I have this hope for a future where all gay individuals could feel comfortable enough to come out to their families, without fear of retribution. I also used to think it was nothing short of a complete shame that so many gay people could not envision such a future, but to my own surprise, I’ve since relaxed my views, after realizing that halfway across the world, what I believed was best for everyone could potentially tear lives apart.
I found myself in the middle of a discussion at a house party one night. The conversation soon steered towards the topic of coming out. The only non-Chinese person in the group was very vocal about his opinion that all people should come out and serve their parents with an ultimatum – either accept their homosexuality or forfeit their relationship with their families.
Upon hearing this, I could feel my blood beginning to boil. While I’m usually a very agreeable person (sometimes apologetically so), I became visibly irritated. While I don’t dispute that honesty is the best policy, each individual’s circumstances are different. I hate to generalize, but typically, the decision to come out to a Chinese family is an agonizing moral dilemma. Societal pressures, family expectations, and traditional conservative values are factors that deter many, if not most, gay Chinese men from venturing out of the closet. My recent experiences of meeting and making friends with gay locals in China have helped me to understand the types of hardships faced by Chinese LGBT.
I’ve met several of my husband’s friends in Shanghai. None of them are out to their parents, my husband included. To my surprise, some have married or are intending to marry lesbians, ie, partake in a marriage of convenience, to appease their families. I must confess that it troubled me deeply to hear this. Having lived my entire life in gay-friendly Canada, I initially found it difficult to fathom living life as a closeted gay man. How is it possible for someone to live a lie and hide one of the most important parts of oneself from the most important people in his life? Why would someone give up the chance to live life freely and honestly, as an open and out gay man?
As apprehensive as I was about this new knowledge that I now had about these young mens’ lives, this did not deter me from getting to know them on a personal level. My husband’s friends were every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. They welcomed me with open arms, showed me around the city, and did their best to include me in their conversations despite English not being their first language. They were also like me in many ways – they were in their mid to late twenties, working on their careers, and they shared many of the same kinds of views on life, love, and hopes for the future.
I’ve also met one of the men’s mothers, who had prepared supper for us at her home. Everyone who had been invited was gay, but his mother had no knowledge of this, and greeted us all as her son’s “normal” straight friends. Though Shanghai is a rapidly progressive city, conservative traditional family values are still tightly ingrained. Many of those in the previous generation still view homosexuality as an illness and an anomaly that would never happen upon their own children. It is almost ensured that my friend’s mother did not suspect for one moment that every single person seated at her dining table was gay.
Knowing this, I had to ask myself, had she been faced with a situation in which her son had just revealed his sexuality to her, would life truly be better for her as well as her son? Do my friends in China see coming out as a chance to live a happier life? While I wanted to think this was so, the voice in my heart was a resounding “no.” To forever disrupt the peace and harmony of one’s family would be an atrocity. To try and make his mother even acknowledge homosexuality in her life would liken itself to an attempt to change society’s persistent refusal to understand it. It’s a risk far too great for anyone to take.
I’m not condoning my friend’s choices, nor am I condemning them. After understanding his situation on a personal level, I realized that I’m in no position to question the morality of his decisions. I no longer believe there is a right or wrong decision when it comes to coming out. All of us need to follow our own paths, and this is very much influenced by our surroundings, our culture, and our perceptions of life. I wish nothing but the best for all my friends, and hope they will find their own happiness, in their own way, no matter where they’re from.