On May 19th of 2018, Terra Hoy had the privilege to speak at a Southeast Asian graduation celebration in Seattle, WA. The following is her speech edited for Project Yellow Dress.
Thank you all for letting me share my story. It is a privilege to be here today, one of the many privileges my mother and her siblings fought for when she came to America after surviving the genocide. My name is Terra and I will soon obtain a Bachelor’s in Public Health from the University of Washington. It is very bittersweet for me to speak to you all about what this celebration means for me. The Khmer Student Association was where I found community and identity during my first year as an undergraduate, especially as a first generation Cambodian American student. Throughout my first year, I advocated for the Association across campus with so much passion as the Khmer Student Association was so influential in my time at the University of Washington. Then, during the summer of 2014 following my freshman year, I developed severe depression upon realizing I was transgender. I also internalized that because I am transgender, I was undermining the traumas and resilience of my mother, my sister, and the other women in my family. So, I sought support from my community, my Khmer community.
I began to come out as queer and transgender to my peers and officers. I shared with many that I was in the hospital for two weeks due to mental health concerns involving my gender identity. And that I had tried to take my own life multiple times prior. One very influential and respectable leader from the Association reacted in hostility. The hostility resulting from me trying to open up to this peer scarred me, and unfortunately pushed me away from a community I once called family. Other leaders were aware of the situation but did not stand up on my behalf. For the following several years, I felt such detachment from my Khmer identity, like I had to choose between being Khmer and transgender. But I have found solidarity through my mother, my sister, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my closest friends and coworkers, and my partner.
I have also found solidarity in my education. At the University, I always advocated for intersectionality, the recognition of discrimination faced by anyone who identifies with multiple social, biological, and cultural groups that are unfavored in a patriarchal, capitalist, globalized white supremacist society. But it is not until my preparations to stand here today that I have truly begun to process that the acts of celebrating my heritage and living authentically do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The scarring experience I have shared with you merely scratches the surface of what transgender women go through every day here and in Southeast Asia. I want you all to leave with the understanding that, while our people find more and more freedom after the genocide, some of us are freer than others. I spent much of my undergraduate career researching the disparities of transgender women in Cambodia. Gender and sexual minorities just like me are subjected to police expand violence, discrimination in healthcare and their communities, poor social mobility, high rates of HIV/AIDS, sexual exploitation and trauma, injection drug use, and so much more. Often, they are socioeconomically pressured into sex work, some even trafficked. What makes them different from me is that I was privileged to be born into a time, place, and family who supports all of me. And because of that, I can behere today. Because of our privileges, we can be here today.
Our dream as Cambodian Americans is to acquire an education in aspirations of a high income to financially support our immigrant parents. And while that is valid and real and a huge accomplishment in itself, I want to give my mother more than that. I want to give her a world where she may freely travel to different countries, including her home country, where she can witness and experience the growing liberty of our people, all our people.
I refuse to assimilate into the social, political, and economic systems which thrive off the historical traumas placed upon us.
The systems which secret bombings of our country were in the name of American democracy.
The systems which expedited the genocide of our peoples.
The systems which pressure us to remain hushed about the violence of deportations.
The systems which descendants of socioeconomic power benefit from our generations of trauma and lifetimes of labor.
This ceremony is a symbol of how we do not have to be model minorities in these systems.
These systems which secret bombings of our country were in the name of American democracy.
These systems which expedited the genocide of our peoples.
These systems which pressure us to remain hushed about the violence of deportations.
These systems which descendants of socioeconomic power benefit from our generations of trauma and lifetimes of labor.
I want our future generations to look toward their ancestors who paved a foundation for their growing liberation. So, I vow to dedicate my career and life to supporting transgender and nonbinary people of color. I hope each one of you can contribute to my cause - our cause - because as we have learned from history, liberty cannot stem from violence nor the oppressing of each other - it stems from solidarity. Just as we have here, we must continue to come together as a community and fight the intersecting social, political, and economic forces which try to divide and conquer us. As we celebrate today, as we wave our flag in pride, as we keep our culture alive, we must also hold ourselves accountable for gender and sexual minorities of Cambodia, for they are as Khmer and human as each and every one of us.