Gay Chinese-American activist Marshall Wong is helping people overcome their prejudices with a straightforward technique: get them to connect with those who are different from them.
It’s an approach he learned at an early age. Wong’s father fought to buy a house in an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1950s despite his family not being welcomed there.
“I [asked my parents], ‘Why did you want to place yourself in what was potentially an unfriendly and possibly hostile environment?’ And they believed that through direct contact people can get past their fears and that strangers can become neighbors,” Wong told NBC OUT.
“That lesson I think is pretty important for the LGBT community as well,” Wong continued. “We’ve seen huge shifts in attitudes in the last few years, and part of it is because people have come out of the shadows and told their stories one-on-one.”
Wong, a social worker, is busy fighting for LGBTQ rights in LA County. He is the principal author of the county’s annual report on hate crimes and speaks often on the topic publicly. Wong’s work is inspired by both of his parents, who he called “outstanding role models and trailblazers in their own right.” His father was the first Chinese-American judge in the continental United States, and his mother the first Asian-American woman to graduate with a master’s degree in social work from the prestigious Smith College.
“I think that in part it was hearing the stories of what my parents and grandparents went through as far as housing discrimination or discrimination in employment,” Wong said. “From a young age that inspired me to want to do something with my life [to] remove those obstacles and barriers for other people.”
The 57-year-old is one of the founders of Asians and Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality in Los Angeles (API Equality-LA). Wong said the group was successful in encouraging a majority of Asian Americans to vote against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that denied same-sex couples the right to marry in California. Members of the group went door-to-door in LA’s Asian-American neighborhoods to talk to families one-on-one about the issue, he said.
Today, API Equality-LA continues its support for LGBTQ rights. It also helps people come out to their families. Wong said coming out can be especially stressful for Asian Americans from traditional backgrounds where homosexuality is not openly talked about or well understood.
“You can’t legislate family acceptance,” Wong said. “So the more that we can do to provide tools for young people and their families to let them know that even though it might be a scary and rocky process, the road to family acceptance is possible.”
Wong said a college intern who attended an API Equality-LA workshop was inspired to come out to her mother. Days later, Wong was surprised to see the student walk through the organization’s doors with her mother at her side. He said the mother spoke limited English and broke out in tears when it came time to make introductions during a meeting. She told the group that she had insisted on coming to make sure her daughter’s new friends were good people.
“And after having spent two hours with us at the meeting, she had become convinced that we were good people. So that story is an indication to me that change comes in large and small ways, and that evening we moved one mother closer to acceptance of her daughter,” Wong said.
LA’s Asian-American community has come a long way in embracing its LGBTQ members, according to Wong. Around the time API Equality-LA formed in the mid-2000s, the group applied to march in the Annual Golden Dragon Parade, Chinatown’s largest and oldest celebration of the Lunar New Year. The first year the group appeared in the parade, its contingent only had about 60 marchers. Now it averages up to 200, Wong said.
Reflecting on how far the community has come, Wong added: “I never thought I would see the day.”
“One of the things that is a constant reminder is that for the thousands of people who are lining the parade route -- elderly people, new immigrants and maybe most importantly the young children who see us out there year after year -- we think: ‘Wow, what a different world we would have now had everyone had that kind of exposure growing up,’” Wong concluded.
OutFront is a weekly NBC OUT series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.