A haven for Vietnamese members of the LGBTQ+ community could be found every Sunday night on Song That Radio, the nation’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian radio show broadcast out of KSJX in San Jose. Translated as “live truthfully,” the hour-long program was founded in March 1999 by Vuong Nguyen. She was known as the “Eldest Sister” of the ST family, who also founded one of the country’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian groups in San Jose in the late 1980s.
This wasn’t Nguyen’s first radio gig, previously working as a news writer and reader for American military radio while living in Saigon. Born in 1943, she advocated against Communist Hanoi while a college student early in the Vietnam War. She brought a Vietnamese-style broadcasting mix of news, contemporary music, poetry and letters from readers to Song That Radio, focusing on messages of anti-homophobia and equality in the community and society.
A slogan of the program has been documented online as, “Live true to your biological nature, and live well together, with everyone around and proud of your own. Your natural nature, that of a homosexual, is useful in society.”
The mission of Song That Radio included advocating for acceptance in the Vietnamese community, bridging gaps between heterosexual family members and educating about HIV and AIDS. These goals proved especially vital for closeted LGBTQ folks who weren’t fluent English speakers.
The most recent programs still accessible online date back to August 2013, when discussion topics ranged from a French woman providing breastfeeding services to homosexual parents and Amsterdam’s Gay Pride festival, to Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” stance on gay people and ABC Family airing a lesbian wedding on TV – the first after the Supreme Court struck down the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act. In addition to radio programming, they hosted in-person shows, where packed audiences would watch nights filled with song, dance, comedy and fashion, sometimes with standing room only. Song That Radio’s location in San Jose wasn’t happenstance.
According to a 2011 report on the Status of Vietnamese Health, Santa Clara County’s Vietnamese population grew from 11,717 in 1980 to 134,525 in 2010 – the second largest of any county in the country. The City of San Jose had the largest Vietnamese population of any U.S. city. At the time, there were no Vietnamese words to clearly, respectfully talk about the LGBTQ+ community. The idea was that by building understanding, that would lead to love, openness and freedom by building a bridge between Vietnamese roots and queer life. This work blended into politics, including marching against Prop 8, which temporarily halted legal same-sex marriages in California. On May 15, 2012, Song That Radio received a commendation from the San Jose City Council.
In a history written in 2017 about the founding of the South Bay Queer and Asian, Roger Chow remembers meeting Dino Ago in the fall of 1991 to discuss the need for a gay Asian support group in the South Bay. After some planning, on February 19, 1992, the first meeting of the group met at the offices of the Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), a large and influential Asian-American non-profit social service organization in San Jose. Three people were in attendance: Roger, Dino, and a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. Despite a slow start, they continued to meet weekly as their membership grew. According to Roger, they were the first gay Asian group in the South Bay.
Their name changed over time, first being the “AACI group,” then the Asian, Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Alliance, or ALBGA, then finally taking the name of South Bay Queer and Asian, or sbQA, right before the Gay Pride Parade in June, 1994. Initially AACI provided the facilitators for the group sessions, but the counselors were constantly changing, so the group decided to separate from AACI and transfer to the Billy DeFrank Center in order to develop its own leadership. They have remained at the DeFrank Center and helped raise money for its operations since.
Roger remembers what an adrenaline rush it was in creating the group. It was founded on the idea of creating a safe space for the pan-Asian community to receive support and counseling, along with help in dealing with family, financial, immigration, and mental health issues. There is also an sbQA scholarship fund to help LGBTQ+ Asian-American students from local high schools go to college.
In 1994, Roger Chow attended his first Pride parade and met a young Japanese man. Seeing he was distraught, Chow approached him and asked what was wrong. The man had just been disowned by his family for coming out. This young man was one of a few that Chow met over his years at sbQA who were disowned by his family, and it was crushing.
