“Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative”

Haigen Huang

Haigen Huang

About Haigen Huang: I am a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Missouri-Columbia. My research is in educational policy and leadership, but I also write stories of LGBT international students.  Hopefully, at some point in my career I can combine these two.  I grew up in a small rural community in southern China and attended Beijing Normal University for my master’s degree in comparative education.

Below, I have shared a narrative that I wrote in the spring: “Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative.”

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Whether in my home country China or in the United States, living a life that fails to meet expected heterosexual norms oftentimes is associated with emotional nervousness, anxiety, and fear. I hid anything which might reveal my sexuality and have rationalized avoidance of mentioning my relationship. When I was eventually courageous enough to come out after getting engaged in the United States, I encountered the following scenarios.

Stories of My Engagement Ring        

When a ring sits displayed in a store, it is just a commercial product. But after the purchase and someone begins to wear it, the ring lives with human stories.

“Let’s take the engagement rings off when we visit my parents,” my fiancé Chris suggested.

“Yes…” I did not insist and I did not ask why.

It was my first visit to Chris’ parents’ house, and also his first time back home after telling his family about me. I understood that he did not want to throw them too much information all at once, to introduce me so soon after telling them he is gay and then to tell them that we were already engaged.

About six weeks after we started wearing our rings, we put them in the drawer of a night stand before setting off to Nebraska from Missouri. Over the next couple of days, I always felt something was missing. After having worn my ring for almost one and half months, I felt as if it had been part of my hand. I liked the way it looked; I liked the smooth inner surface, the rounded silver touching my skin; I enjoyed turning it around my finger. More importantly, it was the symbol of my love and commitment.  Nevertheless, we decided not to show our rings to Chris’ parents, at least not during the first visit.

During the five-hour long drive, I could not imagine what it would be like in his parents’ place. The rhythm of the engine and raindrops hitting the windshield induced me to nap from time to time in the passenger seat. Remembering that Chris’ mother said that she was happy as long as he was happy comforted me but not enough to keep my hands from sweating. We did not talk much on the way.

It was a pleasant visit, but a few times I had to stop myself from saying something about the engagement. My fiancé’s parents welcomed me with open arms. They were happy, in part because their son eventually opened up to them about his personal relationship after being distant from them for at least ten years.  It was easy for me to be known as a gay man in front of Chris’ parents. I was introduced as his boyfriend. Everything they know about me started from there. But when it comes to my coming out to friends who assumed me to be heterosexual, I have different stories.

Coming Out To Friends And Colleagues

On the first Monday after our engagement, I felt nervous to wear my ring. I shared an office with 12 other graduate research assistants, most of them also my classmates. Whenever I heard footsteps approaching the office, I would feel my heart beat suddenly. I was afraid someone would see the ring and ask about my relationship. By e-mail one of my friends told me:

There is no reason to be afraid, it is a handsome ring and you should be proud to wear it because a special guy gave it to you. Some may think it is a wedding band and unless they know you very well, will not say anything or ask who.

But still I could not force myself out of the mode of being hyper-sensitive to anybody walking into the office.

Eventually, somebody came in. She needed my help for a class assignment. To explain what should be done and show where to find the resources online, I had to type. I started typing with one hand so my ring remained under my left sleeve. It was awkward especially when she asked, “Is your left hand okay?” I had to try very hard not to show my nervousness, but I didn’t need to type much and I got by without behaving too awkwardly.  However, when a second colleague approached me an hour later, I decided not to use the same trick. Instead, I took off the ring with my hand still in my pocket. That moment, I felt lucky I had a ring a bit larger than the right size.

Awkward moments came when I put on the ring, but they did not go away when I took it off or hid it. I don’t believe the ring had the magic power that the one in The Lord of the Rings does, and no supernatural force has cast any spell on it. Nevertheless, to wear or not was a problem. With me being trapped in this dilemma, that Monday went by slowly. On the one hand, I wanted my relationship to be recognized; on the other hand, I was nervous about being recognized, and I didn’t know how to tell my colleagues about my engagement.

It was frightening to imagine telling anybody that I was engaged with a man. I remembered the awkwardness and sweating when I told a faculty that I was in a long-term relationship with a man. I could hear my own heart beat when I was talking. My face was burning, and I think I stuttered. Although she had always been my most supportive colleague and I had no regrets about coming out to her a few weeks before my engagement, I did not want to experience a round of similar nervousness again. So I turned to social media and pictures, and eventually I posted my engagement photos on a website that most of my friends and colleagues use. Many of them gave their congratulations, except one friend in Kansas.

“What is this? Are you kidding me?”

