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19 Aug 2013

Negotiating one's coming out

Coming out or disclosure about one's sexual orientation to our family is a difficult yet important step. Bryan Choong, a full time counsellor at Oogachaga, a LGBT-affirmative counselling agency in Singapore, highlights how an individual's familial relations may affect the coming out process.

By all accounts, Alex is a very attractive and eligible man. With a slightly rugged face and standing at six feet, his confident physique is sure to capture a lot of attention in social gatherings. Armed with a MBA from a prestigious university and good network in the corporate world, Alex is well on track to climb the ladder and make his parents very proud.

On the personal front, Alex wants to settle down with a likeminded guy and get legally married. In his current and very promising relationship, Colin (his partner) insisted that Alex must announce their relationship to his parents, and end his struggles to fulfil his duty as a son to get married and provide them with a grandson. Colin also reminded Alex rather bluntly to stop over-compensating his “shortcoming” as a gay son by working so hard to make these advancements in his career.

Since the discovery of his sexuality at 16, Alex is troubled with how to tell his parents, who have done all they could to provide for their only son. Marriage is a topic he never wants to confront, which is repeated on every other Sunday, and a key agenda annually during Chinese New Year gathering. As much as Alex is maintaining a connection with his family, he is also laying bricks layer by layer at the entrance of his closet, keeping his family out.

Whenever there’s discussion about coming out to them, Alex’s confidence vanishes. He is reduced to a little boy who is disappointed with himself and concerned with his parent’s disapproving stare at his report card. He is also torn between his duty and Colin’s needs, “Colin could not understand why I cannot do it, I am just not ready.”

“Making someone come out before he is ready is like taking cake out of the oven before it is baked. It will collapse.” Michael C. LaSala metaphorised in his book Coming Out, Coming Home. Coming out or disclosure about one’s sexual orientation to our family is a difficult yet important topic. This fear of coming out is also closely associated with heterosexism.

Heterosexism, the idea that being a heterosexual is being more superior to people of other sexual orientations, thus needs to promote and protect, runs deeply in the system we live in. It is embedded in the mindset of our family and society, the education we received, the media we accessed and the building blocks which many governments used. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight, queer or questioning, we all live in this system.

Recognising that most of our parents or immediate family and friends are straight in this heterosexist world is important. As much as some gay people think we are living in a parallel dimension, we actually co-exist in this eco-system which requires us to negotiate our coming out process in a way that works for ourselves. Each family structure presents a different situation and challenges but most parents do expect their children to go up as a straight person and live a life not too different from their own.

Recently, I just completed a discussion with a group of passionate Malaysian gay men. I learnt that in Malaysia, if a gay person wants to lead a different life without coming out to his family and friends, he goes to another city or town. It is a norm for young men to find employment or further studies far away from families. This allows many of them to live in a seemingly parallel dimension because their parents are 100km away.

I reflected on Alex’s story, which is in the Singapore context. Most of us are living with our families and few moved out to live alone when we can afford it. The affordability of housing and the social norm of not leaving the family unless you are married shaped our “gay” lives in Singapore. You can bring your boyfriend home if you want but remember your parents’ room is just divided by a 10 cm thick wall.

How close we are emotionally and physically with our families shape our communication and coming out process. If you have to deal with the stress from your parents on face to face and daily basis, it is tempting to hide. Yet, the close proximity can also mean you can understand their reaction better and adopt slightly different way of coming out.

A friend wrote a thesis on coming out as Asians and he pointed out an observed trend. People come out by coming home with their partners. Of course, the identity of the partner evolves. It starts with classmate/project mate in university, army mate (for those countries who have conscription), colleague, and the best friend who shows up in all family occasions. This subtle way of coming out by coming home allows their parents to get accustomed with the sexual orientation of the children, with the partner and integration of a new person into the family.

You can definitely do the faster way by inviting your parents to have a conversation. Many of my friends did that and it worked out well. Some did it through their extended family members such as the auntie who always plays mahjong with mum and is also her biggest source of support.

Preparation, pace and space are equally important for our parents and they need these to figure out our stories. In many closely-knitted and large families, parents also have responsibilities towards their own parents, siblings, relatives and friends. After we come out, they might also need to come out in their own ways.

Many of us took 10, 15 or 20 years to come to terms with our sexuality, even though we are living with it all these years. Clearly, we should not expect someone who does not live our lives or read our mind, to accept who we are in 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Some things take time. Some things could be expressed in actions.

During our last discussion, Alex and Colin reached a compromise on the issue. Alex has taken the first step to introduce Colin as a good friend from his company, to his parents. Alex’s father is quite pleased with Colin’s shared views about the political situation. Colin impressed his mother further with his culinary skills. The couple do not know where this will head but they are working hard to achieve a positive outcome, but at least they have made the first step.

Bryan Choong is the Centre Manager and full time counsellor at Oogachaga, Singapore's largest community-based counselling and support agency for the LGBTQ community.

This article is originally published in Element magazine Vol.2. To purchase Element magazine, log onto www.elementmag.asia for more information.

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