How Queer Korean Representation Helped Me Understand Who I Am—and What I Could Lose
I know that I’m living in a ticking clock, and all of this—dinners with my parents, peaceful conversations—will likely be gone one day.
it’s okay, it’s okay
Is everything okay? Should I call 911?No, it’s fineI just came out to her
With my family, I masked my indifference to boys with studying, using academics and SATs and college applications as reasons I “didn’t have time to date,” and it worked. Most Asian immigrant adults don’t have much to say to an adolescent who’d rather go home and study, who doesn’t sneak out to meet boys, who seems focused on her future and her ambitions.
a Are you a gay?
The Bible says homosexuality’s a sin; would you agree?if
YesBut I’m not acting on it!beact on
hey, I’m gay, who’d have thought?
It was a total fucking relief to say it out loud: Of course, I’m totally gay.
I’ve always been a daydreamer, and I’ve always had an overactive imagination, but what I feel for her feels different. Her existence, her public presence, means something more to me. I knew, cognitively, that there were other gay Asian Americans out there, but I couldn’t really think of many, much less a lesbian Asian American, until I saw her. Her very existence made it okay for me to consider my own sexuality. There she was, an openly gay, successful, celebrated Asian American. And if I wanted to indulge in the fantasy of being with her, then I’d have to dispel my false identity as a heterosexual woman.
When I finally realized I was gay, I was thirty-one. My first foray into dating was a literary speed dating event. I put on my bright spring dress because it was early summer, and I put on my favorite red lipstick, and I sat there feeling so self-conscious, wondering if my arms looked too big, if my lipstick were too bright, if this, if that, goddamn, why was I doing this again? All these other women were so dynamic, beautiful, full of life, and there I was—big and frumpy and dull.
I didn’t have many hopes for this speed dating event, though I was proud of myself for getting there. I had a glass of wine. I talked to a good number of women, made note of a few of them, and wondered if I’d really email the event organizers with their code names when I got back to my apartment. Normally, I don’t think I would have. I’d had a good night, though, enjoyed the ease of talking to other bookish women; so I sent an email before I went to bed, expecting nothing of it.
The next morning, I received an email from the organizers, congratulating me for matching with a few and sharing names and contact information. I waited, wondering if any of the women might email me. I waited, not wanting to be the one to take that first step. Someone emailed, and we started texting. She was proper, polite, bookish in her emails and texts, but I didn’t exactly remember who she was—we’d been assigned code names at the event, and I’d already forgotten which code names went with which faces.
We went to dinner at this cute Italian place in the West Village, and she was polite, proper, and bookish in person, too. We talked more, drank wine, ate pasta, shared a slice of olive oil cake for dessert. We walked to the Union Square subway together afterwards and made plans to see each other again. She didn’t fall into my physical type, was more femme than the women I’m usually drawn to, but she was sweet. I wanted her to kiss me, but she never did; not on that date, and not on the one that followed. We lost touch soon after.
It’s the day after my mother’s meltdown in the car. The woman I’ve loved since 2016 is doing an event in Los Angeles, so naturally I make plans to go see her. My mother has reached a place of peaceful denial, or so it seems. I tell her my plans and she says, Isn’t she a gay?
You Googled her? I ask, almost amused.
Of course. She’s a gay.
She’s also this and that, I say, and I suppose that appeases her because my mother doesn’t say much else, and we go to bed.
Hilariously, my mother had been the first person to suggest the possibility of queerness to me; one night, years ago, when I was in college and we were driving home, she’d asked me out of nowhere, Are you a lesbian? I don’t think she was serious in that moment; I believe she intended it as a sarcastic comment on my total lack of dating and non-mention of boys. Still, that moment stuck with me, though I wouldn’t think about it seriously until much later. After I saw that first photo of this woman, after I finally started dealing with the insidious effects of body shaming and began healing and claiming who I really was, it was a total fucking relief to say it out loud: Well, duh. Of course, I’m totally gay.
I’m nervous in the morning, my brain spinning cotton-candy fantasies of meet-cutes. I go to see her, and she’s exactly as I’ve built her up in my head. She’s tall and thin, and she’s wearing all black, her hair parted on the side and gelled into place, the side of her head shaved. She sounds exactly as expected: voice on the lower register, slightly nasal, slightly throaty. And then there are all the things that don’t come across in photographs or interviews—the way she fidgets and shifts in her seat constantly; the way her eyes flit around the room, unable to rest in one place, on one person.
I run away once the event ends, not staying for the meet-and-greet, and join my parents for an early dinner. We’ve struck a truce since my mother’s meltdown—an uneasy truce on my end. My mother has been mollified by the idea that I was just “confused” because I’ve never dated boys, and had somehow deluded myself into believing that I was “a gay” due to their lack of attention and interest. She thinks that all I need to do is “meet a nice boy.” My father, maybe, suspects that it is not that simple, but hopes it is.
I am too tired, too raw and bruised, to want to fight about this anymore; not when I now know that I’m living in a ticking clock and this, all of this—dinners with my parents, quiet family gatherings, peaceful conversations—will likely be gone one day. Because I am a gay Korean kid with conservative Christian Korean parents, and I will lose my family by being fully who I am.