I was born on June 8, 1991, in Stockton, California to my single mother, an 18-year old Cambodian refugee. Facing the daunting challenge of parenting while also struggling with her own trauma and mental health, my mother left me in the care of a Cambodian pastor and his family, who took me in as their own and became my god family. Throughout my early childhood, I went back and forth between my god family and my biological grandmother and mother in San Diego.
My sister Tanya was born while me and my mom were living in Seattle, Washington, with her new husband. However, we ended up moving back to San Diego shortly after.
My grandmother moved with my uncles and aunt (most of whom were younger than 18) to Portland, Maine. My mother followed with me and my sister and we lived with my grandmother in two apartments on Cedar Street, across from Portland High School and next to the Boys and Girls Club. My grandmother and my older uncles would work graveyard shifts harvesting sea urchings under the table to make ends meet. Durign this time, my sister Seyya was born at Maine Med in Portland, Maine, followed by my brother Brandon’s birth a year later.
With four kids in an already crowded living situation, my mom moved us into low-income housing at Riverton Park in Portland, Maine. We survived on food stamps and general assistance, but even that wasn’t enough. Some days after school, all I remember eating was ramen or white rice and sriracha sauce. For a little treat, I would sometimes mix sugar with milk. Occasionally, we had condensed milk with avocado or toast.
The State became involved and caseworkers and guardian ad-litems were a regular appearance. Eventually, my two youngest siblings, Seyya and Brandon, were placed in foster care. A memory associated with this is having to take a taxi to visit them at a foster home and hearing the song, “Whenever you need us, call 1-800-East-West.”
My single mom couldn’t take care of us so me and my sister Tanya were placed in foster care shortly before our upcoming 9th and 5th birthdays in June. We lived in Acton, Maine, and went to a predominately white school. Despite being a rural school, the kids and teachers organized a Cambodian New Year celebration for the two of us. I was introduced to basketball and baseball, but most enjoyed being a part of the school choir.
Because of a discrimination lawsuit against the State DHHS for putting minority kids with white families, we were taken from a home we grew to love and be a part of and placed in a group home. The promise from the State was that we would only be there for a few months until they found a new family, but we languished there for 15 months. However, the care workers left an impression. They truly cared for all the kids and tried their best to make us feel at home.
After 15 months spent in a Maine group home for kids, one of the employees decided to foster us and we moved to Gorham, ME, and enrolled in Village Elementary school. I picked up baseball and was shy getting into the game, but my second season on the team I became a heavy hitter.
In 2003, the Berry family reunited me and my sister Tanya with our younger siblings Seyya and Brandon, and we moved to Naples, ME. Our family was a very religious family and we went to church on Sundays and family nights on Wednesday. When I was old enough, I started going to youth group and became interested in music. We were also enrolled in a private, Christian school associated with the church.
At the age of 16, I went on a missions trip to India with fellow churchmembers. My experience meeting other brown people, eating their food, travelling through dry and arid lands, or muggy jungle was the experience of a lifetime. But I also saw deep poverty and the caste system. I went to India hoping to spread the gospel, but I questioned my faith instead.
I became more and more involved with the church and became a youth group and worship leader. No doubt I was hungry. But hungry for what? I was struggling with my sexuality and deep down knew I was attracted to other guys. I was also taugh that that homosexuality was a sin and so I prayed fervently to God to “heal me.” But the feelings only grew stronger as I grew older and older and puberty strengthened. After graduating high school, I attended a Bible college my first year. A gay rights group came to protest at the college and that helped propel me to transfer to the University of Southern Maine - where I felt it would be safer to come out.
The summer of 2010 I came out as gay and started up at the University of Southern Maine that fall. During this period, I met many friends who helped broaden my perspective. In September, Lady Gaga held a rally in Deering Oaks Park to call for an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was inspired and joined other USM LGBTQ students to form the USM Queer Straight Alliance. Despite being a few months out, I was elected as the first president.
I flew out to Fort Worth, Texas, to reconnect with my god family and learn more about my early childhood. After spending two weeks there, I flew to San Diego to reunite with my biological mom, grandma, and met my biological father for the first time.
Starting in 2012, I became more and more politically active and got involved with the College Democrats and student government. I served as a Student Senator and, although a seemingly small gester, sponsored and passed an amendent to the SGA Constitution to make it gender neutral. In the spring, my good friend Kelsea Dunham became USM’s Student President and I was appointed as USM’s first Student Vice-President (the position had just been created).
Later that spring, budget cuts at USM prompted student protest. As Student Vice-President, I focused on the part that anemic state funding played in bringing austerity management to USM and the Maine university system. We organized along with the Maine Education Association to lobby legislators to bring about a change.
I enrolled at the University of Maine School of Law (graduated in 2017) and currently completing my joint degree and Masters in Public Policy, Planning, and Managemetn at the Muskie School of Public Service. During my time in law school, I chaired the LGBT+ Law and Policy Group and got to meet my personal heroes, including Mary Bonauto (pictured to the right).
I ran for public for the first time in 2017 for city council. Although I was not successful, I met new friends and neighbors that I keep in touch with to this very day.