SAN JOSE, Calif. - As a young college student studying Oriental philosophy in Saigon during the early part of the Vietnam War, Vuong Nguyen was hired by the American military to be a radio news writer and reader.
“My job was to communicate to Communist Hanoi,” she said, “to tell them to disarm and come to the South.”
Nguyen, now 66, is communicating to a different kind of audience in America today but using the same quiet but determined tactic against an unseen enemy: homophobia.
Known as “Chi Vuong,” or “Older Sister Vuong,” Nguyen is founder of Song That - Vietnamese for “live truthfully” - the country’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian radio program, which she started 10 years ago in March. Broadcast every Sunday night on San Jose’s KSJX-AM and streamed online at www.songthat.com, the hourlong program seeks to battle ignorance about homosexuality in the Vietnamese community. There is no Vietnamese word for homosexuality, and gays and lesbians are unflatteringly referred to as half-man, half-woman, or worse, as having “sick lives.”
“We can’t let people treat us as bad people,” said Nguyen, a petite woman with shiny henna-red hair that falls past her shoulder. “We need to speak out and make them understand. To know us!”
The show she founded is recorded digitally in one corner of her cramped living room, the rosewood furniture hidden behind and under stacks of CDs of past radio programs and photo albums of past gay pride parades. A wide desk is shoved in one corner by the front door, illuminated by a dim glass lamp. A wireless microphone is propped up inside a black ceramic coffee mug. A sign above the desk reads: “Song That Radio.”
As she has done for the past decade, Nguyen writes the program. Long hand. “I can’t type,” she said apologetically. Then she lines up her readers, whom she coaches firmly as they read.
Her longtime friends describe her as selfless, courageous and a tireless advocate who has spent thousands of dollars of her own money to pay for the radio’s operation.
The program is a Vietnamese-style broadcasting mix of news, contemporary music, poetry and letters from readers.
At a recording session one recent Wednesday, there was news about continuing work on same-sex marriage in California; a first-ever lesbian wedding scene on the soap opera “All My Children”; a poem from listener Jason Tran, whose lover committed suicide after being disowned by his family for being gay.
Duc Le, the radio’s board secretary, read an e-mail from a man in his late 20s. It’s an open letter to parents, from a closeted son.
“I don’t blame you for not understanding my personal life,” Le read, “a life that’s filled with sorrow and oppression.”
Le, 39, met Nguyen almost 14 years ago at one of the monthly get-togethers that Nguyen hosted at her home. Many in the group were closeted, but Nguyen, Le said, led by example. She was out and she had a partner.
“She is the heart of the queer LGBT Viet community,” said Kim Loan Nguyen, 34, of San Jose.
She is not related to Vuong Nguyen, who she said is “a humble woman who has single-handedly gone out there gathering and welcoming alienated, isolated, lost, closeted souls ... eventually giving birth to a very much needed new family.”
At the Tet parade in February, the newly out and proud family led by Nguyen - lesbian mothers with their children, straight allies and non-Vietnamese supporters - marched in downtown San Jose. It was a watershed for the Vietnamese gay and lesbian community and, some say, testament to Nguyen’s years of hard work.
Vuong Nguyen was born in Hanoi, but when she was 12, the Communist occupation forced her family to flee to Saigon. Her father, a high school teacher, crusaded against the Communists.
Nguyen said she knew she was a lesbian in high school and college, but for fear of bringing shame to her family, she was closeted. She came out when she came to the United States. In the late 1980s, she founded one of the country’s first Vietnamese gay and lesbian groups in San Jose. From this small group emerged the idea for the radio program.
“I felt like I had a second family,” Nguyen said. “I felt comfortable.”
But the conservative Vietnamese community that Nguyen addressed did not return the feeling. Hate callers left messages on her phone. Hate mail and letters came.
“Go to hell,” one listener wrote. Another accused Song That of trying to recruit young people into “sick lives.”
Nguyen was undeterred, leaders in the South Bay’s gay and lesbian community said.
“I see her as a dedicated individual who has had to work hard to get the message to a shy, reluctant or resistant community,” said Judy Rickard, a longtime activist in the South Bay’s gay and lesbian community.
As big as the war that she fought in her own way as a young person in Vietnam, Nguyen has her eye on perhaps an even larger goal for the radio show.
“Parents will open their hearts to their kids,” she wrote in a grant proposal seeking funds for the radio program. “There will be no more broken families, no more tragedies in families.”