Dear Mr. Dan Savage,
I think my parents might disown me for being gay, and I don't know what to do. Please hear me out. I understand that you are very busy with your work, and you probably don't have the time to get through each and every email. But I feel that none of my friends or family can help me. And after having listened to some of your talks, and read some of your work, I think you're the best hope I have. Please hear me out.
My parents are Chinese. To a large extent, this is relevant to my predicament. While not all Chinese people are homophobic, and many young people are very accepting of LGBT people nowadays, many people from my parents generation and older are very conservative on gay issues. In China, there is a strong social expectation for men to get married to a woman in his twenties and have a kid. Not doing so invites all kinds of unpleasant gossip and contempt from others. Personally, I could care less what my colleagues and "friends" think, but unfortunately my parents, especially my father, are deeply conservative, and refuse to be "humiliated" by having a gay son.
Here is what happened. I'll keep it short.
Seven years ago, I decided that I wanted to come out to my father. Having read many heartwarming coming out stories online, I was optimistic and expected my father to be accepting of who I was. I finally worked up the courage to tell him. I sat him down, cried, deliberated, cried again and finally uttered the words "Dad, I'm gay." For a brief moment, I was relieved, feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Then I saw his face, but what I saw was not an expression of acceptance or love, but a face he hadn't given me before—he looked at me with disgust. "You're confused," he said, before going on to tell me that this was a phase, a mental problem and that I must never speak of it to anyone. I sat in silence, shell-shocked, my stomach churning with panic and regret. Later on, my father told me that he would disown me if I "let him down," and that I must never tell my mother whom, according to him, would have fainted in disgust. Since then, my father began monitoring almost every aspect of my social life, questioning any and every relationship I had with men. Every once in a while he would "check up" on me to see if I had "inappropriate" feelings again. He also searched my room on multiple occasions when he thought I didn't know, finding notes I had written to men I liked. Eventually, I became afraid of him—his anger, his lack of sympathy towards my predicament, his closed-mindedness, and that look of disgust he held when I first came out which still gives me real nightmares. So I went back into the closet completely and pretended that I was straight, and that whatever "inappropriate" feelings I had were temporary, and that one day I will marry a woman. But deep down I know that that's all a lie, and sooner or later I won't be able to lie anymore.
I just turned 24. I've never dated a girl in my life, which many people around me think is "suspicious," and I've only gone on a few dates with guys. My parents are now actively pushing me to find a girlfriend. It's the only thing they want to talk about during our weekly calls. And every time, I give the same excuse: "I'm busy with work," and "I haven't found anyone yet." But I know that those excuses won't last forever, because my parents are relentless. They have made it their mission to make sure I find a girlfriend as soon as possible. They have tried setting me up with girls on multiple occasions. Even their friends and colleagues are trying to set me up. I'm so sick of it all. But I can't say anything because I'm terrified of how my father will react. I feel like they've pushed me to a corner, and sooner or later I will reach my breaking point, and I will explode. I'm afraid that they will disown me if I insist on a homosexual "lifestyle." But even more so I'm scared of seeing my father's reaction. He's honestly the most terrifying person when he's angry.
I feel so lost. I don't know what to do. I find that I can't concentrate on work because I can't stop thinking about these problems. I find it difficult to enjoy anything in my life because I'm constantly worried about what I'm going to say to my parents the next time they call. I can't take this anymore. I guess everyone feels that his/her problems are the worst, and I am no different. But I just don't see a good way out of this without telling them the truth and bearing the consequences. I'm just so afraid, anticipating all the pain and hurt inevitably coming my way.
Please help me. I would be so deeply grateful for any words of advice you have. And thank you, for all the work that you've done for us gay people, especially the "It Gets Better" project which is the light that I hold on to in these difficult moments.
Seriously Out Now
I’m so sorry you’re going through this, SON. Where do you live, if I may ask? —
When I was ten, my parents and I moved from China to Canada, where they still live. I'm glad we no longer live in China, because if I did I would probably have to marry a woman. Nowadays I'm going to school and living by myself in the United States. I insisted on moving abroad on my own so that I can get away from them for a few years, and hopefully build a life that's true to myself without their interference. But I realize now that distance will not resolve my problems, since they won't stop calling me about finding a girlfriend. My dad has said to me that regardless of what I do with my life, it's all irrelevant until I get this one thing "right". They wouldn't admit it, but I think deep down they see this as something I owe them. Thank you for getting back to me. I think simply writing all this out has helped me feel a bit better. — SON
I think you should read some books that capture what it was like for gay men who were coming out in the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s. Read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts. It’s a biography of Harvey Milk, but it captures what it was like to come out pre-Stonewall. Because reading your letter... your situation with your parents... it’s as if you’re coming out fifty years ago. And while it was hard to come out then (and remains hard for many today), guys did it (and people for whom it remains hard today still do it). Coming out was worth it, even if it meant estrangement from your family of origin (as it almost invariably did at the time), and it's worth it now. You might also want to read the early Tales of the City novels by Armistead Maupin. (Actually, read them all.) I think you’ll relate to what the gay character, Mouse, goes through when he came out to his parents. (And pay attention when Maupin writes about difference between someone's biological family and their logical family. In an ideal world our biological family is part of our logical family... but things don't always work out that way.)
