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Liz Thomson: Family Ties
2008-01-01

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by Lola Lai Jong

Elizabeth Anh Thomson—known to many simply as "Liz"—is coordinator of Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Thomson talks with writer Lola Lai Jong about her life, starting with her immediate adoptive family.

Liz Thomson: My moms are two biological sisters living in Indianapolis. They never got married, tho both knew they wanted to have a family. The one I call "Ma" really wanted to travel, and took a secretarial job with the government. [ This ] landed her in Vietnam for three years. [ While ] working in Saigon, Ma hired girls for household duties; they wondered why this 33-year-old American, white, middle-class woman was in Vietnam without a husband or family. Ma told them she did want kids. I don't know how she explained not wanting or needing a husband. So, I think her name was Boi Tu, brought me to her—just came to her apartment—and said, "Do you like this one?" Ma said, "Yes. Of course, I'll take her," without hesitation. Looking back, it was like a plant: "If you don't like this one..." I was about four months old. [ This was March, 1974. ] A couple weeks later, she was telling her sister, "Mom," about me, and joking [ ly ] asked, "Do you want one?" Mom said, "Yes." A couple months later, the same girl connected Ma with Kim, my adopted sister, who was about 6 months old. I don't think Boi Tu said where she got me from. I think we left in August or September [ 1974 ] .

I feel like it's been historical fiction. I thought Ma went to an orphanage and picked me, so I had a completely different story in my head. It's only in the past year that she's recounted again. It's been kind of a shock. It made me wary, like, "What else have I gotten wrong in this story?" I've asked Ma to start writing stuff down, exactly what happened. From the stories, I thought Boi Tu was more connected with my sister, Kim. I thought I was more connected with one of the young women who lived in the apartment, Bai. Bai also felt like I was her second child, because I'd be with her when Ma went to work, and Bai would take me out in public. I felt more of an emotional connection with Bai. Ma said when I was little, I wouldn't like fireworks. She thinks it's because when Bai held me in Vietnam, she would tense up when they would hear a bomb, and I would still remember that tension.

I've always been proud of being adopted, and that's been a central identity for me. Kim and I are the same age, two months apart. I think they told us as soon as we could talk, or understand. As early as preschool, our first sentence was, "No, we're not twins. We're adopted." "No, we're not twins," explained why we were both in the same grade. "We're adopted," explained why two white women were our parents. The only Asians were [ at ] the Chinese restaurants. In high school, there were one or two Korean families. We were definitely the only Asians, the only Vietnamese, specifically, in our whole class, probably from elementary, middle school and high school.

When we were 5 years old until we were 8, we met with other adoptees and families, mostly Asians, in an international adoptee group called "Ours." There were Africans and others, too. I don't remember being asked, "Do you want to go? Do you want to keep going?" We had a lot of activities—dance, music, summer school, soccer and other things—so it just fell by the wayside.

Growing up, into college, even, I felt white. On the other hand, we were in such a white environment, and such the minority. I don't remember ever consciously wishing I was white because I already felt white. Now, I don't think I would want to be white, though sometimes, I think it would be easier.

I'm always so floored—I'm adopted, so it's not like I was in this Asian community. However, I might as well have been, because sometimes, through younger experiences, I feel like that stereotypical, quiet, submissive, Asian woman. But how could that be, not having been raised in an Asian family, nor around any other Asians in my white suburban community? I can only guess that it was through TV and movies. It also surprised me because Ma and Mom are very independent, very non-traditional women. You would think that being raised in an all-woman household, and that they had traveled a lot. Around the house, they did the plumbing, and the fixing, and the financial stuff, as well as the cooking, the cleaning.

Lola Lai Jong: Tell us about your upcoming 12-day trip to Vietnam.

LT: It's the first time I've ever gone back [ though ] not the first time I've thought of it. I figured when it was the right time, I would do it. Last December, I seriously started looking for programs. I connected with [ the organization ] Vietnam Ties. Vietnam is one of the nine countries they go back [ to ] with adopted children. Another program that seemed very good, go in May, is more for adult adoptees. Vietnam Ties goes in December. I got more information from [ them ] , and December works a lot better for me for work. I'd talked with the founder of the program, [ because ] I'm going by myself. I understand other people [ in the group ] will be the mom and dad, and the 8-, 10- or 12-year-old adoptee. She reassured me. Also, a social worker, who's about my age, comes on the trip, so I wouldn't be the only adult person.

