|The following is Alphonsus Lee's account of his experience attending the Safehaven Lunar New Year reunion dinner with his father.
The first thought that went through my mind as I saw my father cross both his arms and his legs while he sat at the table was that it was going to be a long night. His discomfort at being in the company of gay men and women was clearly evident. While I know him to be a rather chatty individual, he hardly spoke at all, which served to heighten my own discomfort and anxiety. Compounded with the responsibility of having to play host to a group of about thirty individuals, I could only down more wine in the hopes that it would calm my frayed nerves.
It was one week before Chinese New Year, and I was charged to organise a reunion dinner for Safehaven members and their family members. Safehaven is gay Christian support group which holds regular bible study sessions, and one of its resolutions this year was to encourage its members to come out to their family members so as to keep and deepen family relationships.
Rev Yap Kim Hao, the first Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church, kindly consented to attending with his wife and daughter, and saying a few words. And while it was relatively easy to book a room at the Teahouse Restaurant at China Square, it was much harder to convince members who were out to their families to bring them to dinner. You would think that a free a-la-carte buffet would entice quite a number of people, but the fear of what their family members might say is hard to overcome. In the end, we managed to round up seven brave souls and their non-gay family members.
My dad's first comments to me were "everyone is so badly dressed." For someone semi-formally attired in a long-sleeved shirt and pleated dress pants, I did not think that his fashion sense was particularly fantastic either. However, as I looked around, I saw a couple of guys decked out in gay men fashion of tight fitting t-shirts that looked two sizes too small which draw attention to the big pecs and bulging biceps. Perhaps my father simply cannot get used to why people must wear clothing that they might out-grow in a few months but the more likely answer is that gay men are always badly dressed – no matter what they wore.
Throughout dinner, I kept a close eye on my dad but I could not help but notice the other people around. There were two who brought their mothers and another three who had brought their siblings. But I have to take my hat off to one who had brought his ex-wife and daughter, who were seated at the same table with him and his significant other. If there were a role model for gay men around the world, it would be him. He had the courage to come out to his wife, and was able to gain acceptance for his homosexuality and his significant other. He was also wearing a tight fitting t-shirt.
If you think coming out to your parents is difficult, imagine what how many times more difficult it is to explain to your wife of several years that you are actually gay and that you're in love with another man.
We stuck to safe topics at our dinner table, such as how a mother was recovering from a fractured foot. The only time my father spoke at some length was to describe his work, another safe topic. Subjects like how he felt about his gay son and his feelings about coming to dinner were strictly taboo, and fortunately were not broached at the table.
Rev Yap's message was short yet poignant. He described his life and the hardships that he had to go through, such as surviving the Japanese occupation and as a parent bringing up his two sons and two daughters. Given that life is already so difficult as a heterosexual, he could only imagine how the difficulty is magnified for a parent of a gay individual.
At one point he said that whilst we are struggling to come out of the closet, our parents took over the places that we had vacated. I shared a laugh with the other parent at the table, and later someone explained: "When I first came out to my mother, she was very supportive of it. But she told me not to tell my cousins and relatives."
It was not until we were on our way home in the car that I managed to get some real feedback from my father. He had pretty strong views of us. He called us "lost," because in his mind, we did not know what we were doing. He described my role model's wife as "sad," perhaps because he did not see her smile that night. More likely, he believed that she was "sad" in his mind's eye, because he would feel that way himself if he were in her situation.
I told him that his views are judgmental because of his prejudices as a homophobe. He seems to think that, as gays and lesbians, we do not have a direction in life, that we are guided only by lust. How could he call someone "sad" if he did not know their situation, did not know them personally?
While I am saddened by his views, I am heartened by his quiet presence at the dinner. He had made an effort to show that he cares by attending the dinner and it is this show of love that continues to fuel my belief that one-day he will come to understand and be proud of his gay son. I told my dad that I wished he would make some effort to find out more about his son's life – about who his friends are, what makes him happy or sad, and who his significant other was; and that I would continue to love him as a father and friend no matter what his own views are.
The truth is that coming out to parents and family members is a difficult thing to do. Nobody ever said that is was going to be a walk in the park. Even more so in getting them to understand and appreciate a gay individual's life.
But in our lifetime, we will only have one father and one mother, and that term of endearment "kor" (elder brother in Chinese) or "zheh" (elder sister) will only sound genuine for our blood brothers and sisters. If we do not make an effort to reach out to them and help them to overcome whatever prejudices they have, then we have only ourselves to blame.
This story first appeared on Fridae.com in Jan 2004. Republished with permission from Alphonsus Lee and Fridae.com.
Labels: Personal Journeys