“It gets better,” but for Asian Americans, coming out can also get complicated
Note: Some subjects asked to be identified only by their first names because they have not come out to their entire communities.
An hour into the argument, Le Tang, a Chinese-Vietnamese American lesbian woman from San Jose, decided that she just wanted it to be over.
She had been dropping hints about her relationship with her girlfriend Lexi Reichman to her parents for days, showing them pictures from their recent trip to El Paso and discussing the couple’s plans to study abroad in Copenhagen. Finally, two days before Christmas and just as Tang left the bathroom, her mom cornered her in the hallway and demanded to know what Reichman and Tang were.
They raised their voices at each other. Her mom called her “broken” and “tainted.”
Tang started to cry. She had always been close with her mother, the undisputed matriarch of their family, from whom she had inherited her headstrong attitude, confidence, and smile. Tang thought telling her mom about her sexuality would strengthen their bond, but she never expected this.
So she told her parents she would break up with her girlfriend just to end the fight.
There are many Asian American LGBTQ stories like these, with imperfect endings that never make it to mainstream discussions of queer identity. Asian Americans contend with mothers who mourn their coming out as if they have lost their children, and face extended families who sometimes lack the language to comprehend their complex sexual identities.
Tang never saw these stories in the coming out videos — mostly featuring white gay men — that were so ubiquitous on YouTube.
“They’d be like ‘I told my family, and they like, started crying because they knew and they hugged me and they told me they would love me no matter what,’” Tang said. “And that just wasn’t my narrative.”
When Marsha Aizumi's transgender son Aiden came out as a lesbian woman in high school, she admits that she did not react well. She told him that it wouldn't be good for his future. She could not bring herself to tell her friends.
Her own parents had been incarcerated in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and growing up, they taught her that fitting in was a matter of survival. She felt responsible for his sexuality, as if her parenting had caused it.
"All I wanted to be was a good mother," Aizumi said. "I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong.
That's a common reaction among Asian American parents, said Laurin Mayeno, founder of resource website Out Proud Families and herself the mother of a gay man. Beneath the stigma and homophobia, there's a deep fear that their child's sexuality or gender identity will make life harder.
Aizumi started attending meetings at the Pasadena chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). In 2011, she was appointed to PFLAG’s national board, and remembers her surprise at the demographics of the group.
“I looked around, and I think I saw one Asian person,” Aizumi said. She wondered, “if there’s no Asian people [at these conferences], how are Asian families going to feel like this is not just a Caucasian issue?”
After Aizumi returned home, she and a group of other Asian parents with LGBTQ children launched the San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander Chapter of PFLAG in 2012. And later that year, she and Aiden chronicled their journey together in a book called “Two Spirits, One Heart.” Aizumi hopes that their story will help other families who are in a similar situation.
For some parents, accepting their child’s sexuality — and the new life path it means for them — requires a grieving process.
Chinese American Lily Zheng, who identifies as a transgender woman, was assigned male at birth, and realized in high school that clothing helped her express her identity as a woman. Zheng skipped as many meals as she could and saved pennies from her lunch money to purchase the skinny jeans and women’s T-shirts she wanted. But that came at the expense of her parents’ fury. They fought almost every night.
“Being the oldest son…I had a whole world of expectations on me, and by giving that up, it was like all their dreams kind of crashed,” she said.
Mayeno has seen this sense of loss echoed in many parents she’s worked with. Coming to terms with their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity can feel like a compromise between the lives they once dreamed for their children, and the ones their children now have.
When Beatriz, a Filipina American lesbian woman, came out to her parents in high school, their first reaction was to impose a strict set of restrictions on who she could tell.
“They had thought it was a phase and said, ‘come out [to the rest of your family] when you’ve graduated college,’” Beatriz recalled.
When she did graduate from college, the requirement became, “come out in grad school.” After she decided not to go to grad school, they moved the goalposts to “come out when you have a good job.”
Beatriz attended Simmons College, and her parents feared the all-female environment would influence Beatriz’s appearance. No Birkenstocks, they demanded. No flannel and no short hair, either.
Beatriz acquiesced. She grew out her hair and wore more dresses. And actually, she didn’t mind.
“I freely give [in to my parents’ requests] because they immigrated here. They escaped a dictator. They did all these things to make sure my life was better,” Beatriz said.
And if that means dressing a certain way to help her parents cope with her sexual orientation, she said, of course she’ll do it.
For Ivy, a Vietnamese American from Los Angeles who identifies as a queer gender-questioning femme, balancing the needs of her family with her own identity actually meant deciding to not come out to her parents — at least not yet. She cares too much about their happiness.