I think I have the address of Ma's apartment. So, even if it's not there, I'd like to see where she was. I'm not going back to search for my birth mother, or even for Boi Tu. I would be interested in trying to find Bai, though I think it [ might be ] too late to try to write her, I think people are curious about why I haven't gone back, why haven't my parents taken me back? I think there's some pressure from other people on adoptees..

Ma would have liked to go, but she's having problems with her knees. I would have liked her to go. For my first time back, I'd like to go by myself to experience it with just me. Although it'd be nice to have someone close, too, it might hamper how I take things in. I hope to just think and reflect on my feelings while I'm over there. I'm sure it'll be emotional. I'd like to go back a couple more times for a different experience. I want and need to reconnect with the culture and country.

I've never gone to just an adoptee conference. Sometimes [ there have been ] adoption panels or workshops at Asian Conferences, and GLBT Conferences that I've gone to. Beside Amanda, and some of the other people we met when we did that [ Adoption panel at UIC during Asian Heritage Month this year ] , I haven't met a lot of people.

A couple weeks ago. I went to a yard sale. The two parents were white. Then out comes this 5- [ or ] 6-year-old Korean girl. I gave them my name, cell phone and e-mail. I was hoping I could babysit for them. They said, outright, too, "It would be great to have an Asian [ babysitter who was ] also adopted." I said, "Yes, That's me! I'll baby-sit!" I've dreamt of putting an ad in something like Parent/Child Magazine that I want to specifically babysit for kids that were adopted—also for same sex parents who have adopted Asian kids. Can I be that specific? I never had that. We hardly ever had babysitters. The few times we did, they weren't Asian.

LLJ: How would you identify yourself in terms of your sexuality?

LT: I would say bisexual. In high school, I knew the word "gay," but ... I associated that word with just men. People in my surroundings were just very heterosexual—like there wasn't even an option. In my group of friends, no one ever came out as being GLBT, so we kind of didn't pay attention to that. In college, one of my good friends did come out as being gay.

Sometime in sophomore year, like '93, during Thanksgiving break, I told my parents that I felt like I was bi. I don't remember how I got the word "bi/ bisexual"—maybe from a bookstore. That was before the TV shows. I don't remember ever thinking about just lesbian, either. At that time, I know I was attracted to this one woman, so I questioned—I still question it now—was I just attracted to her? Or was I truly attracted to all women? By chance, this person just happens to be a woman. Does that make you bi? I guess in my mind, it did, because since then, I've always said "bi."

Right now I'm at UIC's Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns. It's [ one ] of the oldest of [ five ] cultural and diversity centers, about 12-13 years old. We do a lot of educational and academic programs around different GLBT stuff. I think it's pretty good to be so old, and from a state school.

I've recently started teaching women's studies at Northeastern [ Illinois University ] . They [ offer ] a women's studies major. I teach a Survey 101 class [ that ] counts as a general education requirement. It's kind of different doing one thing at UIC, and then having a little bit more—not power, but some respect or validation. I think if something is worthy enough to have a course that a student can earn three credits towards their major, or towards graduation, they feel some validation about that course. The [ students ] know that it's valued by the institution. So I think they have a little bit more respect for that.

I started my master's in higher [ education ] administration at Loyola. It was called a College Student Personnel Program. But at that time, I wanted more gender stuff. That's when I found Roosevelt had a Master of Arts in Gender and Women's Studies. I really like working at colleges. It's definitely where a lot of people develop, and there's activism. I've thought about getting more into working at community colleges. There's definitely a privilege, even at a community college. [ In ] academia, you're dealing with a small slice of the population. I'm being a lot more aware of that. The student population at Northeastern is very different than UIC; it's all commuter. A lot of them are first-generation. They're working one or two jobs. Many of the students also have families, so it's not the kind of school environment that I went to school in. I wish, in a utopia, that there were some other options besides college. All colleges are moneymakers. There are still some people who can't do that. If they work a 40- to 50-hour job for their family, and don't have the opportunity to take one class or two, or the social support to even go to college, or because their parents didn't go, it would be really hard.

