Coming Out – Chapter 1

Introduction here

Coming out in seventh grade?  I can scarcely imagine coming out in my early teens, but it seems that more and more young people in America are recognizing and vocalizing their sexual identity at an ever-earlier age.  The NY Times Sunday Magazine did an in-depth story on this interesting phenomenon in late September.

The author of the article, who is also gay, had a hard time believing that people as young as 12 and 13 could possibly be self-aware enough to recognize their attraction to people of the same sex.  But, as he pointed out, he was engaging in a double standard. When 12 and 13 year-olds express their interest in members of the opposite sex, we don’t think anything about this is odd.  Why then would we think that someone that young couldn’t recognize their attraction to someone of the same sex?

Certainly, at that age I was starting to recognize those attractions in myself, even though I lacked the language to describe them.  Young people these days have a much more positive image of gays and lesbians thanks to increased visibility in the media and the powerful influence of the internet and social networking sites.

If you asked me at what age I first knew I was gay, Continue reading

Who Am I?

“Who am I?”  Meg, a DC-based blogger whose entries I always look forward to, took up the challenge from another blogger a few months back and wrote an entry answering that question.  Finding it an interesting challenge, I sat down and drafted my own answer to the question, “Who am I?”  I’ve never posted the response, but it led me to an interesting observation.  My being gay plays a much larger role in defining who I am than I expected.

2009-10-09Had you asked me before how big a part of my life being gay is, I would have said that it is just a part of who I am, not the whole thing.  While that is still true, I realize that the experience of struggling to come to terms with that aspect of myself has influenced many areas of my life and much of how I look at the world.

Instead of being just one aspect of my life, something that can be neatly segregated from the rest in the way that a divided cafeteria tray keeps the jell-o salad away from the enchilada casserole, my gayness is a theme that underlies my life, much in the same way that the saltiness of fish sauce provides a critical but subtle note of flavor in nearly all Thai dishes.

Sexual orientation as condiment?  It is either a brilliant metaphor or a crass one; I’ll let you decide.  Regardless, because it is such an underlying aspect of my life, I want to share a story with you.  I want to tell you my coming out story.

Coming out stories are something of a currency within the gay culture.  Being attracted to someone of the same sex, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily the criterion that makes for a cohesive community.  But the nearly universal experience of recognizing your difference and then blindly finding a path through the darkness to the closet door is a common theme for all of us, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

Another blogger to whom I subscribe recently wrote that he doesn’t see why gay people need to announce that they are gay.  From his perspective, straight people don’t announce they are straight.  Why can’t we all be who we are, without having to share it with the world?  While I agree with his goal – universal acceptance – I disagree with his premise that straight people don’t announce they are straight.  There are markers aplenty that send the message that you are straight, from wedding rings to photos of your spouse on your cubicle wall.  When you are in the closet, you have to use fake markers or deception in order to avoid sending out unintended messages.  It can be stressful and tiring to constantly undertake such subterfuge.

Over the next few days, I’ll share my coming out story in the course of four chapters.  People who read this blog who know me personally have heard some parts of this story.  Few, I suspect, have heard the whole thing.  Among other readers, these next four chapters may provoke a wide range of feelings and reactions.  Some readers have had very little exposure to gay people.  Others have different attitudes than I about the rightness of homosexuality.  Others are still, to one degree or another, in the closet.  I look forward to discussing your feelings and reactions and invite you to share them.

Meanwhile, thank you for indulging me as I share this story and take a short break for cooking, travel and Thai culture entries.

Part 1 of the story begins here.

Del Martin – Honoring the Life of an Amazing Pioneer

There are people in this world whose work and life have positively affected our own, often in ways we may not realize, about whom we may not know.  On Wednesday, we lost an amazing person, Del Martin, at age 87.

Del Martin Described as a “pioneering lesbian rights activist”, Martin married 83-year old Phyllis Lyon, her partner of fifty-five years, in a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on June 16, 2008 – the the first day on which same-sex marriage was legal in the state of California.

Right: Del Martin (in purple) and Phyllis Lyon are married on June 16.  Photo “courtesy” AP.

The label, though, could cause many of us who are not lesbians to mistakenly think her pioneering work did not affect our lives.  Rest assured, though, her tireless work resulted in greater freedoms, protections, and equality for all citizens of the United States.

