Author’s Note: “There’s a reason the word ART is in Cathartic,” said my Director/Dramaturg. It was the end of our week-long workshop on my play about a Chinese-Canadian lesbian “coming out” to herself. It isn’t biographic, but it is definitely shaped by my experiences. The play had been a struggle from before the get-go. The creative process was more difficult than previous projects. The title changed daily. I wasn’t sure what the play was about, even though this was a companion piece to a play produced the year before. But I knew these characters. I thought it was a case of writer’s block, but it was far more complicated than that. A few weeks before the workshop, a young man in my life came out to me. I can’t honestly say I was happy about it. I had suspected, but hoped it was not to be. I worry his journey, as a gay Asian male, will be even more difficult than my own as a lesbian.
I could barely write the twenty pages for the first day of the workshop. The first three weren’t even script. I wrestled with it all weekend before the workshop. It wasn’t even a third of what I needed. During the break, I told my Director I wasn’t sure I could write the play anymore because I thought my main character should commit suicide. My Director challenged me to write a monologue about why my character didn’t want to be gay. He suggested I connect her struggle to her cultural experience. I started writing and before I knew it, I’d written two pages. It was the easiest thing I’d written in six months since starting the script.
“There’s a reason the word ART is in Cathartic,” said my Director/Dramaturg. He’s right; the personal revelations were unexpected, even to me. The cast response at first read was emotional. We tried to incorporate the monologue into the script, but there wasn’t any place for it in my comedy. I used it to inspire material for the script, but never used the text directly.
It’s Pride month, but I don’t really celebrate. Sure, I have a few rainbow flags and I might change my Facebook profile pic, but for the most part being gay is something I don’t know if I will ever truly celebrate. People don’t realize how deeply entrenched heterosexuality is promoted and glorified in society. From an early age, girls dressed in pink, blue for boys, we are taught gender roles, with boys and girls having separate rules. The idea that life is about finding your opposite-sex soul mate and raising a family is also reinforced and rewarded.
As a child, those of us on the outside can feel alien. We know we are different and though we may not have the language for it, we know well to keep it hidden to the world. As a person of colour, I always had my skin to remind me of the difference and there were no shortages of bullies in my life who reminded me in other ways. The boy who on the first day of school chanted “chunky chinky chinaman.” Have you heard it? It’s apparently a racist taunt that goes back to the early 1900s. I heard a Chinese senior recount it in a documentary. How did that taunt make its way from the early 1900s to today? Oral history. From one generation to the next, teaching that white skin is the best. And what’s “normal.”
I saw that boy (now grown) at my high school reunion recently. Apparently, he thought we shared some kind of bond. He called my name out several times, and when I realized it was him, I tried to get away. “Hey,” he said. “Remember me?” Are you kidding? How could I ever forget you? My eight-year old self still cries inside thinking of your taunt. Perhaps the words didn’t even mean anything to you, but they have stayed with me all these years later. I hate you, because you taught me to hate myself.
I can’t remember when I knew I was gay…. I know I had crushes on other girls as early as kindergarten. All through school, girls fascinated me, and when we got to a dating age, I knew I would rather go out with girls than with boys. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. Other clues I missed? Instead of Archie and Reggie, I preferred Veronica and Betty. I liked the pretty boys, too. You know, like Brad Pitt’s seven minutes in Thelma and Louise? It took a long time for me to piece these clues together. I didn’t have any role models. Slowly, the white role models emerged. Ellen on the cover of Time magazine. Sports heroes like Martina Navratilova. But gay Chinese role models? Can’t name one. Gay people of colour role models? That’s challenging, too.
Having spent my formative years knowing I was different by race, figuring out I was gay was not a welcome thought. Who wants to be THAT different from the rest of the world? The world is designed for heteros to live, love, and celebrate their moments—engagement, wedding, baby, anniversaries, and so on. But what if you are so different you cannot legally wed the one you love? You are discriminated against regarding employment and housing? You are constantly pushed down in ways you did not even realize. You internalize a hatred for being so different and life sometimes seems like a punishment because your natural inclinations are deemed unnatural.
Add to these race-related problems an attraction to the same sex and you have a hopeless outlook for the future. It’s harder to progress; it’s harder to make a difference in the world when these things set you up for failure. To have two strikes already against you? What is there to celebrate when you are excluded from normal societal activities? What if you learn that, raised in these conditions, you are ashamed of yourself? What can you celebrate when Pride comes around? I celebrate that progress is being made. That the LGBTQ kids behind me will have an easier time. But nothing is guaranteed. Homophobia and discrimination are not far from the surface around the world. You become a target or scapegoat for others. Hate crimes are on the rise, and that is no comfort either.
Celebrate Pride? I try … but it doesn’t come naturally. How could it? For years it was something to be so deeply ashamed of, and even now it can be a stumbling block for others. Why would I cheer about that?
What happens when you realize you hate yourself? That even after years of being out, you wish you were not gay. Actually, you loathe being gay. You stop dating because it’s easier than trying to get your family to accept your “lifestyle.” You give up on finding that person to share your life with because it’s easier to be alone and bring your dog to barbeques and Christmas parties. You imagine how different your life could be if only you were straight and not rocking the boat. Challenging societal norms can get exhausting. For example: Oh god, I have to help educate another straight person? Can I find the energy to share my story again? Some days I can’t even try. Other days I welcome the opportunity. It takes a toll on your psychological being, always trying to explain yourself to people. Reliving and recounting the hurts in your life might help them but digging up those memories is like ripping the scab off an infected wound.
Why couldn’t I have been born white?
Why couldn’t I have been born straight?
Why do people tell me I have a choice in whether to be gay or live the gay “lifestyle”?
What kind of choice is it to accept that you are always going to be different and “lesser than”?
I never chose to be Asian.
And I would never choose to be gay.
I am proud of my Chinese heritage and celebrate it, but don’t tell me that I chose to be gay and take all the baggage that comes with that choice.
Is that something you would have chosen?