“Don’t you think those two don’t look normal?
“They seem to be a bit off.
“She’s neither a “boy” nor a “girl”.
“You definitely cannot be that way.”
I grew up remarkably sheltered and uneducated regarding LGBTQ issues. Until sophomore year
of high school, I did not understand the difference between sex and gender, or that a person could be anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. I definitely did not know the letters of the queer alphabet soup or what it meant to be attracted to someone of the same gender, what it would feel like to want desperately to kiss another girl. Queerness just wasn’t thought about in my mother’s household, much less talked about.
My parents grew up in a generation of China in which being labeled as queer meant not just personally losing face, but the loss of face for your entire family. It meant dishonor and shame, and outside of the context of Disney’s “Mulan” and Americans distorting ancestor worship and the centrality of the role of family in Chinese culture, dishonor and shame are pretty heavy burdens for one person to bear.
I don’t remember my mother being a homophobe until I clearly wasn’t one. My mother doesn’t
consider herself homophobic, the same way she will insist she is not racist and that she does not discriminate against poor people. She is a product of her times and her upbringings—I remember how I used to blame her for how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, blame her for complicating what could have been my version of the heroic gay American coming-out story, but have since grown to realize that she is not just a supporting character in my life story, but a multi-dimensional person. My mother was part of a generation of Chinese youth who were taught that homosexuality was a disease of the mind, spread by forbidden, sick, twisted underground propaganda. My mother’s generation of Chinese youth, young adults growing up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and the formative years of a new China, was taught pragmatism and conformism, and that self-respect meant not self-expression, but self-preservation—placing the fewest constraints on your future.
My mother always told me that in this world, you don’t do what you want; you do what’s good
My mother thinks that bisexuality is a bourgeois choice, the frivolous side-thoughts of white
Americans whom she would dismiss with a disapproving “吃饱撑的”, or “too much to eat, not enough to do”. Bisexuality is something teenagers do for attention, to be hip, to look different, to have a shiny label to set them apart. Bisexual is something people do when they are too immature to realize how these impulsive acts of so-called expression and individuality could affect how others would see them, and too inconsiderate to consider how their families would feel. Bisexuals, in her eyes, are more selfish than gay people because they have a choice of living a “normal”, “healthy” life they are throwing away.
Her daughter cannot be queer because she is not a bad parent, and cannot be a bisexual
because she did not raise her daughter to be stupid.
Sometimes when I really feel lonely, I find myself obsessing over what to do; it’s hard to believe that I am not being a coward, or that it takes courage to be vulnerable and it takes courage to wait. These are not concessions that I am making for her, and she is not holding me back, because my life is not a linear progression from the dark of the closet to the blinding light of freedom. It’s hard to reconcile the vivid colors of the rainbow flag that hangs in my dorm room with the monochromatic gray of limbo, but I have grown to believe that this is my own pride in my own right.
What is the Chinese-American queer experience? The way I understand it, it’s navigating your
sexual orientation in the context of a blend of deeply-ingrained Confucian ideals and family-centric, reputation-centric values, a philosophy of self-sacrificing, dry pragmatism, a culture of martyring yourself to save face—but also the American youth’s quest for freedom and respect, the American queer youth’s coming out stories and brave, confident, defiant declarations of identity. It’s teetering between the very American idea that respecting your family is being honest with them, and the Chinese idea that if you love your parents, it is your duty to make the sacrifices that will protect them and keep them safe. It means possibly never achieving a certain level of personal security, but also not having the heart to leave two middle-aged Chinese immigrants in a strange country with a daughter they no longer understand, family who no longer respects them, and friends who turn their backs and whisper.