The California Supreme Court decision in May of this year, striking down a law that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, came about as a result of a lawsuit filed by Martin and Lyon and two dozen other couples.  Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said, “We would not have marriage equality in California if it weren’t for Del and Phyllis.  They fought and triumphed in many battles.”

Martin and Lyon were involved in founding a San Francisco social group for lesbians in 1955 called the Daughters of Bilitis.  It became the nation’s first lesbian advocacy organization and one of the earliest groups to address the rights of queer people.

In the 1970s, Martin became the first out lesbian to serve on the National Organization of Women’s board of directors, a move that was highly controversial as NOW was concerned that her presence would be seen as too radical at a time when homosexuality was still seen by many as a deviant practice.

In just a few short months, the rights and equality Del Martin worked so hard for, will one again be challenged as California voters face a yes or no decision on proposition eight: “Change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.” 

As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who officiated at Martin and Lyon’s wedding, said, “The greatest way we can honor the life work of Del Martin, is to continue to fight and never give up, until we have achieved equality for all.”

Thank you to Del Martin for a lifetime of service to humanity, and the deepest condolences to her partner of so many years, Phyllis Lyon.

 

Saturday Evening

First off, apologies to the Xanga friends to whom I’m subscribed.  The first six days of my trip have been so busy that I am very behind on reading and commenting on your entries.  I’ll get back into the groove.

Spoke with Tawn this afternoon and he arrived in Verona in one piece as did his parents.  They went this evening to the house of their hosts, the Mamones, whose daughter is getting married this Saturday.  When I called Tawn, he was inside a shop and just stepping out.  “Arrivederci!” he said.  Cute, huh?

 

Updates

Before I write about Saturday evening, let me embed two videos I shot Friday evening at Martuni’s in SF.  Both are of Anne Marie singing.  The first is of “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning” from Annie Get Your Gun and the second is of “Close to You” by the Carpenters.  Video quality is doubly poor: bad light and then a lot of compression.  Add to that a lot of ambient noise.  But it will give you an idea of AM’s wonderful voice and the fun we had.

And now, on to our show…

After returning from the East Bay on Saturday afternoon, I ran some errands to check off the shopping list.  Last stop: REI at Eighth and Brennan.  Inconvenient location for transit access and I ended up walking all the way back to Anita’s house at Church and Market.  You quickly come to realize that walking on hills uses different leg muscles than walking the flat streets of Khrungthep.  My shins were aching!

Below: Walking past the San Francisco mint, where your coins come from.

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No sooner had I returned home and freshened up then I had to head out to meet Chris and his new boyfriend Rob for dinner at Catch, a seafood restaurant in the Castro.  For years I have lamented the general lack of good dining in the Castro and Catch proved to be a nice exception to that perception.

Below: The intersection of Market and Castro Streets, ground zero of the gay community in SF, on a very cool and overcast early evening.

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Chris and I met on the CalTrain commuter rail in the days when I regularly commuted to Mountain View to conduct training classes.  It turned out that he lived just down the street from Anita and me (Tawn was also living with us at that time before he moved into his own place near USF) and he quickly became a special person in our lives. 

Below: Chris and Rob in front of City Hall.

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It was especially nice to see him again and after dinner, the three of us headed to the Herbst Theatre in the Civic Center to see GAPA Runway.  GAPA is the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, an organization dedicated to furthering the interests of gay and bisexual Asian/Pacific Islanders by creating awareness, developing a positive collective identity, and by establishing a supportive community.

Below: Me in front of City Hall.  how come I’m so much smaller than Chris and Rob?

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Runway, an event that can best be explained as the annual Miss GAPA and Mister GAPA pageant, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.  It is a fun time and I ran into many friends, several of whom I have not seen in many years.  I also understand that several other Xangans and boyfriends of Xangans were there.  Just a reminder of how tightly knit the community is.

Below: Jordan, Wilford, me and Jordan’s sister Angel.  Jordan was Mr GAPA 2006 and, as such, was both in full costume and also a judge.  Wilford was dressed in something classier but less flashy.  Angel flew up for the event from Arizona.  What a supportive sister!

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The event ran on quite long.  Longer, in fact, than the Miss America pageant.  There were many creative participants and a good time was had by all.  Sadly, by the time it wrapped up, I didn’t have the energy to go to the after party.

To give you some idea of what the event was like, here are a couple of videos from YouTube.  I didn’t take or post these, so no speaking to the quality or how risque they are.

