by Sharon H. Chang
SELENA VELASCO and SUYOUNG YUN plop down cheerfully next to me. They giggle, they laugh and swap jokes, and–even though we’re inside–I suddenly have the sensation there’s flowers blooming out of the furniture. It’s because, I realize, Selena and Suyoung’s soulful friendship is a living, breathing, sustaining thing. The two queer Rainier Valley Corps fellows work together at Families of Color Seattle where they’ve deepened an incredibly special connection not only as coworkers but as queer artists and activists of color. They are confidantes, co-conspirators and comrades.
The camaraderie is no small feat on a road that–while full of possibility–can be pretty winding and lonely. Last month was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and this month was Gay Pride. But both celebrations typically marginalize people like Selena and Suyoung as Queer People of Color.
Selena Velasco is Chamoru, the indigenous people of Guam and the Mariana Islands. The U.S. military has a very high rate of recruitment in Guam or Guåhan as the indigenous call it. Both Selena’s parents served in the military. Selena, 28, was born on a base in Japan where her father was stationed at the time. “I knew I was born ‘outside’ the U.S. technically on U.S. soil and that’s complicated and complex for me,” she confides. “I always say I’m the product of U.S. militarization and colonization.” Selena’s family moved to Washington state in first grade where she grew up in Fort Lewis, then Lacey.
Selena, who goes by she/her pronouns, identifies as a Queer Womxn and Mother. She began coming into her queerness in college. “I would have so many intense dreams about being in relationships, specifically with women or gender-nonconforming folks,” Selena shares. “It was confusing,” she admits. Thankfully she happened to be studying sociology, gender, women and sexualities at the University of Washington. “It woke me up to be like: Yes I deserve to come into my queerness,” she says, adding, “in ways that I felt like I was always suppressing.”
Suyoung Yun’s parents are Korean immigrants who were born right after the Korean War. “They knew exactly what poverty and a war-torn country looked like,” Suyoung explains. “From the get-go they had their minds set on making sure that their kids didn’t experience the same thing.” Suyoung’s parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. Suyoung was born in Redmond and raised in Kent.
Suyoung, 27, goes by they/them pronouns and identifies as a Queer Trans Korean Androsexual Femme. They first came out as a gay man in college. “Coming out as a gay man to my family and friends,” they remember, “was extremely difficult and rife with all kinds of trials and tribulations.” However it wasn’t until after college that Suyoung fully came into their queerness. They started understanding gender as fluid, rather than fixed in binary (i.e. male-female), and in the last year have come into their more authentic self as queer, trans and femme.
“It’s been an amazing journey coming into my femme identity,” says Suyoung, and “really amazing being on this journey with my colleague, coworker.” That said queerness is not the single defining dimension of Selena and Suyoung’s lovely friendship. Their connectedness is amplified, Selena and Suyoung heartily agree, by a shared passion for activism and artistry. “Queer Artivists!” they proclaim happily.
In addition to her work with Families of Color Seattle, Selena is involved with API Chaya, the Pacific Islander Health Board, UPRISE: Pacific Islander Education Summit, and the Womxn of Color (WOC) & Families Marching Contingent, which represents local womxn of color and their families at Seattle marches for justice. Selena credits again her gender, women and sexuality studies for waking her up politically. “It was so influential to my political, radical and decolonizing lens,” she beams. “After graduating I felt really reinvigorated. Like wow I want to invest more in my own communities, in communities of color to fight for Black, Brown and Indigenous liberation.”
College was not politicizing for Suyoung who instead credits Black Lives Matter for truly waking them up. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Suyoung moved back to Seattle. “It was at that time that one of my roommates took me to my first Black Lives Matter March,” Suyoung recalls. “It just completely flipped my whole world upside down.” The march was for Trayvon Martin. It eventually led Suyoung into their current nonprofit work with its strong emphasis on social justice.
Suyoung is also part of Sahngnoksoo (meaning “evergreen”) a Seattle-based Korean activist group resisting imperialism in Korea and America with a focus on solidarity with other POC and queer communities. “We’re a bunch of awesome queer Koreans, also mixed-race Koreans, adopted Koreans,” describes Suyoung. “Any Korean that isn’t part of that mainstream Christian, Korean Westernized culture that a lot of us are black sheep from.”
Selena and Suyoung tell me that healing through artistry is another very crucial cornerstone of their connection.
Selena has always written poetry. “A lot of it deals with my own personal trauma, healing from intergenerational trauma and working through a lot of mental health [challenges].” Selena was part of the Wing Luke Museum’s “We Are the Ocean: An Indigenous Response to Climate Change.” She wrote a poem for her son entitled You Come From that is displayed there. She has also of late started merging her poetry with collage, making postcards and posters, vending and selling her art, as well as giving workshops.
Suyoung meanwhile is focused on the yogic arts. They started practicing yoga in college, becoming a licensed instructor seven years later because of how positively it impacted their health. Inspired, Suyoung now wants to spend more time doing healing work with activists. “I feel like my next steps are sustaining our community through health and wellness, through yoga, and just healthy eating and just taking care of ourselves.” Their goal is donation-based yoga classes geared toward queer trans people of color, the queer trans community and people of color.
Though both Selena and Suyoung have found much love and acceptance in each other and queer communities of color–it remains difficult to claim their queerness in an oppressive white cis heteronormative world, say the friends. For instance, being hesitant to publicly appear in femme-identified clothing has shown Suyoung how much misogyny still exists in our culture. For Selena, there are questions about womxn- and motherhood. “I’m still actively reflecting on what queerness means to me.” She expounds, “I think of queer parenting, diverging from this heteronormative way of parenting . . . queer mothering. There’s just so much.”
To resist and keep resisting, to keep standing in who they are, the queer artivists have developed a practice of affirmation they like to do together.
“We scream out loud outside, ‘I am an artist!!!’” Selena and Suyoung laugh. I’m kind of surprised but then I think of the sustaining life these two carried into the room, the flowers twinkling on the furniture, and I get it. Of course these friends, uninhibited and unabashed, scream their affirmation on the balcony or even outside on the road where anyone could hear. Together. Out loud and proud. It’s something, Selena and Suyoung say, that really helps them grasp and believe in who they are. “We’re claiming,” they point out, “ in our own right.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.