Back in the bay, an organizer asked me to tell my coming out story (family ver.) at a queer gathering that night. I thought about it all day at work, tugging at different moments to find the beginning tip of thread that could unravel the rest of the story, or perhaps the tail end for a perfect wrap-up, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. In the end, I had only written down one line in my notes — I was straight until I wasn’t — and I told her I couldn’t do it.
The reality is that there is no real story to tell.
There is no beginning, rising action, climax, and the resolving conclusion. I feel like coming out stories are ongoing, always evolving, repeating, and folding back onto itself over and over like kneaded dough. Sometimes we only hear of the explosive fight that drove the person out of the house or the all-embracing stories, where devoutly Christian parents decide to forsake their church that would not accept their child.
But there are also the untold stories of pauses, comas, and the indefinite white space that follows the period at the end of a sentence — coming out stories that play like black-and-white silent movies each holiday season. Running their hands through the itchy bristles of their new military cut, in preparation for the trip back home. A bitterness that fills their mouths at the mention of family. A polite smile etched onto their face during the talk about a husband, withering egg cells, and marriage. An out-of-the-blue reminder of “don’t bring a girl home next time.” The words wrapping itself around their throat and suppressing the instinct to scream over the otherwise peaceful family dinner table.
For me, there was an underestimation of how much my mother’s words would sting. And following it was a frantic desire to explain my humanity to my mother. I found myself helpless in the face of language barriers and reaching for the only thing I knew — academic English jargon that was never meant to hold people like us in the first place. There were moments where I had to swallow my words whole because I didn’t know what to do with it all.
There were friends, who had known me as a straight girl, asking if I was struggling with my sexuality and wanted to talk about it. But I told them I was okay. Because I was. Everything felt so natural and easy. It felt right. I guess I had always imagined queerness to be a hard thing — a life threatening thing, a heavy thing, a sad thing — but this, this was so beautiful and warm.
There were moments when quick understanding of my own newfound queerness felt like a requirement to be a decent partner to them, rather than something I could go about freely. This was perhaps a burden that I placed on myself. I bought up the entire queer literature and perused every blog. We still broke up, and I still didn’t know what it meant to be queer.
There were days when I wish I wanted suburbia, 2.5 kids, and a nice salary man husband. I wished I wanted those things. I wished I hadn’t fated myself into a constant state of wanting.
There was a time I was sitting through a workshop, counting how many times I had been misgendered in the last hour, when a random text message arrived from one of my queer friends: “Yo so like are you gay I’m confused.” I left the room and cried.
There were emails in my inbox, citing studies arguing that gay behaviors were signs of a civilization’s demise. Calls where my mother bawled continuously and kept repeating that she had raised me wrong. Tantrums refusing to come to graduation. Threats of outing me to the rest of my family. Sudden cries of extreme Korean patriotism and framing me as a traitor for dating a Japanese partner. Accusatory questioning of why I was not dating a guy, and if it was because of all the struggles that she had as a woman in our overly traditional family because she assured me that being a woman was still worth it.
There was a night when I randomly emailed a NYC PFLAG member out of complete desperation, begging her to speak to my mother as a fellow Korean parent of a queer child. I was a complete stranger to her. She generously agreed to do it, but then my mother refused and that communication ended. Years later, I met her at a Trans Day of Liberation march and stood around awkwardly to thank her.
There was us sitting in my tiny apartment living room, among a multicolored slew of items that I had somehow accumulated during my four years in college and packing for the flight back home. My mother softly folding in her words between the creases of my rose-colored shirt. “왜 좋아하는지 알겠다 / I can see why you would like them.” And me looking up bewildered, as if newly awakened, only to be met by the steady rhythm of her hands folding down the layers of the next shirt.
Even days like this, where I am not constantly warring with myself and those around me in regards to my queerness, my body can instantly call back that feeling of helplessness and self-disgust, as if it had been set aside on a well-dusted shelf that is always within reach. It looms over me in moments where the world calls on me to be vulnerable yet again with strangers I have just met. I try to avoid talking about queerness with my family as much as possible, because of those fears that I’m not quite sure that I would be able to hold up in that conversation, even now.
Over the years, in meeting queer/trans Korean Americans all across the country, I have slowly learn how to soothe my own wounds and unravel a long-held guilt around my queerness and its associated secrecy. There are a lot of us out there (surprise), and there are folks steadily building out different ways to connect to “koreanness” than the ones assigned to them by their families or their church, which have been often homophobic and hurtful. It makes me realize that my Korean identity is not contingent upon my family accepting my queerness and that I can have a relationship with the land, language, and people that does not require carving out a large portion of myself to offer up in sacrifice. And I can’t tell you how freeing that is for a diasporic kid like me.
Update (7/9): I also want to share a post for queer Korean people with resources in both Korean & English. Hope it’s helpful.