525 600 Minutes
If you identify as an LGBTQIA+ person, some content of this reflective piece may cause you distress. Please don’t keep this to yourself. I highly encourage you to seek help either in the form of in-person counselling, or by contacting your local LGBTQIA+ crisis support service by phone or by webchat. In Australia, you can contact QLife between 3pm and midnight or Lifeline 24/7. As cliche as it sounds, you are not alone. This is something that even I struggled with at various times during my life, and I owe my being here today to my friends and family, even when I wasn’t ready to tell them who I was. Your network of support may look different to mine, and I hope that you’re able to reach out to them at any time.
impetus (n.) the force or energy with which a body moves.
This time last year, the 19th of September 2018, was the day I finally felt was the time for all of my world to finally get to know the real me. The day that I also felt like I could lose everything I had. My family, my friends, every single support network I had. But to fully unpack this day, I have to go back a little further.
About 18 months beforehand, I decided to come out to one of my close friends the only way a suppressed queer boi knew how: by asking them out. On reflection, this is very cringey because I did this over DMs but bear with me for a hot minute. I had mulled over the exact way to tell him and how I okay I would be with the response. However, overthinking got the better of me and I hesitated hitting the ‘Send’ button for several days. I then decided to just send it because what use was it for me to just hold all of these emotions inside? What more damage would I do to myself, knowing full well these feelings haven’t gone away? I cried myself to sleep that night, letting the overwhelming wave of emotions just take me to a better place, whatever that would be. I constantly pored over my notifications to see if he replied, but he didn’t; not for a couple of days. When I got the notification, I froze. I couldn’t bear to open it, even if I couldn’t see the contents of the message. I left it for the best part of the day, and opened it, once again, late at night. He said something along the lines of, “Thanks. I appreciate you telling me but it’s not going to work out.” And once again, I cried myself to sleep, only this time, it was a cathartic release. It’s as if I was allowed to be me for the first time.
2017 also brought with it the Same-Sex Marriage Postal Survey — something that impacted the mental health quality of many in the LGBTQIA+ community. Being closeted at this time, I did entertain the idea of coming out at the height of the debate in the hopes of changing my parents’ minds about voting ‘No’. I decided against it, mostly because I hadn’t fully worked out what would be my safety plan if my worst outcome would be realised, but also because I felt a stronger need to create a safer place for those who didn’t have the same amount of privilege as me. I love symbolism. It’s a creative and covert way to convey a message, and something that I put to good use on my Instagram. I also got myself The Acceptance Ring, made by Airbnb as part of its ‘Until We All Belong’ campaign, and I’ve worn it every day since I received it in the mail. My parents and some members of my extended family did ask what the ring was, but I just brushed it off and said it was just a ring that I’d bought. It’s one of the many “if you know, you know” things I have. As the year drew on, and the campaigns and polls grew ever darker, I noticed that I became a lot quieter, and even withdrawn. My saving grace was having a group of friends that I’d met online and had started a podcast with. We all became supports for each other, and given that most of us are queer, we needed it. The podcast was also our way to vent about our feelings to the void, and to whoever had the (mis)fortune of listening to us. As we got closer to the release of results, my anxiety shot through the roof. Once we get the news that same-sex marriage would be legalised, we all breathed a sigh of relief, but knowing that the journey wasn’t quite over. I had some things to say.
New Year, New Me(aning)
As 2018 rolled in, it gave me wonderful opportunities to expand my wings and share my truest self to other people. When Love, Simon premiered in March, I took every opportunity I had to go and watch it. I had never seen a queer film in the mainstream (in saying that, I did watch Moonlight, but that was on a plane), let alone a queer film made for young adults. I can safely say that I cried multiple times over multiple viewings. I reflected on it and all my emotions for a while, wondering what my life would’ve been like had I told the world earlier on in my adolescence, if my parents would accept me for who I am, or if I would even be here to tell this story today. I would go on to buy the novel and its sequels, poring over the pages, taking in each and every word, and finding things that I related to so much it hurt to read them. I resolved to make 2018 my year. I’d already told my siblings not long after I came out to my friend the year before, and that was met with support (surprisingly).
