I was born and raised in Cary, North Carolina, to two Chinese immigrant parents. They immigrated from Taiwan in the 1960s to come to grad school in the U.S. and they’ve stayed. So I was born and raised in the South, actually, and I have this identity as a child of immigrants and also as a Southerner. It was very interesting being Chinese-American in the South, especially in the Bible Belt.
In North Carolina, the first couple questions anyone asks when they meet you are: where were you born? Or where are you from, in my case, because they didn’t know where to place me. And then, what basketball team do you root for? And then, what church do you go to? It's a very common getting-to-know-you kind of question. And I remember at a very young age just making up a church, because I wanted to feel like I belonged even though my parents were not religious and I didn’t go to churches, and I certainly didn’t identify as Christian or Baptist or Evangelical or any of the other things that most people were in North Carolina. And so, I remember that…being pretty young, six or seven, and saying ‘Oh, I go to First Baptist.’ And luckily no one called me on my B.S. because it was an obvious lie if anyone had ever been there.
So, I definitely feel strongly tied to North Carolina and to the South, and southern hospitality. But also very much, I think because I grew up in the South, I had an early understanding of my racial difference. That was the first way I felt other in my life—you know, kids making fun of me because I was Chinese, or pulling their eyes up in slants, or saying “Ching chong ching chong.” Stupid stuff like that. But definitely things that left an impression on me as I was growing up.
I went to UNC-Chapel Hill, and there is where I feel like I really started learning about racism and sexism and homophobia, and finding a way to articulate and put into a larger context what I’d been experiencing all my life. I kind of had a broader understanding of where I fit in the larger scheme of things. That’s kind of where I politicized.
I came out in college, after my first year, and then had the weird experience of the GLBTSA – it was mostly white. And then the students of color space was mostly straight, and there wasn’t a queer student of color group until my senior year.
I think coming out was another experience of trying to find my place, and other people who are like me.
Basically college and my early twenties was a time of coming into my queer identity and organizing. I interned with Southerners on New Ground, which is a grassroots people of color, immigrant, low-income, queer southern organization. That really spoke to me, because it was definitely queer people of color-centered, and focused on the South and focused on relationship building and long-term transformation and not short-term policy wins or gay marriage, per se… things I was seeing in the mainstream gay movement.
I think the idea of liberation and personal transformation and collective transformation is a deeply spiritual idea.
Actually, as [SONG has] been organizing in North Carolina, they’ve built relationships with black churches and Christian congregations, so I think they’re certainly very aware of the power of faith-based organizing.
That was sort of my first introduction to the idea that these worlds – queerness and spirituality and social justice work – they can all go together at the same time, they don’t necessarily have to live in separate worlds, and they don’t necessarily have to be associated with a formal Judeo-Christian identity. Most of the faith-based organizing I’d seen had always been the Catholics, or the Jews, or the Christians, or the Muslims, and not broad interfaith and spirituality-based work.
I think some possibilities were opening to me, when I was interning with SONG and leaving school and thinking, ‘What does transformation really mean?’
Then when I moved here, it was hard to make DC a home. I really miss the South. I really miss having a deep sense of place and of connections and of relationships. Also I really struggled here because it was hard to find authentic or genuine connections. People moved so often, and a lot of the DC culture is such that it’s kind of status-centered. [People ask,] ‘What do you do?’ Very much focused on ‘who do you know?’ and all that.
There are several people I met through SONG who are based in DC and who are people of color and they participated in a local people of color sangha, which is an affiliation group of the larger insight meditation community in Washington.
I heard my friends, my very cool and badass friends, always talking about going to people of color sangha, how powerful it was for them.
I was like, ‘Oh, I should try this out. They seem to get a lot of out this, and I respect them and trust them.’ And so I went, probably two or three years ago.
[The sangha] is led by a trans Filipin@ child of immigrants. That was really interesting to find myself reflected in the dharma teacher, the person who actually led the group, because I’d never found that in any spiritual context.
The people of color sangha was mostly black, and there was only a handful of Asian people, which was really interesting because Buddhism is an Asian tradition. But I still felt more at home there because I hadn’t ever practiced in a mostly-people-of-color religious or spiritual space, until that time. It did feel more like home.
It was 30 minute meditation, and we do mindful discussion. It was nice to slow down, to have time for stillness, and to feel like I was being deeply heard. It’s a space where people respect silence, and when someone speaks, everyone is listening very intently and with a lot of presence.
So I started going pretty regularly. I think, for me, at first this was a kind of self-care practice, a way of [guaranteeing] ‘OK, at least every month, I know for these two-and-a-half hours, I’m just going to sit for 30 minutes, and it’s going to be intentional mindfulness practice.’ Not necessarily because I was very deeply drawn to Buddhism itself as a faith tradition. At that point, I think it was just that I appreciated this time to be reflective and be with myself.
Maybe that’s because I only had a fairly shallow understanding of what Buddhism is about, but sometimes I think it can be interpreted here as hyper-individualistic, it’s about your own individual quest to end suffering and be liberated and wake up. Talking about race or other dynamics of privilege and oppression, there’s all these things about non-attachment, or not believing in the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves or others, and sometimes I think that’s used to justify color-blind [racism]: ‘We’re all human beings, I don’t see race, why do we need a struggle around race in the Buddhist community? We’re all welcome!’ Or [some people may justify exclusion by saying,] ‘The practice tells us that we all have essential goodness in us, so let’s not make it a big deal.’ Or by arguing that you’re being racist by pointing out that there is a problem with inclusion and there’s not a lot of people of color in these spaces.
