The book (Chapter 13) talks about Stephano’s experience doing AIDS education and outreach in a mainstream Korean American organization and through Chingusai, the LGBTQ support group in Los Angeles. This excerpt explains his exploration of his sexuality at the height of the AIDS epidemic that led him to this career path.
Korean Health Education, Information, and Referral (now KHEIR Clinic) had been part of the Asian Pacific AIDS Education Project from the beginning. In 1996, Stephano Park, fresh out of graduate school and with a degree in human services, joined its staff, but not as an HIV outreach worker at first. "I got in as telecommunication consumer education project coordinator," he said. "Soon they found out that I was gay, and then they just pushed the AIDS education project onto me, saying, 'Maybe you might be a more appropriate person than the person who's doing it now.'"
Stephano was born in South Korea and grew up there until he and his family moved to the U.S. in 1985 when he was 15. "The concept of ‘gay’ didn't really exist in Korea, though I knew that I was attracted to men growing up as long as I can remember," he said. "I had homoerotic dreams when I was five. I still remember that. Then I had crushes on every male teacher I came across. I played around with my classmates, but nothing like full-on sex." He had learned about AIDS when he was still in his home country, when the news of Rock Hudson's death reached South Korea. Already preparing for his emigration then, he thought, "If I go to America, is this something that's gonna affect me?" Later, as a young adult, when he was hit on by older men, "I became terrified. Oh, my God, is this gonna lead me to have HIV and AIDS?" As a result, for a long time, he never responded to men who showed any interest in him.
As a Korean Christian in the U.S., Stephano internalized a lot of the conservative attitudes towards AIDS from the community. "They were demonizing gay people, and treated AIDS as God's punishment. That's when I kind of wanted to become straight," he said. “I thought life would be easier being a straight man. I thought I could navigate my life much better and please my parents." While in college - Stephano attended California State University, Long Beach - he joined a group for young Korean Christians. "They reached out to me and said, 'God can change you.' I said, 'I don't know about that.' They said, 'Give God a chance and he can change anyone.'
"I gave that a go, and I started to go to their Bible studies, their church. I got heavily involved at some point. I was living with them, the men's group, a bunch of college students and young professionals. There were like 13 or 14 of us living in a house with five bedrooms. I was the only one that had a particular issue with being gay. The other people had other things, like drug addiction, sexual addiction, or what have you. But everybody had something."
Stephano stayed with the ministry for three years and decided finally that he wasn't going to change. What made him so sure, not surprisingly in such a homosocial environment, was a crush on another resident. Ironically that man was responsible for Stephano staying so long with the group. When his crush ended up marrying a woman, all that sweet and impossibly unrequited desire went up in smoke. But the irrefutable essence of who he was remained. "I left the church thinking it was more destructive to deny this part of me, and what I found out about God was that He's very loving and He loves me no matter what. It's unconditional love, and He probably created me this way."
He started to seek out other LGBT people on campus, primarily through the gay and lesbian resource center. After college, he got involved with a queer Korean group in the community, Chingusai. "It means, 'among friends,'" explained Stephano. The group was just starting to organize, at a time in the mid-1990s, when more and more ethnic-specific queer API support groups were splintering off the more panethnic ones. At Chingusai, he met Dredge Kang, and later other APAIT staff, like Karen Kimura, and he started to attend their events, too.
At KHEIR, a co-worker asked if he had a girlfriend. By then, Stephano wasn't hiding who he was and told her he was gay. Soon, word about his sexuality traveled throughout the agency. KHEIR asked him to assume the role of running their HIV education program, as part of the consortium with the Asian Pacific AIDS Education Project, solely on the fact that he was gay. According to Stephano, "The person who was doing it at the time didn't want to do it anymore because she just didn't like the subject matter. She thought it was irrelevant to her, and she didn't get along with the people in the consortium. She was very reluctant to go to those meetings."
It was a presumptuous ask, but Stephano was interested. He said yes because he already had a wealth of resources in both Dredge and Karen that he knew he could tap into.
Ironically, even though Stephano was recruited for the position because of his sexual orientation and the general conflation of AIDS and gayness, he was working primarily with straight monolingual Korean immigrant population, which, luckily, he also had the cultural and linguistic competence for. As a gay man who came of age during the AIDS era, he already was exposed to basic information about HIV and AIDS. "I studied the brochures that KHEIR produced, and also learned a little bit more from APAIT through Dredge," Stephano added. "As time went on, I just developed my thoughts more. I was able to branch out from what I initially had. For example, getting statistics from the County [Department of Public Health] on how many people contracted HIV in Los Angeles, and writing and publishing an article about that, on a yearly basis, to bring awareness [to the Korean community]. Then I would use the article to do media outreach, like on Korean TV. Stuff like that I had to learn on the job. A lot of people called after the article had been published. They would ask a lot of questions."
