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Hmong American Partnership opposes marriage amendment; community divided

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Bao Vang
Bao Vang, president and CEO of Hmong American Partnership, whose board announced July 30, 2012, it had voted to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
MPR photo/Sasha Aslanian

The state's largest non-profit serving the Hmong community today announced its opposition to the voter identification and marriage amendment proposals on the November ballot.

The board of the Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul today announced its position on the issues, saying the photo identification requirement would erect barriers to voting, and the marriage amendment would hurt its communities and families.

It also said passage of an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman would shut down a conversation about gender and sexuality that is just beginning in the Hmong community.

Hmong amendment supporters are also gearing up for the race.

 TAKING A STAND

President and CEO Bao Vang said the Hmong American Partnership is an inclusive organization that could not ignore an amendment that it believes would limit rights for gay and lesbian members of its community.

"We do not believe in the discrimination of any groups, and Hmong being the minority community, we know how that feels," Vang said.

Vang put the issue of legal recognition of marriage into terms that would resonate with many Hmong people. She described how in traditional Hmong heterosexual marriages, people can be married in the eyes of the community, but not the law because they don't have the right paperwork.  That can cause problems when they don't have documentation that entitles them to legal benefits and protections.

"If we already feel that discrimination, or we already feel that that's unjust, imagine what that feels like if you're from the LGBT community," Vang said.

She said that opposing the marriage amendment may be controversial, and even unpopular in the Hmong community, especially among its elders, but it's an intergenerational conversation that the Hmong American Partnership is committed to having.

 STANDING UP FOR TRADITION

On the other side, Minnesota for Marriage already has two Hmong groups working to pass the amendment: the Hmong American Alliance Church and the Hmong Village Shopping Center on St. Paul's East Side.

Shong Yang is the co-owner and president of a "Hmong megamall" that includes 18 restaurants, an indoor farmer's market and bazaar. He wants the marriage amendment to pass.

Shong Yang
Shong Yang, co-owner and president of the Hmong Village Shopping Center on St. Paul's east side has joined Minnesota for Marriage to help pass the proposed constitutional amendment on marriage.
MPR photo/Sasha Aslanian

"I don't like the idea of a man marrying a man and woman marrying a woman because God created us, and God created a man and a woman," Yang said.

Yang approached Minnesota for Marriage about joining its coalition, something Deputy Campaign Manager Andy Parrish said is happening among many different groups of voters.

"They're coming to us. They're saying what we can do in our community to help pass this amendment," Parrish said. "It's been really humbling to see people of all faith and of all color join behind and understand that marriage is profoundly good for society and that children need a mom and a dad." 

Yang said he doesn't know how the Hmong American Partnership could come out in support of same sex marriage because he thinks most Hmong people are on his side.

"I believe that 99- or whatever-percent are against that gay marriage," Yang said.

Kham Moua disagrees.

Kham Moua
Kham Moua is the board chair of Shades of Yellow, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the Hmong and Southeast Asian communities.
MPR photo/Sasha Aslanian

"Well, I would say that he's wrong in his declaration that 99-percent of Hmong people stand with him on this."

Moua, 23, leads a group called "Shades of Yellow," an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that got its start in the Hmong community almost a decade ago. Moua said LGBT people have always been a part of the Hmong community, but faced enormous cultural pressure to conform.

"Many families will attest to this. They know individuals within community who are 70, who are 80, who chose to live their lives alone because they didn't want to explore their feelings or go against cultural or family values," Moua said. "There are individuals who are in 40s, 50s, who no longer come around [the Hmong community] because they identify as LGBTQ."

Moua said he is a lot more open because he's of a younger generation, but he said the route to acceptance even within his own family has been difficult.

In the months ahead, Shades of Yellow plans to work with Minnesotans United for All Families to educate the Hmong community about the importance of marriage to gays and lesbians, and to urge them to vote against the amendment.

At the Hmong Village Shopping Center, Yang said he is willing to distribute brochures to his 400 vendors and their shoppers to make sure they understand the importance of voting yes to define marriage as between a man and a woman. 

Four percent of Minnesotans are Asian, according to the 2010 census, and the Hmong make up the largest group. In a tight race over this amendment, both sides know it could come down to who does the best job mobilizing every group of voters.