A McDonald’s ad that went viral in Taiwan in March took the unprecedented step of showcasing a man coming out to his dad. While the ad captures some of the collective traits of many gay men’s coming out experiences in Taiwan, it fails to show the long periods of struggle that many of us have to go through before that moment. Even though Taiwan is considered one of the most progressive countries in Asia when it comes to LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ Taiwanese still face tremendous challenges during their coming out processes. To many of us, it is a long and lonely path filled with self-doubt and rejection, and these aspects are usually left out from the mainstream media’s coverage.
As a self-proclaimed LGBTQ rights activist, I’d like to reshape the general public’s understanding of the coming out experience in Taiwan by recounting the real-life experiences of two LGBTQ individuals.
From initial rejection to full parental support
It must have been fate that Justin would lead a unique life compared to his peers. With a backpack and his cap on backwards, he looks just like any other college student in Taiwan – but Justin possesses a maturity that sets him apart from others his age.
Although the youngest child in his family, Justin never enjoyed the luxury of being spoiled by his parents and older siblings. One of his twin older sisters was left with multiple mental disabilities when she woke up from a months-long coma caused by meningitis. The silver lining of this tragedy was that it helped the family become closer, but the incident also forced Justin to mature fast.
Justin’s early maturity may have helped to lessen his family’s burden of taking care of a mentally disabled child, and it also eased the tension during his coming out process. He realized he was homosexual when he was 11, but the thought of homosexuality being abnormal prevented Justin from sharing it with anyone. He could only think about it in his head or explore it online.
“I always found it weird how I felt nothing when other guys were talking about girls, but these instances somehow helped me gradually confirm my understanding of my sexuality,” said Justin. “From elementary school to junior high school I could only explore my sexuality in the dark. I never thought about bringing it up with my parents because they were not really open about it.”
Justin finally came out to his friends in high school. In fact, it was the girl that he dated for over a year that helped to fully confirm his affection for guys.
“She knew I was gay before we started dating, but she proposed that we still give it a try,” said Justin shyly. “We were together for a little bit more than a year, and this experience really convinced me that I am gay.”
The two broke up in 11th grade and it was after that when Justin met his first boyfriend, a senior schoolmate. Not long after the start of his new relationship, Justin decided to come out to his family. Instead of rushing it, Justin chose to gradually walk his parents through the process. He watched movies like “Prayers for Bobby,” which tells the story of a Christian mother’s failed attempt to “save” her gay son. Justin saw how his parents went from complete rejection of homosexuality to partially understanding it. However, it was still a different case when he came out to them.
The day Justin came out was the day before his four-day graduation trip, and he had just broken up with his “girlfriend.” When he told his parents in his bedroom, they began by asking him why he thought he was gay, instead of getting emotional right away. However, it finally hit them when Justin admitted that he was dating a male schoolmate.
“They kept asking when did I find out and if I was completely sure about it,” said Justin. “My mother left the room. When she came back, she pushed over my luggage and started saying that her son is a freak. My dad simply stood by the door and stared at me with anger.”
It was an emotional night for both sides, but Justin still went on his graduation trip as originally planned. Before he left, his mom told him to never bother coming home while his dad silently gave him some allowance money and told him to enjoy the trip. On the trip, Justin made sure no one could reach him by turning off the data on his phone at the beginning of the trip.
As the trip went on, Justin’s parents tried to resume conversation with him and pretend that nothing ever happened. Instead of responding in his normal manner though, Justin only messaged them to ensure them that he was safe. It wasn’t until the night before he had to go home that both sides began to break the ice.
“My parents began by asking me if I was going home the next day, and then there was a long period of silence,” said Justin. “I asked them if I could really come home and my mom said: ‘Where else could you go?’”
He got home and found his parents acting calm and rational again. Justin later learned that while he was gone, they had consulted the counseling director at his school, read books about homosexuality and talked about homosexuality with his sister’s psychiatrist. It made him realize that his parents were attempting to learn more about his world and bridge the gap between them and him.
“My sister’s psychiatrist told them that I was a mature kid and that I must have thought about it in my head repeatedly,” said Justin. “He wanted them stop worrying about me being irrational.”
The situation continued to improve when Justin’s parents sat down and had a talk with his boyfriend. They agreed to let the young love go on as long as it didn’t interfere with Justin’s academic performance. However, even though things seemed to be improving for Justin, he could still sense a bit of unease from his parents whenever he mentioned his boyfriend. It wasn’t until he broke up with his boyfriend six months later that his parents finally realized there was nothing different between him and heterosexual people.
“They realized I was just like any other person because I still needed to be cared for while going through a breakup,” said Justin. “It was a turning point for our family.”
From then on, his parents were able to more openly ask him questions about homosexuality. In return, Justin would try to be patient with their inquiries. He credited the continuously warming relationship between him and his parents to their mutual efforts to bridge the gap.
“They have finally come to terms with my sexuality and have become fully supportive,” said Justin. “They will ask if I am dating anyone, and my mom even tried talking to me about her favorite soccer player during the World Cup. There is no more friction between my family and me whenever the topic of homosexuality comes up.”
The importance of self-acceptance
It’s hard to not like Sarah when you meet her in person because her straightforward personality makes it very easy to initiate conversation with her. She’s the type of person that seems so comfortable with herself that it is almost impossible to connect her to the word “confusion.” But, that was actually not the case for her while growing up.
