In the past couple of months, we’ve received many iterations of this question:
How do you come out to a traditional, conservative East Asian family?
This post is designed for queer and not-yet-out descendants of the people of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It’s also for their allies. Although you and your family may not ascribe to Confucian philosophy, your mother-cultures were undoubtedly shaped by its tenets. Among the tenets of Confucianism is the virtue of filial piety: respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. The potent mixture of Confucianism and homophobia – a gift from Western Europe – can make the coming-out process particularly challenging for LGBTQ East Asians. What does it look like to honor your family when your family believes your identity to be a betrayal of family?
This post might also resonate with not-yet-out LGBTQ Christians who are not Asian but hold a similar sense of filial piety. Perhaps the commandment to honor your parents (or whomever raised you) gnaws away at you as you consider sharing your identity with family. Or perhaps you find yourself doing mental calisthenics to balance that commandment with your commitment to honesty.
What follows are two lists – advice followed by affirmation – for queer descendants of Confucian cultures preparing to come out in a volatile familial environment. Both lists are based on my experiences and those of friends. Of course, your life and mine may differ wildly, so consider these a hand-me-down from an older sister – a gift you need not use but that might make your journey easier.
You’re likely here because you believe that your coming-out will cause strife in your family. My hope in providing this list is not to cause distress, but rather, to illuminate potential stressors so that you can be best prepared.
Take inventory of your status as a dependent or independent person.
Are you reliant on your parents for things that may put you in physical jeopardy if you were to be without them? For example, do you have high medical costs and are you signed onto a parent’s insurance plan? Have your parents committed to helping you pay for the remainder of your schooling? Do you live with them, or are they otherwise subsidizing your rent or other costs of living?
Financial ties like these are not dead-ends, but they are important factors to consider. LGBTQ youth experience an alarmingly high rate of homelessness due to familial violence and rejection. Millenials have been dealt the worst financial hand in recent history, causing most of us to rely on our families for longer than other generations. If you come out and your family pulls up these ladders, will you be able to make ends meet?
Examine your mental well-being.
How are you doing lately? If you were to experience discomfort or rejection from your parents, do you have supportive friends who can help you carry on? As someone who has had episodes of mental un-wellness, I’m glad that I chose to come out to my parents about mine and Zora’s relationship at a time when I was stable and had a few dear friends who could support me when things got tough.
Mental health is particularly worth examining because Asian Americans stereotypically deprioritize their mental health. This stems in part from culturally distinctive ways of experiencing and expressing mental distress and in part from inherited familial norms of not talking about feelings or “overcoming” them for the sake of harmony. Among women ages 18-24, Asian Americans have the second-highest suicide rate of any racial group. (Native Americans have the highest suicide rate among this age group of women.) For this reason, I especially value the mental health of queer Asian Americans and want to see it flourish.
Take stock of your parents’ emotional support system.
Do your parents depend on you alone as confidant and counselor, or do they have other forms of emotional support? The hardest part for me in coming out to my parents was the guilt of plunging them into loneliness. They associate queerness with shame, and they keep their shame hidden for fear of ostracization from their already-small and insular community of other Asian immigrants.
I wish that my parents had friends who could check in on them and help them through their feelings of shame and loneliness. They don’t, but I was lucky to be able to count on my brother to serve in this role for them as they reeled after my coming-out.
If your parents are like mine, without another means of emotional support, this alone shouldn’t prevent you from sharing your truth with them. Nor should you be required to claim responsibility or fault for their feelings and pain, especially when those negative feelings pertain to the core of who you are. Your marginalization is not deserved and certainly not your fault. At times we need to stand in the face of that marginalization and dismantle it with undeniable truth.
Understand the goodness of your identity and inheritance.
Like your cultural identity, your sexual identity is your inheritance. You are not only to be tolerated but to be celebrated as the dream of a diverse and divine Being.
Coming out is not a singular event. It is a process, a journey, an acknowledgment that your fullness may at any time be accepted or rejected by exclusionary individuals or communities. Know that you belong to the vast lineage of queer individuals as well as your biological ancestry. You may be the first of your family in a long stretch who is queer and ready to live into the fullness of who you are.
It is natural and holy to want to share your joys and life with those who created you. It is natural and holy to want love and affirmation from those who raised you.
However, no orchestration on our part can create a perfect landscape for acceptance, and no human work is a substitute for the mystery of the Spirit. No matter the outcome, know these truths:
1. You are a good child.
The cultural norm of filial piety can express itself as shame if a family rejects a child. Remember and accept that you are a good child – a beloved child of God and your family – and that misunderstanding of sexual orientation is invalid grounds for your devaluation. Live out the one life you were given, and live it the best you can.
2. You are free from the burden of the decisions your parents made.
For those of us who are the children of immigrants, our parents made heartbreaking decisions to cleave distance in our extended families and ancestral home. Our families might expect that we and future generations would make equally difficult decisions to honor that same values system.
My mother, who values self-sacrifice for the sake of familial harmony, initially saw my coming-out as a departure from that value. She and I are at a truce of sorts, where she understands that I cannot hide a critical component of my identity precisely because I value the love and affirmation of family.
If you are the child of immigrants, think about how your family’s values system might differ from yours. Even individuals with congruent values systems can express them differently. However, you are not obligated to translate those values through the experiences, traumas, and joys of your family or mother-culture.
3. You are not alone.
You belong to yourself and to the Spirit. One step away, you also belong to the host of queer and Asian saints, and they are praying for and championing you.
I chose to come out to my parents on the same day that I got into an Ivy League graduate school. At the time, I was living across the country from them and almost completely financially independent. I had planned to give them good news first – calling them about my acceptance – and later write them an email in which I told them about myself and my relationship with Zora. I believed they’d take the news better if they had a sense that my life wasn’t in total shambles.
Of course, this news and its timing were a luxury. Looking back now, I’m unsure if the timing made a difference on their end. But I know that the steps I took helped me.
Coming out is not feasible or safe at every given moment of every queer person’s life. If the above factors make coming out more difficult and dangerous than you can handle now, know that you are still valid and valued as a queer person safe from view of those inflicting harm.
Ultimately, if and when you come out to your family – East Asian or not – they will likely go through a cycle of emotions and reactions. You are not responsible for these reactions and emotions, but you will witness them.
You’ll probably go through your own cycle, too. Look to yourself and look to God to find what you need in order to live out the truths to which God has called you and the truths of how God created you.
Be blessed, my siblings. To talk more, leave a comment or send us a que(e)ry.
一路顺风 – may the wind be at your back.
Artwork from chinesemartialstudies.com