And distance can help—right now you are distancing yourself from your parents geographically, for your own sanity. A time may come when you have to distance yourself from them emotionally. Your only leverage over your parents as an adult is your presence. If they can't love and respect you for who you are, you don't have to see them. If that's the only way you can be yourself and live with integrity and authenticity, then it's a price you may have to pay. It’ll be sad if it comes to that—but remember: homophobic parents are responsible for their estrangement from their adult gay children. You aren’t doing something terrible to them, they're doing something terrible to themselves. When you're ready to to tell them, tell them. Let 'em disown you, let your mom faint with disgust, let your dad stomp his feet until there's nothing left but stumps.
I have more to say—but I’m running out the door. I’ll write more when I can.— Dan
P.S. Did you see this when it came out? There’s been a lot of reporting here about the nascent gay rights movement in China. Are there resources you could find for them online? Something you can send them when you’re ready to come out to them formally and finally? And please don’t feel like you’re letting down the side if you need to wait until after you get an education and are settled in your adult life before you come out to your parents again. You can take your time—
and all the while ignore their pressure to get a girlfriend.
Thank you for your kind reply. I'll definitely read the books you suggested. I first learned about Harvey Milk a few years ago from watching Gus Van Sant's film, and that speech near the end motivated me to come out for the first time. While my father's reaction was a slap in the face, I had also come out to several friends who were amazingly supportive, so overall I'm still grateful.
I have deliberately distanced myself emotionally from my parents, because I feel like I don't trust them with my feelings anymore. I'm afraid that rather than being supportive, they'll just be judgmental. They have, in their mind, a view of what I'm supposed to be, and if I don't fit that mold, then there must be a problem with me. My father has said on multiple occasions that it's his job to "correct" any problems I have, and we both knew what he was talking about.
I'm honestly not sure if any online material would be able to change their mind. The problem is that they just don't know any gay people. They don't know anyone who is gay and is leading a happy, successful life, and so they only perceive homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle, like a drug addiction or a mental health problem. Most of their friends are parents their age, with children around my age who are now getting (straight) married. So the fact that I haven't ever dated any girls makes them nervous, and so this is the only thing they talk about whenever they have friends over. I think some of their friends already suspect that I'm gay, but they would never say it, because it would be interpreted as an insult within their circles. Perhaps it would help if they personally knew a gay family, but they don't.
Again, I thank you for your words of advice. I know that ultimately I will have to deal with this myself, but having someone listen to me makes me feel better. I have a hard time talking about these things, even with my closest friends. — SON
I shared your letter with Jeff Chu, a freelance journalist, seminarian, and the author of Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Jeff was born in California and now lives in Brooklyn with his husband, but Jeff's family is from Hong Kong and his parents are conservative Christians. Jeff's mom and dad weren't exactly thrilled when Jeff came out to them. His advice for you is below. — Dan
First things first: You are not alone. I know it might feel like it, but many of us who are out here cheering you on, holding onto hope for you, and believing in your strength, bravery, and beauty. You are not alone in this—and you are loved, just as you are.
We come from a culture that tells us that our lives aren’t really our own and that our feelings don’t really matter. When I was growing up, I never, ever heard my parents ask what would make me happy. To be a son in a traditional Chinese family comes with so many expectations, and our happiness is nowhere on the list: We’re supposed to marry well and procreate and carry on the family name and bring honor to our elders, and bonus points if you can earn some decent money along the way. (One of my uncles once proclaimed loudly at a family dinner that it was a shame that I hadn’t used my brains to make my family wealthy. I’m a writer. Oops.) Our value seems to come from who they imagine us to be, not who we actually are.
I’m so, so sorry that you feel the burdens of your father’s terrifying anger, your parents’ unfair expectations, and their fears of shame. I think you’ve done a wise thing in building a little bit of distance, and as hard as it may be, because it’s obvious you want to honor your parents, think about whether you can give yourself the gift of a little more space. It is okay to set some boundaries, to refuse to answer their questions, and even not to have a call every week. Ultimately, you can’t be a good son—even on their terms—if you’re utterly miserable, and it will be the greatest shame (because shame is what they’re worried about, right?) if you can’t flourish as the person you were born to be.
I think you know what you want to do, even if it seems impossibly scary. I’m not going to sugarcoat things and tell you that it will be easy. I’ve been out for well over a decade and married for five years, but things are often still tense and difficult (my dad, for instance, still refuses to acknowledge I have a husband, and when we talk, it’s mostly about the weather and the 49ers). I get how frightening it is to make those choices. But let me be clear: They are your choices, not your parents’ choices. It may hurt like hell after you make them. But you deserve the hope of healing and love and peace on the other side of the pain.
We are just marking the beginning of the Lunar New Year. It is the Year of the Dog, and tradition tells us that this particular year will be one of action, of climbing mountains and overcoming obstacles.
I know that you are brave enough and strong enough to handle whatever may come. I see it in your letter, because it takes strength to be vulnerable and it takes bravery to ask for help. You can do this.
And remember: You are not alone.
In love and solidarity,