I wrote this essay four years ago, before I moved to New York City–to attend art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Since in a couple weeks I’ll be graduating Pratt, and in a couple months I’ll be making my first trip (and my mom’s first trip since escaping) to Vietnam, I thought it’d be appropriate to post the essay to the Gay Men Project, since in many ways it explains the motivation behind all of my work.
Originally written in August, 2009
“One night in 1981 my mom got in a fishing boat. It was rickety I’m sure. I imagine the wood was rotting, the paint was flaking, patterns were left as the coating began to peel, and chip, and crack. The swelter of the South East Asian heat. By any standards, not a safe vessel. It had a motor, but definitely not anything any rational minded person would feel safe using for a voyage across the South China Sea. But, funny thing, when you’ve spent the day hiding in tall grasses, waiting for the night, the dark, about to flee a country–a life, the only life you’ve ever known–rationality tends to be trumped by fear, fear by desperation, and desperation by the only way to make it through it all–hope. So my mom, with two young daughters and pregnant with me, got in that fishing boat with a couple dozen other refugees and headed out into the water. Headed out towards that hope.
That’s the story of my mother. The night she fled Vietnam. Not too long after my own story would begin—born in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a small four walled wooden structure my first home. I would live in that refugee camp for eight months, before spending a childhood growing up amongst the mud puddles and fir trees of Oregon, and then a young adulthood exploring zip codes outside 97236.
Having been fortunate enough to have been raised in this country, for almost my entire life, it’s easy for me to mistake my circumstance as something that just is–something that just happened, not meriting much recognition because it has just been a given that I really do believe I can accomplish anything I want in life.
But nothing just is. My life–the opportunities I have been given–every door that has been opened for me and every window cracked, are things that have been fought for. It’s all a testament to my mother, a woman who went through so much just to get me to this country, to give me opportunities, to save me from the desperation and fear she felt in a life she once had.
And because of that my goal is simple. I want to make her proud. Yes, I have specific goals. I want to move to New York, I want to go to a fine art school. I want to be a writer. I want to be a photographer. I want to find and share stories like that of my mother. I want to fight for my right to marry. But ultimately what motivates me, is the conscious acknowledgement of every opportunity that has been given to me, not just by my mother, but by everyone in my life who has ever contributed in some way to the person I’ve become. I’ve made a commitment to make good on all the fortunes I’ve been given and do my best to not just to take, but to give as well. Because I know that to do otherwise would in many ways be a spit in the face of everyone who’s ever took the effort to love, care, and support me in the hopes of what can be.
And there have been many who have taken the effort to love, care, and support me in the hopes of what I can be.”
You are a mothers dream come true! My dreams have always been for you to be HAPPY, HEALTHY, SELF RELIANT, SAFE AND …. SURROUNDED BY LOVING FRIENDS! You have managed to do all this, your whole life, AND SO MUCH MORE! You never cease to amaze me! You truly are an inspiration Austin. I know I haven’t been very open with my feelings about you being gay, but I want you to know how very proud of you I am. To be as strong as you are and LIVE YOUR LIFE as a HAPPY, HEALTHY, SELF RELIANT and SAFE person, surrounding yourself with loving friends………… See? You ARE making my dreams come true!
I’ve always told you that I wish I had a friend like you when I was growing up…. How did I get so blessed to actually have you for my son AND friend? You have taught me SO MUCH! I can honestly say, I look up to you. (not only because you are much taller than me…. Ha!) But because of your strength, determination, great personality, the wisdom you hold is way beyond your years…., the amazing relationship you and Larissa have (melts my heart), your intelligence (WOW), your zest for life, exploring, traveling, learning and growing….etc…….every single day of your entire life!
I am so thankful for you Austin. You have made an extremely important difference in my life and I know with every new step you have taken in your journeys, you have made a difference in so many other lives as well. Thank you for being such an inspiration…..
