Oyoung Wenfeng, a columnist for Fridae's Chinese web site and author of 15 books including Is Present the Future? An Asian Gay Man's Coming Out Journey, has become the first openly gay Malaysian pastor after being ordained on May 27 at the Metropolitan Community Church in New York.
The 37-year-old, who's childhood ambition was to be a Christian minister, explains why he thinks it is necessary for one to come out in order to lead a complete life regardless of one's religious beliefs; and rebuts criticism of him not coming out sooner while he wrote positively about gay issues in his columns in a Malaysian Chinese newspaper.
æ: Can you tell readers about your journey there? Was being a Christian minister something you've always wanted?
Wenfeng: Yes to both your questions. But I am 37 years old, I have long history to tell, are you sure you have the patience? I've always known I'm called to the Christian ministry and always wanted to be a Christian minister. It is my passion to study theology and to teach the Bible. I was born in a Christian family, a third generation of Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. I have participated in Church life since I was four years old.
In 1990, I attended private college and studied journalism while going to evening classes at a seminary. My 21st year was the turning point in my life. It was then that I began writing social commentary in newspapers and also preaching in different churches. Like so many gay Christians who are taught to believe that homosexuality is an abomination, I was willing to try every means to change.
I met a wonderful woman when I was 25. I really liked her. I kind of came out to her before our first date. I say "kind of" because I didn't even come out to myself then. Like so many Christians fundamentalists, I believed being homosexual was a behaviour, and so I could choose not to be gay. I believed she was an angel sent by God to get rid of my gayness. We were married the next year. Nine years later, we had both learned more about sexuality and theology in the United States. Even though we had a relatively perfect marriage, something was missing in our heterosexual relationship. And we had to be brutally honest with ourselves: it had everything to do with my sexuality. We both knew that I was gay. She has been amazingly supportive. After all these years, I know she is indeed my angel who sent by God, not to get rid of my gayness, but to help me to embrace my sexuality. It was a painful experience for us to finally break up, for the reason is not because we don't love each other, but quite the opposite. We love each other so much that we have no choice but to let the one we love to go freely. Today, we are best friends and soul mates.
At the age of 27, I won several literature and journalism awards, and consequently won a scholarship to study in the United States. My three years of experience in the journalism in Malaysia had taught me substantive lessons. I realised that in order to be a better journalist, I needed to grasp the sociological imagination that would enable me to see how individual experiences are connected to the larger society and the connection between personal and public issues. My intellectual training in sociology helps me to understand that the changes that affect our personal lives requires us to look beyond our private experiences to the larger political, social, and economic issues that affect our lives and the lives of others in our society and around the world.
I strongly believe that religion is not only deeply affected by social change, religions have also acted as igniters of social change or even revolution. Theologies arise and grow from the challenges of change and interaction. I believe my career as a journalist has given me the real-world experience to make me an acute sociologist and minister. Additionally, my academic roots in sociology has made me a more observant writer and theologian.
I was the first journalist in my company to be granted the scholarship to study in the United States, and the first to lose it when I spoke against the monopoly enterprise of my employer. I upheld the integrity of journalism and paid the price. The memory of my calling to the ministry came to my mind and captured my attention when I left the newspaper. I was caught by the memory, and I knew it was the time for me to pursue my theological studies and to prepare to be an ordained minister. So, I did a Masters degree in theological studies and here I am.
æ: You are also notably the first Chinese writer/columnist in Malaysia to come out publicly when you launched your autobiography My Journey last year. When did you first realise you were gay?
Wenfeng: This is a tough question. I knew I liked men, but it took long time to identify myself as a gay man. I used to think I was bi, because it made me felt better about myself. But of course I want to emphasise here I am only talking about my own experience, it doesn't mean every man who identifies himself as bi is a gay man in disguise. To me, to know thyself is the most important lesson and knowledge, and it is a spiritual journey. I really know I am gay when I was 31 years old. Because the desire to make love to a man was just overwhelming, I am gay and there is no way to argue otherwise.
æ: Growing up Christian, was there any conflict and what steps did you take to resolve those issues?
Wenfeng: Of course there was. If you are a non-Christian and you are gay and you feel it is difficult to come to terms with who you really are, imagine gay Christians experience doubly your anxiety and fear. Not only does society think you are weird, but the Church and the Bible say you are damn wrong and the Bible is everything to you, how would you survive? It is a miracle indeed to see how many gay Christians have survived. We are not only surviving, but we have been empowered by the same religion that condemns us and we have been empowered enough to come out loud and proud and to stand up tall to fight for gay rights and our people. It is just amazing. It is a miracle!
æ: What was coming out to your family and wife like?
