My Korean American Story: Mark Ro Beyersdorf
Ever since I left Southern California for college in Connecticut, my mother has always waited while I wind through the airport security line. She smiles and waves wildly until I make it past screening and turn around to wave goodbye one last time. Except once.
It was during the first few days of 2009, and I was moving to Washington, D.C. to start a job on Capitol Hill.
The holidays had been tense. While I was home, my mother had begun aggressively asking if I was gay.
I wasn’t sure what had aroused her suspicions, but I had indeed come out to myself the previous summer, just after graduating from Yale and just before moving to Ohio to join the Obama campaign. Dispatched to rural Darke County, I had thrown myself into training volunteers and knocking on doors, putting the emotional aftermath of coming out on hold. But, once Obama won the election, it didn’t take long for those pent-up emotions to explode. A close friend had romantically rejected me. Coming out at twenty-two felt embarrassingly late. I didn’t know how my family would react. By the time I went home for the holidays, I was still fragile and figuring myself out. I wasn’t emotionally ready to hold my mother’s hand through the process of coming to terms with having a gay son.
Somehow I made it through Christmas and New Year’s without being pinned down by her relentless interrogations. But, when my parents drove me to the airport to send me off, she angrily refused to hug me, and snapped, “why won’t you be honest with me?”
I didn’t know what I could say, so I just walked away and slipped into the security line. Out of habit, I turned around to wave. She wasn’t there.
But, once I made it through security and began walking to my gate, my phone rang. It was my mother, who was crying when I picked up. Between sobs, she pleaded, “Mark…mark…can you come back? I just want to see your face.”
I walked back to the security checkpoint and spotted her behind the snaking line of passengers waiting to be screened. We waved limply to each other for a few minutes, both weighed down by fear, anger, and grief that we couldn’t fully articulate to each other. These minutes passed slowly; the hectic din of other travelers rushing by faded into a silent blur of fuzzy bodies. It was one of those moments when time stops and it is clear life has changed forever. An uncertain future hung over our farewell and we both feared what it might bring.
I arrived in D.C. as the city buzzed in preparation for Obama’s inauguration. I was a few days into my new job when an e-mail from my father caught me off guard one morning at work. He and my mother were concerned that I might have a “sexual confusion issue,” he wrote. I wasn’t ready to come out to my parents, but I didn’t see how I could avoid it now, so I responded: yes, I’m gay.
My parents did not take it well.
I called my mother after work that day. She answered sobbing, unable to speak. I hung up after thirty seconds. We were unable to have a real conversation for weeks. When we finally did, she began bargaining: if I spent the next three years living with her and trying not to be gay, and still thought I was gay after that, she would accept it. I refused. She wailed, threatening to move to Korea and become a monk to forget about me.
My father fired off a barrage of e-mails with dramatic warnings like, “If you have crossed some line, you need to get back across it instantly. It may be that some people are genetically gay, and deserve toleration and respect. But I really don’t think you are genetically gay.”
Somewhere in this blur of phone calls and e-mails, I learned how my parents had discovered I was gay: my mother had read diary entries of mine scrawled with the pain of my first heartbreak. Clearly, I wouldn’t have chosen for my Korean immigrant mother, who speaks English as a second language, to find out I was gay through bewildered ramblings I had penned while in the awkward throes of coming out.
I was still settling into my newfound queer identity when these circumstances pushed me to come out to my parents. But, I tried to help them, passing along articles, websites, and books on LGBTQ issues and doing my best to answer their questions. I quickly learned that coming out can require queer people to become the adults in relationships with their parents, to learn how to pacify hyperbolic irrationality (I’m going to become a monk!) and narcissism (You can’t be genetically gay!) with gentle explanation.
It proved relatively easy to dispel my father’s misconceptions. What seemed to move him most were the coming out stories of other gay men. I was still trying to make sense of my own coming out, so sharing the stories of others spared me from the vulnerability of having to articulate my own raw experiences. He was particularly taken by Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, an intimate memoir that took him through one man’s coming out journey. These stories helped him appreciate that coming out was more complicated than being “genetically gay.” In a few months time, he began e-mailing me LGBTQ news stories and a year later, he was marching with co-workers as an ally in San Diego’s Pride Parade.
My mother proved more difficult. To her, homosexuality was an unfamiliar white American condition. She’d ask questions like, “How do you know you’re gay?” and I’d stumble through answers that didn’t satisfy either of us. With my father, I could offer books like Yoshino’s to help him digest my sputtering attempts at explanation. But, my mother and I struggled through language barriers, searching for answers to satisfy her. I’d offer her the same books and websites I gave my father, but she often found the vocabulary confusing or misinterpreted key points. Once, she clung to a reference to “sexual fluidity” as evidence that I could change if I wanted to. Phone calls spent trying to explain concepts like “sexual fluidity” often ended in yelling, tears or months of not speaking.
Her cultural sensibilities presented roadblocks as well. Like many Korean immigrant women of her generation, my mother is superstitious. She fervently claims to possess a sixth sense and touts the predictive power of her intuition and dreams. Not infrequently, I’d wake up to text messages like, “I had a dream about you. Pls call me to discuss this matter.” We’d talk later in the day and end up in screaming matches when she’d start telling me about a dream in which I had decided to become straight:
“Why are you lying to me?!”
“I’m not lying to you! Just because you had a dream doesn’t mean it’s real!”
Once, she went to a Vietnamese fortuneteller who warned her that I would turn her into a lesbian and destroy our family. When she came at me with assertions spun from dreams and fortunetellers, there was little I could do to convince her otherwise. Like many LGBTQ people who had come up against their families’ rigid Christian ideologies, I hit a wall with my mother’s firm folk beliefs.
