claiming self and sexuality
by 伊凌 yi ling
I’ve been experiencing a push to be more out and laying claim with less fear to my experience in recent months. Being outed during the elections made me realized that if I operated in fear/denial by omission, my sexuality would and could be used against me. And then there was the incredibly dissatisfying experience with being with someone who wanted to hide our relationship, for a multitude of reasons, but one being the fact that she was with a girl. I didn’t want to give another person the same experience of inauthenticity if they were with me, so I began to open myself up to telling people about my orientation. After all, other people’s judgement couldn’t change me; I am who I am. I didn’t need to judge myself though. And as I’ve lessened the self-hiding, I’ve continued to live the truth that my mother taught me: be happy with yourself, be truthful, but don’t be all about yourself. No one, including myself, is the center of my life. Jeez, it sounds so much better in mandarin. But to share about how this growing self-expression came to be…(the following is not comprehensive by any means)
Coming out to my family has been a turbulent and curious journey. My biggest obstacle has always been myself though. For so long, it seemed easier to deny or evade understanding sexuality. It started around 6th grade, when my friend L announced that she was “bi-sexual”. I reported this announcement at dinner and my father promptly slammed his palm down on the table. “You are not allowed to be friends with L! That is sick and you are forbidden to associate with diseased people like that!” My mother said nothing. I ignored my father’s outburst for the most part and continued to evade questions around sexuality in general.
I didn’t tell my parents that I was miffed by how all these girls at school were so unified in their attraction for the sporty, blonde boy D. When I willed myself to pay attention to him, in order to maybe discover the reason for such fan-girling, I found myself drawn to his quiet, brown haired friend M. M was also an athletic guy, but to me it was his keenness and quieter way of pursuing excellence on and off the field that made him interesting to me. I liked the way he was ok with leading and following, and the way he wore his crewneck. What drew me to him were non-gender specific qualities, so I remained confused why all the girls gushed over D and his “boy” characteristics. I would just enjoy observing M when I saw him or had class with him. This was satisfying and I really didn’t know what else to do with my happiness when I saw him.
Then in 8th grade, I suddenly had butterflies when I practiced with my doubles partner B. She was tall, hapa, got great grades, a brilliant double-sport athlete, beautiful and incredibly kind. At first I simply tried to write it off as a “I admire her” but that justification quickly fell apart. I realized that I wanted to be physically closer and I didn’t blush and stammer when I was around friends or other folks I admired. So I fumbled with these feelings and went to my parents, still hoping they would be able to help me understand. My father, predictably, called me “disturbed” and said that I would never be allowed to practice with B again. “Next time you play her, you better beat her soundly and then never be drawn into these foolish and sick ideas.” Crushed that I would never be able to see B again for practice, I remember next lying in my bed next to my mom, trying to tell her how I felt for B with less conviction, as if that might warrant a lesser reaction. My mom just said “Stop thinking–you’re making something out of nothing. Thoughts are not always real.” So the message I got was “be silent and don’t speak of this again.”
(I did see B again, who seemed completely thrown that I suddenly started avoiding her at all costs. It wasn’t fun, but I didn’t know what to say with my father hovering right next to me at all the tennis tournaments.)
Anyways, returning to Taiwan actually ended up being a freeing year for me, in many ways, one of those ways being around sexuality. (I’m noticing a trend here, maybe I do have a type…athletic brunettes who are taller and older) In high school, there was a whole subculture of acknowledging girls, especially athletes, could pull off androgyny with more swag than boys. So it was less stigmatized to be a tomboy or to be physically close to other girls. Holding hands, what not. That year though, my major crush was something that developed over months with this boy Lee, who’s kindness, intelligence and athleticism and leadership (again, non-gender specific qualities) drew me. Nothing much came out of it other than months of flirting and “ai-mei”. A sweet memory nonetheless. Especially the part where he snuck me a cellphone just to be able to text me, but then I sucked at typing in Chinese and his English wasn’t so good so it was more of a valiant effort than much else.
Then Wellesley. So an auntie today asked me if going to a women’s college “made me date women.” I can easily refute that assumption. Actually, going to Wellesley was a period where I avoided dating altogether, for a couple of reasons I’ve been consciously aware of. One, I was so eager to get away from my family’s dysfunctional dynamics. My parents were on the verge of a divorce for many years and it set in motion once I left for college. I knew I inherited that dysfunction and very little terrified me as much as the possibility of doing to others what I saw my parents do to one another. I also knew I didn’t know how else to be, so I needed to sort myself out first. The initial goal was to “get rid of all my emotional baggage.” Then I realized that would never happen and that everyone had some baggage. So then I resolved to learn how to be responsible for my own baggage. How I wasn’t sure, but I would find a way before really getting into dating because again–fear of intimacy and hurting another. It was fear and responsibility mixed, and I could not call any of that noble, but I understand and appreciate my thinking now looking back.
The 2nd reason I avoided dating throughout college was being raped by a guy and a girl the summer after 1st year. I got drunk, submitted to peer pressure to skinny dip, and these 2 decided that that would be a great time to “teach this snooty virgin a lesson and bring her down a few pegs.” Unfortunately, the adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” holds true in a twisted way. They forced my body into sexual acts, forced them on me, but I, despite freezing and being completely in shock and terror as it happened, only learned the lie that sex=domination and punishment. Virginity to me still signified the worth of a woman, only now I was worthless. I woke up the next morning crying and in pain, haunted by what happened and suddenly feeling completely broken and shattered about who I was. Later I got drunk again to attempt to dull the coursing shame that seemed to pulse out of my clit (that my rapist had, in his sexual expertise, bitten). Another guy came onto me, and in that emotional cocktail of shame and self-directed fury, it made sense to let myself being punished. (But somehow the vestiges of virginal concepts of dignity and worth held on–neither good nor bad–but I insisted that no penis in vagina sex would happen.) Anyways, were it not for K, the woman who interrupted the rape or A who listened to me and told me it was indeed not my fault and it was “rape”, I would be in a much more dire situation for much longer.
