Mine is a typical refugee story. I was born in Saigon in Vietnam and we came here when I was nine. We managed to get out one day before the fall. Those final days in Saigon were really scary, I remember the dropping of the bombs and I knew something bad was happening. We left with two suitcases and whatever gold jewellery my mother had was strapped to me as that was the only currency we had. It was mass confusion at the time.
We first went to the US and then we came to Australia. My parents did not speak the language nor even know what was happening here. We first landed in Epping in 1977, and I was the only Asian child in my class at the local school.
You go there now and can’t imagine it was that way, but it was. So, I always had a sense of being another. Epping was so middle class, and we had nothing -“ I mean nothing. Mum and Dad could not even afford to send me on school excursions.
When I was in Year 8, we got a housing commission home in Penrith. We at first thought it would be very redneck, but everyone was great.
I moved into the city in 1984 when I started at university studying economics. By this time, I knew I was gay as I had been attracted to guys all the way along. While I had been brought up by Fundamental Christian parents, I was attracted to Buddhism as I felt it was something good and different about my culture.
As for being gay and a Buddhist, it is something that really doesn’t rate. Buddhism doesn’t say how you should lead your life, it is more about how you live your life -“ there is a sense of karma guiding.
A few years later, I met my partner Walter. The thing I decided was I would never go out with a flag about being gay, but at the same time I took Walter along to all events. So it was never a case of coming out for me, it was more a case of this is it. I felt really strongly about that.
There was an expectation from my family for me to have children, so I felt I had to tell my Dad I was gay. He was upset about it but, overall, I think it is about how you are placed about yourself. I was never ashamed to be gay. I think if you feel proud enough about yourself as this is who you are, then it has an impact on the way other people treat you. These days, my Dad talks more to Walter than to me.
When Pauline Hanson hit of course I got upset, but there was no way I was going to do anything about it. But things have a way of taking charge, and I was contacted by a monk from the Bankstown Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. It was going to be closed down and, when we went to Bankstown Council to present the case, I was amazed there was not one Vietnamese speaker on the council. We put up a good case, and Bankstown Council changed their stand and announced they would not close the temple.
One of the monks then asked me to run for council. I couldn’t as I live in Fairfield, but that was the beginning. The Temple fiasco had changed me, and I realised you have to do certain things to get what you want.
My run for Fairfield Council in 1999 was so amateur. I was such an L-plater and I really did not know how the process worked, but we got out there and I scored a quota with 20 percent of the vote. With preferences, I got over the line.
Up to that time, it had always been a case of let’s be grateful we are here and never cause trouble. Afterwards, I said to many people that if you don’t fight for your needs, people will only ever see us as refugees.
Being gay in office has never been an issue, as I have not allowed it to be. I work closely with many ethnic communities, and I think they judge you from not only what you can deliver, but also what you think of yourself. I don’t need to justify that I am Vietnamese, so I don’t need to justify that I am gay.
There is so much injustice and the fight is never over. With democracy, it is a squeaky wheel and it needs to be oiled constantly. I have thought about running for state or federal politics and I have been asked about joining both the major parties and helping change them from within. But I am way too left.
I am still in marketing and these days I work at SBS Radio. I never saw myself as a politician. I didn’t get into it for the sake of politics or because I was a member of a trade union. It was because of a community issue involving a temple. My political focus is not to go any further at this stage -“ there is still too much to be done in my own council.
Interview by John Burfitt