Growing up queer and Asian in the Deep South
by Joyce Gabiola
Last month, guided by my effective year-old mantra, “Don’t think—just do it,” I emailed my parents from my naturally cooled third-floor apartment in Boston, informing them of the recently launched Texas Wins organization (featured in the April issue of OutSmart), as well as Texas Catholics for Inclusion, a project of Texas Wins and Equality Texas.
A few days later, my parents responded by informing me that they “registered” with the Texas Catholics for Inclusion website by pledging to “pray, learn, and act to protect all Texans from discrimination.” My parents also urged me to not let “a group of narrow-minded, prejudiced folks dissuade [me] from coming back to Texas.” They told me that “the anti-LGBT bills are discriminatory and, thus, cannot stand high in the State of Texas.”
Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that I bawled when I read their words. Since coming out to my parents one afternoon after Sunday Mass 20 years ago, this was the first exchange between my parents and me that openly addressed an important issue that affects our lives—mine as a queer Filipino-American, and theirs as Catholic, foreign-born, Filipino-American parents of a chunky queer kid who might want to return to Texas without the fear of discrimination because she is married to another woman.
Today, my parents are the loudest cheerleaders in my life, and they have given me enormous support in many different ways. But through no fault of their own, they could not support me to the extent I needed when I was struggling as a child, trying to understand why God or the universe made me who I am.
When parents say they love their children “no matter what,” children do not assume that sexual identity is automatically included in that statement. I knew that my parents and sisters loved me, but because society’s and the Catholic Church’s antigay messages dominated my impressionable young mind, I feared they would reject me if they knew I was gay.
Somehow I survived my childhood and the depressing, Morrissey-loving, falling-for-my-friend high school years before finally finding my identity and many supportive friends at the University of Houston. Coming out during college plays like a movie trailer in my mind—accompanied by a musical score by Danny Elfman, of course. During that time, I “officially” came out to a school counselor, pledged and penned the chapter history of alpha Kappa Delta Phi, an Asian sorority (an idea I originally thought was laughable), went to my first gay bar, and dated a friend from the university’s other Asian sorority (who has been my best friend for many years). I also took on an activist role and made my queerness visible—holding my girlfriend’s hand as we walked through campus, leading UH’s LGBT organization, and organizing a mock wedding for two same-sex couples on Satellite Hill. But most importantly, I came out to my parents (who apparently had suspected for years because I supposedly only wore pants) and created many lifelong friendships.
Then in 2010, while speaking about coming out to Asian-Pacific American families (as part of a panel discussion at an Organization of Chinese Americans convention), I began to realize that “coming out” is often an awkward process that can last a lifetime. In 2012, my mother informed me that my father would not be attending my wedding. I was shocked because my parents genuinely like Natalie, and I was hurt and angry because it told me, after all these years, that I was indeed different from my sisters. However, not only did my father end up attending the wedding, but he is seen in a video reaching for Natalie’s hand to dance with her as “We Go Together” from Grease plays in the background.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what my youth would have been like if I had told my parents early on that I’m gay. How does a kid even attempt to engage in a conversation of that nature? Unless my parents had explicitly reassured me that I was not going to hell for having a crush on Cybill Shepherd, I would not have felt safe enough to reveal my truth.
Everything about my life has been informed by my experience growing up in Houston as a queer Filipino-American. As a kid, I was scared and thought my voice did not matter. I spent all those years trying to protect myself, with laughter being my weapon of choice. No one could hate a kid who made them laugh, right? Today, I also wield the power of visibility . . . and bow ties. I am pursuing a graduate degree in library and information science at Simmons College in Boston so that, as an archivist, I can preserve the voices of marginalized communities that are underrepresented in the historical record. In doing so, I hope to help foster understanding and end isolation—especially among Asian-Pacific American families—so that we can all live genuine lives in a healthy, mindful society. No matter how difficult it has been, I embrace my history and recognize that no one can change it—nor would I ever want them to.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for…you know…everything.
Joyce Gabiola is pursuing a MLIS in Archives Management and aims to advance social justice through librarianship. Libraries are not dead. Pass it on.