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5 LGBTQ Asian-Americans Leading Houston

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For the third consecutive year, OutSmart is celebrating Asian History Month by honoring local LGBTQ leaders in the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community.

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and UCLA’s Williams Institute, more than 10,000 API people in greater Houston identify as LGBTQ. But despite their large numbers, queer API people still experience widespread discrimination,  including from within the LGBT community, and youth frequently face rejection from conservative parents.

Houston currently has no active group specifically for API people who identify as LGBTQ, but as Marene Gustin reports, local advocates are working to change that.

OutSmart’s previous Asian History Month honorees were Dr. Terrence Chang, Jasmine Dao, J. Feng, William Fu, Marcus de Guzman, Carl Han, L.K. Hight, Paul Huynh, Lakshmi Kennar, Becca Keo-Meier, Koomah, Rafferty Laredo, Veronica Mahal Leon, Kevin Nguyen, Nicholas Nguyen, Phuc Nguyen, Eesha Pandit, Yvonne (Feece) Tran, and Grace S. Yung.—John Wright

Nelvin Joseph Adriatico

1-adratico-nelvinLike many Americans, Nelvin Joseph Adriatico was outraged by the viral video of Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago last month.

But as a leader in Houston’s Asian-American community, Adriatico viewed the incident through a different lens.

“I can promise you that if it was an African-American who was dragged like that, everybody would be screaming. But the Asian community, you’re not hearing them speaking up,” says Adriatico, who serves as principal and managing partner of CORE Realty in Sugar Land.

“I don’t know if it’s fear, or maybe that’s just our culture, but we need to speak out,” Adriatico adds. “I think we need to voice [our anger], because that could be my father.”

As president of the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Association of Houston (APAHA)—the 25-year-old nonprofit that serves as a hub for other local groups—Adriatico says his chief goal is uniting the city’s diverse Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

“We’re stronger as one voice,” he says. “We become more visible, and I think that’s very crucial, especially when you’re dealing with the political aspect. My message is always, ‘You’re not Filipino, you’re not Chinese. In this country, we are all Asian-Americans.’”

In addition to leading APAHA, Adriatico serves as co-chair of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Advisory Council on International Communities, a board member for Houston ISD’s Asian Advisory Council, president of the Houston Royal Oaks Lions Club Foundation, and public-policy chair for the Asian Real Estate Association of America, among other leadership roles.

Now, he’s strongly considering a run for public office. If he wins, Adriatico would become one of Texas’ first Filipino elected officials—and the State’s first openly LGBT Asian-American elected official.

“I’m increasing the acceptance that being gay and being Asian is okay,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be an issue at all. When you do service for the community, you do service because this is what you love to do.”

But Adriatico wasn’t always so comfortable with his sexual orientation. Born and raised Catholic in the Philippines, he struggled to come to terms with being gay after immigrating to the U.S. in his early 20s.

“I tried my hardest to resist the temptation, got married, raised a family—so you don’t end up in hell,” he says. “I even thought of becoming a priest growing up. That’s why I became an altar boy—just to be closer to God, because I thought that would make me better.”

After coming out in 2003, Adriatico—a longtime business banker—opened a spa and a mortgage company in Montrose. In 2015, he launched CORE Realty, which specializes in commercial transactions and has since grown to 13 employees.

Also in 2015, Adriatico married his business partner, Avinash Shyam Thadhani, in a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony that was featured in both OutSmart and The Advocate.

Adriatico says his message to young LGBTQ Asian-Americans is simple.

“It starts from within,” he says. “If you’re ashamed of yourself, other people are going to be ashamed of you, too.

“We have to live by example,” he adds. “You need to accept who you are, first as an Asian—you have brown skin, you’re not white. Second, you’re gay—deal with it. Because I promise you, the people you deal with on a daily basis, they will accept you.” —John Wright

Justin Concepcion

2-concepcion-justinJustin Concepcion says LGBTQ Asian-Americans sometimes face more discrimination for being Asian in the LGBT community than for being LGBTQ in the Asian-American community.

He points to the prevalence of profiles on gay dating apps that say things like “No Asians.”

“Especially when people are behind a keyboard or behind a phone, it’s much easier to say, ‘No ching-chong-ching-chong-ching,’ and then block you or whatever,” Concepcion says. “People don’t realize that there’s a problem. They defend it.”

Concepcion, a Houston native whose parents hail from the Philippines, is a PR guru who broke into politics when he headed up social media for former Mayor Annise Parker’s historic 2009 campaign.

Following Parker’s victory, Concepcion managed the city’s social-media accounts. He later went to work for Harris County, before joining Democratic Houston state senator Borris Miles’ staff as communications director in January.

