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[News M(New York) = reporter/ Soyoung Kyeong] Friday evening, I rode a bus to Vienna, Virginia from New York City. This was the day I’ve been waiting for, circling the date on the calendar since few months back. There would be the first Korean American LGBTQ Seminar under the title of “Us, Together!”
This is the first time for Korean parents of LGBT children in the United States to meet as a coalition, as opposed to individual activism. What will the meeting be like? What stories will we find? With excitement and anticipation, I boarded the bus that ran nonstop for 5 hours.
It was later than 11pm when we arrived. We were greeted enthusiastically by Ms. Young-Joo Shim, who was responsible for the preparation and management of the event. I had met her last summer when I was reporting on the anti-THAAD rally in Washington, but I had not known then that she was a parent of LGBT. Afterwards we kept in touch through SNS until tonight’s re-encounter.
On our way to our lodging, we briefly caught up then I broached a question regarding the LGBT parents who gathered for this event.
“The main seminar is tomorrow but already we talked about everything today and it was a sea of tears.”
The parents of LGBT who had journeyed from all corners of the U.S. had already started unpacking their stories as soon as they met each other. People who were encountering mirror images of each other. I couldn’t wait to get to know their narratives.
Stories of our children become our introductions
Morning came. The morning session was divided into a meeting of parents and a meeting of LGBT, and I chose to join the former. I see people I already encountered last night, and faces who arrived just this morning. We were ten mothers, five fathers gathered together, sitting in a circle.
The moderator Clara Yoon, who is the founder of Korean American Rainbow Parents (KARP), proposed that “today, why don’t we talk about ourselves and not about our children.” Meaning, since last night we had talked a lot about our LGBT children, why not introduce our own selves today. Everyone agreed and started to share our own narratives. Well, yet we still couldn’t help being parents. That is, as “parents” we wanted more to talk and hear about our sons and daughters. Even if the stories be heartbreaking ones.
A parent from Washington D.C. laid out her experience. She had such a close relationship with her son as would a mother-daughter relationship, and when he had come out to her as gay, she had experienced enormous shock. Even though throughout her life she was a progressive activist and she even had many LGBT acquaintances around her, she had difficulty accepting her son’s story.
The son was pained at the mother’s reaction. And said, “Mom, you are a hypocrite. You are a passionate activist in progressive causes, yet why can’t you understand me?” Struck by a bolt of lightning, she came to her senses. From then on, she studied and researched in order to understand the LGBT, and started to take action to support her son and his LGBT friends.
“Mommy is on your side.”
Two parents had come to the event from Korea as well. One of them, a mother going by the name “Hanul(sky),” shared a confession that moved listeners’ hearts. The contents are as follows. The period when Hanul came to knowledge that her son was LGBT happened to be when she was facing the hardest times of her life. Even more, she had heard of the news from a third person that they suspected that Hanul’s son was into men. Hanul’s mental state, which had slowly been recovering back to health through therapy and religion, shattered into pieces once again.
Her son, who could not bring himself to open up to his mother, already had stopped going to school because of his depression. He did not eat for an entire week, not even leaving his room. After some deliberation, Hanul approached an LGBT meeting. There, she got tremendous relief and came to knowledge of the fact that sexual orientation is determined from birth. Then came to the realization that “how my son must also have gone through a period of pain, just like I have.” In the end, Hanul wrote a letter to her son to express her heart.
“My son, my love, Mommy is ready to hear everything you have to share. I already know-- it’s okay. Even if the world flips upside down, Mommy is on your side.”
After he looked at my letter, he talked to me for the first time. You would not know how glad I was to hear him say “mom, I want some food.” And he returned to how he was before and finished his undergrad.
Parents cried and laughed while sharing stories about their children. They could not stop pridefully sharing about just how nice, bright, and obedient of a child they were. For the children were empathic and caring, it must have been harder for them to come out to their parents.
One mother from California shared that her son came out to her less than a year ago. He had been postponing coming out because he was worried that his mother will suffer too much from the news. When she thinks about her son, trying so hard to protect his mother and deal with his struggles on his own, her heart is wrenched in pain.