As Roger writes, there was much variation in the session topics, from coming out, relationships, AIDS 101, dating, etc., mixed in with “Learning to Dance the Samba.” They did theme nights, potlucks where everyone was encouraged to prepare specific ethnic food (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Indonesian were popular). They went to see movies: “The Crying Game” and “My Beautiful Launderette” as well as attended the Asian American Film Festival and the Lesbian Gay Film Festival in San Francisco. They saw “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” marched in the Gay Pride parades in San Francisco and then in San Jose, walked in the Santa Clara County AIDS Walk, learned about safe sex and HIV, and had members who served on the Santa Clara County Commission on HIV/AIDS. They skied, camped out and had many meals together and established the tradition of their top three annual gatherings: Chinese Lunar New Year (Tet), Thanksgiving and Christmas (Holiday) potluck dinners.
The annual summer picnic is a huge family-friendly event for members and their friends and family, offering a great opportunity to meet people across the LGBTQ+ community. Other events include Thanksgiving dinner, a Holiday Party in the winter, and Chinese Lunar New Year. Thanksgiving dinner is a potluck event for members of sbQA and other LGBTQ+ Asian groups throughout the Bay Area. Some years, the GAPA Men’s Chorus from San Francisco performs. Chinese Lunar New Year is a huge event where the community shares celebrating the New Year together.
As in any organization, membership crises can occur. As Roger recalls, one controversy that erupted centered around if participation should be limited to Asians only. The first time around the debate was settled by having a majority of the planning group be Asian or of Asian descent. The second time the issue arose it was decided that since there were many groups for the “majority community” and only a few distinctively for gay Asians, they wanted their “rap” meetings closed. All of their social or other social functions would always remain “open to all.” Thus ended their second membership crisis.
In an August 2020 conversation with Ed Tang, who joined the group in 2005, and interim president Kyle Matsumoto-Burch, they talked about the more pressing issues for gay Asians, many which revolve around immigration and the threat of being deported. As Kyle said, “There is always that idea in the back of your mind that you’re going to have to go back to your country of origin, which means you have to go back to your family. There is this piece of you that might be okay with yourself being gay and maybe you’re living the life now, but eventually you’ll have to go back and conform to how it is back home. That is what is in the back of some people’s minds.”
One young man, the only son of a Chinese family, had a difficult time coming out to his parents. After a rap session, he asked their chairperson, Jerry Wang, to give him guidance, desperate to find a solution. A few years later, his parents came to the U.S., and he invited them to meet members of sbQA. Once they met others in the LGBTQ+ community, they realized that they were human beings too, and not too “out there.” They were concerned about grandchildren, so sbQA leaders explained how their son could have a family, including options like surrogacy. In 2019, this young man’s first child was born, and his parents stayed in the U.S. to help their son and his young family.
Tied into that, the issue with H1B visas looms and of not getting theirs renewed. “It’s not just a matter of leaving the culture, or leaving their friends, but it’s losing a job,” said Kyle. “If they haven’t established themselves in their home country, it’s going to be difficult for them to get a job because ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.'”
Just as creating a safe space for queer Asian Americans was a hallmark from the beginning for sbQA, so it continues to be today. Ed talked about how in the gay community there can be a problem of Asian fetishization. The older generation in sbQA is protective of the younger generation, making sure they have someone to turn to if they have any issues. He was always very tense when he was the organizer of an event. “I keep looking, watching to make sure nothing goes wrong because there are certain individuals who are very aggressive. I really look out for them to make sure that they do not go overboard. As people begin to feel comfortable coming to our events, they will bring their friends. That’s what happened with our annual picnic. The year I first attended in 2005 there were like 30 plus, and now it’s about 160 people. It’s a big change. Once people feel safe, they will come and they will bring their friends.”
“I used to work with foster care children and I would have to fight with the DA to get foster kids placed with gay families.” Ed Tang
sbQA has two main issues when it comes to the future. First is recruiting more women into leadership roles. Kyle is pleased that a woman is now vice president of the group. The second is passing the baton from generation to generation and mentoring one another on how to run a civic service group. Roger, Ed and Kyle all understand how important it is for sbQA to actively recruit younger members.
Kyle believes the legacy of sbQA is this creation of a network of individuals who are very helpful to one another. “With sheltering in place, a lot of the work that sbQA has been doing is offering support to people who are isolated. That’s why we have these zoom meetings. But we’re also more active on Facebook now where people can log in at any time and be able to talk to anybody pretty much at any time. So there’s more availability now. Our network offers a lot of support to different people for different reasons.”