Contemporary narratives of coming out promise that coming out will lead to a better, more honest sort of love founded on total openness to ourselves and to the people around us. And it was easy for me to believe that this was true for every relationship. After all, coming out not only brought me closer to my friends and to my sisters, but also taught me to love myself; it taught me to recognize that the palpable weight I felt in my chest right before the first few times I came out was not from fear of my friends’ reactions, but rather from a feeling—a feeling I’ve since rid myself of—that my asserting who I am was a worthless endeavor.
But when it comes to my parents, I simply do not want to come out. Here, the narratives I know fail me; all the typical reasons I can think of for why one might not want to come out to their parents feel completely alien. My parents never made me sit through sermons about sin or instilled in me a fear of a homophobic god. My dad never made any particular point of teaching me some notion of being a “real man” that involved throwing footballs around and charming women. My mother never hid us from her gay coworkers in the garment industry in some fear of their corrupting us, and, in an endearingly confused moment, once even showed my sisters and me a coworker’s calendar of him in drag.
Instead, my parents taught me that they came to the United States with very little in the hopes that their children would have more. The names of their gods were clunky phonetic translations of “Harvard” and “Yale,” and their Bibles the folded pamphlets of admissions materials. Before any notion of individual manhood was the notion of family, of obligation, of one’s work for the whole. And no calendar of a male coworker in woman’s clothes could override the importance of having a coworker at all, of having a secure job and a steady income.
What is keeping me in the closet, then, is how unequipped I am to communicate how the words “I’m gay” fit into the narrative of my parents, the narrative of Chinese immigrants and their American children. In fact, I literally lack the language; if I were to tell my parents that I am gay, it would have to be in English, a language that after more than 27 years in the United States is still foreign to them. It would be in the language of their jobs, of parent-teacher conferences, of the station my sisters and I would change the car’s radio to every time we took a drive. It would not be the language of holiday dinners, of calls to check how I’m doing at Yale.
To hinge my relationship with my parents and our capacity to love each other fully on one moment that I cannot even properly express is ultimately dishonest to our kinship. That is not to say that we would not stand to grow as a family from my coming out and opening up to them; rather, our care for each other is grounded in values beyond openness, values that my parents brought with them from their village in rural China and kept alive in raising my sisters and me.
What I’ve come to realize is that the scripts I used to come out apply only to relations that are particularly American—American in a way that excludes my Asian upbringing. Coming out, as an act that involves so much more than who we are attracted to and who we tell about it, still deserves more stories that are honest to the diversity of origins and relationships that exist in this country. In our eagerness to launch into an age of unimpeded opportunities for queer people to pursue love, success, and happiness, we must not forget that these goals take so many forms in so many languages, so many creeds, and so many homes—that the queer experience, and by proxy the coming out experience, is not one-closet-fits-all.