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Why we need more coming out stories from queer people of color

February 21, 2019 1:00 pm

When I was 14, my mother dragged me to my first Chinese family dinner, determined to mold her mixed-race daughter into the perfect Chinese child. Cheap red banners and beautiful ink brush paintings adorned the walls. Into the low gurgling of a steam boat, family members threw raw prawns, scallops, tofu, bok choy. They chatted loudly. I was suddenly—and for the first time—immersed in my food, my culture. I remember feeling more alive with this spirit of love and community in the air. That is until, mid-way through a particularly stringy piece of bok choy, I paused because I could hear everyone talking about me. Exactly what they were saying I couldn’t make out; my Mandarin has always at best been rusty. My mother leapt in to translate.

“They’re asking why you don’t have a boyfriend,” she said.

She was laughing, but there was something steely in her eyes. I stopped eating, lowering my eyes to the table and making my expression deliberately blank. Years later, coming out to my family forced me to be honest and to work to be heard, but most of all, it taught me that the world is still an uncertain place for queer people of color. Often, the only queer voice we hear is a white one. It is this last lesson that took me the longest to understand and even longer to work up the courage to write about.

It’s true that queer voices have never been more heard, and even more culturally acceptable, in politics, media, and pop culture. But the most prominent voices are for the most part white people of immense social privilege. The focus on intersectionality—while pivotal and culturally ground-breaking—has blended the experiences of some minorities, lumping queer people of color in with queer white people, and implying a shared experience that does not take into account the very real differences in upbringing, expectations, cultural norms, and parent-child relationships.

Difference and dichotomy have been the themes of my life. I’m half Chinese and half English-Australian, born to a conservative mother and a self-described “hippie” father. There has never been any middle ground of parenting, only disappointment from my mother and blind encouragement—the kind that generates “participation awards”—from my father.

I spent most of my life walking on eggshells around my mother, who’s notoriously unpredictable—she may be laughing one minute, offended the next, and then suddenly furious with me for embarrassing her. I grew to navigate my mother’s mood swings and expectations with ease, emerging from childhood as a 24-year-old woman with a useless law degree, a true, unexplored passion for writing, a string of ex-boyfriends I could never bring myself to care about, and one undeniable realization that I was, undoubtedly, painfully-fucking-obviously gay. My friends didn’t need telling (they claimed they’d always known) and my dad didn’t even seem surprised.

That went without saying. For many years, I’d successfully avoided the topic of boyfriends with her, evading questions about who I was spending my time with and where I was going with the dexterity of a dancer.

But months later, I fell in love with a girl. At the peak of my yearly winter blues, bored of the short days giving way to cold, dull nights sitting at home with the same friends, the same wine, the same hot water bottle cradled between my frosty feet, I began talking to Olive. She was the most fascinating person I’d ever met: Quick to anger but quicker to cool. At once desperate for affection but in constant need of space. I never knew where I stood with her—until she told me she loved me.

And when she did, my whole world changed. What had previously been a feeling I thought my mother would never understand had manifested into a person who deserved to be recognized. I died a little every time I told my mother I wasn’t dating anyone, that no one important had come into my life. Coming out to her was on the tip of my tongue, but I never let it escape.

Time passed, and the woman I loved became my girlfriend and partner. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to my mother. I felt weak and helpless, nauseous from the effort to hide myself in plain sight. I read essays on coming out, books, papers—every piece of media I could find to convince myself that coming out to a parent was a simple task. That my mother would never respond as badly as I assumed, that she would love me all the same, and that I couldn’t be fully happy until she shared my happiness. I convinced myself she would accept me. The books I read said she would come around eventually and that my fears were groundless because, with family, love always trumps homophobia. Cultural expectations would make way for acceptance.

Perhaps willful ignorance guided me away from seeking stories from queer people of color who were rejected by their families. I had heard one or two horror stories, but considered those the exception. In a world of constant and increasing social change, those tales of rejection and pain were evidence of an experience I wanted badly to believe no longer existed.

When I finally did came out, an excruciating year after Olive entered my life, I felt immediate relief, and the loosening of a decade-long tightness in my chest. Saying the words offered me textbook relief. Movie relief. Teen drama relief—for about 30 seconds.

I stood facing my mother in my childhood living room. She sat on her usual corner of the couch. I remember the unshakeable consistency of this position: after work watching the news, on weekends reading the paper. I asked her to stand with me, but she never stood; it was a mark of her authority. I saw the most imperceptible shift in her expression. If you didn’t know my mother, her gently lined face would have looked unchanged. A talent grown from a lifetime of keeping up appearances.

“What are you talking about?” she asked first. I remember hesitating, unsure if it was a trap. Had she not heard? Was she in disbelief? I couldn’t tell, her tone gave nothing away. “I have a girlfriend,” I repeated. I have always felt the immediate need to prove my queerness. I couldn’t just explain my sexuality and come out, I needed to present her with the hard evidence.

Those initial 30 seconds led to a reaction no essays about queerness or coming out could prepared me for: pure, uncompromising hatred. She was angry I’d embarrassed her, disappointed that her friends would find out, suspicious that I was doing it “for attention” or to be “different” from everyone around me. Even now, the phrase I can hear most clearly in memory from my mother is, “Why did you do this to me?”

It’s now been over two years, and her anger only abates if I agree to not mention my girlfriend in front of her. I am my weakest and most self-loathing when I agree to these terms, but they are the only way I feel I still have my mother. Despite my best efforts, I can’t bring myself to not want her love and approval. To not mention Olive is to regain the kindness and motherly affection, feigned or not, I still crave. My mother easily lives in denial, unplagued by the searing internal dialogue that tells me this is not what our relationship should be like.

I had, unfortunately, looked to learn from the coming-out experiences of white people, never once seeing the extreme difference in cultural expectations presented in their stories and mine. I sought comfort in stories of once-homophobic white parents attending Mardi Gras with their out-and-proud children. I set myself up to believe my mother would change, that she would choose to love me for not just how I represent her as a Chinese woman.

The experiences of queer people of color and their relationships with their parents are less visible, often because they’re less uplifting, less inspiring. They are frequently stories of conditional love, bigotry, losing face, and isolation. But these stories are important. They’re crucial for young, queer people of color who grow up ashamed of who they are and the damage their honesty could do to their families. They show a reality of queer lives that is often overlooked. There is so much of me that needed another queer woman to illuminate the realities of coming out to a parent whose culture prohibits—sometimes legally—queer love.

In our desire to unite in the fight against homophobia and bigotry, the fundamental differences in how queer white people and queer people of color experience the world is often overlooked. It’s time we stop pretending that all queer people share the same experiences. We need to bring attention to the internal struggle of growing up as a queer person of color and the pressure to conform to the high expectations of hard-working immigrant parents.

My mother and I will never be as close as we once were. I feel uncomfortable around her, forever afraid that I’ll slip up, mention my girlfriend, and be met with her anger. I’ve been shouted at and had my sexuality belittled and questioned. In many ways, I know people in my life would say coming out to my mother was a mistake. But I am now the version of myself I am most proud of. And if another queer person of color might feel kinship with my experience—and less alone in a heteronormative, white-washed world—then it was well worth it.