Hieu Nguyen and Joee Truong have barely known each other for a year, but they act as if they've grown up together. Sitting side by side at a table and surrounded by bánh cánh and bún bò Hue, they deftly finish each other's sentences and anecdotes about how they came to run the Vietnamese Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), eyes gleaming and mouths smiling in unison.
The two 29-year-olds—Nguyen is a social worker, and Truong a nurse—are VROC's co-chairs, and together, with the help of the other seven members of the board, they're ushering in a new age of Vietnamese LGBTQ reality.
"The Vietnamese culture is really into saving face," says Nguyen, slightly smiling. "You're not really supposed to talk about these sort of things. My mother always asks me, 'Why are you so out?'"
VROC first came into prominence thanks to the 2013 Westminster Tet Parade. After finding out that organizers planned to bar LGBTQ groups from marching, several like-minded individuals banded together to fight for inclusion, Nguyen—who immigrated from Hue to Garden Grove—and Truong—Saigon to LA—among them. After the 2013 parade passed, multiple members dropped out of the group, burnt out by the whirlwind of unexpected visibility and advocacy that had consumed their lives in only a few short weeks. The two stayed on and helped form the core of the new board of directors. They went to work almost immediately, going through basic community-organization training in March, barely a month after the parade.
"In July, we went to Hawaii to do intensive leadership and community-organization training," says Truong. "It was like we were working, going 8 to 5 each day, and it was worth it."
The effort led not only to LGBT inclusion in 2014's Tet Parade, but also an extraordinary meeting of the Westminster City Council that saw VROC's advocates—many of them the very Vietnamese immigrants people assumed would savage them—speak in favor of their inclusion.
"The youth had a voice," Truong says. "The parents had a voice. We all had voices."
Now that the group has won the eligibility to march, it's focusing on bigger things. VROC plans to expand its philanthropy: through volunteering and providing academic scholarships; by increasing the group's advocacy for other groups and providing additional programming; and by growing outreach and education in the Vietnamese community. This February, just two weeks after the parade, Truong accompanied two of VROC's moms to New York to record video PSAs set to air nationwide on ethnic media. Multiple Vietnamese and Vietnamese American singers and celebrities have volunteered to record similar personal stories. "We don't want the parade to define us," Nguyen admits.
"I knew what we're doing was starting to work when my sister told me that my mom had started talking about the issue with her friends," he adds. "Even the monks at temple started talking about it. Of course, they were talking about it like it was a sickness, like our genitalia didn't work, but they were talking about it. And [they] let me come in afterward to explain everything."