During my Thanksgiving visit home, I took my father for a long morning walk.
We walked around the block five times before I came out to him. My father was confused but stoic. Few words were exchanged until we reached the driveway. He concluded that I must never tell my mother because this would kill her. My heart imploded with that same fear, but I refrained from responding. Instead, I proceeded inside the house, where my beloved mother greeted us with unnecessary glee.
Growing up, everyone could easily see that I was my mother’s pride and joy. I was her first-born son who won the school art contest. I was the one who advanced into the gifted program. I played Beethoven at a recital. I said the darndest things during dinner. I called the mortgage company for my mother. I tutored neighborhood kids. I forbid my sister from clubbing. I vowed to become a prayer warrior. I got straight A’s (mostly). I worked for my own allowance. Other parents turned to me to ask if I could talk to their troubled son. I cared for my sick Grandma.
I lived to bring such happiness to my mother and I was good at it. But early in my life, I recognized another part of me that felt skewed and troublesome. Its presence only continued to grow and threatened everything that was good in my world. So I struggled against it in secret and desperately sought miracles at church and answers in medical books. I subjected myself to regular punishments designed to discourage the increasing perversion. “No Nintendo for a week!” I would declare, as I returned the Teen Beat magazine to my sister’s room. I trusted that with such efforts and prayers, God would deliver me from this evil, at least for my mother’s sake.
I guess my diligence paid off because in my mid-twenties, God managed to lead me out, out through the closet door. The darkness, once so permanent, gave way to an invigorating and bright perspective to my life. I boldly began coming out to everyone: ex-girlfriends, church folks, Korean buddies, and my sister. I ended up losing some people in the process, but I was too excited and too busy to look back. I had a new big gay world to introduce myself to!
But the one person I could not lose was the one I risked losing the most. And so, I strategically saved my mother for last. By then, it would be too late to hesitate. By then, my hope for something true would blind any past fears. By then, her happiness would no longer be a reason for me to hide until death, but instead become the reason to let her into my life.
Later that year, on the last night of my Christmas visit home, I invited my mother to sit with me in the family room. I took a moment to watch her slice her apples. She was like a naïve deer on the road, unaware of her imminent devastation. I was paralyzed by profound sadness because I was about to break her heart and that was something I’ve never done before. Nervous, I began laughing. She responded with laughter of her own.
After some fidgeting and a few false starts, I warned her, “Oolr jee ma.” Don’t cry.
She paused and then set the food aside. Sensing bad news, she sat back and closed her eyes. Another silent beat came and went as my face burned with blood. Again, I began laughing, unable to start. My mother, now scared, asked cautiously if it had to do with my health. I assured her it did not.
Her relief seemed to break the ice for the moment. So I took a deep breath and started my rehearsed lines with my limited Korean. To this day, I still do not know the Korean word for “gay.” So I said the following instead:
“I’m never gonna get married.”
Another deep breath and I replied, “Because I’m not the kind of guy that likes girls.”
“Nuh-neun GAY yah ?” It was odd hearing her say the English word sandwiched within our Korean words.
I nodded, yes.
My mother then tilted her head back and squinted her eyes as if she had mistaken me for her son. I smiled sheepishly, watching her face go back and forth between confusion and horror. Then her hurt revealed itself through the tears streaming down her face.
“What kind of sins has our family committed to deserve this?” she whispered.
I began with the basic essentials of Gay 101. I explained to her that I was born this way and how I struggled with this for years in silence. I recounted how I prayed and researched and tried to change myself. Then, I shared how I arrived at acceptance.
“What kind of mother am I?” she wept.
I took her hand and showered her with praise and thanks for being a wonderful mother. I poked fun at myself by making light of my past quirks that looking back were clear queer indictors: my Wonder Woman drawings and my participation in the arts compared to my lack of interest in sports, my favorite singer as a teenager was Bette Midler and Mariah Carey, and my sensitive spirit.
“Gwen cha nah. Gwen cha nah,” I repeated.
I explained to her that as confusing as this was to her, that there were indeed answers. And I shared about the gay community – my new gay friends, gay churches, gay historical figures, and Anderson Cooper. I also shared about falling in love and meeting other gay Koreans. I assured her that we, gay men and women, were far from being alone. I also assured her that we, our family, were not alone either.
Over the next few days and weeks, my mother phoned me several times with laughable attempts at solutions. She had spoken to a Korean doctor who referred to homosexuality as a mental illness and curable. I calmly told her that I would gladly see 100 doctors for her, but also reminded her that she didn’t raise an idiot. If there were a cure, I would have cured myself a long time ago. Frustrated with that rhetoric, she tearfully demanded her right, as a mother, to try and save me. A few days later, she called to ask if I was going to start dressing like a girl, exclaiming that she just could not live with that. I assured her with laughter that I had no intentions of being someone other than myself. On another occasion, she called to point out that many older Korean girls have trouble getting married and that I could easily pair up with one of them and still live out a good life. I politely asked, “but what about love?” On a Sunday, she called to share about the morning sermon and how she was thankful to God for the good life we’ve had until now. I suggested that the good life was only now just starting. She cried often in these phone calls, sometimes with tears of pain, sometimes of guilt, and sometimes of fear.
I felt horribly guilty for bringing this heartache to her and to my family. But because I trusted in our love to carry us through, I knew that with each day, and with each phone call and tear, that we were moving forward.
Five years later, my mother sometimes still gets choked up on the phone. I think she still worries that my life is a difficult and lonely one. And you know what, sometimes it is! But I always make it a point to remind her of the good things. I tell her that I am living with pride, health, and purpose, and am surrounded by a loving family and many nice friends. She’ll then ask if any of those friends are – special.
“No, Mom. Just friends,” I once said in defeat.
Quick to encourage, she replied “I know there’s a good person out there for my son and someday, you will find him. Then you can build your lives together and share things… like roommates!”
How cute. God, I love her.
dari_front-small-sqMatt Chun’s story is from the Woori Dari book of the Dari Project, which is a collection of personal testimonials on the experiences of LGBTQ people of Korean descent. You can get a free copy of the book from http://www.DariProject.org
KoreanAmericanStory.org has made, and will continue to make, intentional effort to share the stories from those whose voices have not been heard in the past by the mainstream Korean American community, including adopted, multi-racial and LGBTQ Korean Americans. If you’d like to share your story, please contact HJ@KoreanAmericanStory.org.