The Long Journey To Ordinary: Coming Out In An Immigrant Family

All I really want to do is appreciate the long journey it took to get to ordinary.

On my 18th birthday, in the year 1999, American Beauty premiered in theaters. The film was about everyday people trying to break out of their ordinary, whether this meant quitting a boring middle-class job, having a sleazy affair in a cheap motel, or hooking up with the drug-dealing next door neighbor. While I aspired to do none of these things, the main mantra of the film resonated with me deeply, especially as I was about to embark on adulthood.

“There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.”

Somewhere in my early twenties, I got over it. Around that time, I came out to myself as gay, and I started to yearn for the ordinary. By then, I’d moved back home from college back to my big fat multigenerational Filipino family. This is a world where a family gathering of twenty is considered “small,” and where gossip is as important a form of currency as love. In this world, there are always two things you can expect from your immigrant relatives: 1) that they will publicly comment on your weight, and 2) that they will grill you about your dating life.

Like clockwork, after being told “tumaba ka” (literally “you got fat” in Tagalog), my cousins and I were subjected to the same interrogation from our aunties and uncles: Do you have a girlfriend (or boyfriend)? When are you going to get married? When are you going to give your parents grandkids?

Of course, deciding to introduce someone special to the family was a big deal even for my cousins who weren’t gay. Even they knew not to bring their casual hookups to the annual family Christmas party. But being gay, and not out to my family at the time, I was jealous they even had this decision to grapple with.

As my cousins and I got older, and the relationships got more serious, I got to witness their special someones become part of our family. They brought partners to Thanksgivings, they held hands, they kissed openly; their loves were celebrated. As much as I loved each new addition to our official FamBam Facebook page, there were moments when I couldn’t help but think, this is never going to happen for me.

I came out to my parents in my mid-twenties. Coming out in an immigrant family wasn’t easy. I’m a sociologist, and I’ve spent close to a decade researching the lives of LGBTQ children of immigrants. Many (myself included) felt that coming out would somehow ruin their parents’ immigrant American dreams. And so I used to hide the gay parts of my life—who my friends were, where we hung out on weekend nights, and of course, who I was dating. Over time though, I stopped compartmentalizing my immigrant family life and my gay life because it just got exhausting. I could tell my parents had their reservations when I started to bring my gay friends around and when I told them about my partner Joe, but I wanted to give them a chance to get to know the real me.

Ordinary moments were my North Star showing me that my parents and I were moving in the right direction. In her new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (co-written with Adam Grant), Sheryl Sandberg talks about how ordinary moments helped her find joy after her husband unexpectedly passed away. In an interview with NPR, Sandberg said, “Happiness isn't always the big things. Happiness is actually the little things, the little moments that make up our day.” Deep down, I knew that my immigrant parents were dealing with a “loss” of their own—the dream of their only son marrying a nice girl and having kids. Ordinary moments helped us all learn that there could be joy even with our new normal.

Recently, an image I posted three years ago popped up on my Facebook feed:

It’s an image of Joe burning CDs for my dad while they ate breakfast. Joe happens to be great at the kind of stuff I’m terrible at, like downloading music, fixing things around the house, and assembling IKEA furniture. There came a point, maybe about a year into our relationship, when my parents stopped asking me to do these things and started asking Joe.

Soon enough, they started to do things for him too. When they knew Joe was coming over, they cooked extra food. Whenever they went shopping, they bought him whatever they bought me, but in a different color. Whenever they went to the bakery, they bought extra pastries so Joe could bring them to his family. These ordinary moments added up over the years, and at some point they started to see him as part of our family.

Over the course of a decade, I went from being terrified of coming out to living under the same roof with my parents and Joe. When Joe’s mom passed away last December, we decided to move in with my parents. There wasn’t too much of a conversation about it, but we knew it was important to be around family. Nowadays, there’s an abundance of ordinary moments that I get to witness.

I haven’t yet worked my way up to talking to my parents about marriage, but for now, that isn’t a priority. So far, I’m doing OK with the quiet gestures of love that nobody ever really gets to see—moments that folks who aren’t gay sometimes take for granted. These days, all I really want to do is appreciate the long journey it took to get to ordinary.