Now that she knew that her son was gay, the mother started to search for information on the internet. She thought that her son’s life will be difficult since even in the U.S., discrimination against sexual minorities exist. Today the mother wishes to provide a safe haven at home for her son, so that he can be at peace at least within the home.
At the boundary of life and death
One mother from Wisconsin immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Two daughters were born in the U.S. She and her husband tried their best to raise them to be beautiful and healthy daughters. Then both of the two daughters confided in their parents, within two months, that they were both FTM transgender. The mother could not wrap her mind around it. She could not accept that situation, so she wanted to ignore and brush it away as something that never happened.
Meanwhile, in September 2015, one of the children took his own life. Her precious son, who was only 16 years old, chose his own death. Even at a young age, he was someone who actively engaged in civil rights projects for his friends who was struggling from discrimination based on race and sexual orientation.
Watching her son lain peacefully in the casket, Mom felt such remorse. She used to be so close with her son, but after he came out, he started to distance himself from his mother who did not accept him. She realized, only after her son’s death, how love and acceptance from the family is so necessary and important, and that such acceptance is literally the same as saving a life.
“I grew up only within the conservative Christian tradition, and I could not accept my child’s sexual orientation. I had said we should accept and love the LGBT but it was only words; when I learned that actually my child was LGBT, I could not love him. Now I want to give the LGBT children courage so that they would not end their lives in suicide. Isn’t it so much better to live than to die?”
Hearing the confession of a mother who had said goodbye to her son with tears, for a while we could not even breathe. The attitude of the family and this society of turning their backs on LGBT people determined the fate between life and death for this child. Our hearts were heavy, reminded of the concept of ‘social homicide’ and the stinging guilt that would have tortured the mother.
Adults have the heaviest responsibility
Parents shared their hearts through the common language of ‘tears.’ One person’s story became the other’s confession. After their children came out to them, the parents’ lives transformed. After passing through a period of struggle, now the parents have come out of their homes and started speaking out, “our child is LGBT.” And now the parents wish to communicate love and give courage to other LGBT individuals like their children. Moreover, they wish to shout out to the world:
“Take back your hatred against the LGBT. Our children who are LGBT have not committed any wrong. The heaviest and biggest responsibility is on the adults, who made a society excluding the LGBT because of wrongful religious ideology and prejudice.”
Without empathy, there is no hope
In the afternoon, LGBT individuals, parents, and allies all came together for the session. At the Holy Cross Anglican Church where the event was held, about 60 participants sat in a circle. First, three parents of LGBT children openly shared their own stories. The parents’ held the microphone with shaking hands. But they spoke firmly, with a purpose to help foster the right understanding of what it means to be LGBT.
As the main speaker in the seminar, Professor Nam-Soon Kang (Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University) came forward. She gave a lecture with the title “Without empathy, there is no hope: from a politics of hate to a politics of solidarity.” She started by noting that “in the bible there is no concept of ‘homosexuality.’ Homophobia is the product of our contemporary day and age.” She clarified that the purpose of the lecture was “to think about what ways we can change in a society that has various forms of oppression and exclusion.”
Professor Kang confessed that she hadn’t been able to understand and accept the LGBT right from the beginning. When she was a foreign student in the U.S., she became aware that she was distancing herself from one gay student she had encountered in a seminar on feminism. Then she realized the limitations of the perceptions we have and started opening her heart. She unraveled academic concepts in a way easy to understand based on her experience.
“Through my fellow student who had come out as gay, I came to an understanding that ‘this person is human too, just like me.’ Then I realized that was a fundamental truth. That was empathy. Feeling that another is the same entity with me is a different concept than ‘pity,’ which presupposes the formation of a hierarchy. Empathy means that we share in another’s pain, and is the most fundamental concept that makes one human.
I hope the various experiences of exclusion will become a motivating factor to sow the seeds of change. It is important that my experience does not end with experiencing discrimination and oppression, but transforms into a sense of empowerment as an agent of change. Let us not hate the people who hate the LGBT but instead regard them with empathy. We need to find the reasons behind that hate. Regarding the people who are stuck in the margins of perception, I hope we would not cast them as devils but continue to make them our allies. That is hope.