In 2015, Concepcion served on the candidate-screening committee of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, prior to the election in which the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was overwhelmingly repealed by voters.

He draws a connection between discrimination against minorities within the LGBT community and HERO’s defeat at the polls.

“I think the LGBT community needs to start making more inroads with the African-American community and with the Latino community. We have to all understand that we’re in this fight together,” he says. “We do need to find other ways, because the old ways aren’t going to work anymore.”

After graduating from the University of Houston with a degree in public relations, Concepcion spent a few years working for PR firms, but never “found [his] groove.”

Having always been interested in politics, he began volunteering for Parker’s campaign before being hired a short time later.

“I was one of those ‘sidelines’ people—you watched it, you complained about it, and you wanted to do more, but I didn’t do anything about it,” Concepcion says. “This was the first time I said, ‘I’m going to do something about this.’”

Concepcion spoke to OutSmart in the of midst of the grueling legislative session, where Miles and other Democrats were working to defeat more than 20 anti-LGBT bills.

“You do have to sort of separate yourself,” Concepcion says. “You don’t want these bills to get to you, as much as many of them do hurt.

“It is hard to listen to all the testimony, but you work through it because we know that we’ll do everything we can do to fight it,” he adds. “I’m very thankful to work for someone who’s going to fight these bills.”

Concepcion says he’s always worked for strong leaders—and strives to exceed their expectations. But he says it’s also about the constituents they represent.

“For Senator Miles, he works for the people who probably don’t think they have a voice anymore,” he says. “I have to work extra-hard to make sure their voices are heard, that they have a way out. If they think the State’s not listening, or government’s not listening, we’ll be sure to speak for them.” —John Wright

Jeanie Low

3-jeanieAs a soft-spoken, gracious woman, one would not suspect the powerful, positive impact that Jeanie Low has on the emotional health of LGBTQ kids and their families.

Low, a licensed clinical social-work supervisor whose parents hailed from China, has experience in an array of professional settings, including the Harris County Psychiatric Center, the Children’s Assessment Center, ESCAPE Family Resource Center, and the Houston Area Women’s Center.

Low has also worked for nine years in private practice. By applying her extensive education and experience, plus a healthy dose of compassion, she employs a particular technique. Low combines theatrical arts with a form of treatment called experiential psychodrama (or guided drama) to examine problems and issues affecting people’s lives.

“It is very intense therapy. It brings what is in the mind forward and out, through the use of theater arts,” she explains.

Low has also established a specialty in her professional journey—working with LGBTQ teens in a summer camp called This Side of the Rainbow. The camp offers therapeutic resources to LGBTQ kids, as well as educational opportunities for the wider community.

“While it’s nice to think about how lovely things might be ‘somewhere over the rainbow,’ we are committed to helping make things better for LGBTQ youth on this side of the rainbow,” Low explains.

The weeklong day camp will run from July 24 to July 29 this year, with five days dedicated to the kids and one day to both kids and families. Activities focus on self-examination, as well as thought-provoking exercises to promote self-esteem and resilience.

Low and two of her professional teammates will facilitate This Side of the Rainbow. Michael Lesher is a licensed school counselor who is launching his licensed professional counselor internship this summer under the supervision of Michael DeVoll, who is also working with This Side of the Rainbow. DeVoll is a licensed professional counselor supervisor with 10 years of experience counseling in schools, in addition to 20 years of experience working with LGBTQ youth and adults in both community and clinical settings.

Do Low and her colleagues witness changes in the kids and families who attend the camp?

“Oh yes,” Low states, “particularly the trans kids and families. Sometimes we start the week with parents using incorrect pronouns to reference their teens. By the end of the week, that changes. It’s wonderful. I am so blessed to be a part of it.”

As an Asian-American gay woman, Low laments how few Asian-American kids and parents she sees in her practice.

“I was fortunate,” she says. “I grew up in an accepting environment. It has never been an issue for me. However, in the Asian community at large, there is a tendency to handle things privately, within the family. They don’t always reach outside for information or help.”

Is being a gay woman an asset when working with LGBTQ kids?  “It really doesn’t come up,” Low says. “Sometimes, over the course of the week, I may mention it, but the camp is about the kids. It is all about them. It is not about me.”

For more information or to sign up for This Side of the Rainbow, visit thissideoftherainbow.org. —Kim Hogstrom

Melanie Pang

4-pang-melanieMelanie Pang is a busy woman.

Pang is co-chair of Mayor Turner’s LGBTQ Advisory Board. In 2016, she won the President’s Award for Distinguished Community Service from the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and was named OutSmart’s Most Valuable Volunteer. In 2015, she was named the National Association of Social Workers Houston chapter’s Social Worker of the Year. And, she works full time as the data and program-evaluation manager at the Salvation Army.

