LGBT

Putting the G in LGBT: Ben Chou Wins Over His VIP Supporters

Ben Chou represents both Asian pride as well as LGBTQ pride.
Ben Chou represents both Asian pride as well as LGBTQ pride. Photo by Yi-Chin Lee
June is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often regarded as the tipping point in the modern gay rights movement, which earned its recognition as Pride Month. The Houston Press met with members of the LGBTQ community to learn more about their experiences belonging to this group. These are their stories.

Ben Chou grew up in Fort Bend County, the child of devout Christian parents who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. By all accounts, he was the model child – diligent in school and active with the family’s church. In fact, his parents were deeply involved in the church, which played a significant role in his childhood.

“My parents are not just church goers. They helped to start churches. They're currently members of the church that I grew up in, which was one they helped to start with a few friends,” Chou said. “It is one of the largest Asian American churches in America. I've been on about seven or eight mission trips with the church.”

Through elementary school and middle school, he would travel to Orange, Texas, to build and repair homes as well as evangelize in the neighborhoods.

As Chou matured through middle school, he started to realize that he had an attraction to people of the same sex. However, because of his parents’ religious convictions, he decided to wait until later in life before telling them. He also had very few role models to look up to.

“I knew only one gay person at that time. He was a fellow Asian American who was going across the country because he had slept around and contracted HIV, and he started preaching about how it's bad to be gay. He equated being gay as a leading to drugs and contracting HIV,” Chou recalled. “That was a scare tactic he would use at churches to terrify young kids and parents. That was a terrible equation that he was trying to draw.”

Chou's first attempt to come out wasn’t much of a success either.

“My first time coming out to someone was in high school. During my junior year, a friend of mine and I were in a car, and I remember saying that I needed to tell her something. I came out to her, and she told me, ‘You should consider becoming a priest so that you can be celibate for life,’” he remembered. “I didn't talk to anyone about it again for a few years.”
click to enlarge Ben Chou hopes to make a big splash in public service. - PHOTO BY BENJAMIN HERNANDEZ
Ben Chou hopes to make a big splash in public service.
Photo by Benjamin Hernandez
After completing his first year in college, he indeed started to find his stride. He attended Rice University and studied Political Science, Asian Studies, and Energy Policy. His interest in civil service started to bud, and between his freshman and sophomore years, he interned with the State Department in Shanghai, China. During that time, he was housed with three other people, and as luck would have it, two of those housemates were also gay.

“They took me to a gay bar in Shanghai. I was terrified because I didn't know what was going to happen, but I was also excited because I was never comfortable doing that in Houston due to fear that word would get back to my parents, my church community, or my friends,” he said.

When he returned to Houston after that summer, Chou slowly started coming out to his friends throughout his sophomore and junior years, and then he came out to his parents the summer between his junior and senior year.

“We were traveling throughout Asia. This time my dad was on a business trip, and my mom and I decided to travel along with him. I know sometimes people get kicked out of their homes for coming out. But traveling abroad? Surely they would not decide to not bring me back to America.”

Chou came out to his mother in a mall food court, and after 45 seconds of silence, she showed neither a positive nor negative response but instead requested that he tell his father. After a few days, when Chou still had not told his father, his mother took the responsibility to do so. While the relationship shortly thereafter was rocky, things started to ease over time.

“My boyfriend and I have been together for almost four years now. Back in 2018, when we first met, I asked my dad and my mom if I could bring him home for Thanksgiving. My dad declined, because it'd be an inconvenience. But if I brought home a girl, he would pay for the wedding immediately, no questions asked,” Chou said. “My mom wanted to be the peacemaker, so she said I can bring him home for two days, but we had to sleep in separate bedrooms.”

Chou took the compromise. “That was six years after I first came out. Now, it's been 10 years since I came out, and they love my boyfriend,” he added.
click to enlarge Ben Chou has made his mark in public service with federal, state, and local officials. - PHOTO BY KEVIN HSIEH
Ben Chou has made his mark in public service with federal, state, and local officials.
Photo by Kevin Hsieh

During the time when his parents started to soften up, Chou’s interest in public service materialized even more so. After graduating from Rice University, he moved to Washington D.C. to work for Speaker Nancy Pelosi in attempt to fix the damage done to families torn apart by unjust immigration laws and individuals burdened by student loans. He later worked for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, helping to lead his political action committee where he traversed the country electing Democrats to office up and down the ballot. He also earned a J.D./MBA from Northwestern University.

It was the election of 2016 that convinced Chou to put his public service ambitions into play, and there was no other place than Houston where he wanted to start. During the 2020 Presidential election, he served as the Director of Innovation for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. In this role, he led the history-making team that created and scaled drive-thru voting, a bold change that made voting more accessible for 130,000 people. For the 2022 election, he ran for Harris County Commissioners Court for District 4.

“Houston embraces grassroots efforts, and the city affords opportunity for a young person like me to challenge the establishment candidates for a nomination. I couldn't have gotten so close if I were in many other cities,” he said.

Ultimately, he did not win the primary during a runoff election, but the campaign did show that his family had accepted him as a gay man.

“When I first launched my campaign, my parents were very hesitant. They really didn't want me to be openly gay. But right before Christmas, a few Chinese American leaders hosted a big fundraiser for me, and they wanted me to bring my parents. They want to see my parents are involved in my campaigns, so I forced my parents to come, and they saw the people and community leaders who were behind me. They felt guilty that they weren't as involved. So, they became huge champions of the campaign. My dad would knock on doors and say I’m the best gay candidate,” Chou said.

“My parents have become more accepting and in the past seven months since the campaign began and ended. They became more comfortable. My mom even got to the point where she said, ‘If I lose friends over this campaign, I'll go make new ones.’ That's the acceptance trajectory we've had so far,” he added.

Though he is not on the ballot anymore, he still has plans to influence the upcoming vote as well as the city he calls home.

“Politically, I'm supporting Democrats up and down the ballots. I think a large part of what I've realized throughout this campaign is that we don't have much Asian American representation. Elected officials in Houston don't really respect or really care about Asian Americans. They come and raise money from us, but then they don't put us on board positions. They don't hire us into offices into positions in their administration. They don't give us contracts. Those are things that I will work with my fellow Asian Americans to address...to find out how we can try and leverage our community in that way, especially with the upcoming elections,” he said.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd