and gendered people. My talk is not about the theory of intersectionality, but rather, how multiply-marginalized people can move from the margins to the center – not by turning the pyramid upside down, but by challenging, reducing, removing and ultimately transforming the “social power basis” of the hierarchy itself. That is, the social values – who and what is good – of the belief system, itself. The “power of the pyramid” becomes no more . . .
Let me read a few excerpts from my forthcoming article about this, Opening the Path to Marriage Equality: Asian American Lesbians Reach Out to Their Families and Communities
After decades of contentious politicking that revealed deep fissures in American society, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 and 2015 in favor of marriage equality for same sex couples. Like elsewhere, gaining support in the Asian American community for same sex marriage was an uphill battle. Prior to 1988, the Asian American community generally treated their lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) members with shame and isolation. Then it began to change. That year was a turning point, in part, because it was my own.

On June 25, 1988, Desiree Thompson and I were married in a wedding ceremony attended by over 120 family members and friends. Not only were we married before it was popular or political to do so, but my mother, Segunda, made both our wedding dresses! Our story has been documented in print and film and each time, when I shared my mother’s part, everyone got it. It was her way to show her love and acceptance of my new family; no explanation required. In Asian culture, where family is at the center of “all that is important,” I knew undoubtedly that “it was O.K. to be gay.”

Today, a notable majority of Asian Americans–roughly seven in ten (69%)–support same-sex marriage, greater than all other racial/ethnic groups in the nation. This development clearly indicates a shift in the Asian American community beyond tolerance to acceptance of its LGBTQ members. How did this change happen? After all, a court ruling sets law but it cannot adjudicate the heart.


[1] To be published in 2019 by NY University Press in the revised anthology, Asian American and Pacific Islander Women’s History: Local and Global Dimensions, edited by Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura. And for those of you in academia, theirs is THE book on API Women’s history and issues.



The decades-long struggle was always uphill. All the U.S. Presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Bush Jr., were AGAINST same sex marriage and LGBT rights and campaigned for and signed into legislation such laws, like the NATIONAL DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT. The state, federal and supreme court rulings were the same.

Also, Asian Americans (alone and in combination with other races) made up a little over 5.6% of the U.S. population in 2010. We were (and still are) a very small part of the U.S. population, demographically.  No outside group was lobbying us, one way or the other. We were “too few” to matter. So clearly, “the push and pull” came from within. How is it then that Asian/Pacific Islanders – typically very conservative, politically – ended up on the progressive side of this hotly contested issue?


  • Yes, API lesbians were among the named plaintiffs in three state lawsuits challenging same sex marriage discrimination.
  • Yes, Asian Americans in California showed a remarkable level of support for same sex marriage. Our allies paralleled the discrimination against LGBTQ people with anti-Asian discrimination, anti-miscegenation, immigration and citizenship laws, and an unprecedented coalition of over 60 Asian American organizations filed an amicus brief in support of equal marriage rights, Sep 2007.
  • Yes, in Northern California, a collaboration with the statewide coalition, Let California Ring, ran a series of full page ads in Asian Week featuring an Asian American lesbian or gay person and a family member.
  • And yes, in the 1980s and 1990s, Asian American gay men were battling for their lives in the AIDS pandemic and all the while, family reaction was a key predictor of depression, suicide and risk behaviors for this population.
  • At the same time, Asian American lesbians, especially those who wanted to have children, took up the challenge to win acceptance from our families. So together, API gay men and lesbians created “coming out” resources, videos and programs. Parents, too, “came out” to their families and communities. They wrote books and spoke openly of their gay children. Here in the U.S. and in Asia.

My article goes on the chronicle how this happened, which I will not detail any further here. What I will present and signify now is that the SUCCESSFUL social and political change of a majority of the API community in the U.S. who now support same sex marriage was facilitated by the preceding decades of deliberate interactions of “out” Asian American LGBTQ people and our families, especially parents because of our shared API culture. And the cornerstone of our API culture upon which this transformation was forged was THE FAMILY. That is why, in the end, “in API Homes, all children are welcome” and “family is still family.”

Family is still family

There was NO BOOK on how to do this. We API queer and trans people and our families, friends, allies, foes and communities had to figure this out on our own. And I included “foes” in this equation because our process was in RESPONSE to our foes, especially those in our own families and communities.
This is how it started. This 1989 newspaper feature article, “Asians silenced by Family Ties” said it all. So true; so true that the truth hurt. It hurt our hearts, closed our minds and cut off our voice—in anger that they did not or could not understand us, in sadness for disappointing our parents, and immobilized by our greatest fear – being disowned and kicked out of the family. We were “in the closet” by being silent. But from my own positive wedding experience the year before, I also knew the family could change.

