My Chinese Immigrant Father…and His Love for His Gay Son and Partner

My Chinese immigrant father never wore a button, put a bumper sticker on his car, nor marched in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Pride parade.  But through his words and deeds, he showed that he loved me, his gay son, and his gay son’s partner. Today, on National Coming Out Day, just a little over a year since he died at age 92, I miss that love.

Four

My father and mother brought my family to the U.S. in 1963, when I was just three years old.  Even though I grew up here in San Francisco, I had no consciousness of the vibrant gay life in the Castro district, especially as I came of age in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  (During high school, I remember going to a pizza restaurant in the Castro with my high school friends, but was completely oblivious to all the gay men in the neighborhood; the restaurant is still there, and when I now order pizza delivered, I order from there).  In 1978, as a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, I remember the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow Supervisor Dan White.  But even when I saw the news reports of the assassinations, the community candlelight march, and then the next spring, the White Night Riots when White was only convicted of voluntary manslaughter, I still didn’t identify these milestone events for the gay community as relevant to me.

Of course, when I do reflect back, I knew I was gay as early as the 2nd grade, when I had a crush on a boy in my class.  And I began to keep a journal at the age of 14 (seven months before my mother died), eventually filling many notebooks over the next two and a half decades of journaling.  From the very first passages, I wrote about my “feelings” and recorded my crushes on boys.  Many passages over the years described my angst and yet-to-be-verbalized inner struggle to accept myself and my attraction to men.  Throughout high school and college, I only “dated” one girl (to go to my high school senior prom), immersing myself in school, church activities, and otherwise avoiding any romantic or sexual relationships until graduate school (one of my best friends in college called me “asexual” – it should have been a sign).

It took me many more years of journaling, soul-searching, prayer, and then about two years of psychotherapy, to finally have the courage to come out, at the age of 29. When I finally started to come out to my friends, my older sister and older brother, and my co-workers over several months, I knew I also had to come out to my father.  It  took me another two years to finally come out to my father.

I still remember that Memorial Day weekend that I went home, and then had to go to my bedroom and compose myself before I could go back to the living room, and begin by saying to my father, “Dad, there is something that I have to tell you….it’s very hard to say it, but I’m gay.”

At first my father simply said “no” (denial or disbelief?) but then he asked questions (what about the woman that I had been dating in law school for several years? had I talked with a priest about this? how long did I know? would I change my mind? are there other Chinese people who are gay?).  Part of what made it easier to come out was that I had now been in my relationship with my partner John for almost a year, whom my father had met many times.   As I told him that John was my boyfriend, my father said that he had suspected so because “you and John are so close” (do our parents really know before we tell them?).  After some more discussion, I said, “I’m still the same, you know?”  My father simply said, “I know.”

It took another two months before we talked again about my coming out.  My father told me that he didn’t want me to “show off” (be public about being out).   He regretted that my mother was not alive so I could talk to her about this.  He still felt that being gay was a choice, even as I tried to share that it was who I am, not a choice I made.  But he said that he accepted that I wouldn’t “change” and now repeated that I was “still the same.” He then surprised me by saying (in English, when our conversation is usually a mix of our Chinese Shanghai dialect and English): “I am still your father, and you are still my son, and I love you.”  This was the first time that my father had said “I love you” to me in English.  It wasn’t the last.

And from that day in 1991 onward, my father never questioned or challenged my identity as a gay man.  He never asked me if again I was going to “change” or get married to a woman.  Without going to any parents of gay children groups, or reading any books, or even talking with anyone about it (as far as I know), he simply continued to treat me as his son, and to treat John as the person that I loved.

When John and I accompanied my father and stepmother on a trip to China in 1998 (he had married my stepmother in 1987), I told my father that we would be fine with however he wanted to introduce John, not feeling that we needed to take a stand for gay rights with every member of our very large family that we were meeting.   But my father quietly demonstrated his support for our relationship by always seating John to his left (with my stepmother to his right) at the seemingly endless number of family banquets and dinners.  Since my father was the family patriarch (the oldest of five brothers), the fact that he seated my partner, and not one of his brothers, next to him, signaled to everyone that John really was a member of his family.

