Hang Vo was seven when she arrived with her family as part of the first wave of Vietnamese people who came by boat to seek asylum in Australia. It wasn’t until she was in university that Vo said she started noticing that she was different to others –  Vietnamese, a refugee and a lesbian woman. 

In May 2021, when she took over as the new chairperson of the Victorian Pride Centre board, she proudly brought all these identities to the table. But, it wasn’t always like this, Vo recalled as she chatted with Star Observer over Zoom about plans for the Pride Centre to reopen after Victoria’s sixth lockdown in two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Struggle To Fit In

(Clockwise from left to right) Todd Fernando, Victoria’s LGBTQI Commissioner, Premier Daniel Andrews, Minister For Health Martin Foley, Victorian Pride Centre Board Chair Hang Vo and former Board Chair Jude Munro

Vo recalled the struggle to fit in. “I grew up in Springvale which is very multicultural. Over 90 % of the kids at my school had a first language that was not English. We were different, yet the same,” said Vo.

Later, at university as well at various workplaces, Vo became very adept at hiding her true self to fit in. 

“In Australia, we didn’t have an inclusive culture where diversity is really valued. For the most part, I tried really hard to compensate for the fact that I come from these backgrounds –  that I’m a gay woman, a refugee, and I came from a working class poor family background,” said Vo.

According to Vo it was not until her 30s that she came to realise that her difference, that made her feel as an outsider, was actually her strength. “Despite being well-educated and a professional I struggled to belong. Imagine how others who don’t have the same access to education and career opportunities are made to feel.”

‘Differences Are Seen As Deficits’

Hang Vo, Chairperson, Board of the Victorian Pride Centre. Photo: Gabriel Jia

This attitude informed her career in the nonprofit sector working on issues related to youth, women, refugees and CALD communities . Vo is currently CEO of Whitelion Youth – an organisation working with disadvantaged youth. In 2017 during the marriage equality vote in Australia Vo decided that she had to engage more with the LGBTQI community and subsequently joined the board for the upcoming Pride Centre. 

“We as a society see differences as more of a deficit, rather than a strength,” said Vo, adding, “We see them as minority groups or vulnerable groups – whether it’s people of color, trans people or people living with a disability.”.

“Each of us have got many parts of who we are… that’s why intersectionality is so important, if we want to drive and, and create a genuinely inclusive society,” said Vo, who carried these same values  to her leadership role at the Pride Centre – Australia’s first purpose-built and the world’s second largest Pride centre. 

Creating A Safe And Inclusive Culture At The Pride Centre

Victorian Pride Centre. Photo: Aaron Little

“At the Pride Center, we are really committed to creating a safe and inclusive culture where people belong. We don’t want people to feel like they have to fit in. We need to shift away from the sense of tolerance, and even acceptance and actually embrace and celebrate differences. We want to create a safe, inclusive and a permanent home for LGBTQI+ communities, while also being inclusive of allies.”  

As one of the faces of the Pride Centre, Vo also has her job cut out for her. The immediate challenge, Vo said, was to reopen in a COVID-safe manner and meet expectations of diverse stakeholders. We are very excited to reopen and welcome everyone. The longer term challenge is to ensure that the Pride centre is sustainable,  including repaying a $10 million loan.

“Our vision is to ensure that we create long term sustainability. We want to ensure that we are really prudent in the way that we run the organisation and we apply a really good business lens to it. Ultimately, the Pride Centre is a community asset, if we are not sustainable, we cannot keep being a hub for the community for generations to come,” added Vo. 

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