Still, it would be 3 years before I’d begin revisiting and naming the assault for what it was.
When I returned to college, my response to it was to avoid all questions of sexuality and funnel the energy that I could’ve used for healing into work, work, work. Detour for a moment here. I’ve thought a great deal about that question (which Charles M. Blow in the NYTimes essay “Up from Pain” articulates perfectly) whether it is trauma that leads to one becoming LGBT or perhaps it is that predators can sense the insecurity LGBT kids feel within themselves and thus prey on them. I initially believed in the former logic, and feared that being raped by both a guy and a girl (they planned it mutually and initiated it together, though most of the assault was physically carried out by a guy), was the sole cause for my being numbed towards men and “twistedly” and voraciously attracted to wounded girls with the sad eyes and turbulent emotions. In truth, the reasons for these attractions and non-attractions were more complex than being rooted in any single event. The fact that I still held a generally fearful attitude towards any and all attractions was unhealthy. Rather than noticing I was drawn to what would reflect where I was in my journey and simply observe that, I fought desire as if desire itself was a sin and unacceptable. I careened between craving and aversion, with little peace and incredible amounts of fear.
And I tussled with these questions internally, there was also a cultural fissure and disagreement I had with the visible and quite white performance of queerness I saw at Wellesley. Suffice to say that I didn’t see myself in the folks who were so loud about their sexuality. To me, sexuality was something sacred still and in Taiwan’s culture, what was sacred was known and held quietly, not something thrown around in people’s faces and talked about to exhaustion.
I never dated at Wellesley, frankly because I was never ready. Though I did form many ambiguous, emotionally intense relationships that I was not ready to name as “a relationship” and the responsibilities that would entail. I still had to realize that I was actually physically attractive, not just resume-sexy. (Yes there is a whooooole other essay to be written about my period of “resume crushing.”) So no, going to a women’s college does not “gay you up” but if you’re open to it, you learn just the fact that people, of all orientations, are delightful, brilliant, capable, kind, neurotic, human and funnily hangry at 3 am.
Oh yes, but in regards to claiming self and sexuality, the healing nature of living and time took it’s course. 2 years after the assault, after an incredibly droll period of numbness (apart from a confusing friendship/whatever the heck relationship I had with a gorgeously tortured scorpio), I fell in consuming, roiling lust for a producer I met in nyc. There was a salvation I found in feeling desire again, a signal to me that human-ness/this body still functioned after all that trauma. The combination of fear, nascent ineptitude/lack of practice and a sense of responsibility (how I defined it at the time: do no harm and if you aren’t sure this will not harm, do nothing) put the brakes on any wild actions other than a fumbling confession of my attraction. Practice does make for improvement though: the next person I told I liked went out on a date with me. And he was wonderful and charming, but just too busy to pursue anything further with.
The work of clarity, first and foremost for myself about myself, took a lot of time. For one, there are not a lot of stories or examples out there I readily identified with. I wrestled with the societal perception of people who were attracted to more than one gender. Bisexual people are so often ignored/trivialized as slutty anything-goes tropes in mainstream media. I didn’t see in these examples someone I wanted to become. If anything, it intensified my desire to be someone clear and committed, especially in matters of sexuality and dating to avoid becoming this trope of the slutty bisexual. I certainly did not go around seeing all people as “available for sexual encounters.” People were people, and gender was something I noticed, but didn’t draw nor repel me from someone. And for me, since attraction didn’t fall neatly along gender divisions, I learned through self-observation that not all attractions were sexual and being drawn to someone could be for a multitude of reasons. And that not all attractions necessarily required action to validate them.
And of course, as a wise cousin once reminded me, love is not convenient, relationships are not convenient, no matter what someone’s gender is. So I figured it would be inauthentic to choose being with a guy if it was simply because “this would be more acceptable in society.” I will be with someone because I love them and the conditions are there to build a healthy union, not choose someone based on convenience.
And language. The fit of english language was always discomfiting to me. It fails to express honestly how I feel the feelings of attraction. My mom and I actually had an interesting exchange about my sexuality and discovered the greatest honesty was somewhere in between languages, between Mandarin and English. I was washing dishes in the summer of 2013 when my mom suddenly asked me, in English,
“So. Are you a lesbian?”
I nearly dropped the plate.
“Ok, are you bisexual?”
I paused and replied in Mandarin.
“No, not really mom. Do you know 雙性戀? Well I think the Mandarin way of saying it is more honest to how I feel attraction. Dual directions of desire. I’m drawn to people for who they are, not just for their gender or sexuality. I’m drawn to people for their integrity, sense of curiousity and humor, responsibility and generosity. If anything, it’s rare for me to feel sexually attracted to someone unless I have a more holistic sense of that person. And isn’t being with someone more of a dynamic thing as Mandarin suggests? We face a direction with our partner, we face our partners, we move with our partner. People are movements in and of themselves, not static points along a scale of sexuality. No one is just their sexuality!”
My mom looked at me. And replied in English.
“Yes, but in term sexual, you are bi-?”
I blinked. And sighed.
“ok, how about let’s start from there and I’ll tell you about how some ways I’ve been drawn to people?”
So I told my mom stories about people I had learned from, discovered myself with and discovered along the way. It was cool, as if we were discovering a word together, developing a meaning/understanding for something between us.
Anyways, there are certainly more discoveries to be made, but I’ve been feeling compelled to write down these ideas as I write my book.