POC Perspectives is a series of interviews, experiences, and stories from LGBTQ and allied People of Color from within our community. This project is beginning during Black History Month – a significant and crucial time to elevate these stories – and will continue throughout the year. Out & Equal is committed to elevating the profile of members of our community who have diverse intersectional identities. Click here to read other interviews in this series.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did your background, your family, environment, friends, geography, or anything else shape your journey to now?
My name is Stephen Huey. I am the Senior Director of Corporate Engagement at Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. I’ve been with Out & Equal for seven years. Prior to Out & Equal, I was at Bank of America where I held management positions in consumer retail, community development, and corporate affairs. My entire 30-year corporate career was at Bank of America and right out of college was my focus in terms of establishing success in the eyes of my family.
I’m Chinese American and I was raised in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when there was a lot of discrimination against Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans. The Chinese were the first wave of Asian immigrants to come to America and I have ancestors that date back to the Transcontinental Railroad that would link the United States from east to west.
Also, my father was an immigrant and came to the United States when he was 10 years old during the Chinese Exclusion Act and detained for 2 months at Angel Island. He came from a wealthy family and he was sent here to protect him from kidnapping during a time of political and social upheaval in China. He was to return when it was safe to do so but he never saw his family again. So that experience, for him, has lived with me throughout my life. Whereas my mom is 5th generation Chinese American, so there was this kind of dual identity of being Chinese in terms of my ethnicity but American in terms of self. I’ve always felt a consciousness about being different, but also feeling proud of those differences.
My parents told me that there was a petition to keep us out of the neighborhood my parents chose to live in. They persevered and we moved into a middle-class neighborhood renown for an excellent school system. I grew up in an environment where we were one of the only non-white families in the area and because of that I always felt different, always feeling like an outsider. When you have an Asian face, you certainly can’t hide your ethnicity. And so, that was always something that I was made aware of from early on; that I was the only kid, or we were the only family in the neighborhood that looked different, came from a different background with Chinese American cultural differences.
We are currently living in very difficult and scary time to be an Asian American—specifically a Chinese American—and also a member of the LGBTQ community. How are you feeling? What has this experience been like for you?
Yeah. It’s really very interesting for me because as a kid I would be called names or harassed for being Chinese. There’d be a lot of jokes, things about being Chinese, mocking the Chinese language or misconceptions about being Chinese, not seen as Chinese American or American… like being asked by friend’s parents or strangers: “Where do you come from? No, where do you really come from?”
Or being told to go back to where I came from. I came from New York. I remember being a kid when parents of a schoolmate forbid him from coming to my house to play because his parents were afraid of what a “Chinese house” would be like. So, growing up that way, you kind of develop a thick skin.
But it always hurts. It stings and stays with you.
Fast forward to today, and I’m seeing the same behaviors, the same bigotry surface in terms of of being looked at as if we don’t belong. You know, even before the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese people were accused of being carriers of VD and Leprosy and other diseases. So living under today’s COVID-19 public health crisis, being labeled the “Chinese Virus” by our president, Chinese Americans are at risk. I’ve already had a couple of encounters with people who see this as the “Chinese Virus,” similar to HIV and AIDS being labeled the “Gay Cancer” when linked to an identifiable group or community. And as an out, gay, Asian twenty-something living in San Francisco in 1981 I identified as an Asian American gay man who felt the danger of being singled out for being Asian, gay, or both.
We’ve seen a lot of comparisons between COVID-19 and the AIDS crisis, and we’ve also seen backlash against that comparison, that people don’t think it’s fair or that the two are the same. What do you find to be the similarities and the differences between these two; COVID-19 and then the AIDS epidemic?
Well, strikingly similar are fear and the unknown. That’s for sure. I think fear causes people to behave in ways that allow hostility and stigma against others. Just as stigma and dislike against gay people – who were blamed for spreading AIDS – led to violence against them, Chinese Americans have been attacked, beaten, spat at and humiliated across the US. This public health crisis is also seen as someone else’s problem until it hits home. Unfortunately, communities divide rather than unite and so there’s a tendency to place blame.
Very similar to the early days of HIV and AIDS, the delay in action taken by the federal government has caused additional harm and fear, but at least state and local government officials are taking action to inform and educate people on how to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.
During the AIDS epidemic, Reagan was silent for 5+ years and the cumulative number of deaths was something like 16,000. Men having sex with men were under attack for spreading the “Gay Cancer” and exposure to the disease was widely thought to be confined to folks who were gay at a time when we knew it wasn’t — that’s a major difference. But the comparison of racism and homophobia for me are very similar.