Stephano's primary responsibility was to conduct HIV 101 workshops to the Korean community. He said, "I stuck to the curriculum that was developed already. I think I probably did a little more than the previous person just because I was more passionate about the subject. I think I outreached to more people than before." He would approach different community groups and ask their leaders whether he could do the presentation to their members. One place he went regularly was an acupuncture school, ran by a lesbian who was also part of Chingusai. In addition to HIV being an important community issue to her, Stephano explained, "the school was mandated to [provide HIV education] to their students, so they would invite me."
With the other places, Stephano had to hustle and be more assertive. "I had to convince them that this was a public health issue and people should be aware of it, that it affected all of us and I could make it relevant." He found some success was language schools for monolingual Korean-speaking immigrants. Public health was a thinly veiled disguise for English lessons. "They liked it when I presented in English. Then they felt like they were learning about public health and English at the same time. When people were not getting it, I would convert to Korean momentarily so they could understand it before I moved on. Their feedback was all positive. Mostly they were very thankful and they clapped at the end [of my presentation]." Stephano tried to make the topic relevant to the audience by "de-gaying" the disease - and more than anything else, they appreciated him for trying to do something positive for the community through these presentations. His gayness didn't seem to be a stumbling block for the supposedly cultural conservative immigrant audience to take him seriously. He said, "I didn't think it was necessary [for me to come out]. I think I appeared as gay plenty. It was redundant. If I said I was gay, they would probably just laugh." He rarely worked with gay men, at least not that he was aware of.
In retrospect, Stephano wishes that he had made more of a link between HIV/AIDS and LGBT communities. "What I regret the most...I could've been a little bit more articulate about the needs of gay people and somehow make a bridge from the LGBT population with the HIV education. I could have been more articulate in expressing the need. My English at the time wasn't as refined as it could have been. I just didn't know how to do it. If I were to do it now, I would be more of an advocate, for at least the Korean LGBT community. You're asking me questions and I'm able to tell you now that these things were going on simultaneously, that they coexisted, but nobody was looking at those two things from a broader perspective. Yes, in hindsight, we could've been more innovative, but we were just busy trying to do the project the way we thought it should have been done, meeting the quotas, just getting the message out there." While Stephano didn't go out of his way to talk about his own sexuality, his curriculum, even if it was trying to convince the audience that AIDS didn't exclusively affect the LGBT community, did expose the audience, many of whom would otherwise not have any conversation about LGBT people, to the existence of this population in their community, a first step to normalization.
Another unique group that he worked with consistently was Korean immigrant sex workers. Stephano went to a handful of massage parlors in the Koreatown community that were fronts for sex work and talked to the women who worked there. As a straight woman, his predecessor was able to establish relationships with these massage parlors, and as part of the transition, she took Stephano to these establishments and introduced him to the managers. "I gave them condoms and brochures. I would talk to them briefly about what the brochures are about." said Stephano. "They wouldn't acknowledge that they were doing any [sex work] there, but we knew [otherwise]." Perhaps because Stephano was a man, the women usually didn't get into a long conversation with him. "They would just say, 'Yes, yes, yes,' and then just take the whole package," he said.
KHEIR staff, including the executive director at the time, was primarily women. Stephano described them as "nice people who believed in working for the community, people who have heart and compassion for others." Stephano he found the work environment gay-friendly. It reminded me of something that Tak Yamamoto, a pioneer leader in the gay Asian community a generation ago, had told me once. Tak, filling leadership role in mainstream Japanese American organizations (Manzanar Committee and the Japanese American Citizens League, to name a couple), said that most of the times community folks just needed warm bodies who were willing to put in the work, people who would put themselves out there being so far and few between to begin with, and that they could care less about what you do in the bedroom at night and who you do it with. And in working together, the seed of acceptance could begin to germinate.
KHEIR did take a hit in the community for hiring an openly gay man, according to Stephano. The local Korean press painted Laura, his boss, "as somebody who would befriend gay people," he said. The Korean media, especially those that were disseminated in Korean, targeting immigrants, reflected the same mainline Christian attitude towards homosexuality that Stephano had to confront throughout his life. But when Stephano came face to face with community members in his outreach, he experienced neither judgement nor abuse. He said, “I think it was because when I did it, I did it with dignity. I did it because it was something that was necessary for the Korean community. That attitude always showed, and nobody could say anything otherwise to me. As long as you go out and preach your gospel with conviction and determination, people would pick up on it. They would be touched by it. If you approach it from that perspective, then you will be well received.”