That is a comment on my photo of Chris and me showing our rings in front a courthouse. I did not answer him, although I was a little irritated. Instead I posted a message:

Thinking about a comment on my engagement picture, I wonder whether I should respond directly. Maybe not, I might just pretend that I had never read it. I don’t feel like getting into a debate with someone potentially having a firm belief that homosexuality is something wrong. I assume the comment meant to boo my engagement. But I am sorry I don’t believe there is anything wrong that I love a man.

My friends and colleagues backed me up with comments such as:

Some folks have not yet learned that people are not all ‘wired’ in identical ways. Our diversity enriches us, and your behavior has shown me and others that you care for other people.

And:

Don’t worry about it. Just delete them or block them from seeing your posts.

One of them even responded to that comment directly in a challenging way: “Why should this be a joke?”

Eventually the author of the comment apologized. I was grateful for the support I had but I also felt I was seeking approval from others, as if I were asking, “I am gay — I hope that’s okay?”

I knew I might encounter negative reactions, especially after being exposed to comparisons of homosexuality to incest, bestiality, and polygamy for almost four years since coming to the United States. It kind of surprised me that I received only one negative comment. Although I do not believe that being gay is morally wrong and queer theory has long challenged the hegemony or normality of heterosexuality (Pinar, 2003), trying to live openly as a gay man brings with it constant nervousness, awareness of my sexuality as something that might cause conflict with some people, and the feeling that I must seek approval from others. As one of my friends said, “Gay people are always coming out in one way or another.”

From my own experience, I believe that “men’s desire for men does not constitute some ‘third sex’” (Pinar, 2003, p. 359). Nevertheless, being “socialized” to confirm heterosexual performances (Butler, 1990) I did hide my non-conforming behaviors. For more than ten years after I became aware of my homosexuality when I was a teenager, I never mentioned anything related to my sexuality in front of my straight friends. Even after I decided to be who I think I am, I encountered awkward moments such as hiding my ring under my sleeve or in my pocket.

Decision Not to Come Out to Family

It is now May 2013, and I’m going back to my hometown for the summer. It is a small rural village in southern China. I lived there for 18 years before going away to college. As a native speaker, I do not know if words like ‘homosexuality’ or ‘gay’ even exist in the dialect of the village.

In junior high school when my male teenage classmates were chatting about their crushes on girls, I never felt interested. I understood what they were saying but I had no motivation to participate in. And I never did. As years passed, I always thought I would fall in love with a woman and get married just like everybody else. That was the given path for every man, at least I perceived so.

When I started to be aware that I had cruses on boys, I kept it to myself. I still don’t know why I knew it was something I should not acknowledge. Possibly I sensed that it was something ‘abnormal’ because I had never heard or seen homosexuality or same-sex relationships. There were no confrontations, no awkwardness because I kept my interest in men to myself. Both in my junior high and senior school, it was considered to be a good thing not to have a girlfriend. Teachers and parents always worried that students having girlfriends or boyfriends was a distraction to pass the competitive College Entrance Examination (or Gaokao in Chinese). In college, it was still okay not to have a girlfriend. Most of my straight male classmate and friends did not have a girlfriend. I got by without anyone nagging until recent years.

Several years ago, my family began to pressure me to find a woman and marry her. In a village like mine getting married — of course heterosexually — is the most significant duty in a person’s life. I am approaching 30, and they have become impatient with me. One of my relatives tried to introduce me a young woman from my hometown. This relative knew that I would not come home soon because of my study in the United States.  However, she insisted that I chat with the woman online and arrange to meet her whenever I return to China. I cannot remember what I was thinking then, but I did add the young woman’s online chat account. Fortunately, she never showed up, which turned out to be a good excuse.

Whenever I am about to say that I have a boyfriend, I hold it back. I don’t know how to explain my relationship to my family, and they keep pressuring me as long as I talk with them on the phone. Sometimes persuasion becomes an argument if I allow myself to be irritated and talk back.

I should focus on my study and I will think about marriage later!

In response, they adopt a serious and doctrinaire tone.

You are almost thirty. It is the age for having your own family. You know that even your younger childhood friends are married and have kids now! You are well educated…you should know this better than me!

There were times one of the relatives even said,

What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get married like everybody else?

Members of my family told me that if I get married and have kids soon, they would volunteer to take care of them in China while I am still in the U.S.

After these uncomfortable conversations and arguments with my family, I decided not to wear the ring during my visit in the summer — that is to say, not to inform them of my engagement and my sexuality, at least not until I return to the U.S. I don’t feel that I am ready to challenge their beliefs. I guess I need to be an actor and play my old role for another summer. I’m not sure how I would feel or think about my summer performance. I haven’t been back to my hometown for two years. In the past, when I was there I was still considered young, not yet old enough for my family to be impatient with me about marriage.