Wenfeng: Coming out to my wife is the hardest. But since before I dated her, I already told her I have had sex with men, but I didn't think I was gay because I believed homosexual was wrong and I could change. I was a Christian fundamentalist then. So, after being married for six years, even though we have perfect marriage, something was missing and we both know what was that. I love her, and still do. I know I will not be really happy if she is not happy. I hated to get a divorce. But I had no choice. I had to come out to her if I really loved her. So, I came out to her. She has been extremely supportive, and helped me to come out to others, to be who I am. I owe my life to her. Coming out to mum was difficult, Chinese don't really talk about sex, and when you talk about homosexuality, people automatically think about sex. But I am glad I wrote the book of my coming out story, so I called her and told her I was gay and asked her to read the book if she wanted to know more about my journey. She did. In the beginning she didn't know which one was worse, I am gay or I divorced. My sister was very supportive so she helped my mum to recover from the shock. After that she was more concerned about my book for being so x-rated, because I wrote about my sexual experience. But after a while, shock therapy helps. She read my book and saw my point.
æ: Given that homosexuality is not frequently discussed in the Malaysian media, what made you decide to come out and what are the challenges and responses from the community?
Wenfeng: Well, I am a Christian. I believe in truth and I live in hope. And I just want to do the right thing. I am also a sociologist by training, I know in order to promote social change, it is not only about good idea or message; it is about people. We need people to live the message, to practice what we believe on daily basis. How could I talk about gay pride and encourage people to come out if I am still in the closet? It doesn't make sense to me at all. And the best way to help society see gay people as being as normal as straight folks, and that gays and lesbians are not psychopaths, is not to talk about how good gay people are but to show them how a real gay or lesbian person looks like. So, I have to come out. The responses are mixed. I don't really focus on that so I can't really tell you how were the responses. Other people might have better answers to this question. But, personally, I have received a lot of emails from my readers. I have written 15 books, but no one book has the elicited response like my coming out book. Many gay and lesbians have written to me, they share their stories with me and tell me how they appreciate my book and how I have encouraged them and I have given them hope. I am overwhelmed with joy. If I could bring hope to only one person, to help him or her to sleep well tonight and be happy with himself/herself without any guilt and shame, I will trade my life for doing that. Nothing, nothing will make me happier than seeing one soul, even is just only one soul is comforted and at peace with himself/herself. Because of that, I don't really focus on negative responses. I think I lost some friends. But if he refuses to be my friend after I am honest with him about who I really am, I guess he is not really my friend in the first place. So, I am ok with it.
My mum has been very supportive. She believes in me. And she believes in God. So even though she has heard some nasty remarks from some Christians, she has learned not to pay much attention to them. I always call her from New York and encourage her. I say to her "mum, we are doing something important, you know, by coming out, I can encourage and help people to come out, so that in the future, millions of mum don't have to suffer the unnecessary pain simply because they have a gay son or a lesbian daughter." She sees my point.
æ: How do think has being in New York helped in the process?
Wenfeng: New York is a great city. It has a huge gay community. By seeing so many gay men and queer people are proud to be queer. I have learned to be more comfortable with myself. It is why coming out is so important. Action speaks louder than words. We have been taught to hate ourselves for so long, it takes time to come out to ourselves, and then to our friends, and then to our family members. But we have to make the first step. In New York, I have witnessed the gay movement in the city and in the United States, step by step, mile by mile, we will get there.
æ: Prior to coming out, you have for a long time written very empathetically about LGBTs in your columns in the Malaysian mainstream media while being married to a woman. Some readers have criticised you for not coming out earlier, how do you respond to that?
Wenfeng: This is interesting, because those who criticise me mostly are those who are still in the closet. They don't come out to their family, and yet criticising me for not coming out publicly sooner. Yes, I have written very empathetically about LGBT in my columns and engaged in some paper battles with religious fundamentalists before I came out publicly. By the way, I don't think three years is that long a time. Coming out is a process, I began to fight for queer people once I come out to myself, I didn't even wait a second, because people are suffering, I see it as a matter of life and death. But I couldn't come out publicly immediately then because I was a married man and I had to help my wife to "come out" too. It is not easy to be an openly gay man, and it is not easy to be a wife of a gay man. My ex-wife also had to figure out how to talk to her family too, she has 10 siblings, some of them and most of her relatives live in a fishing village. So imagine how much homework she had to do. She had also helped me to be comfortable with myself when I would sometimes ask silly things like: "can I choose not to be gay?" She would correct me and say, "it doesn't matter what you choose, you are who you are." We took three years to settle everything. It is amazingly quick. Had not my ex-wife been so supportive and brave and loving, I don't think we could do it in three years. And remember, I didn't only come out, I came out publicly. If those people could not even say three words "I am gay" to their mum in their room or on phone, it does not make sense to me that they criticise me for not coming out publicly soon enough. So, I can't care less what they say about me.
æ: You have been in the US for a decade. How do you think (the Malaysian) society's attitude towards homosexuality and LGBTs have changed during this time?
