I grew up as the older child of two immigrants from rural China. To onlookers, they are simple, private people. They left behind all the family they had on the other side of the world, and they had two children from whom was expected deep commitment to and respect for family. What they lacked in family they recreated in friendships with other Chinese immigrants. And while my spirit was boisterous, and while our relationship has never been simple, I still yearn beyond practicality to earn their love.
And so the realization that I wasn’t straight was naturally terrifying, as it is to most children uncertain of the conditions of their parents’ affection. But it was also compounded by a fear that I was irreparably damaging the fabric of a family that had given everything to me. By failing to conform to their blueprint, I had not upheld my side of the bargain. I had abandoned them in a community where they had no family and in a nation where they had no home.
What followed this first coming-out was a period of awkwardness, pain, and misunderstanding. My mother was especially desperate. She went through each stage of grief for the death of the dream of a daughter. But, frugal immigrant that she is, she stayed longest in the stage of bargaining. “Promise me just one thing,” she implored. “Promise me that you won’t ever love a girl.”
I wish I could remember if I made that promise. I probably did. Anything to stop the bleeding of my mother’s spirit, although the wounds festered beneath the surface. I was no physician, and I had no physician for myself. After a short-lived relationship with a high school crush, I made great efforts to feign heterosexuality.
Back to the Closet
I feigned even harder when I became a Christian. Like the beautiful but imperfect heritage from which I come, my conservative Christian surroundings made little room for the totality of the person I was and the person I was hiding. Although I was certain of the love of God, I interpreted that love through a community that loved with limitations.
The closet to which I returned as a Christian college student was a semisweet place. I’d been there before, and I believed I could survive there. During that time, I did encounter God. And I did learn what I was made to be in light of who God is.
Along Came Zora
But the Spirit knocks, and love can blow through an open door like that half-warm breeze before a thunderstorm. And when I fell in love with Zora, the wind threw boxes from shelves and opened closet doors.
As Zora and I progressed through our period of discernment, my heart was buoyed by the Spirit but heavy with the knowledge that I would soon have to rip the wool from my parents’ eyes. Over ten years, my mother had regrown her trust in the dream of a daughter, and I would have to kill this dream again if I was going to be honest.
We returned to the bad place we had left unsettled. Through my feigning, I had convinced my mother that I was straight, and now I had to clear away that illusion and come out to her a second time. We knew how to hurt one another in ways that no one else could.
I told my mother that I was still queer. She reacted like she did ten years ago, but this time, her hurt was colored with resentment. The hardest thing to hear was her ultimatum. If I “chose” to be a queer woman, she said, I was also choosing to break apart our family – our small family already untethered from a lineage and history it left a world away; our small family where my parents still speak at home in Chinese – and I still reply mostly in English; our small family in which my parents poured all that they had, all that they could.
In the aftermath of this second coming-out, friends often asked why I didn’t break ties with my mother. Whether as a result of my cultural upbringing or some Spirit-fueled force I can’t say for certain. Leaving her was not an option.
I decided to share with my parents the more specific news of my relationship with Zora in early spring on the same day of some good news – my acceptance into an Ivy League graduate school. Zora planned to come out to her family that same week.
That day in April, I drove half an hour to a café in small-town New Mexico. There, I wrote an email to my parents. I loved them, I told them in every way that I could, and I invited them to speak to me again when they were ready. While my mother didn’t speak to me then, she did call Zora. She begged Zora to let me go. And Zora managed to maintain peace while she graciously declined my mother’s pleas. Although my mother is not a Christian, she sent her Christian friends to call me – people who tried valiantly to convince me that my faith and my sexual identity were incompatible.
But having reached the conclusion that my identity reflected a facet of God’s, and that I would pursue the love I had for Zora – I could not be swayed by the foot-soldiers of my mother’s misplaced concerns or by other voices.
In July, I got tired of waiting for my mother to call. I had moved across the country. I was unsure how long our silence would last or which would win: pride, fear, stubbornness, or love. I called, heart fluttering, and my mother’s voice was quiet and faraway. We didn’t say much. She didn’t want me to hear her cry. But in the silence, we still spoke.
My mother’s non-affirming nature was not a product of her faith, but rather, of a particularly patriarchal upbringing in which forces like Western interpretations of Christianity held unwieldy influence. I was unsure if our relationship would ever heal, but I wanted to give her a chance to live this more truthful and joyful life with me.
For a while, there was no light. I fumbled through the darkness with the faraway companionship of Zora and an occasional friend. But I think my mother fumbled through the darkness too, sometimes against me and sometimes with me. Those days in the desert, before I broke the silence and when the wound was still raw, I asked a friend if it would ever get better. She told me cheerfully about her uncle’s marriage to a man. “It only took about eight years,” she said, “for our family to embrace him again.”
I could do that. I was unsure that my mother would embrace me again, but I was also unsure that she wouldn’t. I could wait eight years to share this life with my mother.
During this time, I clung to an exhortation from Psalm 44:
I don’t trust in weapons. My own sword won’t save me.
But it’s You – You who saved us from the enemy.
The enemy was a spirit of defeat. I had done the work of discernment. I no longer trusted in my own weaponry of denial or shame. I had done the work of coming out. A greater physician would direct my healing and that of my mother. This time, whatever winds may blow, I was staying out.
This Thursday, come back around to hear the remainder of this tale.
Painting by Li Zijian