For Karen people, our cultural background plays a big role in thinking about LGBTQ issues. We do not have an equivalent word in our language to capture the whole meaning of the acronym LGBTQ. Most of us were not familiar with the acronym until we came to the United States and even now when we hear it, most of us have no idea what it stands for. Some might be very surprised, confused, and even bothered to know about the different sexual orientations represented. In general, there is very little discussion about the issues of LGBTQ in the immigrant and refugee communities.
In the Burmese community, this kind of topic is not openly discussed. Especially the elderly in the community are very traditionalist. Since they have a traditionalist view, they do not think about the legal status or freedom of the LGBTQ community. To them, the behavior seems unacceptable. A lot of times the elderly in the community relate our daily lives to Bible stories or Biblical characters. Following the Ten Commandments is important. So the community and all the Karen churches, in particular, feel very strongly against these different sexual relationships and gay marriage. Any sexual relationship other than between a man and a woman within marriage is considered a major social stigma. It goes against social norms and religious teachings and is frowned upon by the community.
Within this cultural context, an LGBTQ person would not often feel comfortable about coming out because of the social stigma and discrimination. The teenagers who live in the community do not feel comfortable talking or discussing this with their parents or any elders in the community. For example, if you are a man, but dress like or act like a woman, the community will see you as an unusual person. They will stare at you and spread rumors. They have a belief that being LGBTQ is a sin, or being LGBTQ is against God’s will.
In the future, it is unavoidable that we will have to come to terms with the issue one way or the other as people become more aware of the LGBTQ movement. Currently, the older generations especially are at a point in time when we can still afford to conveniently dismiss it. We might think of it as western sexual constructs that have no place in the Karen culture or religion as we are struggling to maintain our conservative way of life. With the elderly in the community, it is very hard to convince or try to change their standpoint in viewing LGBTQ in a positive way. However, as we learn to navigate the diverse social context in the United States, we do not know how much longer we can make the claim that the issue is irrelevant to us or that we do not have any issue in our community.
LGBTQ issues are some of the many cultural issues that the younger generations have to navigate in a new country, with the issues of social influence and continuity of the larger Karen cultures in the background. There are major cultural changes in immigrant and refugee communities. The older generations are trying to teach their ancestors’ culture to their children, who never really experienced it. The children are navigating a new culture in the United States. It makes us wonder how long the younger generation can hold on to the Karen culture. Our guess is that it will not be long until the view of Karen people is more like the American public at large. Younger generations are much more supportive of the LGBTQ movement, but not yet willing to speak up for it openly, largely to preserve social and family harmony. In the future, we hope that the older members of our community will understand the issues of LGBTQ people, accept it, and listen to our opinions. We believe that the younger generation who grew up in this country will be more open-minded and have a more progressive view.
“You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” – Deuteronomy 1:17