Wenfeng: It is difficult to give a sentence or two or to generalise what is the Malaysian society's attitude toward homosexuality. It is because Malaysian society is not a homogenous entity. Malay culture is very different from Chinese culture, both of them are not the same as Indian culture. And even within Chinese community, those who are Chinese educated are not really the same as those who are English educated or Malay educated. In addition to that, religious belief also plays an important role in shaping people attitude toward homosexuality.
My experience is that the Chinese community seems to be more tolerant than the Malay community. At least the Chinese who are not Christians do not think you will go to hell or you are immoral if you are gay. They might think you are kind of abnormal but most of them believe that since you are born to be gay, what can we do? Chinese newspapers or media in Malaysia have been extremely supportive to gay people. They publish my articles, invite me to radio and talk shows, of course I don't only talk about gay issues, but since I am so loud and proud, most people only see me as a gay man instead of a sociologist or a writer. I hope people will begin to see me as a Christian minister. Anyway, my point is, they don't discriminate because of my sexual orientation. Since I left for the United States 10 years ago, I now find there are more gay clubs or gay bars than before. Even gay saunas, which I've never heard of 10 years ago. I really hope that by having more people coming out and talking about sexuality, our society will get more comfortable talking about homosexuality. And it will help to change the society to understand since they are many real gay people around you, gay people is not really abnormal. We are not the majority in terms of numbers, but we are normal. We are as intelligent as straight people, if not more. And I believe people begin to see that.
æ: How did Malaysians (gay and non-gay) react to your coming out last year given the media exposure your book launch received?
Wenfeng: I think it was pretty good. Even those who are anti-gay thought it was exciting news. You know, Malaysia is so hot and boring; it could put people to sleep if nothing like this happens. I stirred up the society, at least the Chinese community.
æ: Has there been any negative consequences for yourself and the gay community in Malaysia so far? Do you encourage more Malaysians to come out to their family and friends and what should they be mindful of?
Wenfeng: Negative consequences? Not that I know of. What else could be worse than hiding in closet and denying who we are? Yes, I encourage queer people to come out. It is the only way we could help people to understand us and fear us not. And ironically, the best way for us to overcome fear is to face our fear and to come out. That said, we need to be mindful too. First, we don't have to come out to everyone over night. We come out to ourselves first. We don't have to pretend we are straight like talking about our "girlfriend" or say we are going to gay club because "we want to do research." You could test the degree of acceptance of you family members by putting a copy of my coming out book in your coffee table for your intended target to pick up. You know what, I have learned that one of the most common experiences of a lot of openly gay people is that coming out is not as horrible as we used to think when we were in the closet.
æ: How has the mainstream Malaysian society and Christian circles responded to the news of your ordination?
Wenfeng: Well, it has just only been days since they read the news. I bet they haven't figured out how to react. A lot of anti-gay people in Malaysia are slow, no pun intended.
æ: Is there an emerging vocal anti-gay Christian lobby in Malaysia which we are seeing in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore? And how do you think the gay community should respond should it emerge as a vocal anti-gay voice?
Wenfeng: To your first question, I don't think so. At least not as vocal as in US, Hong Kong and Singapore. The US is the worst. We are so fortunate to live in Hong Kong and Singapore. In some places in US, you could be beaten up or killed simply because you are gay. A lot of Asians envy gay people in the West, but do they know the price gay people in US have paid? How we should respond? Fight back! Come out and tell them: We are queer and we are here; if you hate us, too bad, you better get used to us.
æ: What are your future plans? Do you see yourself being more involved in Malaysia?
Wenfeng: I will move back to Malaysia in 2010. I want to build a Church in Malaysia that welcomes everyone. I have attended Metropolitan Community Church (MCCNY) since I came to New York in 2001. I will never forget my first experience there. I immediately recognised something of my faith, spiritual culture and sexuality in my first service at MCCNY. I felt I was coming home. I found myself a lot closer to God than I had ever expected to be. The gasp I let out when I sat in the church with my queer siblings still returns to my throat at times. With it comes a train of thoughts leading me to realise that no matter what others say about us, I know God is with us. And I want to build a church in which our community and worship flow and have coherence and integrity as I have found in MCCNY. It is my dream indeed to offer a ministry and guidance to people in Malaysia, especially queer people, in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as intellectual, spiritual and emotional care. You know, a lot of gay people have no hometown, we are at home and yet do not feel at home because we cannot be who we are. Sometimes, we feel more at home in a foreign city which is far away from where we were raised and born. I want to build a church that is a spiritual home for everyone, queer or straight, Christians or non-Christians. When I first came to Metropolitan Community Church in New York, I felt like coming home. And since then, I know no one could stop me from coming home, and I want to bring our people home!
A selection of books by Oyoung Wenfeng including Is Present the Future? An Asian Gay Man's Coming Out Journey is available on Fridae Shop.