Being Asian/Pacific Islander & LGBTQ: An Introduction

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Asian and Pacific Islander people have long played important roles in their respective communities. Journalist Helen Zia, who, with her partner Lia, would become one of the first same-sex couples married in the state of California, covered the now-infamous murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan. Openly gay actor George Takei has become a popular advocate for LGBTQ rights, and Hawaii Civil Rights Commissioner Kim Coco Iwamoto became the first transgender woman to win statewide office when she was elected to Hawaii's Board of Education in 2006. B.J. Cruz has had a long and distinguished career in Guam, serving previously as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and now as Vice Speaker of the Guamian Legislature, and Jose Antonio Vargas is an undocumented journalist, filmmaker and immigrant rights activist.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 18 million Asians currently living in the United States, which amounts to 6 percent of the nation's population. Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders make up roughly 0.4 percent. Data analysis by the Williams Institute suggests there are at least 325,000 LGBTQ Asians and Pacific Islanders currently living in the U.S., and nearly 33,000 are in same-sex partnerships. One-third of those couples live in California, Hawaii or New York.


What are some important issues affecting LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander communities?

Because of the interconnected nature of many Asian and Pacific Islander people, families and communities––both within their countries of ancestry, residency and citizenship, and as members of global diasporas––the issues facing Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ people are as complex as their communities, including:

  • Economic Insecutiry: In the U.S., there is a wide range of poverty rates among Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Nationally, about 14 percent of Asians live in poverty. While Filipino, Japanese and Indian communities are at the lower end of this spectrum, with poverty rates between 5 and 8 percent, Hmong, Bangladeshi, Cambodian and Laotian communities have poverty rates between 20 and 27 percent. Nationally, about 20 percent of Pacific Islanders are living in poverty, ranging from Fijian communities on the low end of the spectrum at 5 percent, and Marshallese communities at the high end at 49 percent.
  • HIV & Health Inequity: Lack of access to HIV prevention and testing services is a seious concern in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. In the U.S., more than one in five Asians living with HIV are unaware of their status. Some of the factors contributing to this problem include language barriers, stigma related to LGBTQ identities, fear of discrimination and harassment and family pressures. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have the fourth highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the U.S., although these numbers are likely conservative because of inadequate data collection.
  • Access & Discrimination: In the U.S., roughly 32 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders have limited English proficiency, which can be a serious barrier to accessing a range of crucial services in housing, healthcare and education. Additionally, a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found one in five Asians and Pacific Islanders has experienced discrimination in the rental and home-buying process. Rates are likely higher among LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander people due to the lack of federal non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Immigration: Asian and Pacific Islander people are the fastest-growing racial and ethnic population in the U.S. Between 2012 and 2013, the Asian population grew by 2.9 percent and the Pacific Islander population grew by 2.3 percent, compared to a 2.1 percent growth in the Latino/Hispanic population and a 1.2 percent growth in the African American population. This growth is largely due to immigration, as 74 percent of Asians in the U.S. are foreign-born, and 16 percent of Pacific Islanders are foreign-born. Of the at least 267,000 LGBTQ undocumented adults in the U.S., 15 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, which underscores the need for humane immigration policies.
  • Stigma & Persecution: Because of the wide variety of countries and cultures across Asia and the Pacific Islands, attitudes toward LGBTQ people vary greatly across the region and among Asian and Pacific Islander people in the U.S. In general, many of these nations are far less accepting of LGBTQ people than other parts of the world––especially when it comes to legal protections like marriage equality and non-discrimination laws. The countries widely regarded as safest for LGBTQ individuals in Asia are Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. In the Pacific Islands, nations like Fiji and Vanuatu have been described as tolerant and accepting of LGBTQ people. In a sign of progress, New Zealand has legalized marriage equality and the U.S. territory of Guam has both marriage equality and inclusive LGBTQ workplace protections. Despite such progress, LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander people in the U.S. often have to contend with families and cultural traditions that are not entirely embracing of their identities.

Where can I find resources that are relevant to the LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander community?

This resource is specific to the experiences of LGBTQ people living in the United States who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander. For more on the experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ people living outside of the U.S., click here.