Dinner

When we visited my grandmother’s gravesite, my extended family did the very traditional Chinese ritual of cleaning the site, laying out some of my grandmother’s favorite things (candies, seeds, fruit, beer, cigarettes!), and lighting incense.  Then each couple, by generation, and in birth order, approached the grave and bowed three times as a sign of honor and respect.  My father and stepmother went first, and then his next oldest brother and wife, and so on.  As the youngest of the youngest generation present, I knew that I would be last to make my bows, after all my cousins.  So while the other relatives were completing their bows, I pulled my father aside and asked if it was OK for John to join me when I made my bows.  Without hesitation, my father said of course.  So John and I went up – as a couple – and bowed three times.  (John then asked whether I had just put him in the “wife’s position – I muttered back that we could have a longer conversation about gender roles in our relationship at a later time, but that we first needed to get through this cultural ritual.)  After we completed our bows, my aunts and oldest cousin then “got it” about our relationship, and began talking with me about John in the way that one would talk about a spouse.

A few days later, at the largest family gathering (to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday), we took lots of pictures, including individual pictures of each family.  When it came time for pictures of my father, stepmother, and me – both my father – and now many of my relatives – all insisted that John join in our “family picture”.

Over the years, my father and I didn’t have a lot of detailed discussions about my increasing work on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.  I told him about the Russian lesbian that I was representing who was seeking asylum in the U.S. because of persecution as a lesbian.  I talked about my work on HIV/AIDS, especially among gay Asian American men.  He was proud when I was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and excited that I was able to meet President Clinton at the White House.  In more recent years, I shared with him the work I began to do on LGBT health.  My father listened and digested all the information, never questioning why I was doing this work.

When it was time for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride parade in San Francisco every June, my father would ask me whether I was going and what else I would be doing that weekend.  I would tell my father about anniversary celebrations that John and I had (we celebrate our anniversary on Pride Sunday), or about LGBT events, or fundraisers for LGBT organizations, that we went to.  We would bring gay friends to the house for dinner during the holidays (yes, he got to meet other gay Chinese men) and my father would be his usual gracious host.

On my last trip to China with my father in 2004, his health and eyesight had declined to the point that we decided that I needed to share the hotel room with him so I could help him with his mobility.  On the Saturday night we were in Shanghai, I told him that I was going out to a gay club.  He didn’t try to discourage me, nor seem surprised that I had researched where it was, and how to get there (it was walking distance from the hotel).  The only thing that surprised him was that I didn’t leave the hotel for the club until close to midnight, well after he was asleep.  And he was still asleep when I returned hours later.

When Proposition 8 was on the California ballot in 2008, stripping the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, John, who was volunteering with the “No on 8” campaign every night, asked my father whether we could put up a “No on 8” sign in the front window of his house (in one of the more conservative neighborhoods of San Francisco).  He not only said yes, but wanted to help us put it up.

No on 8

A few weeks later, the Chinese American lay minister from our local Catholic church made one of her visits to my father and stepmother’s home while I also was visiting them.  She noticed the “No on 8” sign in the window and asked my father about it (the Catholic church throughout California was distributing “Yes on 8” messages from the pulpits and in printed church bulletins).  My father just said, “well, you know my son”, pointing to me.  (At my father’s funeral service, we asked this same lay minister to do one of the Scripture readings; she said she would be honored but didn’t feel comfortable reading aloud in English, so my partner John read the reading in English, and she read it in Chinese.)

But besides from these memories, it was all the other ways that my father embraced me – and John.  As I visited him more frequently in the last years of his life, if John did not accompany me, my father always would instruct me, “say hello to John” as I would leave, or ask “how is John?” when we talked on the phone.  As I became the adult child who would most often accompany my father to his more and more frequent medical appointments, we would often have to juggle the next appointment with my work and travel schedule.  If we had a challenging time finding a time that I would be available, he would matter of factly say, “that’s OK, John can take me.”

Dad and John

Dating back to when we were in college, my father had a tradition of giving each of us children a check for $100 for our birthdays (there was never a cost-of-living increase).  One year, my sister asked my father whether he had been giving checks to John on John’s birthday.  My father thought about it for a minute, and then said, “yes, I should.”  On John’s next birthday, a birthday card and a $100 check from my father arrived in the mail.

