I started to open up to people about my sexuality and love life about over a year ago after meeting my current boyfriend, Jason. I am not sure how exactly, but our relationship had helped lead me out of the closet gradually, without making any part too awkward or uneasy.
Perhaps it's because Jason and I travel together a lot, and the travel pictures I post on my Facebook and Instagram often feature the two of us standing close together or smiling with our heads stuck to each other. Or perhaps it's the love stories that I've published on Medium. One of them titled, I Fell in Love With My Best Friend, was unexpectedly well-received, and has been read and shared by thousands of people online.
Frankly, I would be lying if I say that I don't care about how other people may think of me/us. Sometimes I'd wonder if anyone's turned off or offended by a picture of an openly gay couple on their newsfeed. And what might my schoolmates from high school and college think? Were they like "Aha, I knew it!" or "Oh, that's sweet" or something else? But after a while, it stops being a big concern for me. I guess you simply... stop overthinking about such things.
Having said so, last February when Chinese New Year approached, I started freaking out again, but on a whole new level. I realized that I actually have quite a number of my cousins on my Facebook, some of whom I was sure to meet in person at our family gatherings.
In case you don't already know, Chinese New Year is when all the extended families come together to celebrate and 'catch up'. Who has got a new job; who is getting married; who's having a baby; which family had traveled to where for holiday; who got cancer; who got fat... so on and so forth.
Oh yeah, people'll be talking. A whole lot. In my mind I was more like, Ohhhh sh*t. You need to understand this: It's one thing to come out on social media, it's another to come out to people in person. You'll be foraying into uncharted grounds, because you'll never know what to expect from the other party, how they're gonna react.
And technically, I wasn't even completely out at home yet. At that point in time, only my mother and sister knew that I was gay. Well, my father might have had his suspicions, but he never broached the subject. I never had the chance or the desire to talk to him about it anyway.
Before I proceed further, perhaps I should share with you more about my family, so you could get a better understanding of the sticky situation I was in.
First of all, I was born and raised in Singapore. My family is a pretty typical middle-class Chinese family which numbers at four. Both my parents work, and I have a younger teenage sister. Now if we zoom out to a bigger picture, the family tree gets slightly more complicated. You see, my parents were living in huge households back in the 60s.
- My paternal grandparents had 15 kids; 7 daughters and 8 sons, my father being the youngest son. Out of the 15, three of them have no children, and the rest have one to three children.
With such a huge size, you'd suppose that it's impossible to maintain intimate ties within the family. Yet, despite its size, my father's family has managed to remain extremely close-knit over its years of exponential growth. Marriages, weddings, birthdays, newborns and other family affairs help gel the big family together. Same goes for my mother's side.
Of course, both my parents keep each other updated on what's happening on each's side of the family. Yes, that's a lot of information to handle. I am actually surprised that there isn't some sort of family mailing system that helps everyone keep track of things. (Not suggesting that there should be one though.)
Well, living in Singapore does help a bit I guess; it's not a big place after all. When I was younger, families would visit each other often. It's also not uncommon that I spent a weekend 'stay-cation' at my relatives'. Today, home visits are rarer, and I meet my relatives only once or twice a year, usually during those big family gatherings. But I also happen to have many of my cousins on Facebook. Like all typical 30-somethings, they would post pictures of their family life and their kids. I must say, Facebook has made it much easier for busy people to keep up with each other's lives.
(via Getty Images)
Last February, I knew that I had to come out to my father.
Chinese New Year was approaching, and there would be a huge gathering of all the extended family members. I thought that if my father was to hear anything about his son being gay, he should hear it from me. Definitely not from my relatives' gossiping. Well, the best case scenario would be that nobody actually cared to discuss about me. But considering that the worst case scenario could be someone confronting my father and catching him totally off-guard, I knew I was left with little choice.
I had consulted my mother beforehand. It was after dinner and we were in the kitchen whispering to each other while my father was watching TV in the living room. She wasn't sure if I should do it.
Her: I'll warn ya, Papa's probably not gonna like what he's gonna hear.
Me: Err thanks Ma. But when it comes to this sort of stuff, there will NEVER be a good time. Ever.
Her: Well, I guess you're right.
Me: It's an inconvenient truth that needs to be told, Ma.
So my mother relented, leaving the kitchen without any further word of encouragement.
When I saw that my father was going to bed, I followed him into his room and sat on the edge of his bed. He looked at me confused. (My mother was apparently occupied with something else in the study at the time. I think she's probably trying to avoid the initial blow.)
"Papa, I have something to tell you." My heart was pounding against my chest like a wild animal trying to escape. "Actually now... I have a boyfriend. His name is Jason. He's that guy you saw outside of our house the other time. You even shook his hand."
He kept quiet and still. I continued to elaborate that in the near future, I would like to move in with Jason, even if that means moving abroad. We might even get married and have kids in the future. Because that's what I want for me.
