There’s a saying within the queer community, that you’re never done with coming out. Every small encounter with a new person inevitably brings you to that moment where you have to make a strategic decision whether or not to casually drop into the conversation, Hey by the way, I’m a homosexual (/insert other queer identity). No big deal. Just thought you should know.
Not because you think necessarily think people care much at all, but rather to avoid awkward conversations somewhere down the track when those subconscious heteronormative assumptions decide to raise their head, and someone uses the wrong pronoun to refer to your partner. Or maybe so that you can start saying “wife” instead of “partner”.
It is an enormous privilege to live in a country, and in a time, where I can be openly gay. It helps that I live in central Wellington, New Zealand, one of the most progressive places in the country. I live in a bubble surrounded by people who, for the most part, share at least a good overlapping portion of my values. By and large, I don’t have to worry for my safety in New Zealand. I feel comfortable walking down the street holding my wife’s hand, as people glance at her very pregnant belly. They might do that flustered glance aversion thing — “Don’t look at the gays, mustn’t look at the gays, don’t be weird, don’t look at the gays”. But as a cisgendered, reasonably feminine presenting, gay lady living in New Zealand’s most tolerant city, I tend not to worry about getting beaten up or abused over my sexual orientation.
I travelled to Vietnam recently, a sort-of last chance scramble to get to Southeast Asia before the responsibility of parenthood kicked in, making travel in developing nations infinitely more difficult. I went for ten days by myself, and packed in way too much, but hey, that’s what you do when you’ve only got ten days.
I’ve always wondered to myself, how “out” I would be travelling in less-developed countries, with homophobic policies and populations. I spent more than ten years in the closet, and after coming out at the grand age of 27 (and three quarters), the overwhelming sense of relief and freedom I felt was such that I thought I would never, ever hide that part of myself again. I’ve imagined the hypothetical situation of travelling through Uganda, for instance, meeting and building relationships with people, and wondered how much of a struggle it would be to keep such an integral part of myself hidden. Even as the rational part of my brain would be screaming at me to take heed of common sense and keep my mouth shut.
Once you’ve come out, can you ever go back in again?
Vietnam is not generally held up as an example of an overtly homophobic country. Traditional for sure, in many areas, but generally not hateful. The communist government lifted a ban on same-sex marriage in 2015, though full recognition and equal rights have yet to be granted.
Within South and central Vietnam, I mostly moved from city to city every couple of days, so didn’t get much of an opportunity to connect with people long enough for conversations to get to the stage where I’ve had to face the question, Gay or Nay?
But halfway through the trip, I began a three-day motorbike tour through the central highlands, where I spent many hours riding pillion behind my young Vietnamese guide. He was a funny, outgoing guy in his late-twenties, who had picked for himself a western name inspired by a male pop singer. It wasn’t the Bieb he admired, but for the purpose of this story let’s call him Justin.
Justin and I hit it off right away. Perhaps it was the fact that I showed up mildly hungover after a night out in Nha Trang being plied with beer on the beach by friendly locals — the regaled tales of which brought about hearty laughter from Justin, and promises of “happy water” later that evening. He made jokes, and his demeanour was pleasant as we began our three day journey together. He pulled over at a roadside cafe just shortly after lunch, with coloured hammocks swinging in the breeze, a welcome respite from the overbearing sun and lingering beer brain, and at that moment, I loved Justin more that you think a person could love a tour guide after only four hours together.
True to his word, he produced a bottle of “happy water” that night, which I discovered was some kind of local whiskey distilled from rice. Justin and his fellow tour guide Arnie (who preferred action stars to pop icons), were just as generous and insistent with their libations as my young friends had been the previous evening. Along with the young German backpacker Arnie was guiding, we chatted well into the night, sharing stories about the local area, Justin and Arnie’s families, and trading jokes and riddles.
We laughed and bonded. We started getting to know each other.
