The Many Colors of Michael Nguyen
February 19, 2019
Michael Nguyen ’03 has been somewhat of a chameleon all his life. Growing up, he moved from state to state, learning to adapt to homes in Illinois, Louisiana, California, Georgia, and Texas. At Southwestern, he focused on a variety of perspectives simultaneously, majoring in both music and computer science while participating in the Alpha Chi National College Honor Society, the Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity, Phonathon, choir, band, the Delta Omicron music honors fraternity, and the Pi Kappa Lambda music honor society. Today, more than ten years out of law school, Nguyen exhibits his many vibrant colors as a patent attorney in San Francisco while also performing in drag, leading one of the oldest organizations advocating for LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islanders, serving on the board of Livable City, and considering a run for political office one day. “Oh yeah, and I want to be gaysian Oprah one day,” he adds cheekily.
The liberal-arts experience where everybody knows your name
Coming from Plano East Senior High School, a campus where his graduating class alone included 1,200 students, Nguyen was really impressed by the natural beauty and close-knit environment of SU. “I wanted to try something different. When I went to Southwestern, I really got a sense that it’s a community: everybody kind of knows each other, and you and your professor will know each other on a first-name basis,” he recalls. The University offering Nguyen multiple scholarships increased SU’s appeal, as was the opportunity it afforded him to study both music and computer science—a double major that, he says, “I don’t think I would have done if I’d gone to another school.”
Computer science was a product of Nguyen’s autodidactic childhood. When he was in elementary school, Nguyen’s mother entered him into a contest with the local New Orleans news station. Because of his exemplary report card, the young scholar won a then-cutting-edge Apple IIc Plus computer, and at the tender age of eight, he began teaching himself how to code in the BASIC programming language. He had a natural facility for computers, and in high school, he did well in his AP computer science class, so majoring in the field at Southwestern was an easy choice, especially considering it also fulfilled his mother’s career advice: “She encouraged me to pursue any field that I found interesting and was marketable.”
Of course, Nguyen was also looking to do something different, too—to get “that liberal-arts experience,” as he says. He considered minoring in Spanish or math as a first-year student, but instead, he settled on a second major: music. Back in the sixth grade, he had originally wanted to play the flute in band—a common choice among middle-schoolers because, as he recalls, “it would fit in your backpack.” But because he was a young boy living in Georgia at the time, he was warned that playing the flute was likely to attract negative attention and even potential bullying from cruel classmates. Cue President Bill Clinton playing the saxophone one night on the Arsenio Hall Show, and young Nguyen knew he had found his instrument, eventually joining the robust music program at Plano East and performing at Regionals. “I picked up [the saxophone], loved it, did well in it, started excelling, and just really enjoyed playing music,” he says.
However, it wasn’t until he applied to Southwestern that the possibility of serious study in music became a reality. He was invited to audition for Dr. Kenny Sheppard, then professor of music (now emeritus), in the airy, echoing Caldwell–Carvey Foyer in the Sarofim School of Fine Arts. After Nguyen’s performance, Sheppard heightened SU’s allure by offering the young saxophonist a music scholarship. But even beyond that carrot, Nguyen recognized that the University offered him “an opportunity to study what I’d been excited about for seven years.”
So he took advantage of the opportunity, and for the next four years, he pursued the double major. He remembers affectionately how one of his most beloved SU mentors, Dr. Barbara Boucher Owens, then professor of computer science, attended his senior recital. Dr. O, as he calls her, had been encouraging Nguyen to continue pursuing computer science as a teacher after graduation. But after his recital, “She said, ‘Michael, don’t forget that music will always be the undercurrent of your life,’” he recalls. “She just knew me that well, and to have a professor understand who I am as a person—as a whole being, not just as a computer scientist or a musician—was something so special and amazing.”
“She just knew me that well, and to have a professor understand who I am as a person—as a whole being, not just as a computer scientist or a musician—was something so special and amazing.”
One summer, three experiences, and a new career path
As graduation approached for Nguyen in spring 2003, he was somewhat torn: Dr. O. was rooting for him to pursue graduate school in computer science; another mentor, Dr. Suzanne Buchele, was recommending a career in nonacademic computer science; his jazz band professor, Dr. Douglas Rust, was stoking Nguyen’s interest in music technology; and his saxophone instructor was trying to convince Nguyen’s mother that the SU grad should pursue music. “And then I proved everybody wrong by going to law school!” he laughs. “But it’s just funny to me because I didn’t even realize that’s a different kind of atmosphere: where you have professors rooting for you to go one way or the other. I don’t know that most schools are like that.”