Asian Silenced by Family Ties

In fact, an Asian lesbian community survey in 2000 reported FAMILY ACCEPTANCE as the #1 most important need: 76% overall and 92% for 18-23 years. Not domestic partnership or marriage equality; not gays in the military; not even personal safety or civil rights! It was not enough for queer and trans API people to be “out” to the world. We wanted our family’s love and acceptance. So, we struggled to find a way. But this is where psychology comes in. API psychology. Let me put on my “researcher’s hat” for a minute, to explain.

In my doctoral studies, I found studied cross-cultural psychology, in particular, a 1980 study by Dr. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist who compared 117,000 IBM employees in 66 countries for “dimensions of cultural variation.” Of the 4 dimensions he found, “Individualism vs. Collectivism” was the most relevant and resonant to me.
COLLECTIVISM: Asia, Africa, Latin America, Greece, Southern Italy:
• “We” consciousness
• Collectivism and group identity
• Emotional, financial interdependence
• Group solidarity, sharing, decision-making
• Loyalty, obligation

INDIVIDUALISM: U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain:
• “I” consciousness
• Individualism and individual identity
• Emotional, financial independence
• Autonomy and individual initiative
• Individual Rights

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two systems. As you can see there is a “world of difference” between them.

Collectivism vs Individualism

“Coming Out” American Style “works” because, despite widespread stigma against homosexuality, there is also social and cultural support of “coming out” for LGBTs because American culture is highly individualistic. It affirms the individual in the face of societal conflict and individual rights are philosophically assumed and legally protected. In other words, I may not agree with you (and your lifestyle), but you have the RIGHT to do it.

Look at this psychological explanation of “Coming Out” American style:

The freedom to be your natural self is elementary to your mental and emotional health, but you cannot achieve freedom as long as it is an abstraction. Only when you step into the reality of ‘outing yourself’ can you begin to feel the potency of self-affirmation. (Betty Berzon, noted LGBT psychologist)

In contrast, API American style is “Coming Out Together,” works because it is based on resonant API family values: respect primacy & privacy of the family; mutual consideration of parent and child. Furthermore, silencing traditions around sexuality (and any stigma) make it especially difficult to discuss. Therefore, API people need cultural and linguistic resources to help them understand and cope, and to expect this process to take a lot of time, anywhere from 5-10-15 years for the whole family to “come out together”

Look at this statement from a Chinese sociologist, Dr. Chou Wah-Shan from his book, Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies (2000)

Nobody is a discreet, isolated being separate from their family and other kinship groups. Everybody is first a daughter or son before anything else. One does not become a different person called “homosexual” if s/he engages in homosexual behavior, as he/she does in the U.S.

In summary, for the Individual & Group, and Child & Parents/Family, both are important and both must be taken into consideration and included in the “coming out together.” In this process, responsibilities for feelings and relationships are both mutual and reciprocal. A successful process takes time, effort, commitment and communication.

In the end, I can confidently say that API queer and trans people made a unique contribution be redefining and co-creating “Coming Out Together” as a cultural process of FAMILY RECONCILIATION & FAMILY UNITY

Another way to affirm this truth is to look at the story line and arc of the characters in these two, very popular films. For most of us, the public visibility of Asian gays began with The Wedding Banquet (1993, Ang Lee). Winston Chao lives the good life: he runs a successful real-estate business in New York and has a wonderful relationship with his lover, Simon. The only problem is that his elderly parents in Taiwan don’t know he’s gay, and they’re pushing him to get married and present them with a grandchild. It all culminates in an elaborate Chinese banquet that no one will soon forget. And in the end, the parents – at least the father – knew his son was gay!

Saving Face (2004, Alice Wu) was the first, feature length story of an Asian American lesbian. Wil and her widowed mother, Ma, who gets pregnant outside of marriage. A comedy filled with drama and pathos, in the end, Ma, the pregnant mom, is a “good daughter” who is true to herself and marries for love, which trumps a “dutiful daughter” who goes against her own feelings and marries to please her family. For Wil, the lesbian daughter (and a doctor), a good daughter is a happy one who is also true to herself (and gets her girl in the end, too.

