On TV, coming out is usually a dramatic moment accompanied by tears, shouting, heart-warming speeches, hugs, or all of the above. I knew that was never going to happen for me.
Like many Chinese parents, my folks don’t really talk about their feelings — they mostly demonstrate love by feeding you or telling you to put on a jacket. The first time I told my mother that I was bi, she scoffed that I was “too young” then ignored me. Fifteen years later, she’s now been to Pride with me — but we still don’t talk about our feelings.
Like many Chinese parents, my folks don’t really talk about their feelings.
Here is some advice from the long road here:
Take your time
In real life, coming out is less like a season finale, and more like tidying your room: you have to do it over and over but, gradually, it’ll help your folks see that you’re capable of looking after yourself. For me, moving out but keeping in close contact helped my parents start to treat me more like an adult. Even if you live at home, doing more to take care of your parents and the household in practical ways can shift the dynamic from adult/child to one of mutual respect. You want to show them that they can love you without worrying about you, so they trust you to take charge of your own life and happiness.
Often migrant parents are hard on us because they’re scared for us. They have their own experiences of discrimination, so they want to protect us from anything that they see as an added risk. You have to convince them that you know who you are, and what you want.
Do your homework
People often try to tell you that being LGBTIQ+ is a “Western” thing. That’s just not true — and I co-produced a radio series to dispel this myth — but if all they see in the media is Anglo Australian stories, it makes sense that your parents don’t relate.
Finding queer and trans movies, myths, and literature from your culture can help you feel less alone, and provide you with material that might resonate more with your family. You can also look for peer support groups and resources in language. If your family is religious, it might help to find LGBTIQ-friendly faith groups or interpretations of scripture. At the same time, remember that you’re not trying to win a debate. You’re trying to tell someone you love something important about yourself.
Test the waters
Try to gauge how your parents might react while keeping the topic at a safe distance from yourself, such as by asking about a story that’s in the news. Decide your approach based on your parents’ reaction. If they’re openly hostile, take pause. You don’t owe it to anyone else to come out, and it’s absolutely okay to keep secrets that keep you safe. If their reaction is positive, that’s encouraging — but be prepared for the possibility that they might respond differently when it’s their own child.
Work out what you want
Set some realistic goals: For example, if you’ve never seen anyone in your family kiss and even your straight cousins pretend to be virgins, then having a frank conversation about being pansexual and polyamorous might be a bit of a leap. Maybe in the long term, you want your family to accept, understand and support you, but focus on your short-term needs. Do you want your parents to stop setting you up with people? Would you like them to start calling you a different name? Break it into baby steps — and don’t let your self-worth depend on their validation.
Break it into baby steps — and don’t let your self-worth depend on their validation.
Tell a friend what you’re planning so they can debrief with you afterwards. Make sure that your family aren’t your only connection to your culture and community (that’s where peer support groups like Beit el Hob and Yellow Kitties can come in, or for me, a regular QTPOC potluck and my mahjong club).
If you live with your parents, organise back-up accommodation — I’ve often had friends crash at mine for a few days until a situation cools down or they sort something more long-term. You can also try a peer support and referral service like QLife. It’s good to prepare for all possible outcomes but also remember that their immediate response isn’t necessarily forever.
Do it your way
You can talk in person, by phone or video chat. If you don’t speak the same language fluently, stick to simple wording. You can write a letter so they have a chance to think before they respond. You can even just drop heaps of hints — for example, introducing your lover as a friend then letting your relationship become apparent once they’re already on good terms with your folks. All these methods are valid and only you know what’s best for your family. If you have more than one parent, you might choose a different approach for each of them.
That said, subtlety can backfire. My family is much more comfortable talking about work than dating — we’re from Communist China, okay — so I’d often mention being part of LGBTIQ+ activism. My mother is Catholic and does a lot of volunteering herself so community service is something we bond over, and I figured she would read between the lines. “How was I supposed to know?” Mum said, years later. “You’re involved in refugee rights even though you’re not a refugee.” Fair call.
I’m surprised and impressed with how accepting my parents have become, but there were many years where I had to cut my life in two, bracketing all the parts that I knew weren’t welcome. Sometimes I kind of resent all the stuff they missed out on. And sometimes I wonder why I didn’t have more faith in their ability to adapt to the unfamiliar — after all, they moved to a strange country and started a whole new life.
Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations. Follow them on Twitter at @qianjinghua.