1. In The Closet
“I feel reasonably confident that I am bisexual,” says a listener fifty minutes into Reply All’s 2018 year-end episode, “but I’m also reasonably confident that I will never act on that side of me.”
One of the hosts of the podcast reacts with curious surprise, and not a beat passes before the listener, a woman born in India and now living in Switzerland, rushes to explain herself. Her father, whom she considers her best friend, is homophobic, and this relationship is not one she is willing to sacrifice, even at the expense of rejecting her own bisexuality. Her sister had not reacted well to her coming out either, and a conversation between them condenses itself into: yes, she might be bisexual, but what can she do about it?
She makes it sound simpler than it is with the way she delivers it; seemingly having made peace with her decision. Or perhaps to her, it is simple, but all it sounds like to me is a sobering ultimatum.
She ends the conversation by saying that what she is sacrificing, in not being open about her sexuality, is worth it for what she could keep in return.
Her finality upset me, but I cannot hold it against her. I subscribe to her line of thinking more than I do otherwise, no matter how much I want to tell myself I will someday be brave enough to come out to my family. The Reply All situation is not an uncommon one, and it touches upon beliefs with which some immigrant children grow up, at times before we even suspect we are not straight. This belief that rejection is inevitable, a fear founded in hearing years of our families’ casual homophobia, and, worse than that, this belief that in coming out we might disappoint our parents.
A belief, too, that underscores the idea of coming out with a shame that you cannot shake even as you become secure in who you are, because this is your family. In the case of immigrant children, especially, this is a family that has toiled to give you the life you have; deviating from what they want from you often feels like ingratitude, like you are throwing away what they have given you.
So I understand and empathize with it when the Reply All listener, when prodded about the idea of never telling her parents at all, launches into a spiel about how our parents are human, too, and that they are allowed their own prejudices. Nothing reframes my parents quite like taking into consideration the sacrifices they have made for years, and to degrees for which I will never be able to repay them. But I do not agree with her acceptance of her family’s homophobia to the point of rejecting her own self.
I also do not feel quite as charitable as to agree with her treatment of coming out as a be-all and end-all. It is a life-changing choice for many people, including myself, but it is not the sole thing that defines someone’s experience as a queer person. It is not — or should not be — a one or another choice, a matter of a this-or-that kind of life where a compromise between the two was impossible.
2. On the Screen
Certainly, for all that mainstream shows and movies love their tear-filled coming out scenes, there is not a lot of nuance to be found among the existing variety and therefore no guide for people who do not necessarily fit the mould of the white suburban gay teen.
Not everyone is an Alex Strangelove, and not everyone is lucky to have the high-school-sweethearts-turned-progressive-parents that Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play in Love, Simon. This is not to say that coming out is easier for the two main characters of both films; Love, Simon in particular does well in presenting how much treating your sexuality as a secret will eat at you from the inside, and how devastating being outed beyond your own terms can be. The more necessary point here is that coming out, in both films, is treated as an ultimate end goal, both the conflict and the solution to its narrative, like the final boss of The Gay Experience.
For people who do not have the chance to come out and might never be able to, whether for fear of their own safety or refusal to compromise their relationship with their family, the narrative prevalent in the mainstream presents a picture of complete queerness that they will never be able to fulfill. Being out becomes a necessary step, as defined and interpreted by pop culture. Frequently by straight and/or cis people at that, who are happier to place the focus on straight parents being so wonderfully accepting of their children. Boy Erased, for one, has no problem making Lucas Hedges suffer to points that approached emotionally manipulative, and the ethos of the film’s source material is lost when the narrative refocuses on his saviour of a mother without truly tackling the systemic problem that is conversion therapy. It turns coming out into a universally palatable narrative, a three-act structure demarcated by experiences and representation, which exclude the nuances of so many other people’s lives.
Most times, the only queer narratives we get are about coming out, and it feels, more often than not, that being queer is justified and defined by those terms. Terms that are ultimately someone else’s, because the mainstream notion of being out is drawn by what it means to fit into an existing mould in other people’s heads. It simplifies a process that is made even more complicated by growing up with immigrant parents, when language barriers and immigrant family sacrifice at times makes being queer a guilt-ridden process that you have to take a stand against everyday. It isolates people who already feel isolated within their specific communities, without reminding them that there is no universal queer experience, and indeed no prerequisite.
