The coming out narrative needs to be reframed

A particular vision of what coming out is like now dominates, but for many of us with different cultural backgrounds the experience is more complex.

by Lex Shu Chan
11 October 2021, 1:49pm

Wedding Banquet by Kenneth Lam

Christmas morning. The whole family sits around the tree, opening presents in pyjamas. “Actually, I want to talk to you guys about something…I’m gay.” A pause as everyone takes in his words.

If asked to close your eyes and visualise what a “coming out story” looks like, how similar is it to this scene from the screenplay of the 2018 coming-of-age film Love, Simon? This particular trope of the handsome, cis, white, gay male teenager, has been entrenched in popular culture in recent years. Family and friends are depicted as instantly responding, the experience is a single moment of disclosure, a pivotal event. In reality, the coming out process is often nonlinear, gradual and far more complex, particularly for people of colour and gender diverse individuals.

The perception that coming out is something which only has to be done once is perhaps reinforced by National Coming Out Day (NCOD), an LGBTQ+ awareness day celebrated on October 11 in some countries to support the queer community in publicly disclosing their sexual orientation and/or gender identities. Since the first NCOD in 1988, this annual event has been marked by awareness-raising, solidarity and celebration. This is clearly with good reason, since the courageous act of coming out can be joyful and liberating, help (re)build relationships, and, in some cases, save lives. However, it bears repeating that many LGBTQ+ individuals remain “in the closet” for safety’s sake, as anti-LGBTQ+ laws and policies continue to exist around the world. Even for LGBTQ+ individuals who are able to publicly disclose their identities without fear of persecution, they may strategically choose not to do for fear of discrimination, rejection, or simply because blending in just makes life easier sometimes.

In an effort to unpack my very own mixed feelings towards the concept of coming out and what it means, I recently rewatched The Wedding Banquet (喜宴),  the 1993 romantic comedy directed and co-written by Ang Lee. In this film about a marriage of convenience gone wrong, Wai-Tung, a gay man living in New York City with his partner, decides to appease his traditional Taiwanese parents by marrying a struggling female artist seeking a green card. Wai-Tung’s partner is presented to his parents merely as his landlord, and Wai-Tung’s parents don’t seem to doubt this for a second as they immerse themselves in planning a lavish sham heterosexual wedding banquet. Halfway through the film, my (cis, white, gay male) friend pressed pause, turned to me, and said: I’m not buying this – how can his parents not know?”

The process of coming out is often seen as “complete” when those getting the news demonstrate acceptance or rejection, but what happens if there isn’t really any acknowledgement, or if the response is “Let’s park this”?

As someone whose coming out journey involved selective revelations, staggered acknowledgements (and denials) and calculated silences, I began to respond, but (mild spoiler alert!) recalled that this culturally nuanced film would speak for itself, so I pressed play. This did prompt me to reflect on how different my coming out process was to many of my white queer friends, at least on the parental front – for me, there was no celebratory sense of relief, no tears,  anger or any other visible emotions, no support groups or books sent to relatives on how to support a queer child  – just subtle expressions of love discernible only to me, and a lot which remains unspoken, even to this day.

My personal experiences appear to be shared by other people of colour, like Julie*, who works in finance and has at this point chosen not to come out to her family. “I am conditioned to see myself as Chinese before I see myself as a lesbian, so if my parents struggle to reconcile the two, then something’s got to give,” she says. “This doesn’t mean I live a ‘closeted’ life though, since outside of my family I live openly as a gay woman. I also have Asian friends who have never verbalised their sexuality to their parents, but who have been bringing their partners (as their “good friend”) to family gatherings, and in some cases even family vacations, for years.”

The dominant cultural coming out trope is similarly not relatable to several Black LGBTQ+ individuals I spoke to. In fact, a sit-down “coming out conversation” seemed “irrelevant,” according to Christian*, a gay Black man who works in fashion and comes from a very religious family. I balked at the idea of really having to go through something that to me felt traumatic,” he says. “Mine was largely a gradual process rather than a big event where I sat my family down. It was just little moments where we acknowledged who I was, the relationships I shared and the friendships I was forming, although I have felt certain pressure to minimise certain details of my life in the company of older relatives.”

The process of coming out is often seen as “complete” when those getting the news demonstrate acceptance or rejection, but what happens if there isn’t really any acknowledgement, or if the response is “Let’s park this”? Does this make the coming out  incomplete, and the individual somehow less courageous or less equipped to start living their best queer lives? I remember the first time I clumsily conveyed to my mother that I was questioning my sexual orientation when it wasn’t in question at all.  There was a clear expression of unconditional love, but her response was otherwise couched in generalities and ambiguous language. She also asked that we revisit this topic again only when I was “certain”. To this day, I am unable to give a precise answer to the seemingly simple question of when I came out to my parents without asking myself, did that time count?

For photographer and writer Kenneth Lam, whose work acts as a medium to share stories about Asian identities, the process was also nonlinear and complex. In an article he penned on the experience of coming out to his father following his mother’s passing (the article itself served as a further step in his coming out process), Kenneth wrote: But when the time came, I was silent. It was my sister who helped me say the words – something I’ll always be thankful for. I finally uttered, ‘I’m gay.’ He paused. He stopped looking at me. He turned his back on me and faced my sister. ‘He can’t be. It’s disgusting.’ He went on. ‘He’s my son, I love him, but he has to change. He will never be happy.’ Kenneth shares with me that his father’s immediate reaction after this was to run from the table, and pretend that the conversation never happened.

