For members of the Asian LGBTQ community, Boston can be solid ground for personal discovery and advocacy. Still, some stories remain untold.
The international LGBTQ community and LGBTQ people of color have their own stories to tell. Because of cultures and backgrounds that differ from those in mainstream culture, many face unique challenges.
As an international student in Boston, I have gotten to know a lot of these individuals as friends and colleagues, but I seldom hear their stories. For those who are from Asian countries or have other backgrounds where gay culture is suppressed, it can take an incredible amount of courage to discuss identity.
Despite those challenges and taboos, I asked several people to share their unique stories. Below are their reflections from Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai perspectives—all powerful, and all previously untold.
Miles from mainland
“Could you not be a gay?”
Joey’s mother hugged him at the airport on the day she returned home to China. Joey said nothing, comforted her with a gentle pat on the back, and saw her off.
It’s Joey’s fifth year staying in the United States. Growing up in a small city in Hunan in southern China, where the sex and gender education was scarce at the time, he had been uncertain about his sexual orientation for a long time—even when he had his first boyfriend in high school.
“It’s not right,” Joey recalls the boy saying to him after they dated for a while. Heartbroken and unsure about whether their relationship was love or a platonic friendship, Joey questioned himself but came up with no real answers.
In the years that followed, while attending college in a city in northeastern China, Joey was considered an abnormal male with soft voice and womanish behavior. He says manhood was encouraged in the community and that people gossiped a lot behind his back. Feeling isolated, he immersed himself in his studies and applied for master’s programs in the US—none of which helped with his confusion.
Joey says he started to force himself to date girls and watch straight porn, but that only made him feel less comfortable in his body and more depressed. At one point he was suicidal; helpless, Joey turned to his mother for a doctor, but she told him to get more exercise instead. He started running daily, which helped with his depression, but answers came from Joey educating himself by watching videos and chatting with people online and by phone.
In the early 2000s, Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, became a central stage for LGBTQ groups to discuss gender issues. It was there that Joey found a famous blogger, Youjian Wu, who was the first internationally recognized mother in China’s history to publicly support a gay son. Wu started blogging at the age of 60 and established PFLAG China, the country’s first NGO formed by LGBTQ individuals, families, and friends. Joey reached out, and after several long talks, finally came to believe that he is physically and mentally normal. After years of struggle, it was a relief.
Joey didn’t know much about the environment toward LGBTQ groups in the US until he came to Boston to pursue his master’s degree. To his surprise, there’s no gossip as he experienced it in China—not at school, nor in the workplace. As a student in the Boston area, he recalls one experience in an MIT campus chorus in which a peer who was a gender minority was addressed as a woman by all members of the group. Joey was heartened by the unanimous understanding.
“A transgender person is worth respect like that,” he says.
After three years in the US, Joey still hasn’t completely come out to his parents, and the open secret concerns him. Though he’s posted articles about gay people on social media, he’s never addressed it with his mother and father. But once while his mother was visiting Boston, she asked a question—almost a plea.
“Son, could you not be a gay?”
Joey felt it was the right time to come out to his mom. Face to face, now or never.
“Mom, I’m a gay.”
After a long silence, his mother whispered, “You’re not my good boy.”
On the day his mother left for China, she burst into tears and asked again.
“Could you not be a gay?”
Joey felt sorry for his mother, but he can’t change who he is.
“Yes, I am.”
In his mother’s two-month stay, Joey patiently discussed with his mother the three questions that most often worry the parents of gay people: how to prevent AIDS, how to have children, and how to deal with gossips. “Just believe me that everything will be fine,” Joey told his worried mother.
Joey’s not his mother’s first child. Before him, his mother had a daughter who died at a young age. With the one-child policy, his mother has since given all her love to Joey. During her two-month stay in Boston, she repeatedly asked him “try to date with girls.”
“If your daughter is still alive, you would not want her to marry a boy like me,” he told her.
Joey’s friends said he was too cruel. “But that’s the only way I live,” he says. “Otherwise I’ll have to take my own life.”
After she got home, Joey says his mother explained, “I don’t care what people said about me, but I care what they said about you.”
Through the pain of not being understood by the people he loves, Joey told his mother that his plans are to stay in the US, and to get married. He’s pursuing a PhD and a happy life here in Boston, where he says he can be himself in a way that he couldn’t back home.
Ja-Hon will always remember the time that he was mistaken for a girl while giving cookies to his neighbors around Christmas with his twin brother. They were about six years old, and compared to his athletic brother, Ja-Hon was always more feminine in behavior and appearance.
