How Do Generations Change the Coming-Out Experience?
This article originally appeared in Daniel Magazine, August 2014.
Without hesitation, 29-year-old Dennis Chin identifies as queer. Perhaps it’s because he came out in 2005 in the United States, or that he’s a second-generation immigrant from Hong Kong. In a way, Andre’ Ting might agree, being a 61-year-old, first-generation immigrant from China. He’s been out since 1977 in the United States and much prefers the term “gay.” And 41-year-old Ben de Guzman? He’s positioned between Chin and Ting as a second-generation immigrant who came out while visiting his native country of the Philippines in 1994. Because of this, he straddles the fence on identifying as either queer or gay.
A person’s pride can mold itself from many factors of their coming out experience, ranging from culture and background to generation and age. And yet, despite such diversity, three different men from three different time periods have three not-so-different stories to tell. Pride may be called by many names, but it’s always pride.
“I don’t feel coming out is a singular process.”
Dennis Chin was born in New Jersey, his parents having come to America after the 1965 Immigration Act was established. Freely admitting to a life he considers to be financially privileged, the 29-year-old is dynamic, quick-witted, and always eager to laugh. Not even the subdued moments of his coming out story stood a chance against his exuberance.
“I don’t feel coming out is a singular process,” Chin said, who is the current co-chair of GAPIMNY and does social justice nonprofit work in Queens, NY. “We have to do it many times depending on the context.”
Wanting to come out sooner, Chin felt he was being held back by his emotions. “Number one was shame and that was tied with embarrassment,” he said. “Also, a lot of inertia. Just so many years of not being true to yourself, of not being true in the spaces that you value with the friends and family that you cherish. But when I turned 20, I had a safe and supportive environment around me and I realized it was just time.”
He started telling his friends around 2005 and moved onto his family soon after. “It actually wasn’t this grand moment,” Chin said. “It was pretty gradual.” One story he often tells is when, during his own post-graduate dinner, a family friend joked about how Chin now needed to find a job and a wife.
“I’m usually more presentable, but I was tired that night and…I just couldn’t,” he said. “I think my mom saw that I was just not having it. So later that night, my mom drove me back to our home in Jersey, speeding down the highway, and then she looks at me and asks, ‘Are you gay?’ And my first thought was, ‘Oh my God, we’re going so fast on the freeway!’” He stopped a moment to laugh at the memory. “But then I looked at her and was like, ‘…Maaaybe?’”
Chin’s mother said she would always love him, but nonetheless struggled with concerns. Her first big fear for Chin was that he was going to become HIV positive. Because Chin’s parents had lived so close to New York during the 80s, they were aware of the worst of the AIDS crisis. “So there was a period of time where my mom would get these nightmares about me getting AIDS. And then that passed, and then she thought that being gay was a stepping stone to being trans. I had to pretty much politely say, ‘No, Ma. But if I were, you should be okay with that, too,’” he said, laughing as he reenacted his frustrated tone.
“But I’m saying these things just to show that it’s all a process,” Chin continued. “In a way, my parents had to go through their own coming-out process. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and they’re going to be okay with it. I mean, it took me 20 years myself to be okay with it, to love and accept myself.”
“My parents had the opposite reaction than I would’ve expected.”
Like Chin, Ben de Guzman was born in New Jersey after his parents emigrated during the 1960s. Intelligent, insightful, and aware, 41-year-old de Guzman is now the NQAPIA co-director for Programs in DC.
Despite always having “that funny feeling in the pit of his stomach,” de Guzman was “too afraid” as a child to consider that he might be gay. It wasn’t until 1994, during the summer before his senior year of college, that he finally came out. While studying abroad in his home country of the Philippines, he talked with an ally peer. And then, suddenly, became ill.
“I must’ve drank some water or eaten something that didn’t agree with me, and it was actually visceral and cathartic for me because that conversation was still in my head,” de Guzman said. When he got better, he talked with his friend again and came out, soon after doing the same with many of his peers who were also studying abroad.
When he came back from the Philippines, de Guzman told his first family member: his twin brother. A couple of years later, he told his older brother, followed by his cousins. But it would take 8 years after telling his twin before he’d come out to their parents around 2002.
“My parents had the opposite reaction than I would’ve expected,” de Guzman said. “My mother was the one to first go to that ‘we love you no matter what’ space and my father needed a little more time. But ultimately, my family has been supportive.”
“I’ve always regretted not telling them sooner,” he continued, “but you know what? My mother has said, ‘Oh, but we know a lot more now.’ And I think that made the conversations easier, waiting and letting the culture shift do its thing.”
“I wasn’t sure if I would be rejected.”
At 61 years old, Andre’ Ting has been dedicated to gay rights both home and abroad for nearly 40 years. With a cordial personality and worldly views, Ting has a slow, thoughtful way of speaking, bringing with him the aura of a man who’s had his share of experiences. While Ting was born in China, he additionally lived in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Brazil during his childhood. He moved to the United States in 1971 at the age of 18, where he attended both college and graduate school in Austin, TX. It was during graduate school when he came out to himself, in the year 1977.
“I went through just a few months of, ‘Why me?’” Ting said. “But right after that, I was okay with it. I just said, ‘Well, that’s what I am. I just need to make the most of it.’ But I definitely had to come out to myself first. I had to realize this fact, and then I had to realize I didn’t need to change this fact.”
Ting would soon move to Los Angeles County, where he’d become a co-founder of the San Gabriel Valley API PFLAG and of the Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays, the latter of which is one of the earliest Asian LGBTQ organizations in the US. Ting was also the Chinese media advocate for GLAAD from 2008-2009. He is currently the VP of the API Pride Council in LA.
But despite his successes in the LGBTQ world, it wasn’t until roughly 1998 that Ting finally came out to his family, who had long since immigrated over to the United States. “I wasn’t sure if I would be rejected,” Ting said, who was in his 40s by that point.
Ting eventually decided to start with his mother. “She had no problem with it,” he said, though he wondered if the acceptance wasn’t at least in part due to never acting “stereotypically gay.”
“I didn’t have a feminine voice or mannerisms,” Ting said. “I was teaching in a college…so nobody knew that I was gay for a long, long time. I would say I acted carefully all the time because I never knew how people would react. But I don’t feel like I was hiding myself. Just being careful.”
Ting’s caution was warranted, especially when he was fired from a job shortly after he came out in the 1970s. “And for a while after that, I didn’t want to come out at my job because I was worried,” he said. “It was one of my initial experiences.”
But despite some setbacks, Ting has found acceptance and love both within and outside of the LGBTQ community. And he’s continued to pay it forward, donating his time to organizations and talking to youth groups. “I’m proud that I’m gay and I’m also proud that I’m Asian,” Ting said. “I have gay pride and Asian pride at the same time, all the time.”