This piece was originally published on It Is What It Is (Not) the morning of the Supreme Court’s first hearing on California’s Proposition 8.
For the past five months, I have tried repeatedly to write something entitled, “I am a Gay American.” In November, when the people of Maryland, Washington, and Maine voted to legalize same-sex marriage, I started with cautious inspiration: “In one fifth of our union, same-sex marriage is no longer evocative. It is realized.” I struggled to continue.
I have spent more than a decade processing my identity and battling my own negative perceptions of homosexuality and, by extension, myself. I have acquired so many strong feelings about my sexuality and its politics. Yet with every attempt to write about them – at a coffee shop, my desk, or on a bench – my determination to say something – anything – has turned into frustration. In all my attempts, I have been overwhelmed by my emotions. Feeling incapable of translating queerness, in all its complexity, into a neat, singular narrative. I could never “find” adequate words nor create a “thesis” for whatever argument I was writing about being gay. And why? Who would read this? Does it matter? If enough people knew that I am gay, that should be enough.
Months began to pass – Obama became the first sitting President to publicly support gay marriage. I felt a surge of encouragement. In February, a Vietnamese-American LGBTQ group was banned from marching in an annual Tết parade because “LGBT is against Vietnamese tradition.” I was steeply disappointment. With the oscillation of emotions came another failed attempt to properly articulate the personal and political: to depict how difficult it is to live a life where my future is an election wedge issue; a sin worthy of evangelical sermons; an example of how the human race is abject, hopeless, and disgusting.
Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will begin to scrutinize California’s Proposition 8. Which, in 2008, effectively defined marriage between a man and a woman. On Wednesday, the Court will question the constitutionality of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The outcome of either ruling will affect the way I live my life profoundly. It could determine whether I can see my partner in the hospital if she is ill (or if I have to break twenty hospital windows with my bare hands to get to her). It could affect whether my future child can legally call me “Mommy”. It could define me as an inferior American constitutionally. Could I sit idly in the comfort of people simply “knowing” that I am gay?
I fear that I am losing time to write. And so, I will try and begin once more:
I am a gay American.
The teleology of the modern queer narrative is this: You spend years getting teased and/or hurting yourself. Finally, after years (even decades) of suppression, you mutter the words “I’m gay” to someone you deeply love and trust. A proverbial weight lifts off your even more proverbial shoulders. It, somehow, gets better. “Wait,” the narrative tells you, “you’ll be the hero of your story. Just wait.”
Yet, here is the narrative as I have seen and experienced: In the story, love is not the telos – it is the beginning, the source of conflict, and the reason for war. In any given year, you can feel like the hero, the villain, the damsel-in-distress, part of the ravished village. You can slay an enemy, only to find 50 more people who call you “faggot,” or “dyke,” or roll their eyes in revulsion.
It’s never-ending. You start a new job and must meticulously assess whether your colleagues can stomach the story of how you fellin love. You want to have children but must navigate laws that either obfuscate or ban your ability to adopt children. You want to travel and experience everything with your partner but must research whether you are allowed to hold hands in public at your destination. You meet the love of your life but at least five out of nine Supreme Court Justices have to approve of your union.
As a writer, this is my first public and explicit expression of my identity as a gay Vietnamese-American woman. A woman who, since the beginning of her sexual consciousness, has been hopelessly attracted to other women. I have written candidly about other difficult issues, most notably about my parents and their tumultuous relationship with the Vietnam War.
As much as I have written about their experiences, I am an outsider to their war. A spectator who can craft a vicarious moment but is capable of escaping to a memory free of combat violence and geographic exile. However, being gay is my own refuge-less war with myself, with (at times) my community, and with political sentiment. Perhaps this is why I find it easier to write about my identity from a distance:
The girl was born in southwest Houston, Texas, raised in a neighborhood of bodegas, Vietnamese supermarkets, and Indian restaurants. She liked basketball, birthday parties, school and, slowly and despairingly, one of her friends – a girl. In her longing, she spent many nights wondering why the stories in her head contrasted so much from what everyone had to say about the world. She constantly contemplated ways to fix herself.
The girl lived a quiet childhood with a lot of sadness, a lot of imagination, a thematic sense of confusion and melancholy. She passed the time by reading, writing, and imagining the lives other people. In adolescence, she fabricated an identity to hide in. Feigned crushes, elaborate excuses, a façade of reserve to mask how scared she was of everything. Especially herself. She started to develop a detachment from physical places because she always wanted to be somewhere else.
She did this for more than a decade until she suffocated in the very identity she had methodically constructed. One October weekend in her twenties, she took a bus to Brooklyn to see her sister. On a patio, peeling the wrapper off a bottled local brew, she could no longer handle feeling stifled by her lies and began to cry. For 20 minutes, she struggled to speak until quietly she stuttered, “I’m gay.”
She would say the same phrase in iteration. Once to one of her best friends who drove her in circles while she pled, “I have something to tell you. Please keep driving. Please keep driving.” Once in an anonymous letter of desperation to a philosophy professor. Once to her father only, this time, she didn’t cry – he did.
If there is anything that I can appreciate about the passage of time it is that, as I age, the number of years in which I can say I have lived truly, authentically, and vibrantly will outnumber those years spent in fear, sorrow, and silence.
Being gay has given me much: fervent values, staunch politics, writing, a deeper understanding life’s and identity’s complexities, and a deep appreciation for love and intimacy. In being gay, I have asked my Vietnamese parents to deconstruct their culturally ingrained notions of relationships. I have asked my partner to consider building a life with me despite perceptions that such a love is inferior, deviant, and punishable by death. I have asked friends to reinterpret and re-conceptualize parts of their religion, schooling, and notions of gay people. I have found the loyalty of a family and a community that challenges my notions and reinforce how lucky I am to be alive at this time, on this land, during this fight.
I have often been asked, what more could I want? Well, I could have what other people have – tax, adoption, and medical loopholes. What is this really about? Formality? Law? The gay agenda?
If there were a gay agenda, this would be mine: To not make my father feel like he did something wrong when he raised me. To hug, kiss, and hold my partner’s hand in public without fear or hesitation. To raise self-affirming daughters who will always surprise me with their vivacity. To have my children bask in an imagination of what they can do, not who else they would rather be. For gay kids everywhere to know they are on joyrides with friends rather than circling a parking lot in tears, stalling the expression of their identity, fearing that they may lose a childhood friendship. To write and say that I am gay, Vietnamese, and American in the same sentence without someone telling me that such an identity is contradictory.
I once thought that life would be easier had I not been queer. But, now I cannot conceive life, in its fullness, without this identity. I am deeply proud to be a gay Vietnamese-American woman. And, regardless of what the law, the nine bodies of the Supreme Court, and the fundamentalist electorate may tell me, I would not trade my life for any other existence.
Jennifer V. Nguyen