Jump forward to April of 2018 and it’s the height of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Two of my friends come and visit myself and another mate of mine who are volunteering (side note — both of us enjoyed it a lot, and even got to meet some awesome athletes; he got the opportunity to meet Lee Chong Wei, and I got to do the coin toss for the Men’s Hockey Semi Final between Australia and New Zealand.) On their last day on the coast, we’d decided to celebrate the end of the Games with food. I’d already told these two in the morning and they were (again) surprisingly supportive; mostly because one of them had the fullest intentions of setting me up with the other one’s cousin. Fun times. The time for dinner comes around, and we go explore Southport, immersing ourselves in the energy that came with the Games. We debated over food options but finally settled on Korean BBQ. It proved to be a good decision — amazed at the amount of banchan that was provided and the assistance that the lovely ajummas gave to us, we tucked in to the BBQ and downed a few bottles of soju. Perhaps spurred on by my two friends, the soju, or just my own internal need to be honest with my mate, we got to the subject of significant others and well, I don’t need to explain what I said. He was taken aback for a bit, and after a few other clarifying questions, our conversation continued, lively as ever. I asked him afterwards if he had any inkling, and he admitted that he didn’t have the faintest clue. We unpacked this together, and both agreed that there’s a specific expression of queerness that Filipino gays tend to lean towards, and that I didn’t necessarily abide by those “rules”. I began to rest easier, but not for long. I still had the remaining 98% of my friends and family to go.
My Inner Romanticist
To be honest, being a volunteer for the Commonwealth Games was exhausting just as much as it was exhilarating. I returned to that #unilyfe a little more tired than I would usually be after a mid-semester break. That would change relatively soon, and it would come from the most surprising of places — network television. It’s weird how the hype of reality television can change one’s emotions. MasterChef Australia was about to premiere its 10th season (one which would give me much to talk about for both the right and wrong reasons). As we watched who would get an apron and who wouldn’t, one of the contestants caught my eye almost instantly. I think I did a double take. To no one’s surprise, it was Brendan. As the weeks went on, I still felt something towards him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Was it romantic? Was it just because he was a social worker before he entered the competition? Part of me wanted these feelings to resolve or to disappear altogether. I wanted to focus on uni, and not have to manage these added emotions. They had other plans. After unpacking a lot of these with a close friend of mine, I admitted to myself that this was indeed a romantic crush. Something I hadn’t overtly experienced in a very long time. So the strategy changed from trying to make it disappear, and instead sit with these feelings and see where they’d take me.
By now it was the end of June, and my other group of friends had decided that I needed to finally meet this cousin that I’d heard so much about. I did end up meeting him, and thankfully my friends didn’t just ditch me and leave me hanging. After this double-date-but-don’t-call-it-a-double-date watching Incredibles 2 (much nostalgia), I dropped one of my friends off and I asked them if they knew that the cousin was somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. They had their suspicions (and I’m not afraid to admit that I did too), but given that he hadn’t told them, I wasn’t going to push for an answer from him. I also wondered if he was in the same boat as I was — just waiting for a way out, to be properly independent and just live life without having to tell his parents anything. I found out not long ago that he indeed find his way out. Chased a job in Melbourne, and from what I can tell, is really living it up. More power to him. We enter the next half of 2018 and I began to plan this “coming out” thing the only way I knew how — through video. I knew I would never be able to tell my parents face-to-face that I was gay. It would be such an emotional anvil to carry, and I wouldn’t be able to say anything. I got one of the kids to do some art for me (because who doesn’t love a sappy story?) which I’d put over some voiceovers that I’d record. The audio recordings went by with relative ease, and I surprised myself with just how much emotion I was able to convey. I’d also decided to release two versions — one which would be solely for my parents, and one that would be uploaded to all of my socials. By the time I finished the videos, it was around late-August. Happy 26th.
Even the best plans can be foiled. I actually wanted to post the videos on the 18th. I gave my brother a USB with the video to show my parents before heading out for the day. I was actually quite nervous, but this was combined with assessment anxiety because I had a group presentation to co-facilitate that night. At the last planning meeting, I warned my other group mates that there was a good chance I was going to be nervous, and that I’d planned to come out to my parents. They were a little surprised but very encouraging. I guess they’d never expected me to say that I wasn’t already out. Fast forward to the night of the 18th and we delivered our workshop without a hitch. I checked my phone and sent a text to my brother. His reply was, “It’s not the right time to do this.” My heart sank. I couldn’t understand why he would say that. When will the ‘right time’ be? Will there ever be a ‘right time’? Why would he try and stop me? Should I have just stopped myself before it even got to this point? I tried to process this as best I could but I still couldn’t fathom his decision, but I was reminded that we are the authors of our own stories, and we have the ability to change our own story. And so I did. I decided to do it my way, no matter what the consequences were.
