New Zealand HR
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Asians, Cultural Attitudes and Sexual Identity

November 6 2006 - A recent New Zealand study finds that lesbians, gays and bisexuals of Asian origin are less open than other New Zealanders about their sexuality because of differing cultural attitudes. This has significant implications for professionals, especially those in health and social work.

Dr Mark Henrickson, a senior social work lecturer in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Auckland, has published a study of sexual minorities living in New Zealand in a recent issue of the New Zealand Social Work Review. Lavender Immigration to New Zealand: Comparative descriptions of overseas-born sexual minorities forms part of the larger Lavender Islands: Portrait of the Whole Family study. This is the first New Zealand-wide strengths-based survey of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in New Zealand.

Mark Henrickson says that his findings reinforce the notion that "the whole idea of having an LGB (lesbian, gay or bisexual) identity is a highly-westernised, European concept".

He argues that the study findings carry implications for the way health and social workers communicate with Asian clients who may not readily respond to blatant questions about their sexual orientation.

"Depending on the context, behavioural questions, such as 'Are you sexually active with men, women, both or neither?' may elicit more useful information for the practitioner than identity-oriented questions such as 'Are you lesbian?'" said Dr. Henricksen.

491 (21%) of the 2269 respondents to the survey were overseas-born, with almost 11% Asian-born. Asian respondents reported having same-sex attractions at an earlier age than non-Asians but they were considerably less likely to have told their families, friends or colleagues when they grew older. In fact, non-Asians were four times as likely to have told everybody in their lives they were gay. According to the study, 15.3% of Asians had not told anyone compared to a mere 3% of non-Asians.

According to Mark Henricksen, the idea of "coming out" as a gay person does not have the same meaning for most Asians because their identity comes largely from family ties and marriage, rather than the individual expressions of identity familiar to non-Asians. He says that the notion of same-sex oriented identity is simply not meaningful in countries such as China, Taiwan and Korea, despite the existence of such relationships now and in the past.

"Whereas people from western cultures are more likely to be open and positive about the fact that they are lesbian, gay or bisexual - 'it's me, it's my major identity, who I am'- Asians, regardless of sexual orientation, regard their identity as linked to who their parents or grandparents are, who they are married to," he said.

The study shows that they are also more likely to stay silent about their sexuality.

"These identity challenges are highlighted for immigrants to 'Europeanised' countries (that use sexual identity as a cultural construct) from cultures where stigma around same-sex orientation remains firmly in place, " he says in the report,

Asian gays tend to remain isolated, often making contact with other gays and lesbians through the internet.

According to the studu: "Of Asian-born respondents, 34.7 per cent had used the internet to make first contact, compared with only 10.6 per cent of other immigrants." A further 18.4% of Asian-born respondents said they had not made any contact with the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in New Zealand.

Mark Henrickson notes that by participating in the study, the Asian respondents had already identified themselves, albeit anonymously, as being gay, lesbian or bisexual. However, in all likelihood, a significant portion of Asian immigrants remained "who have not adopted Western signifiers or identities".

In the report, he says that it was "probable that Asian-born LGBs (lesbians, gays and bisexuals) manage their sexual identity as only one aspect of the constellation of identities that they manage as new immigrants, and that sexual identity is not the most important signifier for Asian-born respondents."

He added that there were practical implications from the study's findings for social and community workers, especially in the area of sexual health education, Aids awareness and prevention.

"No social worker should assume that their client is heterosexual, or exclusively heterosexually active."


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