I spelt things out this way because I wanted my father to know that I was very serious about the relationship, about myself, and what I want for my life. I needed him to understand that I was thinking long term. That this is not just some temporal thing. He needed to understand that it's real, and it's here to stay. This is my now, and this is how my future life's gonna look.
For a moment after I finished, I felt this sense of confidence rising inside of me. I presumed that my father was going to say, 'OK, fine,' and then just accept the situation like it was no big deal. But when he finally spoke his mind, I realized that I wasn't ready for what was to come:
1) "But this is not right. This is not normal. This isn't gonna lead you to happiness," he said to me.
Suddenly, he was wearing this ugly expression on his face that I had never seen before. To be honest, I was kinda shocked by his lack of effort to hide the displeasure in his tone.
At this point, my mother suddenly stepped into the room. I wondered if she'd been eavesdropping outside the room the entire time.
"Mama knows about it already. And so does Meimei (referring to my younger sister)," I interjected.
My father looked up at her and gave a questioning look. "You know about it already?"
"Of course I know!" My mother let out a loud nervous laugh, as though to soothe the tension in the room. "I've known for such a long time actually."
I wasn't sure if my father had seen through her nerves like I did. Regardless, he went on to expand on his point: Adhering to normalcy is the rule to happiness, for yourself and others. If you want a happy life, you need to live a normal life. My father meant for me to get married and start a family with my wife, and then have kids, just as he did.
I told him that's not gonna happen.
2) "Why didn't you go to the doctors and get it treated? It is a psychological problem."
At first, I was so appalled by his statement. How could he say such a ridiculous thing? That being gay is an illness that needs to be treated? I was fuming on the inside, but I tried not to let it show. But then I told myself, No, no, no, he probably does believe that homosexuality is something that can be fixed.
Reality is, my father isn't a highly educated person. He had never gone to high school or university. He's an old-fashioned man who doesn't even use the computer or the internet. He'd rather stick to his local newspapers and TV channels. So you see, his world view and knowledge can be pretty limited. It's not his fault to think that way.
"No Papa, it's not an illness. There is nothing wrong with me. And there's nothing you, me or any doctor can do about it. This is natural. It just happens, OK? No one is treating or curing anything."
3) "But how am I supposed to live happily if you were to continue down this path?"
Well that escalated fast, I thought. So now he's trying to emotionally blackmail me?
"Papa, it's your own responsibility and choice to your happiness."
Willfully, he argued that I play a role in his happiness too. Well, I agree that a person's happiness shouldn't take place at the expense of another's. But why are we viewing life as a zero-sum game in the first place? Seriously. Why should you be unhappy just because someone else isn't abiding by your rules?
I asked him if he would still be happy if he knows that I would be suffering in despair and loneliness instead. And then my overwhelming emotions pushed me to go on further:
You know, you've never really hated yourself. While for me, I had been living with fear, shame and guilt the whole time. I never told anyone in the family about it. I had dealt with my problems and worked through those issues all by myself. After years and years of relearning how to love myself again, I have finally learned to reject those negative feelings. To let them go. And to respect myself more. I will no longer accept them from myself, and all the more I won't be taking them from someone else.
When I finished my rant, I was feeling so mad, but surprised at the same time that I had so much pent-up anger inside of me. Was I feeling some form of resentment towards my parents? A deafening silence hung over the room before my mother finally gave her thoughts.
Her: But you had your suspicions, right?
Him: Well, I guess I did. But I had always told myself that it's not true... I guess I was in denial.
Me: Mama and Meimei knew about it years ago. In fact I had brought my ex-boyfriend home before. Remember M***? Yeah, I was in a relationship with him for two and a half years.
Her: Yeah yeah. And there's also one before him, I remember?
Me: Uh? Which?
Her: That guy... I forget his name, but he was in the same camp as you in the army.
Me: Oh my, I totally forgot about him. Yeah, that's my first boyfriend. But I don't remember bringing him home before?
That was from seven years ago, and none of us could really remember the details. Nonetheless, I was grateful for my mother's attempt at showing her support and acceptance of me.
I went on to assure my father that this was not done out of rebellion. I wasn't trying to anger or offend him on purpose. I never wanted to upset him.
4) "But what about Meimei? You're not being a good elder brother."
He said that I'm not setting a good example for my younger sister, who just turned 18.
"But if she's taking me as her role model, she would have had girlfriends by now, wouldn't she?" I countered. "Just as she will not, because of me, become gay and have a girlfriend, I will not, because of her or you or Mama, or anyone, be straight and be with a girl."
That rebuttal shut my father right up.
Knowing that he was obviously defeated, I for a moment felt a great sense of victory. However, taking a second look at my father's forlorn expression, I wondered if I had overdone it. A surge of anxiety overwhelmed me. Did my coming out shock him too much? Should I try to pacify him? I tried to encourage my father by telling him to hope for the better. I joked that I might actually find myself a wife in 20 years' time and then have kids with her.