With all my love forever and always, Mom
This story is just for Kevin, my son, because he asked me to write about my opinion of him being a gay man. This is a difficult subject for me and very sensitive to Kevin. However, to make him happy, I agreed to write a short story for him
Kevin was born as a beautiful boy in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur in a hot summer of 1982, after I had escaped Vietnam in a fishing boat with my two small daughters. We later were transported to a camp in the Philippines when he was a few months old. He was so cute and chubby looking, so every time I carried him outside, the neighbors in the refugee camp would ask me if they could hold him. He was such a precious boy to me and his young two sisters. In those days, I was a young woman with my three small children and lived peacefully in a refugee camp after beating the odds of survival in the open sea. Kevin was taken care of by his 10 year-old sister in the refugee camp while I attended daily a half day of classes about the new culture in our soon to be new country of America. This was a requirement by the US government, as a culture shock might occur to us if we did not prepare for that.
We arrived to the USA in Feb 19th 1983, and Kevin was only eight months old, along with his two sisters, each of them were separated by five years of age respectively. It was not easy for me as a single mom with three small children in a new country. Being busy with schedules of work, ESL school, school homework, shopping, driving classes etc. I did not pay attention or have much time for my children, because I was always tired or exhausted from work and chores. They very much grew up by themselves, and their behaviors were influenced by their peers. Kevin grew up surrounded by three woman, me and his two sisters. There was not a figure of a man as a father to him. No man there to teach him to play sport or teach him how to grow up to be a man. I always thought that my son would be normal like every one else when he grew up. Never in my mind did it occur that he would be different. He always came with friends who were beautiful teenage girls in the neighborhood or from his school. I always saw him with beautiful girl friends.
Until one fall day when he was at home after serving in the Americorp Volunteer program in Orange County, CA when he was twenty-five. He told me, “Mom I have something to tell you, but you have to be calm.” So I started to get nervous, and asked him what was it about. Then he told me that he was gay. I could not believe what I heard, had I heard wrong? Or maybe he tried to pull my leg. But he already spilled it out, and his face was serious. His words were clear, and I had never had a problem of hearing before. So my son stood tall because he did not want to hide from his mother. He wanted to come out of a closet. I did not recall what my feelings were at that moment. Yes, I was disappointed, and was in fear of him being different. I had read news one time of a guy named Matthew who was killed by a hatred group. I knew that the society was prejudiced towards the gay group, and religion condemned their sins.
For me my mind went blank. What is gay? Does it make any difference, as he is always my son, and he is still the same Kevin by look, his body did not shrink an inch, his mind is still smart, his talent is still there. I just tried to forget what he told me and went on with my daily routine. I thought to myself whatever made him happy, that’s what mattered.
He has only one life to live, as not many people would live past 100 years. So what Kevin is gay? To calm myself I theorized that at least he would not fuss around with women, then impregnate them and then have to pay child support, or get married then get a divorce, and have children that would suffer. That eased my mind a little, however, I still was disappointed. Who would not want their son to be normal, under the eyes of one’s society?
Sometimes when I lied in bed and thought about Kevin, I would blame myself for not raising him up right. The mystery of Kevin being a gay man was never solved in my mind. I still did not understand what element had made him gay. I remember when he was 15 years old and used to hang out with two pretty teen girls in my neighborhood, and went to the prom with a beautiful young Filipino girl, and had a picture taken with her that was in his room all the time. A few years later, sometimes I saw that girl at the church and she would always ask about Kevin. She liked him so much. I always wished that Kevin would marry that charming Filipino girl. God did not grant me that blessing. There must be a reason. I had many theories about why he became gay. The first one was maybe when I was two months pregnant with Kevin and escaping out of Vietnam in a fishing boat, I may not have had enough nutrients to feed the fetus. Or maybe because Kevin grew up without a man around him, or maybe he hung out with a wrong group. Or there was a curse in my family. So many theories, but I knew I would never find the answers as to the reason. Kevin being a gay man would always be a mystery and maybe it is God’s will.