 

Another busy day of vacation filled up! 

 

Rak Haeng Siam Resonates

poster2am0 I’ve been sitting on this entry for two months, waiting for the right opportunity to write it.  This entry is about the Thai movie Rak Haeng Siam (Love of Siam), a drama/romance/coming of age story that was a bit of a surprise hit here in Thailand back in November and December.  As with all movies here, it came and went quickly and – with the exception of a “Director’s Cut” that has been sold out for weeks in advance exclusively at the House RCA cinema – it is out of the consciousness of most Thai moviegoers.

The movie really struck a chord with some moviegoers, particularly the gay men, as it told a story that we rarely see: that of teenagers who are wrestling with their sexual identities.  After watching the 200-minute director’s version of the film on Monday, I’m ready to write about this movie.  Apologies in advance if this post is lengthy.

Introduction

Love of Siam is two stories: that of the friendship and budding love of two secondary school boys, and that of the disintegration of one of the boy’s family, the result of the disappearance of his older sister on a family trip to Chiang Mai a few years earlier.

It is a notable film on many counts:

  • As a drama, it is a rarity in Thai cinema, filled as it is with audiences who prefer dumb comedies, ghost stories, and dumb comedic ghost stories. 
  • At two-and-a-half hours in length, the film is almost twice the length of the average Thai film, pushing the attention span of most Thai moviegoers. 
  • As a film that treats the gay characters in the story sympathetically, it stands apart from the frequent depiction of gays in Thai culture as either transsexuals, effeminate queens, or effeminate transsexual queens. 
  • As a depiction of a family of Thai Christians, it is probably the first Thai film ever to have a Christmas nativity scene.
  • Finally, it addresses issues of teenage gays – something that is rarely addressed in the cinema of any country.

 

The Main Storyline

love of siam 9 There are several subplots but the basic story follows the fortunes of two childhood friends, Mew and Tong, who are neighbors in their primary school years.  Tong and his parents move away after Tong’s sister Tang goes missing on a trip to Chiang Mai, leading his father into an alcoholic depression and his family into disintegration.  Mew and Tong cross paths again during their senior year in secondary school.  This meeting rekindles old feelings and the two are left to sort out what these feelings mean, especially against the conflict of Tong’s family situation.

If you want to read the plot in greater detail, I’ve included it at the bottom of this entry.  Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to watch the movie for yourself.  I’m under the impression that the director is actively seeking distribution internationally and I’m sure it will play in at least some film festivals and maybe art cinemas in some of the larger cities.

 

Impact in Thailand

This film was a modest success – number one opening week, number two the second week, and then falling off from there.  As the director’s third commercial film, and a huge departure from the more mainstream films he did before, it caught everyone by surprise.  The advertising – both the poster and the trailer – didn’t play up the gay aspect of the story, to which the director later admitted that they wanted to get a bigger audience than they would have had they been as up front about the plot.

Here’s the trailer.  Even though it is in Thai, I think you’ll agree after watching it that it leaves the orientation of the main characters’ love in question.

There was a great deal of talk on message boards and elsewhere in Thailand about this film.  Equally loud were those who were moved by the film and those who felt duped by it.

10861439_gal For some of the audience, particularly the gay men, this film spoke to their experiences in a way that nothing else they’ve ever seen has.  One of Kobfa’s friends sobbed through the entire film, his family experience (minus the missing sister) is so close to the one depicted in the movie.  Tawn said afterwards that it was filled with touchstones of his coming-of-age experience: hanging out at Siam Square; sharing an ice cream sundae at Swenson’s with the guy he had a crush on; having chaste affairs in which holding hands for a few moments was as intimate as things would get.

Judging by the crowds at the different screenings I attended, there is a new generation of young gay men in their secondary school and university years, who are growing up with at least this one image of their experience being shown in the media.  Someone who looks like them, some life that looks similar to their own, now is validated in the popular culture.  It exists!  They exist!

 

The Impact on Me

Of course, the story has greater relevance than just in Thailand.  While I grew up in a completely different culture, the film still resonates deeply with me.  I recall the crushes I had in secondary school, the boys my age for whom I had feelings that I couldn’t find the words for.  “Respect”, “admiration”… these were the impotent ways in which I tried to rationalize what I felt.

