By Billy R. Leung
“It was inappropriate to talk about your coming out at your dad’s funeral,” said my aunt the day following the funeral.
It is not as though I chose dad’s funeral as my grand coming out day. After all, my mom has been interviewed numerous times on TV and newspapers on her journey to acceptance of having a gay son; my granny will be marching today – well, in a wheelchair – as a fourth time pride veteran. So it is not like my sexual orientation is a much guarded secret.
“Can’t you not just be more discreet about it?” asked my aunt.
What is it about who I am that just makes her squeal in horror, I wondered. There are hundreds if not thousands of Hongkongers who are facing this. I feel a lot of this has to do with a culture of sweeping the matter under the carpet when it is one that may attract uneasy dialogues.
Like many who grew up in an Asian family setting, the relationship between my dad and I was never close. Our communication style often led to clashes so we talked less though that doesn’t mean he loved me and cared for me any less. He was never explicit about his support or objection to any of my crazy ideas. Like many older Hongkongers his age, he did not have a good education, he was loud (like, really loud!) and was certainly not a polished man. If you are meeting him for the first time, it takes a lot not to pass judgement — a view shared by many from their speech. Yet, dad also had the kindest heart and would go out of the way to help anyone who asked. If there was one thing I learned from my dad, it was to not only be loyal to friends and family but also to himself. He never tried to pass as someone he was not and I’d like to think I had much to learn from him for this attribute. It is no doubt that this character is a trait I inherited from him.
“This is not going to be an easy journey for you. You may have a hard time getting the job you want, you may lose friends, you will have a more difficult time than most people,” said my dad on a hot, sticky summer afternoon a few days after learning from mom that I had come out to her, “but if you think you know what you are doing, then just be careful.”
Sadly, what he said still rings true today, ten years later. A 2012 study found that 60% of the LGBT employees haven’t come out at work. Among them, 42% cited reasons such as fear of losing connection or relationships with colleagues and 39% feared that being honest about who they are would affect their career.
Shouldn’t one be private about their sexual orientation and private life?
My colleague talks about his vacation plans with his girlfriend. My aunt proudly talks of attending their child’s violin performance with her husband. My uncle talks to us about how he and his girlfriend are planning the renovation of the apartment they will be moving into. These are conversations that many have on a daily basis without giving a second thought. What many do not realise is the essence of these casual conversations already implies the nature of their relationship and sexual orientation, when their partner or spouse is of a different sex.
Yet when I and many other gays and lesbians talk about our experience, all of a sudden, that becomes too personal, something unspeakable that we should keep to ourselves. Why is it then we can only call our significant other as a “friend”? I doubt any wife would refer to her husband as a friend or vice versa.
It is this very mentality that sets the undertone of how gays and lesbians should live their lives – by not talking about anything remotely related to, by omitting any reference about, by resorting to having to lie so as not to give away their sexual orientation. This undertone gets picked up by gays and lesbians as well. In the same study, 55% of those who haven’t come out said that their sexual orientation was nobody’s business.
Indeed that shouldn’t be anyone’s business. But it is the possibility and having the safe space knowing that people would not find it inappropriate or wrong just because one refers to one’s partner who is same-sex.
This is the essence why we need to celebrate pride. It is one of the occasions that allows GLBTI people to affirm who we are, to hopefully be a starting point to reconnect with others with more honesty and fewer barriers, and it is a day where allies (our straight supporting friends) come out, march alongside us and say: it’s okay that you’re gay and it’s okay to talk about your relationship too!
For me, pride should be celebrated every day of the year. We might get pride fatigue but I look forward to that day where the discussion involving a GLBTI angle would no longer raise an eyebrow. Until then, let’s party!
And this year, I will have the honour to remember that the way that I came to celebrate pride stems from one of the most profound exchanges I had with my dad.
Billy R. Leung is the vice-chair of The Pink Alliance working to realise equal and fundamental rights of the GLBTI community through public engagement and dialogues. He’s the gay son of a loving mother and grandson of a proud grandmother.