“Liz thought you were the one.” Maureen had just told me that her daughter, Liz, had died. Liz was upstairs in her bedroom, my feet were stuck in the kitchen. I fought back sobs as Maureen said that Liz had bragged about me while delirious in palliative care, that she was so proud of who I was.
I gave Maureen a pink box that I’d made for Liz. It was the reason I had visited the house that day. I had no idea Liz was gone. Inside the pink box were my hand-made paper gardenias, flowers that thrived in coffee grounds, representing Liz’s love for coffee. The box was pink so that Liz would say, “What’s wrong with you, Viv? I hate pink!”
This vanished reaction ran through my head as I drove home, wailing.
That evening was the first time I came out to my parents. I had to explain to them that I would be away, dealing with my grief, because my girlfriend had died. But there isn’t really a word in Vietnamese for girl-who-is-my-romantic-partner, so I used the literal translation of girl-friend: ban gai.
“So, this is a friend that you love dearly?”
My parents wanted me to fit in to white Australia. I was named Vivian, after Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman. A hooker with a heart of gold. Head and heart in the right place, but wrong position in space and time.
Growing up, depression robbed my vision of colour. Even while dreaming. I didn’t see a psychologist (what Vietnamese parent would allow that?), so this is a retrospective self-diagnosis. But colour and mood have always been linked for me, and when I was young the world was grey.
What coloured my world was fiction and sports and girls. The first two were acceptable, the third was not.
By 15, I had become a textbook, first-generation academic overachiever. I gave up on fiction and sports and girls, and tried to “pray away the gay”. I would be a doctor, I would be straight, I would be acceptable to both white Australia and my Vietnamese parents. My world turned grey again.
By 16, well, I can’t remember 16. I know from what I’ve been told that I tried to take my own life a few times. But by the end of that year, I had reconciled my relationship with God and my sexuality. Which meant that I stopped praying and started to see a counsellor. I become every Asian stereotype you can think of.
Instead of dealing with my sexuality via religious shame, I distracted myself from it by staying busy. I was musical, academic, a leader in my high school – a long list of high-achievement things rather than “that Gay Asian”.
Liz made it impossible to remain in this state of distraction.
We first met at Galentine’s Day, an annual celebration of female solidarity held by Liz’s cousin. I didn’t have a type before Liz, but Liz was my type: tall, blonde, ambivert, drama-seeker, nosy, eloquent, articulate, bold. I saw so many colours. Most of all, gold.
I first kissed Liz in the club while the rest of the group danced. She kissed back. The hetero attention was ruining our moment, so we walked along the beach back to her car, where Liz told me about her cancer remission.
“You are not your disease.”
I later discovered that this drunken but heartfelt response was the moment Liz decided that I was extraordinary. I didn’t see her as a “cancer survivor”, I just saw Liz: strong, golden Liz.
I also later discovered that she was re-diagnosed the next day. She never told me, so our future remained colourful in my mind right up to the moment I delivered the pink box.
The second time I came out to my mum, I was on my way to visit Liz. She’s at Scarborough Cemetery, a few rows from my maternal grandmother.
“You are going to see your friend?”
“She’s actually my girlfriend.”
Movies and TV don’t show what it’s like coming out to a non-white mum. There was no sympathy or “everything is going to be okay” moment. There was shock, confusion and denial.
“No, you’re not.” “You’re young, you don’t even know what this means.” “It’s just a phase.” “I liked my female friends. Maybe you like them, too.” “You just haven’t found the right man.”
Pe-de is the Vietnamese word for gay. Like the French word pede, it is also derogatory slang, closer to the word “tranny”. My arsenal of queer theory, which in English allowed me to argue fiercely against such words (channelling my inner Liz), didn’t exist in Vietnamese. There was no shared cultural narrative for being gay and Vietnamese, no celebrities who had been embraced by the straight mainstream, nothing I could lean on for sympathy or understanding.
When I told my friends, who were white, what had happened, the cultural barrier between us became obvious. They encouraged me to try again. “Your parents will accept you, of course they will.” “It’s their duty to love you.” “She just needs time.” “Next time they will understand.” No. Next time was even worse.