I remember taking a field trip with one of the school organizations and in a hotel room with three other students, shared a bed with one of the boys I felt so strongly about.  Lying just a matter of inches away and wanting so badly to reach out to him, but not being able to – that memory jumped back to life when watching this movie, a memory so vivid of an emotion so strong: feeling love but not being able to name it.

To this day, whenever I see young people including my friends’ children and my own two nieces, I wonder if they will be able to grow up feeling confident enough, loved enough, to be whoever they are and to feel love for whomever they do, without feeling afraid and unable to name it.  It is one thing to love someone in an unrequited fashion – a theme addressed in a subplot of the movie – and quite another thing to have a love that may be shared but be unable to speak it, possibly even unable to know the words necessary to describe it to yourself let alone to the person for whom you feel those feelings.

Watching Love of Siam was particularly powerful for me, because I didn’t grow up with any reference points or role models on which to base my feelings.  Despite having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have any recollection of seeing a gay person or a gay character anywhere, anytime before I graduated from secondary school.  Certainly, by the point when I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most of the boys, I didn’t have the vocabulary available to me to understand those differences.  To that standpoint, I am envious of the gay boys growing up in Khrungthep.  At least now they have Love of Siam to help put words to those feelings, if indeed they were in need of a vocabulary – which I suspect they aren’t.

I know there have been some other films (including a German one, I recall) that addressed gay teens in the storyline.  But surely in a world where many people are underrepresented, gay teens are highest among those, since they cut across both sexes and all religions, races and countries.  Hopefully for more young people who are struggling with who they are, there will be images that positively validate that they are okay.  (I’m sure the fundamentalists will love that.  Glad I’m not running for elective office.)

 

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, wanting more details, or realizing that you might never get a chance to see it, I offer you a more detailed plot summary.  Warning: This contains spoilers.

The Plot in Greater Detail – Warning: Spoilers

love of siam 02 Mew (below right) is the child who is picked on at school, his classmates having already identified him as likely being gay even in his primary school years.  Artistic and musically inclined, Mew’s grandmother is his best friend and she teaches him to play a song that his grandfather used to play on the piano for her, and tells him that she hopes that someday he will love someone so much that he writes a song for them.

Tong (below left) and his sister are Mew’s upstairs neighbors.  At first, Mew shies away from them, but then one day at school Tong comes to Mew’s defense when he is cornered in a toilet by tormentors, clubbing the bullies with a plunger pulled from one of the toilet stalls.  As a result, Tong winds up with a black eye and a bloody nose.

love of siam 03  love of siam 06

A friendship develops between the two boys and after Tong’s family goes to Chiang Mai on holiday, Tong returns with a gift for Mew, a wooden Christmas doll composed of several pieces.  Following a family tradition started by his father, Tong hides the different parts giving Mew written clues to find them.  Alas, when they arrive at the location of the last part – the doll’s nose – the tree in which it has been hidden has been pruned and the branches are being carted away.  Nonetheless, the doll takes pride of place on Mew’s desk.

While on the family trip, Tong’s sister Tang receives permission to spend a few extra days in Chiang Mai with her friends.  When the extra days comes and go and there is no word from her, Tong’s parents return north to search for her, not returning in time for Tong’s Catholic school Christmas pageant.  Tong’s  parents ask him to stay at Mew’s for a few nights while they search for Tang.

During these few nights, Tong prays for his sister each night before going to bed, sleeping next to Mew.  His eyes wet with tears, Tong turns to Mew for comfort that everything will be all right.

LOS 14 In the weeks that follow, Mew is Tong’s support as there is still no sign of Tang.  As the months pass, Tong’s family begins to disintegrate as his parents blame each other for allowing Tang to stay with her friends.  Tong’s father begins to drink heavily and ends the ritual of mealtime prayers, having lost his faith.

Finally, Tong’s family moves away from the neighborhood, leaving Mew heartbroken at the loss of his friend.

(As a side note, this is where the opening credit roll.  See – it is a long movie!)

 

Flash forward about five years.  Both boys are in different secondary school.  Tong’s family situation has continued to get worse, his father now lying about all day, drinking whisky and not eating any food.  Tong looks to be a typical – read, “straight” – teenager with a perfect girlfriend that the other boys envy, but he doesn’t seem much interested in their relationship, to her chagrin.

Across town, Mew’s grandmother has long since passed on.  He has become a gifted musician and is the singer and songwriter for a band of classmates called August (he is third from the left in the lower left-hand picture).  Mew is also the object of an unrequited crush from Ying (below right – with pictures of Mew all over her walls), the girl who now lives in the house where Tong once lived.

