Alice Wu knows about coming out. She's not only written about it at length through her debut feature film Saving Face and her Netflix movie The Half of It, but she's experienced it herself — as many queer and trans folks have. In fact, that aforementioned work is in part based on Wu's experience. While she admits they aren't biographical, both projects are "emotionally true."
"I wrote Saving Face very much for my mom," Wu tells Out. "But also I realize aver I made it that I really wrote it for my self in the sense of 'oh I was hoping that my mom would fully come to accept who I was when I came out as gay.'"
For Wu coming out was a multi-step process. Her first coming out was to herself which she did at 19. On a prompt from a feminist studies class, she was challenged to write a coming out essay to her parents. "Presumably at this class, the vast majority of the class was straight and I too thought I was straight," she explained. But they had to write a coming out letter all the same, and so at the last minute (in lieu of not turning in an assignment) Wu wrote hers.
As she spoke Mandarin with her parents, she began dictating what she would write in Mandarin. It was only at this point that she realized she didn't even know the word for gay in Mandarin — she's since learned it.
"Maybe there’s something about language determining reality," Wu muses about the occurrence. "Like maybe if you don’t know the word for something, especially in your childhood language, maybe you can’t possibly Imagine being that thing." Still, she went through with writing the essay, and then wrote an essay about it, coming out to herself (and her teacher) in the process.
"I think in that moment when I came out to myself, I sometimes liken it to maybe you are depressed all your life and you suddenly come out and now you feel something but what you feel is horrible," she explains. "Like you feel deeply lonely and terrified but at last you’re feeling something and for me, that was utterly better than feeling too happy or too sad."
Weeks later, while home for the holidays, Wu saw a spur of the moment opportunity to come out to her mother, who had wondered if the label of feminist was some sort of euphemism for gay — spoiler: it is not. When Wu came out to her, her mother didn't take it well saying that if she ever acted on her sexuality, her mother wouldn't want to see her again. Wu left the house as a result in a small moment of emotional detachment.
"I just remember this moment where I’m at this stop sign and I’m sitting there and it just really hit me that the one person in the world that I thought would love me no matter what, I just lost that person," Wu recalls. "In that moment I had this weird feeling of strength because, in that moment I remember thinking: that’s not entirely true, you still have one other person and that person’s you." The experience led her to question everything about herself — "it was sort of like eight weeks ago you thought you liked boys and now you don't," — and led her to a place of inner confidence. If she could come out to her mother and risk their relationship in order to stand in her own truth — hey reconciled years later — she could do anything.
"The thing about coming out for me is that yes its super important for people that are queer — because of all the homophobia, because of the transphobia etc. — that they have a space that they feel that they can come out or that they can see other people come out but in a lot of ways, coming out is basically saying do you see me," Wu says. "Do you see the essence of who I am? And I think any time that someone can feel that they are seen on a deep level is good."
"I like to think that what I'm working towards might make it a little bit easier for somebody else to come out," she continues. "I like to think that on some level I’m always going to be coming out in some way and I encourage others to reveal themselves to those around them as well."