Growing up in an extremely white town in New York where there were only four other Asian people in his class, Ja-Hon has always felt different from others. Most of his schoolmates liked sports and chasing after girls; he tended to do creative projects and make friends with girls. It made him question about what means to be a man in various contexts—as an Asian man, as an American man.
“Are you gay?”
Ja-Hon got direct questions like this in high school and started to think seriously what it meant. Though overwhelming at first, the inquiries pushed Ja-Hon to search for and eventually find answers, in the process identifying as queer. Growing up as a minority and experiencing discrimination at a young age, his ideas about sexual orientation, religious, and racial identity are mixed up together. He can’t think about one without another, and there’s not a lot of information out there about what it means to be an Asian American Christian queer.
His family is another story, and he has a lot to figure out on that front. Both of Ja-Hon’s parents are from Taiwan, and grew up in a different environment.
“To express yourself is a very American thing,” Ja-Hon says. “For Asians it’s not. You can express yourself, but only to certain people… It’s less about your immediate family and more about extended family.”
Ja-Hon’s mother’s family’s side is still in Taiwan, and he doesn’t want to put her in a tough situation. “Your parents are accountable to all their families, and they have to basically defend you if you decide to do this,” he says. “I don’t have to live with the consequences, because I’m in America. But my mom and my dad would have to do more talking when they go back to Taiwan.”
Unless he gets into a serious relationship, he says he’ll keep his sexuality underground for the sake of his parents. That hasn’t stopped him from learning more about himself, though; eager to explore his identity, Ja-Hon joined a group for Asian Christian queers on Facebook and began posting questions. In the process, he says he got a lot of comments and at least one helpful tip.
“Every situation is different,” Ja-Hon says. “It’s not all black and white, like you have to come out to your parents or just be in the closet forever. There’s a lot of gray area in the middle.”
Ja-Hon has had a lot of conversations about sexual orientation with his mom, but says they’re more like circling around the topic. They talk vaguely about personal experiences and use “a friend” as a surrogate. Other times, there’s something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell principle” in play. On occasion, Ja-Hon says he would let his sisters ask his parents questions for him.
Though he hasn’t gotten many direct answers, Ja-Hon says that one day he found his mother reading a book—with notes on it—about what it means to be a queer Christian person.
She did her own research, Ja-Hon thought with a smile.
Ally and share
Ja-Hon says it’s not easy to find people with similar backgrounds, intersecting identities, and shared feelings.
“It’s hard to find friends at the same wavelength.”
In his experience, mainstream queer culture in America is “too white.” Ja-Hon admires how some white Americans come out with ease and pride, but that experience doesn’t apply to his situation, so he has found groups that better fit his background.
Even in a group that seems to match, though, sometimes it’s still difficult to express yourself and communicate because of cultural and language barriers. One time, Ja-Hon joined a Taiwanese group, but everyone was talking about their identity in Mandarin Chinese. He stayed quiet, as he could not find the right words to express himself in Chinese.
Speaking from his own experience, Ja-Hon encourages LGBTQ people, especially those of color, to find the group that they belong to and support each other when it gets difficult. “To share their stories in their own way,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be directly coming out. It could be telling stories as dancing, singing, or movies, as long as it fits your need.
“My whole life has been a minority.”
I ask Ja-Hon if he felt lonely, and he says he is curious about what it’s like to be a majority. He wishes to move back to Taiwan one day, though he acknowledges that he would be an American with a lot to learn about the culture and language, and imagines walking streets where everybody looks like him.
“What would it be like to live life with one less thing that’s different?” he asks.
The possibilities have become Ja-Hon’s biggest curiosity.
“I’ll definitely figure it out.”
Learn to accept
Shi Chen remembers what gay life was like in the late 70s’ in Taiwan. There’s a description in the novel Crystal Boys, which means “sinful sons.” In the book, gay people go out and look for dates at night in a park; the scenes left Shi Chen with an unforgettable impression that life in Taiwan was hard for gay people.
He read the book in college when he was afraid and confused about his sexual orientation. LGBTQ information was suppressed in Taiwan at that time, and he only learned things through novels written by Pai Hsien-yung, a pioneer Taiwanese writer. The stories all had sad endings, though, and he didn’t want that kind of miserable life.
With no one in his conservative family to turn to, Shi Chen repressed himself until college, when he met some gay friends who came out and helped him to explore his identity. One time, while out at a karaoke bar with friends, he recalls being surprised to see a guy singing and dancing to a song by a woman. He admired how people express themselves freely.