I was very nervous for most of the day. I don’t remember much, save for thinking about what kind of scenarios might happen after the video goes up. Who will be surprised? Will my family react differently? Is it possible that I will end up not having a bed to sleep in that night? I’d actually planned to go and watch Romeo is not the Only Fruit, a gender-bending, queer musical take on the Shakespearean classic which premiered in Brisbane as part of the Brisbane Festival with a friend. I’d also told a few friends about my plans that night and they’d offered their place up as an option should it all just blow up in my face. I felt so uneasy over most of the day that I believe I ended up drinking four coffees before meeting up with my friend, after which I ended up having some alcohol to celebrate what was going to be a wild ride for the next few hours. Call time came and we went into the small, loft-like theatre space, and before the show started, I sent the video link to my mum through a DM, uploaded the other video to all my other socials, and turned my phone off. Nothing but my friend, the audience, and the play occupying my mind (the production was great, by the way, and I highly recommend anyone to watch it if they have the chance).
Once the play had ended, I turned on my phone to a surprising number of notifications and no less than eight or nine missed calls from my mum. I deliberately ignored the missed calls and the reply from my mum and instead focused on the notifications. Instagram and Twitter were very supportive, but because I was probably most like myself on those two platforms, they didn’t have as much of an impact as those on Facebook. I scrolled through the many comments left by family and friends, and every single one of them was positive. The theme of them was the same — we love you for who you are, and thank you. I was touched by them, especially those from my extended and immediate family, many of whom have a strong link to faith. To this day, I still have a good connection to my faith and how I view it and my relationship with the concept of religion, but I’ll save that for another story (or maybe my autobiography). An hour had passed and my friend and I had to part ways. Still not feeling comfortable in going home to meet my parents, I went to meet another friend and process this over a coffee (if you’ve kept track, this is now coffee number FIVE). After another hour of mulling over what would happen, I finally went home.
I guess my parents wanted to do the long talk then and there, even if I got back close to midnight. My heart was racing but I took a huge breath in before knocking on the door. There was a noticeable silence; my mum was the first one to break it. She asked if I had been pressured to do this by anyone (of course not — well, not by anyone else). After a long discussion about how they felt sad that I felt pressured into doing things I didn’t have the passion for, and feeling as though there was a heavy burden of expectation placed upon me, they said that — despite what the structure of Christian religion would say — they still loved me as their son, and would nothing more from me than to be happy. It was at this point that I broke down, bawling my eyes out. Call it catharsis, call it release, but those words meant a great deal to me at that very moment. It’s as though my expectations of a negative outcome had unravelled onto the ground, revealing my most vulnerable self. All I said to my parents was, “That’s all I’ve wanted to hear.”
To be Seen and Heard
The phrase “I love you” is something that doesn’t get said often in Asian cultures. Maybe its because for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they held the adage of actions speaking louder than words. However, it’s always good to hear these words said once in a while. It somehow just feels better. Somehow we absorb words faster heard than seen, especially if “I love you” isn’t said much at all. These words also speak volumes for those of us who grew up continually questioning our own identity and sense of self-worth. That’s the reason why I attached so much to just those three words, and why I couldn’t say much afterwards.
I acknowledge wholeheartedly that I am fortunate that my parents did put the sense of familial unity ahead of their own prejudices, and thus have have the privilege of reflecting on what took place a year ago. My reality would be very different had my parents shut the door on me. Even with the help of my friends who did provide a place to stay the night, there’s a fairly good chance I would’ve spiralled and retreated so far into myself the morning after. Those that have known me for a while will know full well that I can be stoic if I wanted to. It’s one of the many coping mechanisms I have to ensure that I am as calm as possible to manage any situation that comes my way. However, I know it’s not the healthiest of mechanisms to have, especially when I use it to suppress negative emotions. In my adolescence, I did entertain the idea of just disappearing; running away, never to return. Frustration or an internal sense of being constricted can do that to someone. In the days and weeks since I came out, those feelings have subsided. I’ve learned to accept that these feelings are a part of my own process and also understand that these things don’t last forever.