"Papa, just give it 20 years," I said. "You just have to wait it out. Perhaps by then I'd change, and everything would be fine again."
But he saw through my act.
5) "You are just patronizing me," he said.
"Believe in my promise. Hope shall be your happiness and your strength," I continued, luring him in.
"But that would be equivalent to living in a lie. How can I live like that?"
"Well, exactly. Now imagine me telling that to myself every day. That I am going to get myself a girlfriend and then get married and have children. I would be living in a lie that I spun out myself."
(Photograph by Stephen St. John, via National Geographic)
I was certain that he understood what I had said. He knew that I was right. Heartened, I tried to assure him once more. "At least I'm happy right now, you know. I'm living a blissful life. You don't have to worry about me or my happiness."
To which, he suddenly burst out:
6) "But life is filled with ups and downs. You're happy now but it doesn't mean that it's the right thing. You're like being stuck in a pool of mud and you're only sinking deeper and deeper. You ought to stop and save yourself before it's too late."
I couldn't quite follow the logic of his argument, but it's clear that he's still convinced that being gay is some sort of a treatable syndrome, and that I should do something about it.
"There is no pool of mud, Papa. I'm not sinking or going anywhere. Even if there really is a pit that I'm stuck in, I wouldn't be getting out of it any time soon. Because, why should I? I'm happy in it. I'm nothing but filled with joy and peace with who I am and how I live now."
7) "Maybe you should hang out with girls more."
I told him that in fact I have tons of female friends. But I'm more like sisters with them.
Well, my parents never knew that back in school, I was hanging out with girls most of the time. I had always felt awkward being among the boys. I was just not one of them. I knew it deep down that I was different.
My parents never knew that I was often bullied in school because I was always hanging out with the girls either.
8) "But if you choose to live like this, you're gonna make me feel bad and regretful about my role as a parent. Do you understand?"
Again, the emotional blackmailing. To which I advised my father:
"Well then it's your responsibility to reconcile with your own self. I can't do that for you. I am not going to change who I am just so you can feel good about yourself as a parent."
For years I had dealt with so much shame, and the unrealistic expectations that people had put upon me, even as a little boy. And well, I survived them. I'm sure my father can deal with whatever sh*t people might throw at him.
Though yes, I do realize that in a way I'm being selfish. By being openly out of the closet, I'd put my parents in a difficult position in the face of our relatives -- like close to a hundred of them. But if my parents are ashamed of me, there really isn't much I could do to help. That's just how life is. Nobody says that life is going to be easy and convenient all the f*cking time, OK? They'll just have to learn to deal with it in their own way.
Nonetheless, I tried to comfort my parents by telling them that there's nothing that they had done wrong that had caused me to be gay. There's nothing that they could have done to prevent it either. I told them not to see me as abnormal, but as being an exception.
Me: I'm not the only one, you know. There are actually so many gay people in society. You just don't know about them. But if you just think about it. Gay people are on TV too. They are the actors and actresses on your favourite TV shows. Just look at popular TV hosts, B. Wong and D. Koh. And what about that comedian, D. Chow? It's just that they haven't come out publicly yet.
Him: But how do you know?
Me: Well, there would be some telltales signs, wouldn't it? Over 40s, unmarried, never had a girlfriend and etc.
9) "But why? How can this be? How does this even happen? How would you like a guy?" my father asked in exasperation.
He was still bewildered by this whole guy-and-guy, girl-and-girl thing.
Like talking to a child, I explained to him that it's as natural as him liking women. He didn't choose to be attracted to the opposite sex, did he? The same for me: I prefer the same sex. It's simple as that. It's just how it is. There is no how-to.
How do you get attracted to people of the same sex? How do you get attracted to people of the opposite sex? Well, there's no formula to it. You just do you.
10) "Fine. I want you to know that I still love you. You're still my son. OK?"
And then he gave me a hug, which meant a lot. Well, I've never doubted my dad's love for his children. He's a dedicated father who loves us in his own ways.
"I love you too, Pa."
"You're my son. Remember that. My son."
His repeated emphasis on the word 'son' disturbed me a bit. Then, I realized that he's worried that I might go dress up in women's clothes next. He had thought that being gay and being trans mean the same thing.
"Yes, yes, I'm your son. I'm not becoming a woman, Papa. That's not what I am."
And my mother heave a sigh of relief.
(Photo by Steve Winter, via National Geographic)
Him: It's every parent's dream to see their children get married, have a family and have children of their own.
Me: Well, I'm sorry that I can't fulfil it the way you want it, Pa. It's not my fault. Though, I'm still gonna get married. And I do want to have kids in the future.
Him: How do you expect me to sleep with peace in my heart at night?
Me: So you'd rather not know?
Him: Yeah, I'd rather not know.