In the 2000s, gay parades became popular in Taiwan, and more LGBTQ people showed up on TV and the internet. In the wave, Shi Chen found a video about a game played by a group of transgender people who went to date in bars. It was a funny, and beyond laughing, Shi Chen saw with relief that people who are gender minorities can live happily.
Shi Chen became even more confident to explore gender issues after coming to Boston. What gave him inspiration was not only how LGBTQ communities live here, but also how people outside the community treated them.
“It’s really hard to have blessings and understandings from another group, especially in Asian countries, let alone from the seniors in one’s family whose conventional idea is strong,” Shi Chen says. In Taiwan, he says it felt like being in a zoo with all the strange stares, but the hardest part was dealing with family. Shi Chen has seen many gay people marry female partners and have children because of the unbearable pressure from their families, but says he would never do it.
Though determined not to date any woman or accept dates arranged by his family, Shi Chen hasn’t come out to his parents. He says he’s waiting for a perfect time when he can afford his own life and deal with the emotions.
“You must give your parents some time to take care of their own feelings and pressure,” he says. “You learn to accept each other at the same time.”
With no one to help in his own family, Shi Chen has found new families in Boston. In one group organized by LGBTQ individuals, he met friends who are like him and found a strong sense of belonging. They chatted casually in bars and shared emails about everything from new girlfriends to work promotions; it makes Shi Chen happy to share those insignificant things with a community that he belongs to.
It’s also about guidance. What Shi Chen has found most enlightening are the group mentors who have stable careers and families and still find the time to give him advice when he is in need. With no seniors in his family to give guidance like that, he’s become close to his mentors. “They showed me a model of what I’ll become in 10 years,” Shi Chen says.
Inspired by this experience, Shi Chen plans to organize a similar support group back in Taiwan, and to become a mentor for young people there who are confused and stressed about their gender identities as he used to be.
In May, Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage after years of efforts by LGBTQ activists. Shi Chen is looking forward to the change when he goes back to Taiwan, though he knows that it will take a long time for the society to accept gay marriage. I ask about his dreams: “To be myself and have a normal life as everyone else.
“You have to find happiness in your life on your own.”
A better community
Gift has been a babysitter in Boston for 10 years. As a lesbian, she has always been treated well by the children and parents in her employer’s family. Luckier than many LGBTQ people in similar situations, Gift, who is Thai, has always had support from family and friends—experiences that gave her the confidence and inspiration to organize the Thailand Pride Parade, the first Thai LGBTQ community involvement with the Boston Pride Parade.
As an organizer with the Thai Organization of Boston, Gift has organized a lot of cultural events and performances. She noticed that a lot of performers are LGBTQ people and are pretty open to expressing themselves on stage, which has provided opportunities to show people outside of the Thai community their lively group of LGBTQ members.
With a strong sense of community among Thai LGBTQ people, Gift says that members of her group may be more open to coming out than people from some other Asian countries—the partial result, she says, of a changing popular culture in Thailand in recent years. In Boston, they’re also raising their profile; for this year’s Pride festivities, they had an official sponsor, costumes representing different regions of Thailand, and about 20 people on the route. It’s a good start, and Gift says they will likely have an even bigger turnout next year.
The Boston area has the fifth-largest population of LGBTQ people in the United States at about 5%. As a city rich in immigrants and international students, however, we seldom hear the voice of international communities that intersect. Some may even question if they exit.
They do. Though faced with funding challenges, there are even groups like Gift’s that specifically organize around related causes and cooperate with other LGBTQ outfits to help promote equal rights internationally, share stories from different countries, and, most importantly of all, form a support structure. For those abroad and struggling with gender and racial identity questions, these organizations provide a home.
With a preparation team of only 15 people, Boston Taiwanese for Equality showed up with about 100 participants at the Boston Pride Parade this year. With a rainbow balloon of six letters reading “TAIWAN” in the front, they headed on and handed out rainbow flags and medals—all prepared by volunteers—to passersby.
“Taiwan people like to take part in social events,” one of the organizers said. In 2018, about 50 people joined the parade. This year, the number doubled.
Beyond the parade, activists are connecting with other Taiwan groups in New York, San Francisco, and DC to learn how to organize events and share resources.
“It’s like rolling the snow ball,” the organizer added. “In many conservative Asian countries, the LGBTQ culture is suppressed. We hope the Asian international students and immigrants who come to Boston can be themselves and have discussion freely. That’s what we’re trying to help with in their duration here.
“The most important thing is about collaboration. If each of us would contribute a bit to this group, as we all have different specialties and resources, we’ll make it a better community.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and also published in Chinese in Sampan. To see more reporting like this, you can support future efforts by visiting givetobinj.org.