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Hong Kong is in the early stages of a revolution. No, not that kind of revolution. A revolution in the way we think about homosexuality. And leading the revolution are Anson Lo and Edan Lui of Mirror, Hong Kong’s superstar boy band, along with well known actor Kenny Wong. All three star in the Viu TV hit series, Daai Suk Dik Oi, which is based on a Japanese show called Ossan’s Love.
Before I talk about this revolution, you need to understand the agony of growing up gay in a conservative society like Hong Kong that considers homosexuality a disgrace to the family and an abomination in general. (Although I’m focusing on male homosexuality in this article, many of the same issues apply to lesbian women.)
If you were born before the internet age, you were almost certainly utterly alone and apart as you became a sexual being. Perhaps you were teased or bullied at school for being weak, effeminate or bad at sports. You had crushes on schoolmates or friends that you had to hide. While other boys were talking about girls, you were watching and listening so you could fake the same interests. The thoughts and feelings you had that occupied hours of every day were both shameful and dangerous, so you told no one. One of the most important things about you, something core to who you were, was a secret you had to keep at all costs. And very likely, you knew of no other human being on the planet who felt as you did. Perhaps you didn’t even have a name for what you felt. Maybe you fell in love with straight boys who would never return your affection, and possibly you decided that you would never know what it was like to be loved in return.
As you grew older, you learned that you were not the only person in the world who felt this way. Eventually, you made contact with other gay men, sometimes for furtive sex, but hopefully for stable, long term relationships. However, the shame of those early years, plus the ongoing hostility in society toward same sex relationships most likely has kept you from telling colleagues and friends, let alone family, who you truly are.
For those who came of age when the internet was available, life was less harsh in some ways. Not only was it easier to discover that you were not alone, it was also easier to connect with other gay people. You could find out about gay role models, and gay pride marches, and quickly learn that there was nothing wrong with you, no matter what those around you said. If you were bullied at school, or felt isolated, you could find sites like itgetsbetter.org and learn that it does, indeed, get better, and that there were even people from the site who would talk you through your troubles.
But in other ways, things did not improve. Your parents likely remain horrified at the idea that their son might be gay. If they were to learn the truth, they would assume they had somehow failed as a parent. Even if they could come to believe you were born that way they would blame themselves for their ‘poor genetic material’. And the idea of telling other family members — their own parents, or siblings and in-laws — is agonizing. They sense, correctly, that others will look down on them, pity them, talk behind their backs and enjoy a sense of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others). They would be consumed with shame. And so even if they themselves can accept the idea of you being gay, they reject it for fear of the social opprobrium it will bring.
This is what might lead your parents into a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ solution. They no longer question where you were when you didn’t come home at night, and they stop trying to set you up on dates with women. In return, you hide your tears when you split with your boyfriend, conceal your joy when you fall in love, and never introduce the people who gave you life to the man who now gives meaning to that life. Your sexuality may be an open secret in the family, but the fact that it’s a secret of any kind means that your parents can still face their relatives and friends. Yet your parents maintain this social standing at the cost of an enormous gulf in their relationship with you. They carefully avoid learning anything meaningful about your life, while you spare yourself the guilt of shaming your parents at the cost of keeping them out of the most important part of your life. It is an agonizing tradeoff for both sides.
What Anson, Edan and Kenny are doing is to begin to change the cost/benefit of that tradeoff. The two characters that are most aware of their homosexuality are also the most mature, thoughtful, kind, successful and (arguably) physically attractive of any of the characters on the show. Their characters are role models, the kind of people that (leaving aside sexuality) any parent would be proud of. And by being so, they begin to lower the cost to parents of admitting that one’s child is gay. When parents find that their own parents, siblings and friends are not so negative about homosexuality, it becomes less painful to reveal that their child is gay. In contrast, the cost of keeping their relationship with their son in the straitjacket of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ will look unforgivably high.
Hong Kong has had gay stars before, most notably Leslie Cheung. But for the first time, sexuality isn’t just an adjunct to someone’s stardom, it is front and center in a TV drama. Which means that the idea of successful, happy, well-adjusted people who just happen to be gay is entering dinner time discussions. And as that idea becomes mainstream, the gulf of loneliness between parents and their gay children will narrow and even vanish. Parents will accept their children and their children will welcome their parents into their lives.
Long live the revolution.