My darling child, I'm gay

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2014-9-28 18:33:01

The challenges of coming out to your kids


In recent years, as a result of growing public awareness about gay issues in China, more closeted parents are choosing to come out to their children. Photo: IC


For a moment, Han Siming's mind was blank. His mother had just told him that she was in love with a woman.

"She was very vulnerable," recalls Han.

Now a 20-year-old university student in Liaoning Province, Han was in the second year of middle school when his mother came out to him. She was in the midst of an unhappy marriage, her second, and after coming out to her son, she began to sob uncontrollably.

"I really sympathized with her, because she had been suffering for so long in the marriage. Her situation was really pitiable," said Han, who was born during his mother's first marriage.

He recalls his stepfather occasionally beating his mother, despite his mother's docile temperament, and the fact that she would defer to him in almost everything.

"I didn't quite understand my mother's words back then. I didn't know much about homosexuality. All I was concerned about was whether this woman loved my mother back," said Han.

Several weeks later, Han's mother, Song Ge, now 41, made the same confession to her daughter. Born from her second marriage, Song's daughter was only 7 years old at the time.

"I didn't want to hide it as a secret from my children. I had never lied to them before. And I never thought of it as something shameful," said Song.

Much of the growing discourse about homosexuality in China has focused on gay youth and the burden of coming out to one's parents in a society where continuation of the family line is still held up by many as a fundamental value. This focus on youth is perhaps to be expected, given that many of the efforts to raise greater awareness about gay rights have been undertaken by young people. The result, however, is that the perspectives of older generations who are now coming out much later in life have been comparatively neglected.

"I never encountered the concept of homosexuality in my youth," said Song. "I always thought the reason that I hated living with men was because I had never met a good one. For a long time, I felt lost."

Song's experience is typical of those who grew up during an era when there was very little public discourse about homosexuality. Until 1990, homosexuality was officially deemed to be a form of mental illness in China.

Zhang Beichuan, who won a Barry-Martin Award in 2000 for his study in homosexuality and HIV, estimates that out of the 30 million people in China who self-identify as being gay, around half remain in heterosexual marriages due to social pressure. 

However, Ah Qiang, a well-known gay rights activist and founder of LGBT support group PFLAG (Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays) China, said that in the past five years there has been a upward trend of people of this generation coming out to their children, as a result of greater awareness and shifting attitudes towards homosexuality in China.

A number of families have found that life has been happier after the closeted parent has come out. Photo: IC

An insoluble problem

Pangba (pseudonym), a 46-year-old entrepreneur who identifies himself as being gay, hoped for more than a decade to divorce his wife.

Before getting married at the age of 24 in 1992, Pangba had never considered he might be gay, although he had admitted to himself that he was attracted to other men.

"I didn't quite understand what it meant to be 'gay' before I got married," said Pangba. "I thought my attraction to other men was abnormal and entering into the heterosexual marriage could help to heal the problem."

Pangba had even received romantic overtures from another man, but turned him down.

"I was asked out on a date by a man before my marriage. But I thought it was weird, so I didn't go," he said.

Eventually, he came out to his wife in 2007, after starting an affair with a man who he thought he would spend the rest of his life with. He hoped to tell his daughter after she graduated from high school, at which point he would also seek a divorce. But his plans were accelerated when he was summoned to his daughter's high school in 2009, where a teacher told him that she suspected their daughter of being a lesbian.

"Upon returning home, my wife said to me, 'since you two are the same kind of person, you talk to her,'" Pangba recalls. "The incident gave me the opportunity to come out of the closet to my daughter earlier than I had planned."

He said that he has subsequently tried to encourage his daughter to explore her sexual identity by supporting her to join LGBT awareness groups at her university, but his attempts to reach out to her in this way have thus far been rebuffed. His daughter did not want other people to interfere with what she considered to be a personal issue.

Pangba's affair with the man he met in 2007 was broken off by his lover after just several months. To this day, it remains Pangba's only gay relationship.

Although his immediate family members are aware of his sexual orientation, Pangba feels obligated to remain in his marriage, and describes his wife as being emotionally dependent on him. Despite knowing that he is gay, she has continued to treat him well, and does not want a divorce.

"At this age, I can't leave my family and my wife unsupported," he said. 

A child's denial

Ah Qiang said that those born in or after 1980s were more likely to be able to accept their parents' sexual orientation. But coming out when one already has children brings its own set of challenges.

"Parents are often seen as infallible in the eyes of their children," said Ah Qiang. "Many parents worry that coming out of the closet will tarnish this image of infallibility."

In addition, said Ah Qiang, while the young people are generally more open-minded to the idea of their parents being gay, they may still lack a proper understanding of gay issues.

An example of this perhaps is the case of Han and his mother. While fully supportive of his mother's same-sex relationship, Han believes her sexual orientation is the result of having gone through two failed marriages. "Gay people deserve our sympathy. The reason they become gay is because they have suffered through a lot of painful things," said Han.

The view that homosexuality is the result of unpleasant or traumatic heterosexual experiences is one that is widely rejected by the LGBT community.

"He's got it the wrong way around," said Ah Qiang. "It's not the fact that his mother had unhappy marriages that caused her to 'become' gay. Rather, she has been gay all along, and this is what caused to be unhappy in her marriages."

Ah Qiang said it was important that parents and children talk with each other to avoid such misunderstandings. "Building mutual trust and support is important."

Truth and reconciliation

For a number of people who come out of the closet to their children, the experience is overwhelmingly positive.

"To some extent, my daughter is the one who helped me come out of the closet," said 38-year-old Tang Long. Tang divorced his wife eight years ago, and now lives with his gay partner in Shanghai, while his wife and daughter remain in Hebei Province.

He describes his 15-year-old daughter as a funü - a woman who is especially sympathetic towards gay men.

It was his daughter who convinced his ex-wife that she should be permitted to spend her summer vacations with Tang and his partner in Shanghai. "She is interested in our relationship and has been on good terms with us," said Tang.

Child psychologist Wang Lihua said that a good age for parents who are thinking about coming out of the closet to their children was around the time they entered junior high school, when they would have a basic ability to grasp the idea of sexual identity.

"If parents hide the fact that they are gay from children, their children could develop misunderstandings which could lead to psychological problems later on," said Wang. "Parents should instill their children with the idea that being gay is a normal thing and that marriage is a contract which can be broken."

Today, Song is reaping the benefits of coming clean to her children all those years ago. She ended her second marriage in 2004, and currently lives with the woman she had fallen in love with when she decided to confess to her children. Although some in the gay community might disagree with her son's interpretation of his mother's homosexuality, both her children fully support and embrace their relationship. 

"Our family is so harmonious and happy," said Song. "This is the family life I've dreamed of for so long." 

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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