Sometimes our fights got ugly. I’ve always chastised my mother for not teaching me Korean. During one family road trip, she began lecturing me: “You can still learn if you try. Mrs. Jung’s daughter got really good by practicing with her boyfriend.”
“I guess I better find a Korean boyfriend,” I joked.
Before I could say another word, she reached over and whacked me across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. I felt like a dog being punished for peeing on the carpet.
Our relationship went on like this for some time: misunderstandings erupting into anger and hardening into months of silence. As we cycled through these stages again and again, I struggled to balance helping her with protecting my mental health. When phone calls ended in tears or shouting, I was hounded by shame and guilt at my inability to help her and second-guessed whether I was being patient enough, supportive enough. When we weren’t speaking, I worried for her well being.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when or how or why but at some point, my mother began to ease into a tentative acceptance of my sexuality. A couple years ago, she told me that she accepted my sexuality, but was still struggling to come to terms with it. That’s still where she’s at. I know she’d still prefer that I were straight, but at least I can reference being gay without her crying or changing the subject. And, sometimes, there are sweet, if awkward, stabs at advice. Last Christmas, she sat me down for some lessons on life and love: “One, don’t get AIDS; two, don’t date older men.”
But, this is not to say progress is easy and straightforward. Recently, I tried to convince her to attend a PFLAG meeting for Korean parents. She was reluctant, so I suggested that my younger brother, who is straight, go with her for support.
“Your brother can’t go,” she shot back.
“Because one is enough,” she blurted.
I hung up. Sometimes I run out of energy to help her process her misconceptions. This was one of those times.
But, she did send me a text message the next day: “If I made you upset, I did not mean that way. I really want to talk you open mind. We can understand each other better.” And, in the end, she went to that meeting with my father, reporting back that it was “interesting,” the people were “really nice,” and…that she was surprised by how many lesbians are pretty.
I asked if she’d go back, and she replied, “I think so, but I want you to come so I can hear your story.”
I’m proud of the distance my mother has traveled over the past five years. As I was coming out, more than one person told me, “white parents always come around, but you never know with Asian parents.” But, that’s oversimplistic. During my journey with my parents, I’ve seen the vast gap between the resources available to each of them and the visibility of LGBTQ people in their everyday lives. Both of my parents reacted hysterically when I came out, but there was a huge infrastructure of resources and support groups to help parents like my father: white, third-generation Americans, uneducated about LGBTQ experiences, but open-minded. There was no comparable infrastructure to support parents like my mother: immigrants who speak English as a second language, and have little exposure to LGBTQ people. Our story offers a glimpse at the difference these resources made in one family.
That’s why I joined the Dari Project, an organization that works to create acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ Korean Americans in the Korean American community. On May 2, 2013, Dari Project released the first bilingual anthology of LGBTQ Korean American stories at a launch party in New York City’s Ktown These stories touch on uniquely LGBTQ Korean American experiences like, coming out to immigrant parents, grappling with homophobia and transphobia in the Korean church, and a gay bashing in Koreatown. Resources like these are precious in minority communities, where it is rare to see our stories gathered in a book like this one. Our collection will offer LGBTQ Korean Americans stories they can see their lives reflected in and help immigrant parents like my mother understand LGBTQ experiences like Kenji Yoshino’s memoir helped my father.
This book is one step towards narrowing the visibility and resource gap that tremendously impacted how my parents moved forward after I came out. What gives me hope is that Dari Project is not alone in our efforts. This past summer, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) hosted a summit for Asian American and Pacific Islander parents with LGBTQ children at their second national conference. In New York City, the Asian Pride Project is developing multimedia resources to support the families of LGBTQ Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and a Korean American mother has started an Asian Pacific Islander PFLAG chapter. In California, Asian Pacific Islander Family Pride has worked to support Asian American and Pacific Islander families with LGBTQ children for some time and a group of parents in the San Gabriel Valley launched an Asian Pacific Islander PFLAG chapter launched several years ago.
I hope our book and the growing number of resources like it will make life a little bit easier for the next generation of LGBTQ Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and their families. I’m grateful to be part of powerful communities that have built organizations, support groups, publications and other resources to support ourselves and our families. And I’m proud of my mother and the distance she’s come. I doubt she’ll be marching at Pride anytime soon, but I also wouldn’t have thought she’d go to a meeting for Korean parents with LGBTQ kids. I hope she proves me wrong again, but, for now, I’m grateful for what I have and hope that the copy of the Dari Project book I give her on Mother’s Day will take us one more step on our journey together.
Mark Ro Beyersdorf is a queer, second-generation, mixed-race Korean American activist. He has worked for grassroots organizations, political campaigns, the federal government, and national civil rights organizations on LGBTQ issues, gender justice, and racial justice since high school. He is currently on the staff of the Educational Equity and Youth Rights Project at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in New York City.
At AALDEF, he oversees federal education policy advocacy, organizes with NYC coalitions working on issues impacting local AAPI students, and coordinates the National Asian American Education Advocates (NAAEA) Network. Prior to AALDEF, Mark worked on the staff of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) for then-chair Congressman Mike Honda, and as a Field Organizer for the Obama Campaign in rural Ohio.
In New York, Mark is active in the local AAPI and queer communities as a member of Nodutdol, a progressive Korean diasporic organization, the Board of Directors of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, and the Coordinating Committee of the Dari Project, which organized, edited, and published the first bilingual anthology of LGBTQ Korean American personal essays and art.
Mark grew up in San Diego, CA and received his B.A. in History and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration from Yale University.