And these themes of conflict, reconciliation and unity are also seen in our own community politics, like the 1994 Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) National Convention that voted on whether or not to support same sex marriage. It was not until Congressman Norm Mineta spoke up and told this back story behind the successful passage of the Civil Liberties Act (1988) which secured redress for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

For all the support that the Japanese American community generated outside the Congress, Redress did not begin moving until 1987. Up until then, the legislation was stalled in the House. . . . But in 1987, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts was elected subcommittee chair. When I [Mineta] went to congratulate him Frank replied, “Norm, my priority is to get Redress moving.”

“Now, here’s an openly gay member of Congress with only a very, very small Japanese American constituency.” . . . “What did he do? He made redress his top priority. Why? Because he saw that our civil rights as a fundamental principle for this great country. Doing what is right is often controversial. Doing what is just is often unpopular. But if we are to remain a viable voice in the national civil rights movement, we cannot back away from our commitments simply because the issue is difficult.”

With that, the JACL majority vote reaffirmed support of same-sex marriage issue and was the first people of color civil rights group to do so. And since then, Congressman Mike Honda from the South Bay, in 2017, tweeted out support for his transgender granddaughter, Malisa; Honda also became the first lawmaker to support the idea of a gender spectrum.

And Now Trans Inclusion

So yes, Queer and Trans API people and our families and allies created a path to be OUT & PROUD as individuals and family members and our API culture. Following our own cultural common sense was both the basis for the tension AND the transformation of our individual, family, and collective lives. It may have taken us 30 years to get here, but we did.

As counselors, psychologists and psychotherapists, YOU are doing this very same work. In your work with API people under the great stress of change and challenge across divergent language, cultural and generational challenges, you are building bridges of self and community understanding. I recognize and support you in your efforts. YES, identify our problems and work to understand and then change, resolve or transform them. Just look at this random sampling of workshop titles and descriptions, like:

• Building Bridges between Asian Americans and Asian Internationals.
• We’re Here Too; Challenges and Perspectives of the Brown Asian Experience within the API Community
• At Least I’m Not Black: Dismantling the Model Minority Myth and Addressing Internalized Anti-Blackness among Asians and African Americans.
• Starting Emotional Wellness Dialogues with South Asian Youth
• Queering Parenting in API Communities

I not only laud your efforts but also want to encourage you to push out to expand and pull in resources to help from BOTH wells . . . from your American and API worlds.

As indigenous, immigrant and refugee people in the U.S., we know discrimination, exploitation, and marginalization from our lived experiences. Furthermore, we API people in the U.S. have had lots and lots of “bad things” happen to us, in America and in our home countries. This is one good thing about coming from countries with long, long histories. We have been on both sides of political conflict, that is, for millennia, we have been, by our own hands:

• colonized and colonizer
• religious, sect, tribal or clan oppressed and oppressor
• warlord and landlord over the villager and peasant

On the other hand, America is a very, very young country. A little over 225 years . . . compared to thousands of years in Oceania and the South Pacific and at least 4,000 of continuous recorded history in China and India. Therefore, we know destruction and ruin; we also know renewal and rebuilding because we have done it.

I bring this up because the POLARIZATION, NAME CALLING, INSULT THROWING, LYING, BRAGGING AND BALD MANIPULATION we see growing in the U.S. feels like a school yard fight between 10 years old little boys. Except in this case, there is NO wise teacher or coach who will come to the rescue, stop the fight and make everyone to come to their senses.

Help bring us together

Our schoolyard bullies and instigators are speaking with massive bullhorns from platforms of economic, military, political and cultural power. Given this growing dire situation, we see that API people may be the closest to the cool, calm and sensible ones around. Therefore, I feel we need to STEP UP and demonstrate a middle way, a process of reconciliation and reunification that can bring family—and in this case, a country—back together as one.

Lesson 1:
Take Action. Wailing is of no help.
“When we get in trouble and the sand and mud of daily problems are failing upon us, wailing is of no help. The best thing in the midst of adversity is to take action.

Lesson 2: Find a way that strengthens us in the long run
“We can make use of trouble and find a way out that in the long run strengthens us.

And MOST IMPORTANTLY, this Taoist teaching story gives us hope that we can, and already have.

• After the Chinese Exclusion Act: we are still here, and thriving
• After the Japanese Internment Camps: we are still here, and thriving
• After the nuclear bombing of Japan: we are still here, and thriving

We are here. Struggling, yes; surviving, yes; and thriving, so very, very yes.


Rev. Dr. Trinity

(Above are excerpts of the keynote address given by Rev. Dr. Trinity to the National Conference of the Asian American Psychological Association [AAPA], August 8, 2018 on the theme, “Throwing Rocks, Building Bridges: Uplifting and Centering Our Intersectional Voices.)

Find a way that strengthens us

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