Chicago didn't have outright GLBT studies. In women's studies, it was very [ common ] to do GLBT stuff, take GLBT classes. At that time I was thinking more about my GLBT/bi identity. I've done a lot of academic and professional stuff around my own personal identity. Sometimes I wish I could just be a carpenter, where it didn't have anything to do with [ being ] Asian or [ with ] sexual orientation.

LLJ: In your master's studies, did you have any light-bulb moments?

LT: There were two things. One was all around the body, mostly around the female body, but we talked about transgender as well. I definitely had body issues. There was an article about vaginas, and women were basically doing different plastic surgeries on their vagina because they didn't feel it was pretty enough, or some myth [ that ] it would make them be more sensitive. The perspective was that it was empowering women. These 40- or 50-year-old, upper class white women were getting this "popular trend" because they weren't young anymore, [ and ] had the financial means to do it. But behind it was a lot of capitalism, because these were very expensive surgeries. My professor definitely disagreed with this, but she brought it in to play devil's advocate. In general, I'm not for it, unless it's like something from an accident. I think that class was a really good because we did have a lot of different bodied students, all women—how African-American women feel differently about their bodies vs. Asian women vs. white women vs. Latina women. Also, transgender, about how, if you chose to, you could change your biologically born body. That was pretty new.

There was a woman in my class. I had no idea that she was lesbian. She seemed [ to be a ] stereotypical white woman from Wisconsin. We would always walk to the "L" together. She said something about her girlfriend. I thought she meant a friend who was a girl, but she really meant her girlfriend. I remember being so amazed that she was lesbian. Sometimes I have to check myself on stereotypes and prejudices and assumptions.

The college I chose was predominantly white. I knew I wanted to go to a small college that had small classrooms. I was a sociology major. During one of the sociology trips, my advisor took us to Argyle "L". She talked about Chinese Mutual Aid Association, Vietnamese Association, South East Asia Center. I did an internship at the South East Asia Center in my junior year, so I came down to Chicago twice a week for 6 hours and worked with pre-school aged kids. I think that's when my racial identity started. Then, I also helped start an Asian group on campus in Lake Forest, my senior year. It was me, another Vietnamese guy, and the other four or five women were Asian international students. At that time, I wish [ ed ] it was more an Asian-American student organization. I didn't feel a friction between us, but there was a difference.

LLJ: How did you get involved with I2I [ Invisible to Invincible: Asian/Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago ] ?

Lt: I got an e-mail from someone, had coffee with Karl [ Kimpo ] and went to that first meeting at David [ Amarathithada ] 's. I never had any space of both Asian and LGBT [ demographics ] .

LLJ: You are the one who suggested the name that this group adopted. How did that come to you?

LT: "Invisible" is a word that I've heard a lot among the Asian community. I was looking for something catchy—and also the myth of Asians not looking people in the eye.

In the Midwest, because of our geography, there's not another co-gender LGBT Asian group. I think people like I2I hopefully fulfills [ this ] . On East and West Coasts there are more organizations. Asian Americans in the Midwest have a different kind of history. It's because of numbers and critical mass. There's a huge Hmong population in Wisconsin. In Minnesota there's a huge Asian adoptee population. The white Midwest family might not be as pretentious as New York. They have a different speed of life, perspective and outlook. Specifically, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, Minnesota [ and ] Missouri have a different feel. Sometimes I can even tell Asian Americans that have grown up in the Midwest versus on the West Coast.

I attended the NAPAWF ( National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum ) conference celebrating their 10th anniversary. They had a post-conference LBT of NAPAWF, with 50-60 women. I had never been in a room with so many lesbian/bi/trans Asian-American women. I think it's only been in the past two years that I've met other Asian LGBT, more specifically, women. The heterosexual community doesn't understand bi, because you might feel attracted to women. I think there's been some hesitation of being closer friends with some women, especially lesbian women, because I've heard, through writings of the history, that lesbians don't like bisexual women—not that I've personally experienced this, but if you hear enough stories like that, you can feel a little wary. So, through NAPAWF, I got to know more Asian lesbian and bi women.

LLJ: What other kinds of activities would you like to see I2I doing?

LT: Whatever activities other members are excited about doing. I think we have a lot of different people in the group that have alot of different interests other than Asian and LGBT We all know the more excited you are about an activity or event, the more effort and most likely you'll follow through on it.. As long as it isn't totally off the wall, then I think the person should have I2I's "blessing" and be able to call it an I2I event, facilitated and organized by so and so. I would like to raise the visibility that if you're Asian and LGBT, and you find yourself in Chicago, or you are coming to Chicago, that you can know that there's a group [ called ] I2I.