LOS 11  10861441_gal

Mew and Tong meet unexpectedly at Siam Square (below – Mew is left and Tong is right), an outdoor shopping area that is ground zero for Khrungthep’s youth culture.  They exchange phone numbers and begin hanging out together, rekindling their childhood friendship and – for Mew – rekindling stronger feelings that inspire him to begin writing new songs.

LOS 17 LOS 12

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(Side note – the above scene, along with two or three others in the Director’s Cut, were shot in the box office lobby of the lovely Scala Cinema, a classic 1960s theatre about which I wrote in this entry.)

Mew’s band is assigned a new manager, June, who is the spitting image of Tong’s lost sister, Tang.  Tong and his mother conspire to hire June to play the role of Tang, in an effort to rouse Tong’s father out of his depression.  For a time this seems to work and everyone is happy again.

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At a party to celebrate Tang’s homecoming, Mew’s band performs a new song – Gan Le Gan (essentially, “You and I Together”) with the opening line sung with Mew looking directly at Tong (a look not unnoticed by June – above right with Tong), “If I’m telling you that this song was written for you, would you believe me?”  After the party, Mew and Tong share a kiss in the backyard that is seen by Tong’s mother.  In the director’ version of this film, there is a shot of a few minutes later when Tong escorts Mew to a waiting taxi.  They are reluctant to say goodnight to each other, in the love-struck sort of way that you would expect from any two people who had just shared their first, oh so innocent kiss.

LOS 13 Worrying about her son, Tong’s mother forbids him from seeing Mew.  But Tong leaves home one night anyhow, leaving his phone and spending the night at Mew’s. 

Unable to get hold of Tong and spending the night driving around searching for him, Tong’s mother is further worried.  The next day she visits Mew and confronts him, explaining that Mew’s lifestyle is not what she has in the cards for Tong.  Mew insists they are just friends, but complies with her wishes.  Mew’s secret admirer Ying overhears this conversation and is heartbroken.

Tong keeps trying to get hold of Mew but Mew won’t answer his calls.  At the same time, Tong’s girlfriend pressures him about his inattentiveness while his family situation turns bad again as his father is diagnosed with severe medical problems brought on by his drinking. 

10862650_gal Ying consoles Tong after his friends ask him whether the reason he isn’t seeing his girlfriend is because he’s gay.  While they are together, he sees another of the Christmas dolls and Ying convinces the toy shop owner to give her only the nose piece, left.

Tong finds himself caught on all sides and in a scene where he and his mother are cheerlessly decorating a Christmas tree, he asks her in not so many words to let him make his own choice, represented by two decorations – one of a woman and the other of a man.  “Just choose one!” she shouts.  “But whatever one I choose, you won’t be happy with me!” he replies.  She tells him that whatever choice he makes is okay.

June makes plans to leave the family, the unfolding story still leaving some question as to whether she might not in fact be the missing daughter.  She leaves a note to Tong’s mother, telling her that they’ll be all right.

Having cut himself off from Tong, Mew finds his well of songwriting inspiration has dried up and his band members are on the verge of mutiny, about to replace him with a backup singer. 

Tong agrees to meet his girlfriend for a date in Siam Square on Christmas Eve.  Mew and his band are performing a concert there and when Tong sees Mew on a video screen and hears him start to sing the song Gan Le Gan, he realizes what he has to do. 

10861437_gal  love of siam 8

He apologizes to his girlfriend and tells her that he can’t be her boyfriend anymore.  Then he runs to the concern, meeting Ying there, to watch.  Mew sees them in the crowd.

After the concert, Tong approaches Mew to give him a Christmas present – the missing nose piece from the wooden doll that Mew still has on his desk.  Tong tells Mew that he can’t be his boyfriend, but that he will always love him.  With that, they part ways.  

The movie ends with Mew at home, putting the final piece onto the doll, crying, wiping his eyes, and saying “thank you” out loud.

 

Conclusion

The ending was good, if a little disappointing as I was cheering for Mew and Tong to end up together.  Talking with friends, the general consensus was that Tong – despite his mother telling him he could choose for himself – still felt the pressure of family obligations over his feelings for Mew.  Leaving us all to wonder… could there be a Rak Haeng Siam 2?