Stand Out: The Only Possible Way To Be Loved
By Linjie Deng
Everyone tends to associate the term “coming out” with gay people. Perhaps you aren’t gay, but you have certainly have had a “coming out” experience.
We all have closet, things that are difficult to speak about. Your closet may be telling someone you love her for the first time. Or telling others that you have an unplanned pregnancy, or telling someone you have cancer. All of the “Closet” is a hard conversations. all closet conversations are hard conversation.
Although our “closets” may vary tremendously, the feeling of being in the closet and the experience of coming out is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done.
My name is Linjie Deng, I’m currently at New York School of Visual Arts, majoring in Design for Social Innovation. My graduation is just around the corner, and as a graduate student who crowd-funded to go abroad, it seems like I’m bound to study important social topics such as Chinese manufacturing, solving the Chinese bachelor problem, or environmental protection. However, I’m concentrating my research on what was until now a more peripheral group: gay men.
In order to understand how contemporary Chinese young people view gayness, I created a discussion topic called “Togayther”on Sina Weibo and WeChat (popular forms of social media in China) and I received feedback such as “Fuck! Why bother researching it?” A such as this makes it seem like only topics related to the national economy or the peoples’ livelihood are worth researching, while researching gayness would just be wasting higher education resources. Is sexuality not a part of our lives? Do all zoologists have to focus their studies on elephants?
Another response was “this author must be gay, so that’s why he’s researching this”. I can understand this kind of response, after all the Chinese famous female popular singer Han Hong’s masculinity and the Chinese famous reporter He Jiong’s unmarried status have also been called into question. But going with this logic, does that mean that if medical students want to study cancer they must first get cancer? Or do criminology PhD students need to first commit a crime?
Because this isn’t touching on my own feelings, I believe that we can clear up these problems by using reason to explain them clearly. we can clear up these problems by using reason to explain them clearly. That was until I decided to go back to China and make performance art in Beijing’s Sanlitun, when my thinking unexpectedly hit a breaking point.
First, how do I explain to my family my reason for going back to China? During the two years that I’ve been in the US my mother was seriously ill and even my grandmother passed away, still I didn’t have the chance go back. Airplane tickets were already expensive, but during the Christmas season they became even more so. What reason did I have this time to force me to return?
I started to fear that I was sinking into an unclear and unclean family conflict. My mother has lived all her life as a working class woman in Shanxi Province. My family is similar to many other normal Chinese families, where families never discuss topics related to sex, not to mention researching gayness.
“Mom, my school is requiring me to go back to China to do research, otherwise I can’t graduate”. I delivered in a sentence.
Through the phone I heard my mother promptly say “Good! Great! Come back. Graduation is important, so do your work first. If you finish your work in Beijing and still have some time, come back to your hometown, come back so that I can give you your favorite dough cakes.”
After I hung up the phone, a scalding tear ran across my face and fell onto my phone screen as I looked at my closeted self.
On December 19, 2016, the sky gradually changed from blue to gray. A plane from New York descended into Beijing Capital Airport.
Before I even left the airport, my nose was assaulted by the pungent scent of pollution, but more pressing was my performance art in two weeks. I planned to wear white clothes with the message “I am gay, will you give me a hug?” written across the chest and use black cloth to cover my eyes, then stand in Beijing’s popular Sanlitun area to test how the public really views gayness.
There was not enough time to adjust to the time zone- as soon as I put my luggage down, I contacted the photographer and prop manager, then ran to East Sixth Ring Road Dou Ge Village to imprint the design on the clothes. At the same time, I connected the photographer with the makeup artist to discuss how my appearance and photography would be on site.
In two years, aside from pollution, Beijing had experienced significant changes. For example, everywhere you went you could see security guards patrolling the streets, the common newspaper or magazine are more voiceless. This made me feel a little uneasy, especially since I wasn’t as familiar with the Mainland’s social environment, and wasn’t sure if this type of performance art discussing gayness was breaking the law. Would people report me? Would I go to prison? Would I be allowed to leave the country again?