One Day at a Time
The morning after, mum asked me if I was going to tell my paternal grandparents. I did think about that, but said that I would probably tell them in my own time. Reflecting on that, I still hold the view that I may not tell them. As much as that might be painful to hear, I know that they have an image of me, having seen me grow up in front of their very eyes, and I’m fine with not telling them. Maybe deep in their hearts they know. I also got around to re-reading and replying to many of the comments. What I was more intrigued by were the number of people that messaged me. There weren’t a lot, but the ones that did message were both interesting and heartwarming. Some of them were from old high school friends, and some from friends that I’d made through my time at uni. They were mostly talking about how they were also wondering where I fit into this world, and that what I had done brought clarity to that. I knew that people would have always held assumptions about my sexuality and identity. It’s a need that humans always must fulfil. Even I do that.
The last message from that day was from a cousin of mine, who, much like the others, congratulated me on finally being able to share my story. However, it’s what they said next that stuck with me. They too fall within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, and had actually opened up to his parents (my aunt and uncle) about their own journey. What wasn’t known to me at the time (this had then been clarified by a message from my aunt) was that my cousin had simultaneously been dealing with their own declining mental health quality. Not long after telling them, they were shunned by their high school friends, leading to them visiting a psychologist. In their message to me, my cousin said that they no longer felt like they were the only queer person within our family. After going through their message, I was filled with both happiness, guilt, and regret. Happiness that they no longer felt isolated; guilt and regret because I had the opportunity to bear most of the weight of being the first queer person within the family, and in some way ensure that my cousin wouldn’t have needed to feel this way for such a long time. Even if people say (and well-meaning friends have said this to me) that one shouldn’t have regrets, this idea is one that is fundamentally based on the Western concepts of individualism. This dynamic doesn’t exist harmoniously with collectivist cultures like those found across Asia. There is also a lot of weight placed on the idea of “saving face” and its association with shame in Asian cultures. This can be the reason that an LGBTQIA+ person from a collectivist culture may withhold their true self from family, or may end up estranged from them, preferring to move to a different place altogether just to not have to tell their family, for fear of what the cultural community will say. Again, this is why well-meaning White™ people or even Allies that say, “Why does it matter?” can come across as overly harsh to an LGBTQIA+ person that has to juggle the many aspects of themselves and their identities in real time because, whether they like it or not, it still matters. We as queer people of colour are acutely aware of our own community’s views and so try to manage it as best we can. Even in the local Filipino-Australian community, many of whom still hold Roman Catholicism near and dear to their hearts, will quite happily watch satellite television from the Philippines and praise queer Filipino icons, and yet can spout trash gossip about queer members of the community. Some queer Filipinos may also just continue to enable this, and partake in it. It’s sad but we have to acknowledge the toxicity that still exists within us. I am hopeful that it gets better, but I am also the Devil’s advocate. Prove me wrong.
A few days passed and I joined the family at our extended family birthday celebration (Yes, we have combined birthdays. It’s easier this way, trust). I was a little apprehensive going but one of the aunties came up to me and gave me a hug because like my biological family, I’m not the only queer person in our extended family. It wasn’t exactly the groundbreaking event but this was still jist as important. It means that there’s more than just the one queer person in our family. Over time, it became a lot easier to breathe, and to be myself. As we rung in 2019, I was thankful for everything that had happened in the year prior, and especially for that one day. I didn’t have any specific wishes for the year ahead, just to be keen for whatever would come my way.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin' Yet
January meant an early start for me at uni; postgraduate life works a little differently. Meeting a new batch of first-years, catching up with the ones soon to graduate, and getting stuck in to the essay writing (As I write this, I’m actually supposed to be completing another essay. Don’t judge). Life likes to throw a few curveballs here and there, and in mid-January, I received an email to join the peer program for international students. I jumped at the chance and took on the job of delivering the boring orientation sessions but make them less boring. Firmly planting myself as a constant presence made a good impression on the staff, and call this predictive, but I’m hoping it turns into something paid. It also brought in an opportunity to be a part of a new initiative created by one of the placement students. This support group was going to be for all international students who identified as LGBTQIA+, which was a cohort of students that seemed to not receive as much support from the student guild. It was also the first queer group of any kind that I joined. After the first meeting, it dawned on me that apart from the placement student-turned-staff, I would be one of the only out queer students in this group. Undeterred, I used it as an opportunity to provide a perspective from the other side, and to also flex my skillset and facilitate workshops (this part is coming soon. Much excite).