I think we have to have an up-to-date Web site, and be listed in whatever directory—make sure other people know that there's an API/LGBT presence in Chicago. In the LGBT community, we're raising the Asian part. In the Asian community, we're raising the LGBT part.

I'd like to see adoption stuff. I really want some kind of hard copy—an Asian "coming out" pamphlet. We can also do a photo shoot, nice black and white photos with the text being very simple, just saying, "I am..."—a general call out and marketing to both LGBT and Asian communities. The result would be 4" x 6" postcards. The purpose would be visibility—more voice, acknowledgement, support. Maybe someone who's grown up in an Asian family feels pretty good about racial identity, but may need some LGBT support, or vice versa. I'm sure while people are waiting [ to have their photo taken ] , there would be conversation. You shouldn't have to go to a class to get that. You shouldn't have to go to a thing at 4 o'clock at Center on Halsted to get that. I love grassroots. Hopefully, people would pick up the postcard, and go to the Web site, [ which ] could also have those images.

For future things, like the postcard thing, I know I could do it by myself, but I want I2I to be a part of it. I'm sure other people [ might ] have some other things that I haven't thought of. I think that's what takes it from a personal project to an organization/group project.

LLJ: Do you see any reason to have a separate group for API lesbian/bisexual/trans?

LT: I think that could be very valuable. It could be really different than the mixed gender.

LLJ: At API, did you learn anything that you didn't already know?

LT: I learned Asian-American history. That was one of the first sessions. I got to know a lot of other Asian Americans—mostly women. Out of 18-20 people in the class, I feel closer to 5 of them. We've remained in contact. It was a good networking. We did something about specifically Asian hate crimes. You don't hear about it. It was eye opening.

LLJ: What kind of skills did you learn or were fortified?

LT: It did remind me of my personality in a group. I was not the most assertive. But I attended all the meetings, contributed. In high school, I won the Silent Leader award. I think it was pretty fitting. I support pretty well.

I was depressed, even in fourth [ or ] fifth grade, because looking back at some of my writings, they're very dark—death. My parents thought it was just a phase. They had my sister go to therapy, which she hated. I wish someone had said for me to go. Maybe some things would have been different as I got older. There were times when I was 23-24 that I didn't think I'd be alive at 25 or 30. I think that's why, mostly in my 20s, it seemed like a very temporary life. I always started things that I knew were more short-term that I could really finish. [ Adolescence or college for ] API or LGBT youth is a risky time, too. Also, it's an Asian stereotype thing of like you don't want to disappoint—if you didn't follow through on something, you'd disappoint the person or yourself. There's always talk of suicide and self-injury in LGBT community and youth. They've done some stuff in the Asian-American communities about suicide—mental health stuff. That's both of my communities. I've done more advocacy stuff around that. I didn't get into therapy 'til after college. At 33, I definitely don't feel so depressed. I think I'm a lot more optimistic than I've ever been. So it's been about three years that I've actually not felt those self-negative thoughts.

LLJ: What do you think are the [ main ] shifts [ for ] you in the last three years?

LT: I think I2I ( getting to know more closely, Asian LGBT and Asian Americans ) ; knowing there are opportunities and a future; and that if I'm in a situation that I don't like, or don't think is good for me, I can stop and change things.

LLJ: What would you say to a young bisexual Asian-American woman in the Midwest?

LT: Actively seek out groups that could support you—an Asian-American studies class. Even though you might not see people like yourself—Asian-American, bi [ and ] Midwest-adopted—just to know that there are. It's such human nature that if you don't see people like you, then how do you know there are [ others ] ? Be proactive. Find conferences. Don't be too hard on yourself for your mistakes or your choices. For me, the biggest thing has been not feeling really Asian because I didn't have Asian parents, or really LGBT because of being bi. What does it mean to be a real woman? a real man? Those are just two polar things. There's a multitude of variety in between.

I2I ( Invisible to Invincible: Asian & Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago ) is a community-based organization that celebrates and affirms Asian/Pacific Islanders who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer in the Chicago area. E-mail chicagoi2i@yahoo.com or see www.chicagoi2i.org .


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