In high school, Darren Ho recalls boys writing, “Darren’s so gay” in his notebook or calling him girly. A shy kid who didn’t like standing out, Ho kept mostly to himself.
Now a 23-year-old linguistics major at Simon Fraser University, Ho says he couldn’t talk to his parents about what was going on in school or tell them that he couldn’t sleep at night. He was overwhelmed with fear about how they would react to his being gay. When he came out to his friends in Grade 11, he didn’t tell his parents. They still don’t know.
Ho’s experience as a gay Asian Canadian teen is common in BC. A study released on March 28 from the University of British Columbia found that lesbian, gay and bisexual Asian Canadian youth are 30 times more likely to face harassment than their heterosexual peers. They are also more likely to use drugs or alcohol, according to the study conducted by professor Elizabeth Saewyc.
The report’s findings were based on 5,423 Asian youth who completed the BC Adolescent Health Survey in 2003. Another key finding is the importance of relationships, particularly with teachers and family, in potentially alleviating some of the negative effects of racist and homophobic bullying.
“Family connectedness really does make a difference for sexual minorities,” Saewyc says. “Unfortunately, many feel that they have to deal with it themselves, which is a shame because they deal with homophobia, racism and discrimination.”
Brian Wong can relate to Ho’s experience as a gay Asian Canadian growing up in Metro Vancouver. The 27-year-old grew up in East Vancouver as a second-generation Chinese Canadian.
Wong, too, was bullied from Grades 8 to 12 by classmates who called him “gay” and “girly.” He got depressed, and his grades slipped from As and Bs to Cs by the time he graduated. While he didn’t turn to alcohol or drugs, he thought many times about suicide.
At 19, he finally came out to his mother. Her reaction was surprisingly accepting, but she did not tell her husband. Wong finally came out to his father two years ago.
“He said he knew something was wrong a year before,” Wong recalls. “But ultimately he said, ‘You’re our son and we love you.’”
When asked about his relationship with his parents now, Wong says it’s still an uncomfortable topic for his parents to discuss with their friends and colleagues. However, it also hasn’t been as negative as he expected. He remembers in particular shopping with his father at Pacific Centre last December.
“Hollister had two male buff models in swim shorts standing in front of the store, enticing people to go in,” he said. His father made sure to point them out to him. “I thought that was very indicative of his level of support for me now.”
Ho now dedicates most of his time outside class to Our City of Colours, a project that produces posters featuring visibly diverse gay youth speaking different languages. He cofounded the project last May with an ethnically diverse group of gay men. It is also a personal quest to reach out to his parents’ generation of Chinese Canadians.
In a blue leather-bound notebook, Ho keeps an Xtra news clipping featuring a photo of a middle-aged Chinese man holding up a sign that reads, “No Policy 5.45/What’s your hidden agenda?” in English and Chinese. The Burnaby School Board approved the policy prohibiting anti-homophobia last June, in the face of fiery opposition from a vocal group of parents in the community who organized themselves under the banner Parents’ Voice.
Many of the parents in the group were of Chinese origin and are first-generation Chinese Canadians, like Ho’s parents. The photograph provokes deep frustration and anger in him at the passive silence of Chinese Canadians about sexuality, as well as the bigotry of those who do speak about it.
“It’s just one more thing I have to fight against,” he says, looking at the photograph.
For Ho, the complicated silence around sexuality at home verges on the absurd. His laptop has a large rainbow sticker stuck on the front case, and he uses it around the house in plain sight of his parents.
“They never ask me, ‘Oh, does this sticker mean that you’re gay?’ Or maybe they don’t make the connection that rainbow equals gay, or maybe they don’t want to talk about the possibility of me being gay, or they’ve never noticed the sticker.”
He also has a T-shirt with a pink triangle that he wears around the house. They’ve never asked him about that, either.
“My parents never talk about it, or they never point and ask, ‘What does that pink triangle mean on your shirt?’” he says.
He is not yet ready to break the silence between himself and his parents, particularly with his father. When asked what he thinks his father’s reaction might be, he pauses.
“I don’t know,” he says with a resigned smile. “I’ve been asked this question many times and always my answer has been ‘I don’t know.’”