I had what I consider a textbook, best-case scenario coming out experience with my mother. In 2004, I had fallen in love with a woman for the first time, and as sometimes happens, fell so deeply and quickly in love that I didn’t realize we weren’t on the same page until she broke my heart over dinner one summer night. I cried on the bus home and when I arrived, I collected myself enough to tell my mother the thing that silently occupied conversations about the Indigo Girls or the gay marriage debate: I was bisexual. I had a girlfriend. She broke up with me. I’d be crying and upset, and I didn’t want my mother to wonder why.
My white American middle-class mother, who’d gone to gay bars in Toyko in the ’70s and took me to see Rent when I was 12, held me and said, “I’m sorry you’re hurting.” She was brave and kind and gave me an ideal response to what had been difficult news to deliver.
My Japanese father, on the other hand: we never discussed it, not once, not even after introducing him to my first serious girlfriend who later became my wife. My mother later reported that she told him, but we didn’t discuss his reaction—good, bad, or otherwise.
Coming out can be a formative moment in the lives of queer people; there is literally a day and a Facebook feature devoted to it. Recent dominant portrayals of queerness in media, many of them about white Americans, tell us that coming out should look like it did with my mom: a tearful confession, a parent acknowledging their child, hugs. To be robbed of that with my dad, given these narratives, made me feel like what did transpire was a failure.
I have never come out to a Japanese person. Language is hard, that’s what I tell myself. I speak a four-year-old’s Japanese, all questions and admonitions and how to request chocolate cake (“Chokorato keki kudasai;” may that be useful to you soon). Much to the surprise of basically everyone I’ve ever met, my father didn’t teach me Japanese. What I do know leaked in by osmosis over the 18 years in my parents’ house.
My dad is not your average Japanese man. He’s all about household chores; he never put limits on me as a woman. He will go the distance for me, in that I can be sure. He was the kid watching West Side Story in a small town movie theater, dreaming of America and yearning to leave the limits of Japan, which struck him as too traditional and closed minded.
But, in other ways, he’s no sitcom dad. While I was growing up, he’d return home from work late, his only words to me a rotating carousel of ‘did you do your homework,’ ‘you’re sitting too close to the TV,’ and ‘go to bed.’ He was a heavy drinker and would come home inebriated after time out with clients or networking at an event. These qualities do not build trust in a child. They do not exclaim: “Yes, please tell me everything about your life!”
When I had my wedding reception after our city hall wedding, I only invited my dad’s older brother and his wife—who live in Japan—and their daughters. My aunt and uncle are more like grandparents, because mine died before I was born. Mostly due to budget constraints, we needed to limit our list to those who we knew well, but for me there was another consideration: finally being fully and utterly out, which wasn’t a conversation I could see my dad having with his family. Because of language, at least that’s what I tell myself, we never talked about anything personal. In my mid-twenties, they started nagging me to get married, something they’d say with my—cough!— friend when we all had dinner in the city.
“I’ll get married eventually,” I’d say, and make the conversation go away.
As time passed, I was not willing to be coy. My parents brought my visiting uncle and cousin to our one-bedroom apartment the day after we moved in. (One bedroom. Two women.) My uncle either didn’t notice, too taken with the place and the beer garden nearby, or he cast away the implications of such a thing.
I’m not alone in the spectrum of how Asian families treat queerness. Heterosexuality is assumed, giving great coverage to one’s life if that’s needed, but it erases real and lived lives. Family can’t fully know you. And mine isn’t a single story. I think about my South Asian friend who married his longtime boyfriend, then told his dad he was gay; that they’d married in secret was a fact shared later. Or Kathy Tu, co-host of the podcast Nancy, who had to keep coming out to her mother, over and over again.
Here’s what I’ve learned, which is challenging as a writer: it’s not always about words. Without explicitly being told, I knew that coming out as queer would be a disappointment, a deviation from the norm. This in a somewhat nontraditional Japanese family, who to my knowledge never batted an eye at my father’s white American wife. While there was intermarriage and people single by choice, no one was queer. Again, without being told, I worried that my life and relationships would reflect poorly on my dad with his family and Japanese colleagues. I worried that the very real concept of bringing shame on your family—losing face—would impact my dad’s life and my own.
Here’s the other thing I’ve learned: in reality, it’s not about the words that you think it’s going to be about. My dad is all subtext. This is a man who clearly loves his daughter but has only told me a couple of times. (In contrast, my in-laws tell my wife they love her every single time they talk to her. Every time! And they tell me too! It’s taken years for me to be comfortable with that.) Because he’s more a man of what’s unspoken, you have to pay attention to gestures. In 2015, when same-sex couples were granted marriage nationwide, my dad went into Manhattan for the Pride parade held days after the ruling. He took photos and sent them to me, his friends, and family in Japan, writing that this was the “greatest day!” He bought two small rainbow flags and put one in a planter at the front of their house. He was proud of his adopted country, and I know without him saying it, deeply proud of me.
Getting married outed me to my aunt and uncle. I assumed they knew before, but that wasn’t the case. I know my dad reported to them after my new wife and I tied the knot, because their congratulations came through shortly after.
The backstory I learned later through my cousin. My aunt called and the conversation went something like this:
My aunt: Did you know Emily is getting married to a woman?
My cousin: Yes, of course I did.
Aunt: Why didn’t you tell me?
Cousin: It wasn’t for me to tell.
Aunt: Well. What do you think?
Cousin: I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve met her. They stayed with me when they came to visit. I like her.
Aunt: I don’t have a problem with it! You shouldn’t judge her! It doesn’t matter! It’s Emily. It’s fine.
Cousin: I’m not judging her! I know it’s fine.
Here I had been imagining another reaction, another feeling that was more like apathy—not a lecture on how to be. I imagine older folks being less open to difference, and in my life I have been largely wrong about people’s capacity for understanding and acceptance.
My aunt and uncle and I are never going to have an in-depth conversation about, say, climate change because we don’t have enough common words between us—but it’s with them that I understand what family means. I’m happy to spend time with them because I love them, and because we are linked, as simple as: you are my people, and that connects us.
An early draft of my debut novel, A World Between, featured a moment where a queer Indian-American character mused about how affirming it was to be around other queer people, though they missed the nuances of family and culture. She said that being around other Indians felt like oxygen—until they wanted to get into her business about her masculine presentation or where that elusive husband must be. There wasn’t anywhere that truly fit, she concluded.
My editor knocked on my figurative door and asked, “What about queer Indian people?” which was a real face palm moment for me, that I ignored that some people’s identities actually intersect. I want it to be true, that people are seen fully in front of their friends, family, and communities, and it’s up to me to write the world I want to see.