Law may seem like a radically different route away from computer science and music, but the path stems from Nguyen’s formidable list of academic and extracurricular activities at Southwestern. Over the course of a single summer before his junior year, he enrolled in a seminar titled Contemporary Moral Problems with Professor of Philosophy Phil Hopkins, and from reading about and discussing ethical dilemmas in society, Nguyen took away the lesson that “you’re either a person in the world who can help to change things, or you can go off on your merry way and not change things.” At the same time, he was one of the first interns for the Georgetown Project, a nonprofit focused on building healthier communities for potentially at-risk youth in the local area. Then, as a member of the Committee on Student Leadership, Nguyen was selected and funded to attend a leadership conference in Monticello, Illinois, where he spent a weekend learning about vision and goal planning and how to communicate more effectively while discussing significant issues facing America, such as poverty and socioeconomic inequality. He found himself connecting what he had learned in class to the discussions at the conference, and after returning to Georgetown, he applied his newfound leadership skills to his internship. “It was amazing,” Nguyen recalls. Those three high-impact experiences of a class, an internship, and a conference all dedicated to social issues helped him decide, “I want to be a leader, I want to try to do things that help my community and help society. Before then, I was thinking about computer science or music, but that was a real shift. … And I had just come out, so I was building a new identity of who would decide to become. That was really formative.”
A year after graduating from Southwestern, political controversy would further inspire Nguyen to take on those social issues. In 2004, the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) was proposed in Congress—an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, excluding same-sex or other unmarried heterosexual couples from marital rights. Nguyen realized that studying the law would be his way of fighting such discrimination, so he enrolled in the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and eventually earned his J.D. from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in 2008. “I went to law school because I decided I wanted to do something more; I wasn’t just going to sit on the sidelines and not do anything. But I knew I was going to need more tools,” he reflects. He knew that gaining a broader perspective was one of those tools—something he relates to his computer science major. “With computer code, you see the world differently, and as a lawyer, you see the world differently, too,” he comments.
Today, Nguyen is a patent attorney with the Silicon Valley–based law firm Wong & Rees, LLP, which specializes in protecting the intellectual property rights of technology companies, especially in the fields of computer software and engineering. It’s a fascinating field considering it involves the protection of an idea rather than a tangible medium, such as the words in a book or the music and lyrics of an album. Nguyen says that both computer science and music were instrumental in shaping the direction of his career. Because patent law requires a specialized science background, his education as a computer scientist helps him understand and write about the programs and platforms that software designers have invented and for which he is submitting applications to the U.S. Patent Office. But studying both computer science and music helped him develop what he calls a “brute-force, workhorse mentality” that is crucial in law: “If you need to get something out the door, you literally just have to sit down and work it out,” he says. “There’s a certain diligence that any musician learns with lots of practicing. It’s the same thing with coding, just sitting by yourself and executing commands.”
Juicy Liu, Miss GAPA 2016
This Southwestern alumnus, however, isn’t changing the world just by protecting the intellectual property of his clients. Outside his full-time job, he serves at the chair of the board of directors of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA), a nonprofit social welfare and political advocacy organization that works to further the interests of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) community in San Francisco and its environs. For Nguyen, the challenge and joy of his service lie in empowering the community by building their influence. “As chair, I’m in charge of helping people understand that they have the power to change the world. … I’m a cheerleader at the end of the day: I affirm people, I validate people, and I tell them, ‘This is a cool idea; you should do it.’”
Nguyen’s leadership of the organization began during the 2016 Runway, GAPA’s annual drag extravaganza. The event requires months of preparation, but being a “dive-in type of personality,” Nguyen was ready to take on the challenge. At that point, he had been a drag queen since his days at Southwestern, where he first performed at a ball hosted by the now-defunct Sexual Orientation Awareness League. As a drag newbie, Nguyen had to borrow his first costume from a friend. “It was this blue sparkly dress, and I wore this wig that looked like my mother’s hair from the 1980s. There are some horrible pictures out there, I’m sure,” he laughs.
Years later, after transferring to the University of California law school, “Juicy Liu,” Nguyen’s drag alter ego, would be born. He had joined a softball team comprising fellow gay Asian students, and while at a club one night, Nguyen noticed that certain people on the dancefloor were getting uncomfortably close to his friends. “I have big wing span, so I started elbowing people out of the way and creating space,” he recalls. “And someone said, ‘She’s like Lucy Liu, but juicier!’”