By the time I was with Liz, my psychologist had helped me understand the relationship between my mood and my perception of colour. Liz looked bronze as she hopped the fence to the mountain trail, which I wouldn’t have had the guts to tackle at night if I wasn’t with her. Bronze is a colour I associate with fearlessness, and she made me feel bronze, too, as we began our hike, torches in hand, a bubble of bravery in the darkness.
In classic Liz fashion, the only hint she gave about where we were going was, “Wear comfortable shoes.” I became suspicious as she drove us up the mountain, a drive she said she took when she needed to think.
At the top was a view over the city, its lights rippling against the black backdrop of the South Pacific Ocean. The oil rigs on the horizon looked like they were floating on the clouds. Liz brought chocolate and a picnic mat for us to enjoy the view. We kissed with the city behind us.
Only on our way back to the car did she tell me that she hadn’t been sure she would be up for the mountain trail at night. The same way she had given me bronze bravery, I had given it to her. On the drive home she mentioned we would be able to spend more time together as her graduate job had given her time off. In reality she had quit to undergo treatment.
The last time I came out to my mum, I wish her only reaction was denial.
Coming out seems to be the foundational gay rite of passage. It’s supposed to be a punctuation of your life, an empowering political act, a personal duty to your gay forebears who didn’t enjoy the privileges of a queer-friendly place and time. And so, as a young queer adult, it was imperative for me to come out in all areas of my life. Or so it seemed.
Writing in 1997, American academics James Sears and Walter Williams wrote that one-on-one contact is the single most effective way to change homophobic attitudes. And it works. Media representation is on the rise, and prejudice against LGBTIQA+ individuals is on the decline.
However, Sears and Williams also said that “many tenured full professors who are gay or lesbian continue to cower cowardly in the closet”. This image resonated with me. This idea that the closet is a space of suffering, shame and failure. If I didn’t come out of it to my parents, it would mean that I was ashamed.
No one ever said this to me, but it’s what I had absorbed, and the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage had inspired me to be the best queer person I could be. I would “come out” to my mother, love would conquer all, and I would never have to return to the closet again. I would be stronger for challenging her closed-mindedness, and she would be opened up to a rich new queer culture.
Wouldn’t that be what Liz wanted of me? To be a strong, confident, bronze, queer person – like her?
But this white, Western LGBTIQA+ discourse didn’t anticipate the reaction of a Catholic Vietnamese woman.
It didn’t anticipate that, for some minorities, the closet might be the better place to be. That the closet is a safe space, a tactical move, and even a powerful, fluid space for some. That the imposing of Western queer values on a person whose non-white culture left them unprepared for the coming-out ritual can cause pain rather than liberation.
The night I came out to my mother for the third time, she wanted to kill herself. The next day, so did I.
I’ve decided to never come out to my mum again. Today, I am selectively “out” to certain people and some situations – and I am not ashamed. The flexibility of the queer closet has allowed me to build a stronger relationship with my mother. We’re currently a hemisphere apart, but she calls me every weekend. She still questions my antidepressant prescriptions, and she did vote “No” on the same-sex marriage postal survey, but I love her dearly.
When I forgot to buy ingredients for dinner, she would cook for me or buy my groceries. When I was stuck at university in the cold rain, with all my gear, she would drive to pick me up. When I had tonsillitis, she let me sleep in the same bed as her while I sweated and shivered through the nights. I know she loves me.
Developing my ethnic identity means maintaining this loving relationship with my mother. I’m out to my father (a Buddhist) and my two brothers, while never telling my extended family.
Developing my queer identity means being involved in queer literature, in political conversations, and making queer discourse accessible to everyone.
Developing my personal identity only requires remembering Liz.
I’ve never regretted our time together. Sometimes I wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye, but I know you wanted me to remember you with a full head of hair – to remember you gold. Thank you for being vulnerable with me. I know how hard that was for you. Thank you for not letting me go when treatment was getting rough. Thank you, Elizabeth, for reminding me, every day, how to be bronze.
Lifeline 13 11 14.
Edited extract from Growing Up Queer in Australia (Black Inc.), edited by Benjamin Law, on sale now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale August 11.