Even when I was younger, I could feel the strong expectation from my family for me to marry a girl and have children. When I was 25, my parents arranged for me to meet a young woman. Fortunately, it did not lead to anything but the woman’s rejection, because I was not showing interest.

But this expectation coerces people like me to conform to a norm that does not make sense to us. Many gay men marry women because they feel obligated to meet this expectation. According to a documentary published by the Phoenix Television (feng huang wei shi) in Hong Kong, there might be as many as ten million women in marriages with gay men in China (Liu, 2012). Most of these women (tongqi, a Chinese term for wives of gay men) are straight and they do not know their husbands are gay. The emotional isolation of these men, the shame and sense of failure to be good husbands for their wives, the fear of being discovered, and the despair and feeling of betrayal if they are ever found out are all potential consequences of the hegemony of heterosexuality.

No Conclusion Yet

On the way to my office, looking into my ring I can see myself reflected in the finely polished gold surface. I want to talk to it as if it were alive. I know I will miss it during my visit to my home town, and I hope it will continue to witness the stories of my commitment. I hope it gives me the “magic power” to further confront and challenge hegemony of heterosexuality.

A couple of professors passed and wished me good morning, and I greeted them back. Suddenly aware that I am wearing tight blue jeans, I can’t help asking myself,

Would they think that I look gay wearing these?

Before I could critique my self-consciousness about my sexuality, this question came to my mind. I paused a few seconds and laughed. At this moment, I know the journey of coming out is not yet finished and the ring has more stories to tell — stories of “coming out” to parents who believe every man should marry a woman and have children, stories of “coming out” to future colleagues and friends.

In the United States same-sex marriage became a reality in some of the states within the past 10 years, even while some still argue against homosexuality and same-sex relationships. During this year’s Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of a California law banning same-sex marriage, Charles J. Cooper argued that same-sex marriage is at odds with human procreation. The stigma of failing to conform to the heterosexual norm still pervades everything, and I must learn to be comfortable with my sexuality with support from my fiancé, his family, my friends, and colleagues, and reading feminist theory and LGBT research.

Conclusion

When I was first aware of my homosexuality as a teenager, I almost believed that I was doing something morally wrong. However, in traveling the path from growing up in a Chinese rural village to pursuing a doctoral degree in a U.S. college town, I have decided to challenge the problematic hegemony of heterosexuality. My stories do not end here as long as hegemony maintains.

But let me pause and ask myself here, does this sound like coming out storytelling? Am I presenting myself as a victim? Am I challenging the heterosexuality norm in a negative aggressive way? What do I really want to say or demonstrate? Or am I making justifications for being gay? Here it is! Being gay oftentimes requires the person to make a case, at least under the pressure to do so. That explains why we hear coming out stories over and over again. Not only do you need to make justification for being gay, but you also might do so to justify supporting same-sex relationships.

“If you’re a lawmaker who wants to ban gay marriage, you can come up with any reason you want…But if you’re a lawyer defending a gay marriage ban in court, you need an actual legal reason for your position” (Chait, 2013).

Now we see numerous politicians and senators have “evolved” coming out to support same-sex marriage in the United States. Have you ever seen anybody making a justification for being heterosexual or supporting heterosexual marriage? Of course not, unless you are out as gay and want to marry heterosexually or in-between and want to go either way.

Back to the question of whether I am justifying being gay — no!  Even if it sounds like I am, it is not my intention! The purpose of me telling these short stories is to reach people like me, as my gay identity gives me legitimacy to share these stories. As far as I know it is a challenging and stressful process to come out, which puts LGBT people under the risk of work discrimination (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Ragins, Singh, & Cornwell, 2007), and negative reaction from parents (Cramer & Roach, 1988; D’Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998). I do not believe that heterosexual life performances fit with gay men well, not for a lifetime.

At the end, I sincerely hope that somewhere somebody might find my stories helpful.

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cramer, D. W., & Roach, A. J. (1988). Coming out to mom and dad: A study of gay males and their relationships with their parents. Journal of Homosexuality, 15(3-4), 79-92.

Chait, J. (2013). Gays can’t marry because … they plan babies? Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/gays-cant-marry-because-they-plan-babies.html.

D’Augelli, A. R., Hershberger, S. L., & Pilkington, N. W. (1998). Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth and their families: Disclosure of sexual orientation and its consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 361-371.

Day, N. E., & Schoenrade, P. (1997). Staying in the closet versus coming out: Relationships between communication about sexual orientation and work attitudes. Personal Psychology, 50(1), 147-163.

Ragins, B. R., Singh, R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2007). Making the invisible visible: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 1103-1118.

Pinar, W.F. (2003). Queer theory in education. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2-4), 357-360.

Liu, C. (2012, February, 3). How to save wives of gay men (na shen me zheng jiu tong qi).  Hong Kong, China: Phoenix Satellite Television.