What would you share with younger Asian Americans, both LGBTQ and not, during this time? What do you wish someone would have shared with you growing up?
I would ask younger Asian Americans to identify role models, and for LGBTQ Asian Americans to find LGBTQ Asian American and LGBTQ People of Color role models. That could be a family member or someone that has touched your life, offers a sense of relatability, and has been through the same experience.
I’ve always been inspired by people that function in disaster. That’s become my motto: function in disaster and finish in style. Because to me, if you truly know yourself, you’ve got to look at your situation and figure out how to build confidence and trust all that you possess, so that you can be your best and not feel defeated. I think that knowing and trusting myself led me to open, generous, and compassionate people along the way.
Do you have any role models or people that you look to for inspiration or wisdom during hard times?
It’s the generation that came before me. I look towards my father and mother.
My dad’s life is about facing the unknown, hoping to return to China after two years in America, but never to see his family again. I look to my dad because he was resilient, stayed focused, and had a sense of purpose and responsibility for making a better life for future generations.
In fact, my Chinese name is, “New beginning,” so there’s a lot of honor as well as weight in that name. I was named to be that promise for my family and so I carry that with me in many ways. Even though he’s gone, I keep in mind his principles and in some ways his expectations that I be my best. Sometimes that means working harder, sometimes that means being a little more careful about how I treat others, but always feeling that you must demonstrate a certain level of integrity. Again, it’s like my favorite saying: function in disaster and finish in style.
From my mom I learned self-confidence, independence, and a sense of humor. No one makes me laugh like my mom. She taught me how to finish in style.
What advice would you give to America’s employers during this time to take care of their Asian and LGBTQ employees?
I think it’s very important for employers to genuinely demonstrate an awareness, sensitivity, and healthy curiosity to better understand and support the many nuances of being Asian and LGBTQ. The Asian American LGBTQ experience is unique and not limited to identifying as Asian or LGBTQ. In my opinion, employers can be helpful in providing a safe space.
You know, we often hear that there are folks that are not out to their families, but they’re out at work. This has always been interesting to me because for me, the heart and safe space in my life is my family. But for those who do not have the safety and support of their families, realize there are many who seek comfort at work. Some people have distinct home identities and work identities. When and where do you give yourself permission to be your true self?
As you know, Out & Equal’s theme this year is: The Business of Belonging. What does belonging mean to you personally and what does it mean to you professionally? Can you share an example where belonging was made real in your life?
Personally, I would define belonging as finding your tribe. Acceptance, appreciation, home. It’s not just acknowledgement that you exist, but when you feel welcome, have a voice, and are a visible member of a community.
This became real when I was very young and traveled to Hawaii from New York to be with my cousins. The guy pumping gas, the salesclerk, the mailman – they were all Asian doing everyday jobs that I never saw in New York. Then in college I lived in the dorms that were predominately people of color, gay, international students, and Chinese or Asian Americans like me. I didn’t have a coming out experience. I was just me. But I did meet my first boyfriend while in college and lived together for 5 years so I guess that was my way of coming out. I was very fortunate because no one turned away from me. Not family. Not friends.
Professionally it was harder to experience belonging. I had to have a strategy in order to be seen and acknowledged. As a management trainee there were some who had little confidence in me. I was told I was too quiet. I felt I needed to compete as 1 of only 2 non-white management trainees. I knew I had to work harder, learn quicker, know my stuff, strive to be better. Being Asian also helped me build armor in some ways. I already knew what discrimination felt like so when it came to my sexual orientation, I never felt the need to hide who I am or be someone I’m not. I was that Asian guy who happened to be gay and with each new assignment, with each promotion, I knew I belonged.
After a 30 year career with Bank of America, Stephen Huey brought his corporate and nonprofit relationship management expertise to Out & Equal in 2013. As Senior Vice President for Global Marketing and Corporate Affairs, Stephen led Bank of America’s mission to advance the economic and social well-being of underserved communities in Northern and Central California. Prior to this role, Stephen served as Senior Vice President for Bank of America’s Community Development Bank, where he focused on community development lending, investments, and services. Stephen also held multiple leadership positions for Bank of America’s Consumer Bank including Vice President/Consumer Market Manager for 27 Bay Area Asian-designated Bank of America branches with over 300 employees and $4 billion in assets. Stephen founded the Bank of America LGBT Pride Employee Network at legacy Bank of America, expanding LGBTQ employee visibility, influence and leadership to champion workplace equality and inclusion. Stephen has served on the Board of Directors of the National AIDS Memorial, Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center and LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center and the Employer Leadership Council Chair for the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.