“That basically means I go around asking a lot of questions,” she explains. It’s all about talking to the clients to see how the organization can better meet their needs. She was previously a caseworker in Montrose.

“Social work is about being a mirror for people,” Pang says. “It’s not about what you think they need, but what they really need.”

Pang recently spoke to a group of middle-school students that was composed of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). She says she was able to connect with them over their similar journeys—trying to please their immigrant parents, and the well-intentioned paths that parents so often choose for their children.

“I think it helped them connect to the feeling of being outside of the mainstream, and wanting to be accepted by family and friends as an LGBTQ person,” she says. “Just like other Americans, I think AAPI families have norms and traditions that can be hard to live outside of, especially if your parents’ journeys are also rooted in struggle and they just want your life to be easier than theirs.”

Pang is a member of Leadership Houston’s Class of XXXIII and graduated from University of Houston with an undergraduate degree in communications and a graduate degree in social work. The daughter of a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, she was born and raised in the Houston area. She knows how privileged she is to have the support of her family, her friends, her fiancé, and her coworkers.

“Not everyone is so fortunate to have that support—and to have a flexible work schedule that allows them to volunteer and be so active,” Pang says. “I guess I do tend to keep myself quite busy!”

As if her schedule wasn’t full enough, after feeling sad about the outcome of the November election, she sent out an e-mail survey asking about activism. That led to the creation of a newsletter for those who are looking for ways to be more engaged. “It has volunteer opportunities, and lets readers learn how to organize and what they can get engaged in,” she says. (You can sign up for her newsletter at preparingforaction.org.)

And she may be even busier in the not-too-distant future. Pang will graduate this June from the New Leaders Council, a nonprofit that trains progressive Millennials in the skills to run for office and manage campaigns. Could politics be in her future?

“It’s too early to say,” she says with a smile. Whatever the next chapter in Pang’s life brings, you can bet she’ll keep making a dif-ference.—Marene Gustin

Naushaba Patel

5-patel-nashaubaWhen Naushaba Patel was 10, her parents moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to the United States, hoping to give their two daughters a chance at a better education.

“My parents have always instilled in me the notion that education, more than anything else, gives you the power to fight for freedom and independence,” says Patel. “So they were willing to make the enormous sacrifice of leaving everything behind and moving to a place with totally different norms, customs, religious practices, and culture for the betterment of our academic lives.”

Patel, 25, spent her undergraduate years at Emory University and Rice University, and then earned a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University. After graduate school, Patel backpacked through Europe and Asia before moving back to Houston about a year ago. She immediately got involved with the Lesbian Health Initiative at the Montrose Center, where she now works as a women’s health education and outreach specialist.

“Society often does not develop structures with women in mind, especially minority women. This leads to the well-researched healthcare disparities faced specifically by women who lie at many minority intersections,” says Patel. “The ability to work to help correct these disparities, both in the physical- and mental-health arenas, is a life dream.”

Patel says one of her main goals and passions is to help foster an environment where people can live authentically.

“[I would like] to help reduce the barriers that prevent vulnerable populations from living their fullest and most authentic lives,” says Patel. “I am fortunate to be getting to do [this] via my work. Identifying with many different identities—Pakistani, queer, lesbian, immigrant, gender queer, Muslim—has given Patel a unique perspective.

“In queer spaces, I can add perspective on what it feels like to be an immigrant or Pakistani or Muslim. In Asian-American spaces, I can voice what it feels like to Pakistani or Muslim or queer,” she says.

Patel also hopes to improve access to health services for queer women and trans men, with a specific focus on creating an inclusive, intersectional, and non-judgmental space.

“My intersectional background has thrust me into a space of always being an activist for one group or another, always challenging people’s limited stereotypes of people they haven’t been exposed to,” she says.

Having lived in Pakistan, Guatemala, and the United States—in addition to backpacking through 17 countries—Patel says she loves the diversity of Houston.

“The presence of a large amount of immigrants in Houston really helps me not feel so ‘other’ in the U.S.,” says Patel. “I can go to the Mahatma Gandhi District and reminisce about Pakistan, and can also come to the Montrose area to reconnect with my more alterna-queer and hipster identities. And of course, I’m working to build a better bridge between those communities in Houston.”

As a queer Muslim, Patel says she was deeply and uniquely affected by the Pulse nightclub massacre.

“My body physically hurt for days after,” says Patel. “My queer side felt hatred towards my Muslim side for the homophobia that does exist in many Muslim-majority countries, and my Muslim side wanted to keep reminding the queer community that I exist and that Islam is a beautiful and peaceful religion. Islamophobia is often a response to pain or fear, and not to the reality of the religion itself.”—Megan Wadding

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