I am blessed to have experienced such unconditional love from my father after I came out to him.  I – and John – both miss that love, especially today.

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20 Responses to My Chinese Immigrant Father…and His Love for His Gay Son and Partner

  1. Ho Tran says:

    Thank you for a wonderful and beautiful story.

    Like

  2. Barb Masters says:

    What a lovely tribute to your father, Ignatius. You were indeed blessed, as was your father.

    Like

  3. Roxanna Bautista says:

    Thanks for sharing this great story Iggy.

    Like

  4. Jean Gilbert says:

    I’m looking forward to sharing this with my daughter an her partner.

    Like

  5. Carolyn Wang Kong says:

    I love this – thank you for sharing. And next time we meet, will have to test out the Shanghainese!

    Like

  6. Richard Garcia says:

    This is a very nice story; thank you. Your parents would be very proud.

    Like

  7. Lina Paredes says:

    Your post made me cry – I was deeply touched. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, Ignatius.

    God bless your father!

    Lina Paredes
    Vice President of Program
    Connecticut Health Foundation
    100 Pearl Street
    Hartford, CT 06103
    Main: 860.724.1580
    Direct: 860.724.1587
    F: 860.724.1589
    lina@cthealth.org
    http://www.cthealth.org

    Like

  8. KevinFong says:

    My goodness Igs, what a wonderful tribute! Your father was indeed the very best of men, as are you and John!

    Like

  9. This is a beautiful tribute to a loving accepting father. Many assume that Asians/South Asian parents are very conservative and wont accept their Gay offspring, but it is not the case in many of my friends lives. Thank you for sharing this and I am so happy that you and John could share your love with your family. I shed some tears reading that and these are tears of joy. HAPPY NATIONAL COMING OUT DAY.

    Like

  10. Brad Wong says:

    Thank you for sharing so eloquently.

    Like

  11. Josephine Pui-Hing Wong says:

    This is a beautiful story that has brought both tears and smiles from my heart. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  12. Christina Fa says:

    I love how you cite such meaningful examples of your dad accepting John as your partner. My favorite line of your dad’s: “I am still your father, and you are still my son, and I love you.” Thank you for another beautiful tribute to your dad.

    Like

  13. Anne Beal says:

    Simply beautiful.

    Like

  14. Shelby Dunster says:

    What a beautiful man and father, Ignatius.

    Like

  15. Dora Londono says:

    What a wonderful tribute to the both of you. It brouht tears to my eyes. I was raised by my grandfather and he was as wise, loving and caring as your father. We were given
    a gift to have had them in our lives.

    Like

  16. Jeff Hart says:

    Ignatius: Thanks for sharing your story with the world. It is a very touching and eye opening story that explains the source of your sense of dedication and love. Thank You!

    Like

  17. Chen, Alice says:

    Thank you for sharing.

    From: Ignatius Bau <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: Ignatius Bau <comment+ei08irpkv51_ddit9bdvp1l@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Friday, October 11, 2013 10:06 AM To: Alice Hm Chen <alice.chen@stanfordalumni.org> Subject: [New post] My Chinese Immigrant Fatherand His Love for His Gay Son and Partner

    Ignatius Bau posted: “My Chinese immigrant father never wore a button, put a bumper sticker on his car, nor marched in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Pride parade. But through his words and deeds, he showed that he loved me, his gay son, and his gay sons partner. Toda”

    Like

  18. Ellen Braff-Guajardo says:

    What a beautiful rememberance of your father’s unconditional love. Thank you for sharing!

    Like

  19. Chen, Alice says:

    Meant to add that if I tweeted I would tweet this!

    Sent from my mobile phone- please excuse brevity or errors.

    Like

  20. kanderson2013 says:

    This is so wonderful and sweet. Thank you so much for sharing, Ignatius.

    Karen Anderson, Ph.D.
    Senior Program Officer
    Board on Population Health
    Institute of Medicine
    500 Fifth St. NW
    Washington, DC 20001
    (202) 334-2806

    Like

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