It is one of the fundamental truths of Christianity that ‘God made every being in the image of God.’ This truth is that every being should be equal and what destroys this equality is society’s ‘injustice’ and ‘oppression.’ All of society’s progressive change, such as the racial justice movement and women’s suffrage movement, did not happen in a short period of time. If we continue to engage in movement, such as making coalitions for change within our communities, one day we will have a society where LGBT individuals are treated equally, too.”
A group discussion followed the lecture. We organized ourselves into groups of 7~8 and shared our personal stories. I cannot list all of them, so I will just share one story of a man who first came to an LGBT event after more than a decade of questioning his sexuality. A faithful Christian, he had eyes brimming with tears as he shared his past where he could not accept his own sexual identity.
“I denied my own sexual orientation. I thought I could change through training in religious faith, so I joined the most conservative evangelical group and focused my energies on religious training. I thus spent over 10 years of my life this way. But there was no change. I have not come out to my parents because I thought their shock would be enormous. It was very difficult to spend all that time struggling with it alone.
In frustration, I confided in my sister, with whom I was very close. My sister replied ‘what should we do, you will go to hell.’ My heart collapsed. Actually I attended this seminar with a heavy heart. It is because the guilt that oppressed me for so long has still not been released completely. But through this seminar I gained courage, and can now correctly understand the LGBT.”
People whose mere existence is heartwarming
People who spent a day together have become family. In the evening followed a time of celebration and rejoice at the first U.S. LGBT parents conference. We encouraged each other as we shared a meal.
The LGBT children who attended the conference expressed their words of thanks. Tears come before their words. It is because they feel the sting of emotions even by just looking at their parents, with whom they endured times of struggle. The children, who were just as warm-hearted as their parents described, were simply thankful of their moms and dads.
“Mom, dad, I love you. I am going to live life trusting on you.”
The parents, who had resolved never to cry again, caved in at the children’s expression of love. One parent drove everyone to teary laughter by saying, “I even wore make-up today to not cry any more, but now it’s all messed up.” With the common language of tears, everyone had a chance to soothe each other’s hearts again.
However we soon resolved to hold back our tears for a moment, in order to rise above the conflict between child and parent to progress against the society’s prejudice, people ignorant of the LGBT, and conservative religious ideologies. We resolved to collaborate to secure more funding necessary to continue the LGBT parents’ conference for next year and beyond, and to draw out societal support for improving the rights of the LGBT.
Clara Yoon, the main organizer and moderator of this conference, shared how much she was moved by the event: “I remember when the sky seemed to have fallen when my son first came out to me. Back then I could not imagine seeing such a happy day like today.” LGBT parent ‘Jeanne’ who engages in LGBT rights activism in Korea, shared the following insights:
“The moment I saw the parents who flew here from hundreds of miles away from all across America, I was already moved. Hearing their stories one by one, I realized ‘a parent’s heart for her child is the same anywhere.’ After my son’s coming-out, I haven’t cried for a while, but today I was moved to tears I have not shed in years.
Like the parents here, there are parents who chose to support their children for their happiness, but there are still many parents who do not accept their children’s coming-out until the end, because they wish they would become straight. I was very moved by the Korean parents in the U.S. who chose the correct way to love their children.”
A mother of LGBT from Korea with the nickname ‘Hanul’ also participated in the U.S. Korean LGBT conference with Jeanne. ‘Hanul’ also confessed that through the conference her heart was purified and her thoughts became organized.
“Up till now, I lived under an erroneous assumption that I was a very open-minded and generous person. But only when my son, whom I love, was being hurt, I finally let go of the things I had been holding onto. Thanks to my son I broke apart my old framework and developed a new perspective of seeing the world. If my son was not LGBT, I would have lived as a person filled with stereotypes until the day I died.
Once I started to reconsider the LGBT question, I began seeing other types of injustice and discrimination. Because of my child, the mother is growing. Even if you get older you need to keep learning. What a great world would it be if everyone in the world became someone who does not erect walls but instead build bridges.
I would like to see everyone make a better world together in solidarity. So that no one is discriminated against, and no one is hurt because of prejudices. LGBT parents in the U.S. have given me a great opportunity as well.”