Today, he asked me, “Mom tell me honestly how do you feel about me being gay.” So I told him, “Why do you want to stir that up, the surface of the lake was flat and smooth, now you want to throw a rock and make bubbles.” I told him that I did not want him to stand up for gay groups, in fear for my son being jeopardized. He said it was important to him, he had a blog site, and people discussed about that, but he is safe.
I told Kevin that if you want my honest opinion, I would tell him that if everyone in the planet was gay then it would be the end because no one would have children. However, God didn’t create it that way, because your group is a small group, and they are like a group of the same type of trees standing strong together under this universe, and they are no different than the other trees. All the trees need the same basic needs for survival. They need water to nutrient them and they want to be recognized by other groups because they were also creations from the same Lord and in the same planet.
I told Kevin that the gay group is harmless to other peoples. You want to live happiness among the same type, for me it should be acceptable. The Lord had his opinion to create this universe. I just hope that society should leave them alone, and not be prejudiced about your group or ever harm them. Like many times I have heard, all men are created equal, so should you be. You should be treated like others. It doesn’t matter if you are gay or not.
I wish that my son should have a happy life and there will not be any obstacle on his career or hatred wherever he wants to go or whatever he wants to do to accomplish the things that he wants to do in his life. As long as he does good things for a society, whatever his private life people should not judge him, let it be the Lord at the day he is called home.
As anyone who has participated in the project knows, to me, as much as this project is about photographs, more important is the opportunity to sit down and have a one on one conversation with these men I’m photographing. In many respects, through these conversations, I’m trying to resolve something within myself with regards to my own identity as a gay man, as I continue the life-long journey of truly defining for me what it means to be gay.
And an issue I’ve often struggled with in this process is reconciling my personal faith with my identification as a gay man. I’ll always have a strong belief in God. And I’ll always identify as a Catholic. Even though I no longer attend mass, there is just something about my Catholic upbringing that has never left me. The few times I’ve randomly wandered into a Catholic church in New York City has always brought me comfort—the imagery of stain glass windows and the very familiar regiment of mass, to me, brings a sentimental quality and familiarity akin to looking through a childhood photo album.
As with everyone, my faith is very personal. And so when I had the opportunity to sit down with a gay Anglican priest when I was in London, I had a lot to say and a lot to ask.
This was one of those conversations that I’ll always remember for the rest of my life. Of course it was a private one, as are all these conversations I’m having for this project, but I hope you enjoy the pictures I’m able to share with you. And I hope on some level, they can bring you some level of comfort and peace, as the entire experience of meeting with Richard did for me.
When I had my first intimate experience with another man, I cried. I left the hotel room of the random stranger I had just randomly hooked up with, he walked me the ten blocks to my car, I got in, he closed the door, and then he waved goodbye. I drove the forty-seven minutes it takes to drive from downtown Portland to Southeast Portland, to my home, to my life, I took a bath for an hour and fifteen minutes that night, and then I curled in a ball on the bathroom floor, gently banged my forehead into the cold grey-blue tile, and cried.
I couldn’t handle it. At that particular moment, at that particular time, I couldn’t handle the disgust, I couldn’t handle the shame, I couldn’t handle the guilt. I felt guilty not only for what I had done, but for who I was.
I was a fag.
It’s a common theme for many gay men, women, and teenagers. A shame and guilt not only for actions, but for feelings, attractions, thoughts. It’s a shame that’s ingrained to the core, and I felt guilty for simply being me. And it was a burden that couldn’t be contained or hid away in some metaphorical all encompassing closet.
After I finished crying that night, I prayed to God to forgive me for my sin, and then I went to bed.
That happened at the end of May, 2002, when I was nineteen. Almost exactly ten years ago to this day.
But of course, I’ll always remember it.
Because really, it is at the core of why I’m doing the Gay Men Project.