Internally, I questioned all night long whether I should disclose the fact that I was a friend of Sappho. I was wearing my wedding ring, but they didn’t ask about it. I was learning all about their families, and I was craving the authentic human connection that comes along with the sharing stories that bind us in the common human experience. Justin was a parent. I was about to be. I wanted to connect on the basis of shared experience.
As the evening wore on, and the number of cheeky comments about maybe meeting a cute boy on my trip grew, I came close many times to casually dropping my wife into the conversation. Towards the end of the night, Arnie finally asked if I was married. Justin being away in the bathroom at the time, didn’t hear me coming out to Arnie and the backpacker, telling them of my wife and the fact that she was having a baby in a couple of months. Arnie shifted uncomfortably in his chair, nodded briskly and said “I understand”. And that was that. End of conversation.
Five minutes later he stood up and declared with an air of finality, that it was bedtime. Maybe the timing was a coincidence. It was after all, a late hour, and we were all on the road again the next day.
All throughout the next day, I incessantly wondered to myself whether Arnie had told Justin I was gay. Surely tour guides gossip with each other about their clients? Was he acting differently or was it my imagination? I told myself that it shouldn’t bother me either way. My principled inner monologue went something like:
“Who cares if he knows? Who cares what he thinks? You don’t owe anyone any apologies or explanations. Why does this matter? You’re a human, he’s a human. Your gayness does not define you absolutely as a person. It’s only one element of you. Just forget about it, and have a good time.”
It was later that evening, that I dropped my wife and imminent child into casual dinner conversation with Justin and several other fellow tourists and guides, and while the collective reaction was not quite as stoney as the night before, the polite nods and averted glances told me that no one really wanted to continue down that particular conversational track.
Justin was definitely different the next day. He was still polite and continued to point out interesting things along the way. But gone was the banter and joking around, and in its place, the professional face of a friendly, yet emotionally removed tour guide. The overwhelming feeling was that it was uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.
There were periods of long silence. Justin occasionally cast me these confused, somewhat sad glances, as if trying to work me out. I felt awkward. He probably felt awkward. All round, it was awkward for everyone.
I thought about raising it with him, but if he was indeed feeling uncomfortable, I didn’t want to force the conversation. I reminded myself that he was a paid guide, and maybe it was expecting too much to hope that we would be friends.
Again, I endured a day of mental self-flagellation, questioning whether I had done the right thing in coming out to barely-known acquaintances in a strange land.
I queried whether my desire for acknowledgement was more important than mutual comfort between travelling companions? Was I being selfish? What was more important in the situation: Taking a principled stand or maintaining an atmosphere of comfort and camaraderie? Was this an opportunity to broaden a young man’s horizons? Do I have a duty to my LGBTQ brothers and sisters around the world to be visible? Would Justin be more accepting of the next queer person who graces the back seat of his motorcycle, as a consequence of our time together? Is honesty really always the best policy? Had I achieved anything at all? Or just served to make everyone feel uncomfortable?
These are tough questions for someone who swore she’d never be back in the closet again. Such principled absolutes don’t take into account the complexity of cultural context and human social behaviour. There is no wiggle room in such an attitude.
There is no recourse for weighing up a situation, and deciding what is best, given the company, the time, the place, and the head space that you’re in.
Sometimes, it’s just not worth it. It’s exhausting. It’s easier to adhere to assumed heteronormativity and get on with your day.
Of course, on the scale of discrimination and consequence, my story pales in comparison to the atrocities faced by many of my peers in other countries, and for that I am thankful. This is a more subtle battle. One that is perhaps waged more against myself rather than an external enemy.
It is a battle that reminds me, that I don’t need to fight every battle. And one that reminds me that sometimes, nobody wins.
Most of my writing, I currently do for free. If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact and broad-scale narrative change, you can do so through Patreon. Or if you’d like to follow my musings, sign up for my free monthly newsletter here. Thank you!
** This story was originally published on Medium in June 2016, under my other account. I am now re-publishing it here, as I’m closing that account.**