05/10/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out Stories and Culture Wars

Last week, I shared my story of coming out to a mixed-race family in the essay, "Coming Out Across Cultural Barriers: A Mixed-Race Son's Journey with His Korean Immigrant Mother." I wrote a story that I would have wanted to read when I was coming out to my parents and to show why linguistically and culturally accessible LGBTQ resources--like The Dari Project, the first bilingual anthology of LGBTQ Korean American stories--are so important.

Over the past week, I've received kind messages from a few dozen strangers. I've heard from LGBTQ Korean Americans who found strength in my story. I've heard from a gay white male looking for resources to support a mixed-race Korean American friend struggling to come out. I've heard from LGBTQ people from Latino and black immigrant families who saw echoes of their own stories in mine. And I've heard from a couple other queer mixed-race Korean Americans who were just excited to know that others of us exist. Hearing from these diverse readers reminded me how gratifying it can be for those of us who live at the intersections of multiple minority identities to see stories like our own in the public sphere.

But, I've also been bewildered by the conversations that have unfolded in the comments section of my essay. I'd welcome any thoughtful critiques, but virtually all of the negative comments have nothing to do with my essay at all. What I've come to conclude is that to write about any aspect of LGBTQ experiences is to open up a forum for tired culture wars. I could dismiss these commenters as homophobic Internet trolls. But, I find them to be instructive reminders of the barriers LGBTQ storytellers face in sharing the particularities of our stories with swathes of readers who have tunnel vision when it comes to LGBTQ identities and experiences. Instead of engaging my piece as an intimate memoir with no overt political agenda, most negative comments harped on four points irrelevant to the themes of my essay:

1) Is homosexuality genetic?
In my essay, I recall how my father responded to my coming out by e-mailing me, "I really don't think you are genetically gay." This passing reference inspired endless comments recycling debates on the genetic basis of homosexuality. While these debates might remain interesting to some, they felt out of place in the comments section of a piece like mine.

2) Sexuality is private. LGBTQ people need to stop flaunting their sex lives.
A number of commenters expressed distaste for how LGBTQ writers like me spread our "personal sex [lives] the media like it is such a big deal."

They chimed in with thoughts like, "I am a 66 year old woman who is so sick of all this gay talk. Since when is it so important to voice your sexuality in public? I don't care what you prefer. These are private matters, why not keep it that way."


Nowhere in my essay is there even the most oblique allusion to my sex life. It's disappointing, but not surprising, that an LGBTQ writer can't share experiences without being accused of writing about sex.

But, there's also a bigger picture here. Although my essay had nothing to do with sex, open and honest discussions about sex are important for LGBTQ people. From couples making out on the subway to countless television sex scenes, straight sexuality is flaunted in my face every day while LGBTQ sexuality remains largely invisible in the public sphere and popular culture. There may be plenty of LGBTQ couples in New York, where I live, but you rarely see them making out on the subway. And there may be increasing numbers of LGBTQ television characters, but they're not often cast in sex scenes. I'm not advocating for LGBTQ folks to start making out on public transportation or push for more LGBTQ sex scenes on television, but so much shame and stigma have been attached to LGBTQ sexualities that it's important for our sexualities to be openly discussed.

3) LGBTQ people are intolerant bigots who are forcing their agenda on everyone
Many suggested that I was being "intolerant" by "forcing" my mother to accept me. Let me be clear: I didn't force her to accept me. I gave her the time and resources she needed to come around. She could have walked way at any time, but she didn't. What she did do is ask me to be patient and give her time to come to terms with having a son who turned out differently than she expected.

Others extrapolated to society at large with comments like, "I don't appreciate the name calling and pigeon-holing labels that pretty much always ensue when I express my resistance to have gay 'rights' forced on me." Declarations like this one call to mind white Southerners who said the rest of country was "intolerant" of their traditions when the Supreme Court struck down segregation.

4) I'm so tired of coming out stories. Why is this news?

It's not news. It's a personal essay that no one had to read if they find coming out stories boring.

Coming out stories still matter. These stories serve as confidantes, providing hope, helping process feelings, guiding expectations, and giving people in the process of coming out a sense of challenges and roadblocks. For me, Kenji Yoshino's memoir, Covering--which also helped educate my father--was my confidante during the summer I came out to myself. Reading and re-reading his story allowed me to compare my thoughts, experiences, and desires against someone else's as I struggled to make sense of the jumbled thoughts ricocheting in my mind.

That's why I shared my story. I wasn't writing for sixty-six-year-old straight women. I was writing for the kindred spirits who e-mailed and sent facebook messages, like this fellow LGBTQ Korean American, who wrote to me:

"I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this. I am going through this at the moment, without being able to provide my family with resources and without being able to speak directly to them because of the different barriers, such as language and generation. I can't exactly express how I felt while reading your story, and afterwards, but it gave me a boost of inner-strength to keep being who I am, even if it's hurting my parents at the moment, and that I am not at fault or wrong. Often times I do have that feeling of guilt overcome me and bring me down to dark places. Anyway, thanks for sharing."