Sarah had always enjoyed the feeling of being taken care of by women, but it wasn’t until elementary school that she started to be more aware of her attraction to women.
“I realized that my behaviors were quite different from other girls and I never enjoyed wearing skirts,” said Sarah. “It was also a piece of cake for me to befriend guys, while I somehow always felt excited when I met girls my age. But since it was considered abnormal to like girls, I didn’t really continue my exploration.”
Her first “sort-of” romantic relationship with women happened during her junior high school years. Instead of openly dating this girl, Sarah kept the relationship low-key. She didn’t fully embrace the mainstream lesbian lifestyle until she attended Wenzao, a predominantly female language college in Kaohsiung. There, she noticed the growing number of tomboys around her and gradually befriended more lesbians as a result. However, as Sarah tried to blend into the lesbian community there, her confusion about homosexuality only continued to grow. She noticed that many lesbians preferred to look masculine. And in order to enhance their masculinity, the girls would do things like wear binders, get buzz cuts and wear tongue rings.
“I tried everything that was considered the norm within the lesbian community. But in the end, I felt nothing but emptiness,” said Sarah. “I began to wonder why learning about my sexuality made me feel so lost and I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore.”
Sarah’s confusion lingered as she moved to Taipei for college. She thought the power of religion could help clear up her doubts. She decided to become a Christian after she ended one failed relationship, but the decision only made Sarah even more confused about her sexuality.
“I began to ponder why being homosexual was such a torture, and it also seemed impossible for me to come out to my family at that point,” said Sarah. “The more I tried to hide my homosexual identity from them, the more lost I felt. Luckily I never gave up on myself.”
The string of confusion made Sarah realize that she had been living a life based on others’ perception of her, and not based on her perception of herself. She realized she had to know who she really was and accept her homosexual identity before she could feel confident about herself. So she stopped dressing like a typical tomboy and took off her binder. She decided to try being Sarah again.
“I knew I had to stop trying to make people like me by changing myself,” said Sarah. “After trying to adopt the mainstream lesbian lifestyle, I realized it wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to live. So I started being friends with people that really made me feel comfortable. And I stopped forcing myself to do things that I didn’t enjoy.”
However, coming out to her family still proved to be a tough task for Sarah. While she could openly share most things with her family, her sexuality remained a Pandora’s Box that no one dared to touch. Sarah’s mom would try to get answers from Sarah by repeatedly asking when she wanted to get married. All Sarah could do was to tell her mom that she would never be married. But, Sarah finally decided to come out to her family when they began to ask her about the secret companion that went on weekend trips with her.
“I contemplated about how to come out to them and finally decided that I could only express my true feelings through a letter,” said Sarah. “I wrote a three-page letter to my father and left it on his coffee table the next day. I even reminded him to read it before I left for work.”
She could not stop thinking about it at work the whole day, but felt relieved that she had found a way to express her feelings. Sarah’s dad did not say a thing about it that night, but that was enough to convince her that he had accepted her being homosexual. However, Sarah’s mom proved to be a much tougher case. Her hysterical reaction and refusal to accept Sarah’s homosexual identity made Sarah determine that it was better not to talk about it when she was around.
“Whenever I tried to tell her that I am a lesbian she would never listen. Instead, she would keep asking me why I started to like women,” said Sarah. “She considered homosexuality a disease and her stubbornness made me realize that she would never be able to talk about it rationally with me.”
But Sarah never lets this stop her from being who she is. She shares her love life with her dad and her brother, while firmly reassuring her mom that while she would never get married to a man, she was extremely satisfied with her life.
“Even though my mom has never given up asking my brother why I won’t get married, my relationship with her has been rather peaceful since I came out to them,” said Sarah. “The most important thing is that I can finally be myself in front of them, while ensuring them that I am capable of taking care of myself.”
Coming out to her family did not just clear the last hurdle in Sarah’s journey towards self-acceptance, but it also helped her realize that her family’s concern was never really about her sexuality, but about her overall well-being.
“They only wanted to make sure that I could be independent, mature and happy,” said Sarah. “That’s why they never really directly confronted me about my sexuality once I officially came out to them.”
The transition towards complete acceptance
While Justin and Sarah’s stories can’t give us a full picture of what it’s like to come out in Taiwan, they still present some shared aspects of the experience and also reveal local attitudes toward homosexuality.
It is an undeniable fact that the process of sexuality exploration is still quite lonely for the majority of homosexual youngsters in Taiwan. The sense of isolation and lack of access to resources will often cause them to trust false information while coming out, or they may simply lose themselves along the way. For those who have the courage to come out to their family like Justin and Sarah, the outcome may not always be ideal. Parents’ initial reactions are often complete rejection, followed by attempts to coerce their children back to the “right” path.
Even Justin and Sarah, who came out to their parents and received some degree of acceptance, still had to prove to their family that their sexual orientations were not the result of hasty deliberation, but a carefully thought-through confession. And in both stories, both of their mothers reacted emotionally to their announcements. It was their fathers’ rational thinking that brought both sides back to good terms.
We should recognize that challenges remain during the coming out process for most homosexual individuals, regardless of their family background and social status. While there is no immediate solution to this issue, we should all dedicate time towards nurturing greater acceptance of homosexual individuals among the general public, especially among parents.
(Feature photo by William Yang)
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