“My parents came from Vietnam, came from the war...they sacrificed a lot to be here,” she said. “So I battle a lot with my identity [and] carry a lot of guilt [because] why do I have to make this harder for my parents, who wanted the good life, who wanted their kids to have a good life?”
So she can’t yet tell them about the graduate program in human sexuality studies she’s leaving for at the end of the month.
But for now, she’s waiting and hoping. If her parents notice something different about her, Ivy said, she’s happy to start a conversation.
The parental expectations Asian Americans face when coming out are sometimes shaped by attitudes towards LGBTQ identities in their home countries.
Pop culture in some Asian countries use exaggerated tropes, like a transgender character mocked in Vietnam’s popular Lunar New Year’s Eve TV programs for being “half woman.” In Singapore, the Infocomm Media Development Authority bans positive portrayals of “alternative lifestyles.”
The first Pride march in Asia and the Pacific did not occur until 1994 in the Philippines, according to a country report published jointly in 2014 by the United Nations Development Programme and the United States Agency for International Development.
Those cultural factors, experts say, can sometimes lead parents to conclude that Western culture somehow caused their children to change their sexuality, said Georgia State University sociology professor Rosalind Chou.
And some cultures simply lack the proper language for explaining LGBTQ concepts. While interviewing subjects for her book, “Asian American Sexual Politics,” Chou found that a Taiwanese respondent’s mother did not even have the words to describe relationships between women.
Sunny, an Indian American gay man, never talked with his parents much about his sexuality, though “it was pretty clear that my parents...thought [homosexuality] was a sign of the moral degradation of America,” Sunny recalled.
But halfway into his first year of a mathematics doctoral program at UC Berkeley, Sunny met his now-boyfriend Markus. Things were getting serious, so in December of 2011 he came out to his parents.
It was both better and worse than he had expected. They didn’t throw him out, but they didn’t understand that his sexual orientation wasn’t a choice. His parents barraged him with questions that became increasingly absurd, including one hypothetical about whether he'd expect them to accept bestiality. At some point, they even suggested he try a female prostitute.
Further complicating their conversation was the fact that the language he speaks with his parents, Hindi, features grammatical gender, meaning that all nouns are either masculine or feminine, including words for family members’ spouses. Sunny worried about what Hindi word to use if he were to ever introduce Markus to all the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins in his tight-knit family.
But a few years later, Sunny’s father caught the tail end of an NPR show on a commute home. Homosexuality, the program explained, is not a choice. The explanation stuck.
Sunny’s parents asked to meet Markus, and now Markus and Sunny attends family functions together. Markus is never introduced as Sunny’s “boyfriend,” but Sunny’s sister came up with a compromise.
Her children, when she has them, will just call Sunny’s future spouse “uncle,” in English.
One of the biggest challenges for Asian American families is telling their extended families about their children’s sexuality, said Elena Chang, co-director of the Asian Pride Project (APP).
“[Family members] need to also come out to their family, their churches,” Chang said.
The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance hosts meetings with parents to create family-facing programs. Previous meetings led to a public service campaign comprising informational leaflets printed in more than 20 Asian languages, a traveling workshop series, and a new kind of ‘coming out’ video, featuring the parents of Asian LGBTQ individuals including Aizumi and her husband. The videos were broadcast on Asian ethnic television stations with an estimated viewership of up to 13.9 million viewers.
When Willis Hao, a Taiwanese American gay man, came out to his mother sophomore year, they fought, but remained close.
Things aren’t perfect — sometimes, she’ll try and set him up with women. She’ll point out pretty girls to him, or even talk about how he’ll still have to take care of her after he marries his future wife.
But Hao’s mother is getting more comfortable talking about his sexuality with her family.
As for Tang, she decided to come out — again — to her parents nine months after their Christmas blowout. She came armed with a backup plan. If they rejected her, she had been saving tax information for FAFSA and putting away money from her stipended job to become financially independent.
But after spending months avoiding her parents, they surprised her: her mother told her she’d researched what being lesbian meant.
“She said that she realized that this wasn’t a choice that I was making,” Tang said. “That it was in my blood, and as I’m their daughter, they’re going to love me no matter what, and that they’re going to support me.”
A few weeks ago, Tang picked Reichman up after a trip to Dallas, where Reichman had just gotten a job in the biomedical industry. She never broke up with her girlfriend — in fact, Tang proposed to Reichman in June at their graduation party.
When the couple arrived at the Tangs’ apartment in San Jose, two figures materialized in the darkness, heading straight for them.
“Lexi, we’re so proud of you,” said Tang’s mom and dad, who had come out to surprise them. “Your mom and dad love you very much.”
And then they pulled Reichman into a tight hug.