On She Goes

Coming Out to My Overseas Family

How I was able to finally become my whole queer self in Taiwan.

Alison Tam
Alison Tam
February 16, 2018
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Before I stepped onboard flights to Taiwan I was out, proud, and open. I was the chair of a student LGBTQ organization, relentlessly queer on social media, and often accessorized in rainbow. The moment I set foot on Asian soil to visit family, however, I wasn’t. I jettisoned entire chunks of my life, my identity, like so much extra baggage. No more girlfriend, no more Pride pins. My résumé shrank as I mentally excised every LGBTQ-related extracurricular. So did my repertoire of anecdotes. Every story that contained a girlfriend, a date, an ex became off-limits.

On paper, I was the lucky beneficiary of decades of LGBTQ activism—unapologetic and unafraid.

To be perfectly clear, I wasn’t in the closet. Not exactly, at least. I’ve been out since I was 15 and did a PSA for my high school Gay-Straight Alliance, in Irvine, California. My parents have known since I was a teen, which is a big deal in the queer Asian American community, where many don’t feel comfortable coming out to family for a long time—if at all. My parents were supportive, too, handling my bisexuality better than the news that I wasn’t getting into Stanford. On paper, at least, I was the lucky beneficiary of decades of LGBTQ activism—unapologetic and unafraid.

On some level, I felt it was irrational to not come out directly to my family overseas. The Asian branches of my family are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, places that are at the forefront of gay rights in Asia. I didn’t have to worry about often state-sanctioned violence that many in more restrictive countries have to contend with. I’m also the beneficiary of cisgender privilege: there’s a smattering of out gay and lesbian celebrities and politicians in East Asia, but transgender rights are much less understood.

Alison in Tainain.
photo courtesy of Alison Tam

The problem was that logic and rationality could never quite erase my fear. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the language to express myself: I still don’t know the Chinese word for “bisexual” or “LGBTQ” Maybe it was because, despite eagerly devouring news articles about LGBTQ communities in Asia, I had yet to meet someone from my parents’ homeland who was actually out. The most I could bring myself to do was let my family see all the LGBTQ-related things I talked about on social media, but, since we never had a conversation about it, I ended up in Schrödinger’s closet, unsure if they actually knew.

In desperation, as I entered my final year of high school, I finally asked my mother if she’d ever mentioned my coming out to her side of the family. They were close, I reasoned. Maybe they’d talked about it.

“No,” she’d said, “It didn’t really seem important. Should I?”

I lost my nerve and told her no. After that, I visited my family in Asia about three or four times and spent every trip in limbo, holding myself back just enough for plausible deniability. I analyzed every like and comment my relatives made on my public Facebook posts: if my aunt liked an article I shared about a Taiwanese singer talking about gay rights, then that meant she had to know, right? Or did she just like that I was connecting with my heritage?

Tens of thousands of people showed up at Taipei Pride.
photo by Alison Tam

Then in 2017, Taiwan’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, an unequivocal message that I did belong in Taiwan, that my full self would be welcome. I spent hours scrolling through news articles, basking in photos and headlines, and texted my friends long strings of exclamation marks in my excitement. Last year, I boarded the plane that took me to Taiwan, determined that I wouldn’t let myself change on the flight.

The old fear still came rushing back, an irrational wave of what if just as unshakable as ever, but this time, I pushed through it. I talked about ex-girlfriends and my LGBTQ activism. My aunts took it in stride, asking about potential romantic partners’ career prospects and comparing my experiences dating to their own. I even went to Pride, marching with tens of thousands of people through the streets of Taipei—it was the largest pride celebration in East Asia.

I saw grandmothers walking alongside drag queens, activist groups from every corner of the planet turning up in support and celebration. Though my aunts, seeing the weather forecasts for the day, had advised me to bring a warmer jacket, the October day was warm and clear. Initially, I was a little worried as a lone participant with an inability to read Chinese characters. Would I get lost? Would the people at the parade be friendly? I was nervous about being an outsider, but I didn’t have to be: the moment I joined the crowd, I was seized by the infectious good mood of everyone there.  Everywhere I looked, I could see expressions of joy: friends in large groups, families turned out to support each other, all sorts of people laughing and marching as part of a community bigger than themselves. Most importantly, I saw people who looked like me and my family, taking joy in being themselves. At Taipei Pride, I found myself, and I found peace knowing that I could be my whole self in my parents’ home country.