* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kevin Wong found acceptance and support from friends when he came out, but is still on a journey with his Chinese-American family
Kevin Wong, is vice-president of communications at The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBT+ young people
Growing up, my Chinese American family did their best to raise me to present in a way they thought boys should show up in the world. Stoicism, manliness, and strength were among those traits.
That meant family members were comfortable telling me that I shouldn’t spend so much time with my female cousins so I could “grow up to be a man.” Or that a male coworker shaved their chest, so they “must be a fag.” Or yelling at me for crying over a bad breakup, because “men don’t cry.” Or telling me a relative “didn’t need antidepressants,” because they just needed to be strong, and depression was all in their head.
So when I came out as gay to friends at the age of 16, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about sharing that part of myself with my family, because I knew it wouldn’t align with their expectations for me. But I had found acceptance and support among my friends and most of my peers, and that was enough to keep me going.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one. In a new research brief, The Trevor Project’s survey shows that most Asian-American and Pacific Islander (API) LGBT+ youth were accepted by friends — and this acceptance reduced the risk of attempting suicide by more than half. It’s very possible that my late-night conversations and daily cafe trips with friends protected me from experiencing negative mental health outcomes, probably without them even knowing it.
Even with acceptance from friends, it’s tough to fully replace the love and support we get from our families. That’s especially true for many first-generation Asian-American families like mine, which place an overwhelming emphasis on family connection and support. I knew it would be tough to tell my family that I was gay and challenge their years-long assumptions about my identity.
But as it turned out, I didn’t have to. My first week away at college, my parents claimed they were cleaning my room — I maintain that they were snooping — when they found the queer novels I had locked in a backpack and buried in my closet. They asked if I was “normal or abnormal,” if I should see a doctor, and about my relationships with girls. I was told that I was confused and didn’t know what I wanted, even though I had been through puberty and experienced physical attraction every day for almost a decade.
This was the rejection I feared for so long and the reason I thought that hiding my sexual orientation from my parents would keep me safe. Unfortunately, this also tracks with The Trevor Project’s new research: API youth were significantly less likely than non-API youth to share their LGBT+ identity with parents. In my case, and for so many API LGBT+ youth, fearing rejection and loss of love was my reality for a long time.
I told myself I couldn’t blame my relatives because they come from a different world and grew up in a different time. And while those things are true, I eventually found it was important to me to try educating them about different identities. I know I’m lucky when I say that much has changed since then.
I started to normalize things that my family originally didn’t want to hear about, like my dating life and going out with queer friends. When they tell my cousin that her son shouldn’t play with dolls, I explain why it’s fine to safely express himself however he wants. When they ask about my “special friend,” I tell them that “it’s okay to say the word ‘boyfriend.’”
I wish I could say that we eventually got there and reached full understanding, acceptance, and support. But the truth is that learning about different identities is an ongoing journey for all of us, and even though we’ve hit some speed bumps, I’m glad we’re on the journey together.