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Gearing Up for the AIDS Lifecycle

When my parents first found out that the girl I kept having stay over for sleepovers was more than “just a friend”, healing my mother wept for one week straight. My father froze in his distraught, not knowing what to do with his wayward daughter or his weeping wife.

In their traditional Chinese mindsets, my parents couldn’t understand my refusal to sacrifice on behalf of the family and be with a man. For them, my coming out was immoral, irresponsible, and selfish. They asked, “What about the Bible? How will you have a family? What did we do wrong? Who will take care of you? And What will people say?”

Five years have passed since that initial disclosure at my parent’s kitchen counter. After that first period of “shock and hysterics,” my parents shifted to “deny and counter-attack” where they secretly donated money to anti-gay organizations and pushed me into therapy hoping that I might change. When the therapist showed no signs of turning me around (in fact, she affirmed my identity), my parents moved to a period of “guilt and mourning” where every visit ended with my mother pleading and in tears. Eventually, we’ve resigned to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to avoid the issue altogether.

Unfortunately, keeping the peace also means talking about nothing of substance. Asking about my trip to Mexico or last weekend’s dinner party is too dangerous for my mother because it might bring up signs of my “gay life.” Any reference to Lisa’s name results in a change of topic. We’ve taken to sticking to sterile topics like work and….well, work. It’s hard to look at each other in the eyes.

I know my parents love me to death, and while I wish they could get some cajones and take a stand for their daughter and themselves, I can also appreciate how difficult this is given their ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Recently, I attempted to break the silence and wrote them an email:

Hi mom and dad,

I came upon this video that i thought you might be interested to see. Its from a mom of a gay daughter in Taiwan. Anyways, just want you to know that you guys aren’t alone. And the video also makes me think I need to talk to you guys more..not just come to the house and talk about nothing. But talk about real things. Like my life, if you actually want to hear about it.

The truth is my life is not what you think. I am happier and I have a more secure sense of myself than I ever have before. I have someone in my life who loves me very much, and we have many dreams together. This is who I am, and while the first year or two was hard and confusing even for myself, I know that this is who I am going to be, not a phase in my life that I just came up with at age 25 – This is who I will still be at age 30, 40, 50…

I would like to somehow talk to you, but it is difficult, and i feel there is not much for us to talk about anymore. You don’t really want to hear about my life, I don’t really listen to yours. So it is what it is. Recently, a friend of mine told me that her brother just told their parents that he is gay, and she told me what a hard time it is for everyone. I can understand.

I received a response from my father a few days later. He wished me a happy Chinese New Year’s, asked about my health, and told me that he loved me and that I always had a place to come home. While his response still sidestepped the main issue altogether, I knew my dad was being as sincere as he could.

It’s heartbreaking, really. Both sides want to figure out how to cross this great divide that’s been created, but we don’t know how. This is going to be a long road, and I don’t pretend to know the best way to come out to parents or even whether every child should come out to their parents.

But I do know that in my case, I’m glad I did and although the process is hard, I’ll keep trying, and to my parents’ credit, I believe that they’ll keep trying as well. After all, we’re family, and it’s worth it…
“Why do you Americans have to do big projects during your time off?, visit web ” was the question from our European friends during a recent dinner party. “Why can’t you relax and just hang out?”

Good question. My friend is French, see and the French know how to vacation better than anyone else. Not only do they receive significantly more vacation days than American workers (37 days vs 13 days for Americans), a recent study showed that French workers top the list for actually using their vacation days with 89% of workers maxing out their days off. Americans, in contrast, were at the bottom of the list with only 57% of workers using all of their vacation time.

Furthermore, when we do vacation, we have a hard time actually relaxing. A recent survey reported that Americans are more likely to get up early than sleep in during vacations (apparently to get as much “fun” in as possible), and one out of five Americans still work during their time off. Apparently, we Americans have this need to be productive, all the time. By turning our year off into a research project, were Lisa and I falling into this trap?

Truth be told, I don’t know. Maybe we have some weird guilt complex that won’t let us spend 12 months just loafing around the world with no agenda. Maybe we have some intrinsic need to “make a difference” for society – this is a common plague for lesbians and is the reason why professions like social work and therapy are dominated by our kind.

At minimum I feel proud that we’re managing to escape, even if temporarily, the endless American cycle of earn more, buy more, want more, work more. For us, this year off is a respite from that mindset and a chance to do something together that we both find meaningful. We love travel, but we didn’t want to spend 12 months just traipsing from one landmark to another. Way too tiring, and we’d get burned out from an endless procession of temples, ancient ruins and other Unesco tourist sites in no time. What we felt we could spend 12 months doing is engaging with the local people living there. If we used our year off to pursue meaningful exchanges with people different from us, perhaps we could help both sides gain a little more understanding about the other, and through that understanding develop a little more tolerance and acceptance.

