by Austin Yu
Over 15 years ago, I came out to my parents while in high school. Specifically, to my mom after a heated argument about whether or not I can go play miniature golf with a few friends over the summer. Specifically, with Rob, my cross-country teammate and otherwise blond Adonis. For one reason or another, my mom did not want me to go, and the abridged conversation went like this:
Me: I really want to go.
Me: But I already told Rob that I wanted to go.
Mom: Tell him you can’t.
Me: But I love him.
And thus began my decade-plus long struggle for us to come to terms with the fact that I am gay, and that they have a gay son.
Through my later teen years and into early adulthood, we revisited the issue a handful of times. Not to say that it didn’t run as an undercurrent through every waking moment of our lives, we just outwardly addressed it a handful of times. Though some conversations may have started out peacefully and even with good intentions, all of them devolved into shouting, tears, and frustration. We approached the topic like a cold war, two diametrically opposed parties with tension brewing just beneath a veneer of calm, ready at any given moment to detonate and scatter the pieces of our quasi-happy existence into the great unknown.
We’d fight, endure a few days of silence, then resume our regularly scheduled repression. Through two significant relationships, I learned rather adeptly how to separate my romantic life from my familial one, how to tend to one while keeping an eye on the other, hoping to never let either know that they are essentially being compartmentalized, quarantined. East is East.
Then, 2008 rolled around.
On one nondescript Sunday towards the end of May, I decided that I would accompany my mom and dad to church. My parents have regularly attended church for years, and I knew that my mom appreciated my company there, even if my faith was conspicuously absent. That morning, we sat fourth row from the podium, right off the center aisle.
Little did I know that I inadvertently stumbled upon an entire “sermon” on the “sanctity” of marriage and how it was under attack by the homosexual liberals and their Prop. 8 shenanigans. How dare we?
I’ve heard enough of this kind of rhetoric to immediately pick up on where it was heading. The light bulb in my head was Pavlovian. The “pastor,” Bill, began talking about Rebecca and Isaac, the miracle of matrimony and childbirth, and how modern day times are constantly trying to reinterpret and redefine these tenets. I was like a dog, salivating at the sound of a bell; I knew what was coming.
I wriggled uncomfortably. My eyes darted around the room to see if anyone was nodding along, as church-going people are wont to do during sermons, I’ve noticed. Finally, it became too much to bear. I stood up, looked Bill directly in the eyes as he prattled on, grabbed by jacket, and stormed down the seemingly endless aisle with my head held high and eyes fixed on the door in the back. I let it slam as audibly as possible on the way out. Very diva.
Knowing I could not walk back into the church without it symbolizing some sort of defeat, I stood by the back door and listened. It was nothing but the usual diatribe, appalling and boring. When, finally, the service ended, I found my parents rather quickly. No discernible expression on their faces, and they said ‘hi’ as if nothing had happened, as if I had not disappeared in a huff just half an hour ago. This further fueled my simmering rage.
Bill walked over and schmoozed with them, and they smiled and laughed in return. The pit of my stomach was an active volcano of ire. Then Bill turned to me, extended his hand, and introduced himself.
I had but two milliseconds (nano, if I want to be dramatic) to decide what to do. Though the issue may be my war, this was not my battle, or my grounds. I could let Bill know exactly what I thought of him, his “sermon,” and my absolute disgust that he would turn a place of worship into his own political platform. But I could walk away from him, never see him again and never feel the repercussions of my actions. My parents, however, would face a different outcome.
So with my hands anchored at the bottom of my pantpockets and a stare that I hoped could melt glaciers, I said, “I know who you are.” His hand lingered in mid-air for a moment longer, and then he awkwardly excused himself.
My parents were livid.
I later discovered through my sister that they were mostly angry because I was rude to Bill. Unbelievable, I thought, though not entirely unexpected. It was safer for them to focus on trees when the forest was a great, and decidedly anti-great, unknown.
I fumed about it to Sam, my partner, that evening. Always the same approach, always the same conclusion. And so, after much deliberation, I decided to try a different tack.
I called my parents a few days later, and presented the terms as calmly as I could muster: Accept me for who I am, and understand that there is no changing me: I love men. You do not have to accept all gays and lesbians of the world, and you do not have to join PFLAG or march down Market Street in June. But meet my partner. Embrace my friends. Play a part in this part of my life, or you don’t get any other. Should we ever speak again, you must comply.
And thus began a month of silence. Sam asked if I had picked the right battle. I had no other battles. Over the course of 15 years, there was nothing but this battle. Only the stakes have changed: all of me, or none. No more compartments. As bad as this sounds, I felt justified in throwing a tantrum and laying down this ultimatum. It was the right thing to demand.
The stakes were high, though, and the odds were stacked against me (if the past decade and a half were any indication). Yet, I knew that we could not go on dancing around the same bush. If I were to completely cut ties with them, I could do it knowing that I stood up for what I believed in and did the best I could.
A few months later, my parents and sister, along with 5 gay guys including me and Sam, had dinner at Naan ‘n Curry together in Union Square. It was surreal.
Two years later, I turned 30, bought a house, somehow managed to get Sam to buy me a ring without even trying. All within a month. My parents have now met all of my close friends, and they see Sam on a regular basis. They ask about him when he’s not around. We have talked about my being gay and gay issues in general and we’ve ended those conversations with peace in our hearts and a deeper understanding of who we are as people. I have much to be thankful for.
When Sam and I began construction to add an additional bathroom to the upstairs level of our loft, we were told it was a small job, requiring less than a month’s time with minimal disruption to our lives.
But as construction projects go, the scope crept until it disappeared into the horizon, and we were displaced after the second night without a place to sleep. We took my parents up on their offer, moved in with them, and left 40 days later.
It was a rare opportunity for my parents to get to know Sam, and vice versa, and they all developed a level of comfort with each other that may have taken a lifetime to develop otherwise. My mom discovered that Sam likes yogurt, so she went to Costco and bought two 24-count boxes of Activia. My dad made a pan-fried soy and ginger halibut dish that he knew was Sam’s favorite. Twice. After dinners, my mom would brew a pot of jasmine tea, something to which Sam has quickly grown accustomed. And throughout these 40 days, they welcomed him, and us, into their home and lives, and allowed themselves into ours.
On the weekends, I was typically the last one out of bed in the morning. As I would shuffle through the hall and down the stairs for breakfast, I often heard my parents laughing, and Sam laughing, and conversation lobbying back and forth like an effortless round of tennis. I was thankful to have been an outsider during those moments, observing unnoticed, but listening to what I interpreted as family.
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