SEXtember: What coming out means in Eastern and Western cultures
DESPITE the efforts of western countries to make queer issues more aware globally, there are still parts the world where conservative values make queer engagement difficult. Amber Wang spoke to two international students — from the United States and China — to get their perspectives on what being gay means for them.
Brian Clauss first had an inkling he might not be straight at age 14. The then Year 10 student from Minneapolis in America’s far north found himself in love with someone of the same gender.
“It got me sitting down and thinking about my sexuality for the first time,” Brian said, now 20. He later confided in his friends and family, who showed heart-warming support.
“I was allowed to come to terms with my identity in my own time, to sort through it myself,” he said.
“It meant a lot to me.”
Today, Brian studies at the University of Melbourne and is actively trying to help enhance fellow queer students’ campus and community experience, by facilitating the engagement of international students.
“Working with UMSU International (the University’s peak body for international students) and the Queer Department, I’m promoting queer events to inform international students that are queer of the support available at the University,” Brian said.
“Melbourne does a good job in LGBT awareness and community building.”
Brian believes the takeaways so far from getting involved in Melbourne’s LGBT community are invaluable.
“Melbourne does a good job in LGBT awareness and community building,” Brian said.
“It’s a progressive city with a lot of activism and celebration of sexuality.”
Support at universities can be particularly helpful, according to Brian. At the University of Melbourne, a wide range of options has been “satisfying” for him.
“The Queer Department of the Student Union for example offers workshops and small group discussions about LGBT issues and coming out,” he said.
“They also have the Queer Space where like-minded people hang out.”
“I’d say the department is where my first points of contact came from.”
Brian acknowledges the issues queer international students may encounter, especially when they come from cultural backgrounds where LGBT discussions are restricted. In such cases, despite sufficient support the university may offer, students often have second thoughts about making contact.
“I know for me assimilating was fairly easy. I speak English as my first language, and come from a western culture,” Brian explained.
“But for those from countries that aren’t as inclusive, I can only imagine their experience.”
“They may be told that their identity is not valid back home, while living here with possibly a language barrier compounds the inhibition.”
“As international students, we didn’t just come for the education. The culture is an essential part of the experience.”
Brian suggests that it is thus extremely important that international students know about LGBT support resources. But to break the barrier, they also need to empower themselves to connect.
“Moving to a different country is not easy [and the] first attempt is often difficult: it can be scary and intimidating,” Brian said.
“But it’s just the first step. Once you know where to go, it’s easy finding your way.”
For Brian, studying overseas is much more about getting a degree. Inspired and driven by his own community experience, Brian says he will continue his efforts in “getting the word out”.
“As international students, we didn’t just come for the education. The culture is an essential part of the experience. Yes, barrier is there, but don’t worry: don’t stop the conversation.”
“I’m 24. My parents still don’t know that I’m gay,” said Chinese international student Yi, who shook his head when asked about the topic of coming out at the ground floor foyer of his well-lit CBD apartment.
“Getting married is yet to be the issue of focus, but pressure is looming large,” he adds.
Yi hails from Shantou, a Chinese city in the Cantonese-speaking area of Guangzhou, where preference for males to traditionally shoulder the responsibility of reproduction is rooted in thousands of years of family farming influence.
Back home, the idea of “carrying on the family line” is simply essential, according to Yi.
“My family is rather liberal compared [to] others around [us], but at the end of the day, ‘starting a family’ is an inescapable topic.”
Knowing what may await him ahead, Yi has decided to keep the secret for “however long” he can.
“[My parents] are getting older, I worry about the damage the truth may cause them.”
“I have a mature circle of friends who I can freely talk to about issues and feelings, and we share certain values as people from the same country.”
Yi has been living in Melbourne for almost two years now. As an international student, he feels blessed to be surrounded by supportive friends, many of whom also identify as queer.
“Since high school when I first accepted the fact that I’m gay, I started giving the truth away. I had friends [who] were doubtful. It might have taken them a while to digest it, but almost all have given me support and understanding,” Yi said.
“For me, they are friends of a lifetime.”
The aspiring journalist says his LGBT community experience mostly comes from a circle back home where Chinese websites on LGBT issues and forums are his main source of information about what is happening.
Although living on the other side of the globe, he does not feel particularly driven to be part of Melbourne’s local LGBT scene.
“I would say I know about events like gay parades, or the fact that the attitude here is generally open,” Yi said.
“But I don’t think I have to get involved.”
Yi explains that cultural difference may be behind a different approach to things, and his choice is mainly conscious.
“I have a mature circle of friends who I can freely talk to about issues and feelings, and we share certain values as people from the same country. I guess for me there’s thus less of a need to reach out.”
“I have pictured many times in my head how my parents would react.”
Time still hasn’t come for his parents to know, said Yi, though he suspects they may have slowly realised with time.
“Both of them probably have asked less about my relationships in recent years than they used to.” said Yi.
“I have pictured many times in my head how my parents would react. I had those dreams too, of fights, arguments, slamming doors, and mum with tears in her eyes,” he said.
“But for now, I can only guess.”