As a queer person, there is no greater applicability of this need for understanding than around people’s attitudes towards the LGBT community. Now, Lisa and I are lucky – we live in the safe haven of the San Francisco bay area, where having a gay friend actually increases one’s social stature. Nontheless, it is still a city in a state where the majority of voters believe that same-sex marriages should be illegal. I believe our best weapon against anti-gay attitudes is not reciprocal strong-arm tactics or over-intellectualized debates – rather, it is through human connection that we can start stripping away the misunderstandings that have created these prejudices in the first place.

Lisa and I have already experienced some of these meaningful exchanges from our previous travels together. When Lisa flew to Beijing earlier this year to meet me on a business trip, she sat next to a talkative forty-something Chinese woman named Clare on her way back home. After Clare finally understood that Lisa’s continual reference to the “girlfriend” she was flying to meet meant more than a female companion, Clare admitted that she had never met a lesbian before. The conversation turned into an LGBT education session, where Lisa encouraged her to ask as many questions as she wanted (which she did, including “How do you have sexual relations?”). Clare was surprised when Lisa showed her a picture of me – probably because I was Chinese, like her, and probably because she was expecting more of a boyish butch type, which I’m not. They parted ways with a promise to stay in touch, Clare going home to China with a better understanding of gay life than what probably most people do in the States.

While in China, we did some “gay-touring” – we looked for the gay hangouts and tried to assess the general attitudes of the Chinese towards homosexuality. We chatted with a well-dressed business man in a half-empty gay bar in the middle of the Beijing club district, who told of us how he had been previously married but would sleep with men in secret. He said that while the city was becoming more tolerant of gays, enough so that some gay couples even openly held hands in public – there was no way he would ever dare to come out as a gay man himself. He said it was “not Chinese” and that his parents would never accept it, and he looked at me meaningfully saying “You should understand that too.”

Out of that three week trip, which included a visit to an off-limits section of the Great Wall (self-contradictory, as despite a “No Visitors Allowed” sign there was still a ticket agent collecting a 10rmb entrance fee”), an all-you-can-possibly-eat Peking duck dinner, and multiple trips to the shopping mecca known as the Silk Market where Lisa had several suits made (“no curvy, cut like a man’s suit”), we recognized that the interactions that were most memorable to us were when we were able to share our gay experiences with others and when they shared theirs with us. So, when Lisa and I started thinking about the purpose behind our round-the-world trip, we felt that participating in the global gay movement first-hand was central.

Hence, this grand project was born and so instead of beach bumming and partying like the French vacationers, Lisa and I will be spending our year away working our productive American asses off.

So why do I keep doing the AIDS Lifecycle? The Lifecycle gave me one last vacation with my mother, sale kept me in HIV social work for ten years, look and introduced me to my life partner.

In 2005, generic as a new employee at SFAF, I cycled in the first of five Lifecycles. My mother, who despised camping, decided to plunge out of her comfort zone to be a Lunch Roadie to cheer me on. The first night at 2am, a sprinkler accidentally went off underneath her tent soaking all of her belongings. Though she had the excuse she needed to go home, my mom persevered and even garnished herself with something rainbow everyday. On the 107 mile century into King City , she waited for me at the finish line and started a group cheer when I arrived only minutes in front of the last cyclist. Injured, in pain, and riding with only one leg, I burst into tears when I saw her. “I knew you weren’t going to be on that sag bus” my mother told me. I would have never believed that she would unexpectedly die of a heart attack four months later.

Every year I honor my mother with the Lifecycle. I leave a Lifecycle bandanna every year on Day 1 at her mausoleum off Highway 35. Her belief that I would avoid the sag wagon if I keep pedaling continues to inspire me no matter how hard the challenges. Our week on the Lifecycle made me appreciate the support my mom gave me as her lesbian daughter. The grief of the loss of my mother fed my passion to work in the AIDS community where people celebrate life and live with loss.

Being an HIV social worker at San Francisco General Hospital is sometimes more daunting than riding my bike across the state. Witnessing the health issues, poverty, and addictions that people struggle with can sometimes cause me to want to stop pedaling and hitch a ride on the sag bus. The Lifecycle instills in me a sense of energy and hope because people take care of one another and nobody stands alone. Every cyclist gets to feel supported with cheers as they cross the finish line. If we could replicate the AIDS Lifecycle community in San Francisco , we could eradicate AIDS.

The year after my mom died, I gave up cycling for a year because it was too painful a memory. The next year when I returned to Lifecycle training, I met a woman, Jennifer, on a training ride at the Orinda BART station. Little did I know she would be my life partner and we’ve been cycling together ever since. This year we are going to participate as Roadies. Understanding the brevity of life, we’ve decided to make our dreams happen by quitting our nine to five jobs and embarking on a round the world trip.

Looking at our world map to plan our itinerary, we both agreed that the Lifecycle should symbolically kick start our year long journey. I know that my mom would want me to keep on pedaling and making a difference in my community.

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4 Responses

  1. I can’t imagine how hard time it was for you, but I can imagine how strong and optimistic you are. Luckly, there’s one more person who understands you, cares about you and supports you in the worid.

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