People never know the answer, because this is China, this is Beijing.
What is the essence of Beijing? “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue. ”
Using this slogan to deceive myself- although it’s ridiculous, it’s at least some form of mental protection.
On December 31st, I prepared for everything that could happen, but I still hadn’t prepared how to explain to my mother what I had to do. If she went online, saw the photos, and asked me about it, what would I do? If she saw the photos, but pretended she didn’t and then didn’t say anything, what would I do? It’s a terrible feeling. If I don’t stand up today and face my fears, then tomorrow and forever after, I would lie down and avoid the problems. Therefore, I promised myself that I would start this tough conversation.
I took a deep breath: “hey, mom. Tomorrow in Beijing I’m holding an art performance about gayness.”
“Ah, what is that?”
“Just a different lifestyle.”
“Okay, then when you’re done, what day do you come back? Do you want to eat sweet or salty dough cakes? ”
It was the easiest hard conversation I’ve ever had.
January 1st, 2017, at 2pm in the afternoon, at the front of the Uniqlo in Beijing’s Sanlitun, I wasn’t not hooking up in the fitting room, but rather standing in the public area being myself.
The pollution lingered, and a wind from the northwest blew a bicycle over, making it fall like a drunk man stumbling out of a bar.
Inside the Starbucks, the stylist applied make up and asked; “Linjie, if no one acknowledges you, then what do you do?”
I said, “As long as the police don’t make me leave, I will continue to stand there. Standing there is my resolution, being hugged or ignored by passerby is their choice. As I stand there, I become a mirror, a symbol. If I don’t stand up, I will never know the result, I won’t know how people in this day and age react to gayness.”
After choosing a good spot, I took off my down jacket, and a few street photographers came up and asked if they could take photos.
Before I could open my mouth, the flash of the cameras started clicking and flickering.
After a few photos, I promptly said, “Sorry, I’m not a Fashion Boy, I have to get back to work.”
The photographers were not satisfied. “We want to take pictures with you.” I tactfully declined, but this type of beginning let my mind settle a bit.
Using the black cloth to cover my eyes, my vision instantly became black, like someone turning out the lights in a room. Opening both arms wide, I felt both vulnerable and provocative, very public and excited, because I had no idea what would happen next.
Yes, I stood up. Three security guards also stood up. However, it was not a large commotion, and there was no violence, rather they stood there silently in front of me, not knowing what to do.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear everything. I could hear the sound of the people surrounding me growing, but also felt the growing silence, which made me even more certain that others were watching me.
When I started to shiver from the cold, I suddenly felt two hands across my lower back and a head push itself against my chest, tightly hugging me.
Then I heard a gentle voice: “Hello, I don’t know you, but I support you.”
I replied: “Thank you, you are the first person to hug me.”
People who stopped walking to gawk, passersby who took photos and posted on their WeChat accounts, and travelers originally intending to shop one after another consciously formed a circle, quietly looked at me, and in that moment, I felt like a fountain shooting out water, bursting with energy.
“Hello, you are extremely brave, good luck!”
“Thank you, you are the second person to hug me”
“Thank you, you are the third person to hug me”
The people who hugged me were endless, which completely exceeded my expectations. Not even five minutes had passed, and more than 10 people had hugged me. When the twelfth person hugged me, I felt like crying. Before I had stood up, I had prepared to be abandoned by everyone, but I wasn’t ready to be hugged and welcomed by so many others.
Until then, no one else perceived this. I knew that I was a performance artist, as I stood there I was just a prop that shouldn’t cry, that shouldn’t pass on my subjective attitude to the audience. But everytime someone touched me, I was stunned by the sincerity of the other person. Of those people that I hardly knew, every sentence vividly broak into my heart.
At that time a mother came up to me and asked me why I dared to stand up? I said: “The clothes of fear cover our bodies, but love lets us stand up naked.” She hugged me again and had her husband help us take a group photo.
