By Alex Tan
Being gay in China and other heavily Chinese populated and Asian countries has long been quite a taboo in modern society and culture and within families. Many parents look forward to their children getting married and having children – with the opposite sex, of course. In China LGBT rights are still practically non-existent and it has recently been reported that around 16 million women in China are married to gay men – and know it, but have subsequently had unhappy lives.
However, some surveys have hinted that China’s general public is becoming more open-minded to the idea of LGBT rights and gay marriage. In 2013, over 100 parents sent an open letter to the National People’s Congress to ask for the legalisation of same-sex marriage and last year a poll’s result said that four in five Chinese people agree gays deserve equal rights in the workplace.
But what about the British Chinese population and those who identify as gay here? Many of us were born here while our parents probably emigrated here from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia decades ago and therefore grew up with the same old-fashioned views on LGBT people that the older generation still living in those countries have. Some of them may have gradually changed their views and have become more open and positive, while others may still be against the “idea” of homosexuality or still confused about what it means to be LGBT.
And when it comes to their own children, Chinese parents views can be even more diverse and similar to those from a non-Chinese background. Some may fully accept them to a point where they can openly talk about it, others may accept it but rarely talk about it or try to avoid such conversations, some may be even go as far as disowning their children, while others may simply refuse to believe that they’re child is gay and hold firmly to the belief that it is “just a phase”. There are also some parents who may even blame themselves and their parenting methods as a reason for their child being gay or be embarrassed to “lose face” – an important aspect to some in Chinese society, particularly in front of other family members.
From a personal perspective, it’s hard to come out as gay when you have Chinese parents, especially compared to white people. Many of my friends have shared happy and positive coming out stories that seemed effortless for them (even when they were much younger) and have had little to no problems with their parents regarding their sexuality since. I myself did not come out to mine until I was 23. I had never planned on coming out to them but I also never said I wouldn’t – I wanted to wait until the time was right to make the decision. And that “right time” for me would personally and preferably have been if I was in a long-term relationship and felt happy and confident enough to come out and also announce that I was in a relationship. But at that point in time, I wasn’t.
It started when my dad had apparently found some Gay Times magazines I had put somewhere in the house (stuffed in a drawer if I remember correctly) – I had received a year long subscription to the magazine as a journalist – meaning that at some point he had been going through my things. Whether this was the first time he had done so, I don’t know. He then confided in my older brother as to what to do, apparently upset and confused but also scared to say anything to me. My brother and sister-in-law – who I had never told either, but if I was to have told anyone in my family, they would have been the first – then tentatively approached me, telling me what my dad had found and said they “knew” too and it was they who suggested I talk to my dad and then tell my mum.
This was immediately an extremely scary thought for me. I was completely unsure of how to approach my dad and especially my mum. Both are pretty strict, wary and old-fashioned when it comes to anything “modern” that they are not used to, be it guys who wear skinny jeans, dye their hair or wear earrings (all of which I have done, which they were not impressed by either) and of course, homosexuality.
However, my brother and sister-in-law were thankfully very supportive and offered to talk to my dad with me and said they would also be there when I spoke to my mum if I wanted, which I did. I felt I had to come out at this point now that my dad had “found out” and although he was apparently not keen on telling my mum, especially just yet, my brother pressed that this had to be addressed now rather than swept under the rug and ignored as if it had never happened. I firmly believe that everyone should come out when they feel it is right and not be pressured by others, but tentatively agreed that in this situation it had to be done there and then.
Telling my parents seemed like one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life but having my brother and sister-in-law there for support certainly eased the situation. Once I had got it out, there were tears and long silences as my parents let it sink in and there were doubts (of whether it was a phase) and talks of whether it was their fault (another aforementioned common reaction). But since then, things have been surprisingly fine and have pretty much reverted back to normal – I am still treated the same as before and my parents seem to have accepted my sexuality. Unfortunately, this does not mean that we talk about it. Very few conversations about my sexuality or private life have been brought up and even then, they were short and slightly awkward, with none of us being that comfortable with the situation, particularly if it’s about safe sex. The only repeated occasion of it being discussed is of course, before meeting family. I am always told not to tell anyone – though this is not a problem for me (as frustrating as it is to be told all the time) as I believe others shouldn’t need to know, at least not yet, though I may change my mind if I am in a long-term relationship as was my original idea.
In some ways I’m glad that my sexuality or topics surrounding it or not discussed at home just yet, though I am hopeful that in the future this can be changed – and again, this may be a change I’ll push for if I am in a relationship. And while my parents have accepted me, some of their overall views do not appear to have changed with one being that I should not “announced” it or make it “obvious” to others, especially when it comes to putting that I’ve worked for an LGBT company and been actively involved in LGBT activities at university on my CV or telling work colleagues. Their view seems to be that these signs or actions will hinder my chances of getting jobs or have me be alienated by those I work with, and so they therefore overlook the fact that discrimination based on sexual orientation in the UK is just as illegal and uncommon as discrimination based on my ethnicity, believing that the vast majority of other people’s views – including the government’s – towards LGBT people are still archaic.
The popular English saying that goes “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” seems to be very fitting for my situation and perhaps is the same for many other gay British Chinese people or those from other ethnic minorities. Whether my parents’ views will change is hard to tell and maybe doubtful – many other views they have on other things, including aspects of Western life, culture and society still haven’t changed even after 40 years of living in the UK; they seem very set in their ways and follow how they were brought up. I am, however, pleased with how my coming out experience went and am fine with keeping it how it is now until the future, depending on any changes that may occur. It has made me more confident as a person and genuinely more happy with myself, knowing that I no longer have to hide my true self from them and everything is still the same between me and my family as before.
I am hopeful that other gay British Chinese people who are afraid of coming out to parents and other family members are able to receive similarly non-negative reactions and subsequent experiences in life if and when they decide to come out. I think it can be even better if they have someone within their family who they are closer to, who they can confide in first and ask for help and advice. I also believe it is important to at least try and educate parents on things like gay rights in the UK, on homosexuality not being a choice nor abnormal or being their fault and on overall attitudes towards it here. This is fundamental to helping them understand what being gay is about and how life for us – as both gays and Chinese people – differs in a wide variety of ways between here and where they were brought up.