Pride month appeared out of nowhere but it gave me so much joy, more so as someone who was until very recently unable to be my true self. We got lots of exciting news throughout the month, what with Queer Eye’s Jonathan van Ness telling the world that he was non-binary, both Dan Howell and Phil Lester feeling comfortable to say that they were in a relationship, and Eugene Lee Yang from The Try Guys revealing his one true gay self in the way only someone like Eugene Lee Yang could do. One post would catch my eye, however. Remember what I said before about humans have an innate curiosity and how even I do that? Well, Brendan posted a photo of himself holding a photo of a young Brendan (which is ridiculously cute, by the way), with a long caption about his own journey with his sexuality and how important it is to have a strong support network. I read through the caption and I smiled; internally I was ecstatic. I was so happy to see someone that I had watched on television — someone that looked like me — share their story with their sizeable following and do it in a way that called on them to support youth mental health initiatives. The comments were just as supportive of Brendan, and I’m sure he went to bed happy that night.
Some of you reading this might be wondering if anything else has changed since I ‘came out’. I’m glad to report that nothing’s really changed much, if at all. You might be surprised at this or maybe not. I’m currently focusing most of my energy on my uni degree, but also assisting the new LGBTQIA+ support group and the students in them. I’m also trying to become more knowledgeable on issues faced by the trans* community and how to become a better trans* ally. That also means reading up more also on the support organisations in and around Brisbane for the LGBTQIA+ community. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up working with them in some way.
What’s in a Label?
Throughout my journey, I’ve come to know more about the letters beyond the classical LGBT, and have pondered if I would place myself under any of them. In the videos I uploaded, I call myself ‘gay’, and to a great extent this is still true. It was a deliberate choice, especially for my parents and for family or friends who weren’t familiar with the ‘QIA+’ part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Right now, I use both ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ interchangeably. In terms of identities, I move between gay, queer, and ace/asexual, and that’s fine with me. I’ve known for the longest time that I’m more of a romanticist, and a video by Dr. Sally Le Page was what brought the concept of asexuality and the spectrum of identities that may fall within it. It took a while to fully embrace each one of these and how I interpret them to represent my most authentic self, hence why the mixed use of both ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ in conversation.
Reading through many of the stories published in Growing Up Queer in Australia, I came to appreciate each author’s own identity and how they see themselves within the community, and in all honesty, if I had to just pick one, it would probably be ‘queer’. To me, it acknowledges my own fluidity to move between the different other identities I hold onto but like many younger LGBTQIA+ people, are embracing this umbrella term to rewrite the narrative that has been used against us and those before us. I don’t know if I’ll continue to sit within these same terms for the rest of my life, but we’ll see.
To my friends who had the privilege of being one of the first people I opened up to: thank you from the depths of my heart. To my friends and family that I have shared my story with last year, it’s been a wild ride but I thank you for continuing to be here with me on my journey. To all the bois I’ve loved before (and those who I still love): love’s a complex thing. For those who’ve only known me through reading this article, and if you actually read through all of that, give yourself some theatre snaps, and maybe go and collect your thoughts. Don’t worry. I had to take multiple breaks from writing this and reflect for a while because some of it is still quite emotionally heavy for me. For those of you who do have friends or family members that are part of our rainbow LGBTQIA+ community, or who may be on the receiving end of someone who is bearing their soul to you because they trust you and firmly believe that the relationship that they have with you can continue: I hope this serves as a stepping stone for understanding what kinds of emotions and thoughts are going through our minds when choosing to be as authentic as possible to ourselves. For those readers — whatever your age may be — walking, crawling, strutting, running, or sassing their way through their own journey of sexual and gender identities: don’t rush. Pace yourself. Reach out to organisations and friends that can support you; you don’t have to feel alone in this. Most importantly, however, is that you are in control of your own story and who is helping you write it. Don’t let anyone else write the narrative on your behalf because ultimately it is you who will open that door. We’ll be here waiting with open arms.