This changed for me when I went on my first five-day silent meditation retreat last year. The topic was explicitly around Mindfulness and Justice.
One of the head teachers was a former community organizer, a former police officer who introduced mindfulness practice to the police force that she was in, and someone who I think really had a deep understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner and also integrating that into social change or transforming an organization. She had really lived through that and could really speak to that.
I think that was one of the first times where I was like ‘Oh!’ It really is very powerful. It really resonated with me to know that it’s not irreconcilable, or that, indeed, engaged Buddhism, the heart of the practice is around collective awakening, and actually a very deep sense of compassion for all beings. I think that’s when I felt more like this could be part of my social justice work, too.
The retreat affirmed the idea that personal transformation, and collective transformation are sort of inexorably linked and there’s no way to do one without the other. I think for a long time my own guiding value was, ‘OK, I’m here on this earth as a queer Chinese American, daughter of immigrants, a woman. I’m here to help make the world safer for other people to be whole, for everyone to be whole. To help change things so people don’t feel like they have to choose between their identities or their issues. It think what the practice has taught me is that I’m also here to know how to be whole in a world that’s going to be unsafe, and that those things have to go together.
It’s hard because sometimes it still feels like [in Buddhism there’s] this focus on choice, or that in every given moment we have a choice about how we are going to respond. It feels a little individualistic. Sometimes it lands in this way that feels like victim blaming, like ‘If only you changed your relationship to this experience of trauma, it wouldn’t be that painful.’ But I know that that’s not actually the real teaching. I think I still struggle with that, in making that part of my practice. But I do feel there are really powerful things that can happen when people are really in touch with themselves and with their feelings and are not trying to abandon or cut off any parts of themselves or of their feelings. And so not only bringing all of their identities to the work or to their lives but all of their feelings and insecurities and fears. I’m learning how to befriend all of those and welcome all of those and know that they are essential to me. Finding a sense of peace and joy and ease and wanting to make that kind of space possible for movement work too.
I’ve seen what happens when people have time and space to get in touch with how they’re doing and speak from an authentic place and how that really just changes the tone of a conversation. I think just the kind of perspective that I’ve been able to access and I’ve seen other people access when we’re forced just to be with ourselves for a while. And we’re forced to befriend ourselves and see when we’re acting out of anger or defensiveness or hurt, and let go of that need to be right all of the time or prove other people wrong, which I think is what a lot of political discourse and progressive work in general, is a lot of educating, and proving people wrong, and trying to assert a certain worldview over another. Which I understand.
I guess for me, spiritual practice is trying to find a bigger container for all of that, so it’s not so much that there’s people who are wrong and who are the enemy, and there’s people who are right and who are good, but actually that within us, we contain all of the things that we are trying to fight. And within people that we think of as enemies, they also contain everything that is redemptive and hopeful and healing.
In terms of queerness itself... On these retreats about mindfulness and justice, both of the teachers are queer. And so it’s been really interesting and powerful for me to have spiritual role models who identify as queer folks. There’s also an LGBTQ sangha, and so I’ve met a lot of queer folks who also practice mindfulness meditation, even though they might not necessarily consider themselves Buddhists. And I’ve met a lot of queer people of color, too.
I appreciate Buddhism because of its potential for inclusivity and its basic tenet that we are all inherently good at our core, which I think is in contrast to the Judeo-Christian ‘we are all sinners and we need to repent.’
It’s interesting to see queer folks who might have come from other traditions where they were told because of their sexuality that they could not be part of that faith tradition, to see them in a more inclusive practice. That feels powerful too, to be part of a community that is about welcoming everyone and where I don’t think there’s official teachings that I know of that officially address homosexuality as a sin or a problem.
I definitely understand my queerness as both my sexual orientation and as a political identity. And so when I think of queerness and spirituality, it’s more about being part of a social justice movement and trying to create another world, [where I am] integrating my spiritual practice with that. But not necessarily that I was rejected from my faith tradition, or I was told all these messages about my sexuality being sinful and so I sought out a more accepting practice. That’s not actually part of my narrative.
I think my spiritual practice is still coming from that place of wanting to feel at home, and I think the practice has been teaching me how to be at home in myself.
For me, the really powerful connection, at least personally, between queerness and spirituality [is the space they create for radical possibility]. I do feel that queerness at its core is both being in the world in a different way than what’s expected, and kind of going against what people consider normal. It’s also about, for me, articulating the possibilities of our lives. I think that’s what really speaks to me about a lot of the queer liberation or queer movement building. It’s about trying to build our lives in a way that feels more connected or more loving or more representative of who we really are and our authenticity and of our multiplicity and of all the different ways that we as human beings can live in this world. And trying to make that possible within a world right now that isn’t very welcoming of that kind of difference.
I think spiritual practice feels very similar to me, in that it’s another way of creating different ways of being in the world. It’s about tapping into our core values and our deepest sense of self, and trying to bring that practice into my daily life. It does sometimes feel like going against the mainstream because the messages in consumerism and capitalism and all the other forms of oppression are all about quashing out that sense of wholeness and joy and freedom. That’s, at its core, why my queerness and spirituality feel like two sides of the same coin, or very much interrelated.
In the words of Forrest Gump, ‘That’s all I have to say about that.’
This text is condensed and edited from a Queerituality story Iimay Ho recorded on August 3, 2013, in Washington, D.C.