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Teeth grinding family visits in Taipei

in PALESTINIAN TERRITORY, OCCUPIED, 07/11/2011

Jennifer Chang, one-half of a lesbian couple who left their San Francisco home in June to travel the world for a year in search of “Supergays” who are creating change for the LGBTQ community, shares her experiences about negotiating coming out to her extended family in Taipei.

Jennifer Chang and Lisa Dazols are a couple from San Francisco who embarked on a year-long world tour in June in search of gay people who are creating change for the LGBTQ community. Their project, Out and Around: Stories of a Not-So-Straight Journey, is a collection of our conversations with these “Supergays” around the world. They have launched a website to chronicle their stories.

Their trip will cover 15 countries across Asia, Africa, and South America, chosen beacause those are places where the LGBTQ movement is just starting to take shape, and they want to tell the stories of the people there who are leading the charge. Fridae will republish selectied interviews on a regular basis. Readers can follow their journey on www.outandaround.com.

In Taipei, both Lisa and I started grinding our teeth during the night again. My jaw feels sore each morning, and I find myself massaging the sides of my face throughout the day in hopes of loosening the tension. Meanwhile, Lisa has gone on a (so far fruitless) search for a mouth guard.

Why all this molar-damaging tension? Quite simply, my family is in Taipei.

I’ve written previously about my struggle with my parents over my sexuality and our unsuccessful attempt to find some resolution through family counseling. Since leaving home in June, I’ve kept in regular contact with my parents, updating them on my whereabouts and doing my best to allay their concerns about my heath and safety.

Since the blowouts from family counseling, we steer clear from discussing anything that may bring conflict. Of course, my parents know that I am traveling with Lisa. They just try to acknowledge that fact as little as possible. On my part, I haven’t pushed the issue, though I don’t go out of my way to shield them from Lisa’s presence either.

So, when I learned that my mother would happen to be in Taiwan at the same time as us, I knew that there would be conflict. In her mind, my mom expected that I should spend part of my three weeks in Taiwan staying with her and our relatives. When I argued back that I wasn’t about to leave Lisa alone at a hostel, my mother got upset and accused me of being co-dependent. Eventually we agreed on a compromise – I would set aside time to go see her and the relatives on my own, but I would return at night to Lisa.

To explain the situation to my relatives without raising any suspicion about who I was with, my mother made up the story that I was traveling with several other friends (including a man, to appease any concerns about my safety). As a result, I found myself constantly having to make up stories about what my “friends” were doing when I wasn’t with them and being sent home with bags of treats from my grandma to give to my “friends back at the hostel.” The facade was nearly blown one day when Lisa and I ran into my grandfather while walking in the street. Later when my grandpa asked me if Lisa was “the boy” from my group, I just silently nodded.

Given that it was my mom’s birthday and that these few weeks would be the only time I would see her all year, I reluctantly played along with the act. The stress of a double life took its toll, and after every family event I returned to Lisa utterly exhausted and unconsolably irritable.

And hanging over my head the entire time was the fact that I have yet to tell my parents about our engagement. The thought fills me with such dread that I’ve decided to simply not think about it. So, each time I visit my family, I take off my ring. And each time I return home, Lisa faithfully puts it back on and reminds me that I am her family now. I told Lisa I would write a letter to them once we were on a different continent, hoping that they will somehow accept (or at least tolerate) this news by the time I return home next June.

A few times, Lisa suggested that I should just drop the act and come out with the truth to everyone. But this only upset me, and I accused her of pushing me too hard and not understanding my family or culture. When she tried to sympathize with me and said that my mother was being unreasonable, for whatever reason I only got more upset. Poor Lisa. No wonder she is grinding her teeth.

The ironic thing is that after all my effort on behalf of my parents to hide the truth about their prodigal deviant homosexual daughter, my relatives already knew. I found this out when, over my mother’s birthday lunch, her older sister leaned over and whispered, “How are you two doing? I know, I saw your Facebook…”

Shocked that my aunt knew and surprised that she actually brought it up (you have to understand, like most Asian families, my family approaches sticky situations by simply not talking about it), I could barely stammer a reply. After more whispering, I learned that one of my cousins in Taiwan had found my Facebook page and had spread the news about my relationship status to the rest of my mother’s sisters and brothers.

When I later cornered my aunt in a grocery store and asked her what the family’s reaction was, she said non-chalantly, “What of it? In Taiwan, there is a lot of this.” I breathed a sigh of relief. But she confessed that she was scared to bring up the subject with my mom for fear of upsetting her.

The lack of condemnation from my mother’s relatives was hopeful, but my greatest encouragement came from a surprise visit on my father’s side of the family. Thanks to Facebook (again), I’d recently reconnected with my two cousins in Michigan, Vivian and Angeline, who have been sending Lisa and I some wonderful messages of support. Their mother happened to be in Taiwan as well, and when we met over dinner, my aunt took the chance when the rest of the family was out of the room to grab my hand and express her congratulations over my engagement and tell me that her family would certainly be in attendance at the wedding.

For the first time, I returned back to Lisa that night with a smile on my face. There’s not much to hide anymore. And somewhere in this family, there is even some support.

That is enough hope for me to start composing that letter to my parents.

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