With that said, not all immigrant children feel the same way; some are able to fondly look back at their coming out experience, while others have started the process of slow but gradual acceptance with their parents without giving up everything. Others feel the pain that Glee’s Santana does when her grandmother reacts badly to her coming out. There are also immigrant children who are able to see themselves in Sex Education’s Eric, who spends the series enduring both his father’s concerns about how cruel the real world can be to people like him while finding it in himself to cement his own brand of self-love.
Some have had to weather the you just haven’t found the right boy yet conversation with their mother like Elena from One Day At A Time. Others find empowerment in the message The Family Law provides: that sometimes, telling our truth is worth the risk, especially with the right people in your corner.
3. For Yourself
The first person I came out to in no uncertain terms was my therapist; there was comfort in knowing she would not be able to tell anyone who knows me intimately. That is the most I am able to do right now, even as other queer young adults in my friend group learn to talk about their sexualities with joking, unblushing ease that is difficult not to envy.
I am tempted to say that this is the bravest I can be at the moment, but the more I turn the word over in my head, the more I realize how much of a disservice that does to myself and so many other people yet to come out. Bravery is not qualified by how many people to whom you are out, and in what capacity. Living in a world that brings you so much fear and uncertainty that other people do not experience is alone a brave thing. Exposure — especially one that places you in danger, or forces you out of a comfort zone over your own identity — should not be the only standard of bravery.
Days after I listened to the podcast episode, I asked myself what I would have said to that listener had I been able to talk to her. Would I comfort her? Nudge her towards reconsidering when she has already taken so much time and energy to contemplate it? Would I still feel the same way if I learned more about what her life is like and why she would prioritize it?
Of course, there is no way for me to contact her. It would not be my place to do so, either, no more than it would be someone else’s place to tell me what and what does not validate me.
And so, to everyone like me, to everyone who might also be tempted to call their own self a coward or a failed queer person because coming out remains unchecked in the internal checklist we keep about our own sexuality, I want to say this:
It is not up to me, either, or anyone, to make an ultimatum of my own here. This is not a call to find it in yourself to come out if you are in the closet; that takes a lot of pain, and a lot of certainty and emotional sacrifice, and it does not make you weak or a coward if you do not take that step. You know best what you feel. Do not let someone else’s expectations make the decision for you.
Examine yourself and the situation. What is compelling and/or motivating you to come out? Is it something that has your safety and well-being in mind? Do you have your safety and well-being in mind as you plan and prepare yourself? Is the timing right? Are you emotionally equipped to handle the subsequent response, the questions, at times the well-meaning but nonetheless ill-worded comments? Are you coming out on your own terms?
Do you have a support system?
Finding your people is, for me, a crucial step. Finding a place of comfort, a community to which to belong, whatever that means for you. Whether you are a white suburban gay, whether you are represented in pop culture or not, whether you feel like you will ever be able to come out or not, your identity is not so narrow as to rely on a small crop of LGBTQ+ media and what someone else believes will make you valid.
Find solace in those, if you are able to. Do not use them as a guide, if you feel they do not apply to you. I know that is easier said than done, particularly when a loose-fitting model for growing up and coming to terms with yourself is better than none at all, but please try.
This is something only you can deduce for yourself. Not someone else, not someone else’s story, not someone else’s expectations or idea of who you are.
You are your own person.
You are yours alone to define and embrace.
The people you are able to love and your capacity to love them are also yours and yours alone.
ACAS QAY — The Queer Asian Youth Program provides youth-led social spaces, capacity development, and peer support for LGBTQ, questioning, curious and undecided East & Southeast Asian youth in Toronto
NQAPIA — The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance is a network of Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ organizations.
Telling Our Own Stories — A book of 40 stories by and for LGBTQ+ East and South Asian youth combating the lack of representation and misrepresentation of queer Asian youth identities in the community
LGBT Youth Line: Anonymous and confidential texting, chat, and phone support