Suddenly, someone rushed up against me and kissed my neck, and I felt a distinctly warm feeling on my neck, as warm as hot chocolate. I just stood there, not moving back or forward. There was no conversation, then “hot chocolate” stealthily walked away.
Before 20 minutes had passed, the space in between Uniqlo and Adidas was filled with people, not letting anyone pass. The police were flustered and called their supervisor over. He pushed past everyone and removed the black cloth from my face. My eyes all of the sudden were illuminated, bringing me back to reality- it felt like someone slapped me in the face.
But ironically is regardless of how angrily he yelled at me and force me away, as I tried my best to open my eyes and I saw the densely packed audience and turning around I end up giving the police officer a hug. The audience broke into enthusiastic applause.
It’s too bad that the hug had no effect, because I soon heard him say: “don’t do anything ridiculous this is a public space. Where are you from? Who let you do this? Who allowed you here?” He started shooing people away and tried to snatch away my cameras.
There isa saying: “Don’t just hang yourself on one tree.”So I moved to another place and continued.
In the north section of Sanlitun, a girl hugged me and said: “My boyfriend wants me to tell you that he supports you, but he’s embarrassed about hugging you, so I’ll hug you twice.” Before she left, she spoke again: “Sorry, my lipstick smeared on your clothes, I’ll help you wipe it off.”
The most excessive occurrence was an elderly Beijing woman who happened to pass by, carefully read the words on my shirt: “I’m gay, will you give me a hug?”, and lifted her glasses while pointing at me and asking the surrounding crowd: “Is this something I can hug?” The surrounding people burst into laughter. I quickly told her yes and she said: “Oh, then I’ll just hug you.”
After standing in Sanlitun for an hour, I received 65 hugs from passersby, a warm kiss, a group photo, a short spell of wanting to cry, and a spirit not overwhelmed by public opinion. Of course, there were also those who didn’t come forward to hug but stayed back to watch and take photos to post on WeChat. These are all things that I didn’t expect beforehand.
Returning to the hotel, I looked at the video and realized that one auntie started crying when she hugged me. I didn’t know her, and didn’t know why she was crying, but I could see that she was crying deeply and passionately.
I’m guessing that those who hugged me were not necessarily all supportive of gay people, but maybe that day that auntie was feeling unhappy, or maybe got into an argument with her husband that she has disliked for many years. She suddenly saw a young person with the courage to be himself when she was taking a walk around square, reflecting to herself that she too easily bowed down by society’s demands, which led to the unfortunate and bruised self she has become today.
Like many of the people above I went from having trouble explaining to my family my real reason to come home, to worrying about no one hugging me during my performance art. Really, my closet is not different from yours or anyone else’s- our closets are all the same. Sure, I can give you 100 reasons why coming out as gay is harder than coming out of other closets, but the important thing is that hardness is not relative, hard is just hard.
We all have our own forms of difficulty. Who can say that one person declaring bankruptcy is harder than telling someone that you’ve deceived them? Who can decide if coming out gay is harder than telling your five year old child that you’ve just divorced your partner?
Here there isn’t a more difficult, only difficult. Sometimes we hide ourselves in closets, as they let us feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door.
“Coming out” implies that we will inevitably lose friends, parents, or others close to us. Will they be disappointed, angry, or something else? These are all problems we often run into. But, it seems like precisely because these problems are too scary, we do not have the audacity to courageously seek answers.
We maintain our silence towards these problems, as if discussing these things not only not have a result but will also evoke anxiety and leave behind the culture and lifestyle that we’ve become so familiar with.
When you don’t start these hard conversations, you keep the truth about yourself a secret, and you’re essentially holding a grenade. Perhaps you always try your best to strive for success, while not letting your parents, friends, and colleagues feel disappointed. But if you don’t throw this grenade away, it will kill you.
We are out in this world, regardless of how young or tender we are, we should all go out and play. No matter what your closet is made out of, it is no place for a person to truly live in.
Stand out, don’t just “come out. ”
Stand out, and feel the possibility of love.
Artist, Designer, New York City, U S A
April 06, 2017