Since then, relations have improved, but to this day, Kenneth’s father doesn’t talk about his sexual orientation. He shares with me that like many Asian people of his generation, his father “has the feelings, yet not the words”, and that rather than verbal proclamations, love is expressed through gestures such as the ever-growing collection of magazines in which Kenneth is published, piled on his father’s bedside table. Kenneth attributes their improved relationship to a better understanding of generational differences and his father’s emotional limitations. I literally feel I have to translate his actions into words,” he shares. “There is so much still left unsaid, but there is so much that has been accepted already.”

However, just as there is no universal “Asian experience” or “trans experience”, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that queer people who share identity characteristics experience the same singular coming out journey. In the same way that many white LGBTQ+ individuals cannot relate to the homonormative dominant cultural vision of coming out, it’s equally important that a multitude of voices are represented when it comes to people of colour sharing their stories, to challenge the assumption that we all come out (or don’t) in the same way.

I have sometimes struggled to find the words when discussing my gender with certain family members. Despite my parents’ fluency in English, I often wonder if things might be different if I were able to convey the full gamut of my emotions in Cantonese, our mutual first language.

In 2014’s Lilting, written and directed by British filmmaker Hong Khaou, Kai, a gay man of Chinese-Cambodian descent, dies before he comes out to his mother. The poignant film tells the story of how Kai’s mother and his long term partner Richard, whose existence Kai’s mother was previously not aware of, navigate language barriers in order to grieve. Lilting was made over 20 years after The Wedding Banquet, yet both films continue to resonate with many queer Asian people today in their depiction of themes such as coming out in silence and the power of what is unspoken. However, unlike the character depicted in his work and other Asian individuals I spoke to, Hong came out emphatically and irrevocably in one single, unplanned moment. “Coming out was the single best decision I've ever made and at the same time was fraught with anxieties,” he tells me. “I remember my mother was reading an article about [bisexual Cantopop singer] Leslie Cheung having committed suicide, and she was a huge fan of his. There was so much warmth and care in her voice that I decided in that moment to tell her.” Hong’s mother did ask the question “Are you still gay?” a few years later, when he disclosed to her that he had met someone, but overall, unlike Julie or Kenneth’s experiences, the message was clearly received, and there was very little left unspoken. Hong says that he knows just as many queer Caucasian individuals living in London who have yet to come out as he does Asians who are fully out and accepted by their families. He believes that aside from race, a major factor that plays into why someone may struggle to come out is religion, though Hong cautions against generalisation.

The conflation between sexuality and gender also manifests itself in coming out narratives. As someone who has experienced coming out in both respects at different points in my life, I can attest to the fact that the conversations went very differently. Overall, I felt far less of a need to explain further when I came out as (at the time) a gay man, as most people I spoke to seemed to have a clearly formed and static view of what this meant. On the other hand, the conversations I had later on in life around my gender identity involved a whole new dynamic vocabulary that those around me were less familiar with, and so I would either be met with inquisitiveness or fearful reluctance to explore the unknown. To say that I feel ambivalent would be an understatement – there are times when explaining my identity exhausts me, and when I feel a huge sense of relief meeting people who are more interested in what I am binge-watching than in soliciting my advice on educating their employees, clients or children about gender diversity. However, when loved ones show no interest or curiosity about such a fundamental part of who I am, I feel unseen and unheard. I have sometimes struggled to find the words when discussing my gender with certain family members. Despite my parents’ fluency in English, I often wonder if things might be different if I were able to convey the full gamut of my emotions in Cantonese, our mutual first language.

The narrative of coming out never felt relevant to June Bellebono, an event organiser, producer and writer who grew up in a small Italian town rife with machoism. As a visibly transfeminine person, June faced homophobia and femmephobia without even having to come out, as it was all already assumed. They were also racialised as an Asian boy (at the time), which furthered certain assumptions about their identity. It therefore comes as no surprise that as someone whose identity and expression is constantly growing, evolving and transitioning, “coming out as *something* holds me back from becoming something else.” They further explain that “There's an understanding that coming out is meant to enable us to live our most authentic lives, but that's not the case for me at all.” Despite finding having to vocalise and explain who they are to others limiting rather than freeing, June feels pressure to come out constantly: “People want, and expect, access to my identity, and gain offence when I refuse to let them in. I love and value curiosity, and will happily talk about myself, but not when it's intrusively expected – I don't want to purposefully share with people about my name change, or my pronouns, or my body, I want these things to come up organically!”

For non-binary DJ, artist and producer BABYNYMPH, who expressed their gender freely since childhood, the fact that “coming out conversations” with family or their networks were regarded as imperative was incredibly annoying, as people always demand some kind of clear answer from you so they can put you in a box.” They continue to feel pressure to engage in these conversations, “even very intensely within the LGBTQ+ community. But I believe that my identity / sexuality should not be explained to anyone. I evolve, I change, I realise and discover new things about myself every day. I’m not here to give any receipts to anyone.”

We should continue to celebrate and support those who choose to be visibly LGBTQ+ because it feels congruent to them. But it’s important to remind ourselves to centre the individual rather than the collective by recognising that the dominant culture depiction of coming out is not for everyone, whether because the intersection of their identities makes the process more complex and nonlinear, or because they simply don’t feel the need or desire to explain their queerness. Part of this centring means shifting away from the vocabulary of “coming out”, which gives others the choice to accept or reject LGBTQ+ individuals, and focus instead on “inviting in”, which places agency in the hands of the individual, allowing others to experience their queerness if and when they choose to do so. It’s essential that we also make space for those who are not ready, interested or able to invite others in. As Michaela Coel observed in her rousing Emmy speech, we might feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success….but do not be afraid to disappear, from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence. Let’s celebrate not only those who have publicly invited us all in and who have courageously paved the way, but also those LGBTQ+ individuals who demonstrate quiet resilience, and who may not live their queer lives as visibly or audibly, but every bit as fully and authentically.

*Some of those interviewed for this piece chose to use pseudonyms.