In his just-published study of sexual minorities living in New Zealand, senior social work lecturer Dr Mark Henrickson says his findings reinforce the notion that "the whole idea of having an LGB [lesbian, gay or bisexual] identity is a highly-westernised, European concept".
The findings carry implications for the way health and social workers communicate with Asian clients who may not readily respond to blatant questions about sexual orientation, Dr Henrickson says.
"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?'"
The study, Lavender Immigration to New Zealand: Comparative descriptions of overseas-born sexual minorities, is part of the larger Lavender Islands: Portrait of the Whole Family study, which is the first national, strengths-based survey of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in New Zealand.
Of the total 2269 respondents to the survey, 491 (21 per cent) were overseas-born, and of these, nearly 11 per cent were born in Asia.
While Asian respondents were aware of having same-sex attractions at an earlier age than non-Asians, they were much less likely to have told their families, friends and colleagues as they grew older, the study found. Four times as many non-Asians as Asian-born immigrants had told everybody in their lives they were gay, while 15.3 per cent of Asians had not disclosed their identity to anyone compared with only 3 per cent of non-Asians who hadn't, the study showed.
Dr Henrickson, who teaches in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Auckland, says the idea of "coming out" as a gay person did not have the same meaning for most Asians because their identity stems more strongly from family ties and marriage, rather than individual expressions of identity. The idea of same-sex oriented identity was simply not meaningful in countries such as China, Taiwan and Korea, even though such relationships have occurred throughout the histories of those cultures as well as in contemporary Asian societies.
"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 says."
They were also more likely to remain 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, published in the latest issue of the New Zealand Social Work Review.
The study found that Asians gays were much more likely to remain isolated because when they did make contact with other gays and lesbians they tended to do so through the internet.
"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, " the study says. And a further 18.4 per cent of Asian-born respondents said they had not made any contact with the lesbian, gay and bisexual community in New Zealand.
Dr Henrickson points out that by participating in the study, the Asian respondents to the survey had already identified themselves, albeit anonymously, as being gay, lesbian or bisexual. But there remained, in all likelihood, a significant portion of Asian immigrants "who have not adopted Western signifiers or identities".
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," Dr Henrickson says in the report.
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, he added.
"No social worker should assume that their client is heterosexual, or exclusively heterosexually active."