Today while I was photographing the Gay Pride parade in New York City, I felt an overwhelming sense of emotion. Doing what I love (photographing) being true to who I am (Gay Pride) in the most amazing city in the world (New York City) I felt such a freedom, I was reminded of all the hard work I’ve had to do to get to the place where I am today.
I don’t feel that shame anymore. I don’t feel that guilt. I can say in all honestly that it’s taken me nearly a decade to get here–a place where I no longer feel a shame and guilt for being gay. A place where whom I love does not need to be hidden in a closet, a place where I can build a camaraderie, a support system, where my love is celebrated by those who truly love me, and a place where I’ve fully reconciled my relationship with God.
This project is personal to me. It is my simple way of celebrating the shared experiences of what it means to me to be a gay man. And I think there’s a pride in that.
Today I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. I felt an overwhelming sense of clarity. And more importantly, I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose. I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.
So I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for joining me along the ride—for participating, for following, for reading. Thank you for your support. I truly value your company, and I hope to take us far.
This is the story of when I first came out to my sixty-year-old Vietnamese mom, five years ago. I originally posted this on September 10, 2007, but I thought it’d be fitting to repost it for the Gay Men Project. I’d love to hear your story coming out too…
Mom, I’m gay.
She looks at me. Lets it register. I honestly don’t remember what she said next, even though I just told her. Maybe something to the effect, “Are you sure?” Ha. Something about my uncle, when he was thirteen he went to an all boys school and thought he was gay, yada yada yada, she read it all in his diary, and she’s telling me now, because now he’s attracted to women, so the point is, maybe I’ll wake up and be attracted to women. I dunno. Don’t remember. How do you feel I ask. Are you ok? Yes, it’s how God made you. God still loves you. I still love you. Just go to church and pray. Live here. Don’t tell anyone. They beat up gay people, society isn’t accepting of certain groups of people. It’s not like that, I assure her. I laugh a little. But what about that guy, in Texas, she says, they murdered him. I’m thinking she’s thinking Matthew Shepherd? I dunno. Don’t go to gay bars, she continues. Those guys sleep around with other guys. You don’t want to get a disease. I do case loads for men, they come in, they’re gay and have HIV. You don’t know that, I tell her. It almost sounds absurd, the presumption. I don’t know, she continues, maybe you were supposed to be a girl. You have a girl face. Ha. She just told me I have a girl face. Ha. Then she goes off about taking birth control, or not taking birth control, I really had no clue what she was talking about, but somehow taking birth control or not taking birth control contributed to my gayness? Dunno. Or the water. She talks about the water, drinking the water in the ocean when she was pregnant with me, fleeing Vietnam in a fishing boat. God made you gay, she continues, point being, then questions herself, mentions a lifestyle, choosing to live it. Nurture vs. nature? Free will vs. predetermination? It doesn’t matter to me, she says, you’re still my son, I still love you. God still loves you. Go to church and pray. I ask, Are you upset? Do you wish you didn’t know? No, I’m glad I know, she says, now I know who you are. Are you embarrassed, ashamed? No, she assures. But she keeps saying it’s abnormal. Finally, I say, it’s not abnormal. It is abnormal, she says, women should like men. Men should like women. It’s how God wants it. But then, in question of herself, God made you gay. God made me gay. You can’t control who you love, I tell her. I love men. It’s a feeling. You can’t control it. You can’t stop it. You can’t turn it off, tell yourself no. You love who you love.
It’s funny, an hour conversation and I can literally see her process it all for the first forty five minutes. You know, see her thinking until she’s finally able to wrap herself around the idea that I’m gay.
Other stuff was said, bottom line, she doesn’t want me to suffer. When I suffer she suffers. I’m still her son and nothings changed.
And an unspoken agreement that we are never to talk of gay sex. she doesn’t understand it, how it works, because she doesn’t watch movies
kisses from New York. ~ kt