Nguyen learned fairly quickly that Juicy Liu was more effective at encouraging donors to give money at fundraisers than his nondrag persona. Over the years, he raised more than $60,000 for community organizations in the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation through AIDS/Lifecycle, and GAPA and its charitable arm, the GAPA Foundation. Nguyen credits his study of music at Southwestern for his showmanship and ability to perform without wavering. “I love drag because it’s a very powerful tool to communicate a message, especially in the gay community,” Nguyen says. “You have a voice, and you have to be entertaining no matter what. You want to be very powerful and very entertaining at the same time.”
So for the GAPA Runway pageant years later, Nguyen enlisted the help of a friend to do his makeup and a congressional lobbyist to help him prepare for the Q&A portion of the pageant—because Nguyen is the kind of person who clearly is in it to win it. He decided that Juicy Liu would sport an intergalactic-themed costume. Sporting a cardboard X-Wing Fighter, a gold lamé jumpsuit, and a purple bouffant wig; singing “Home” from the 1875 musical The Wiz; and articulating how she would be a strong ambassador and coalition builder for the API LGBTQ community, Juicy Liu would go on to earn the crown of Miss GAPA 2016, becoming a spokesperson for the organization. In the future, he would love to create his “gaysian Oprah” talk show, in which he interviews queens of color to learn what they represent.
For Nguyen, many of the major myths about drag are tied to misunderstandings about gender more broadly. “I would say that one misconception is that I want to be a woman, that I’m trans,” he says. “I love my trans brothers and sisters, but I do not identify as trans; I identify as cis”—meaning he identifies as the sex assigned at his birth. However, Nguyen also notes that gender and sexual orientation are highly complicated, and although “identity building is a human characteristic,” it is anything but simple. That complexity explains why he finds current misunderstandings of issues such as transgender rights under Title IX disheartening: “We all want to define what kind of story we are telling about ourselves, [such as] who we are and what we stand for.”
Politics and urban planning
Nguyen also notes that drag pageants are “perfect training grounds for political careers” because you have to be likable while expressing informed opinions about difficult topics. A year after Juicy Liu’s Miss GAPA win, the organization was considering whether it should even continue, and Nguyen was chosen as board chair because of his energy and his motivation to revitalize the foundation through political engagement. Now, Nguyen says, “we’ve built up a lot more legitimacy. Politicians now know us from all our cultural programming, such as the GAPA men’s chorus and theater.” Smaller LGBTQ associations around the country are now following GAPA’s lead, the group’s political action group (PAC) is taking off, and they’re looking to increase representation of the API LGBTQ community in political offices at the local, state, and national levels.
Nguyen himself may be considering filling one of those gaps in government himself. “I’m looking at politics with the intention of how can I best serve our community. It’s not like I want to run because I’m the only gay Asian, but it is important to have that representation. I get energized by this,” he says. He links his civic engagement back to Southwestern: “It’s just like in that Contemporary Moral Problems class at SU: What can we do as a people? How can we organize? How can we solve these seemingly intractable problems, like social stratification, homelessness, and middle-class erasure?”
In addition to his work with GAPA, Nguyen also serves on the board of directors for Livable City, an organization dedicated to beautifying public spaces, making housing more plentiful and affordable, supporting more accessible public transportation, and creating healthier, safer neighborhoods. It’s work that hearkens back to his days as an undergraduate intern at the Georgetown Project, and Nguyen loves making connections with various stakeholders. He also finds links to his work as a patent attorney: “We take very complex things and translate them to something more digestible. There’s a way that you can figure out the puzzle and translate it to a narrative or story.” It also provides Nguyen with an opportunity that he’s sought out since teaching himself programming at age eight: “That’s my thing: I always want to learn more.”
A passion for passion
Nguyen is so involved in so many disparate activities, but he reflects that a single thread ties all his professional and service work together: “One thing that really energizes me and gets me excited for everything I do is when people have a passion. It could be a patent, a business they’re starting, a movement they’re creating, a really good drag performance, a really good song or music. There’s just this glow—this passion—emanating from them, and it’s infectious. I hope that every action I do inspires that kind of excitement.”
Nguyen’s own leadership in having an impact on the world is characterized by his unmistakable flair. He believes that seeking mentors, building support networks, and keeping an open mind are crucial to making such a contribution. Even during life’s inevitable periods of uncertainty, Nguyen advises, “Keep asking that question about what you’re doing with your life. Don’t get stuck in thinking things have to be the way they are. … Think, ‘I can make that change happen. I can be part of that change. I can reimagine the world that way.’ Draw from the different areas of your life, and apply it to whatever you’re working on.” Having weathered difficult job markets, low balances in his bank account, and outright fear throughout his varied career, Nguyen continues to adapt and flaunt his many bright colors, ascending as proof of his own advice: “Life is scary, but that fear shouldn’t control you or hold you down. Be brave. Go imagine. Do something. Live fierce.”