In the 1990s, homosexuals in the small, predominantly white college town of Moscow, Idaho faced the same discrimination barriers they faced everywhere. For Mike Chin, however, growing up as a gay Asian American meant having to reconcile the twin challenges of race and sexual identity.
Like many Asian Americans, Chin, the soft-spoken middle child and only son of traditional first-generation Chinese American parents, kept his sexual orientation a secret until he was 22. As an undergraduate at Washington State University, his first exposure to other gay students came in June 1995 when the university opened an on-campus center for gays, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students.
“I wanted to belong to the center but was afraid of being labeled or associated with other GLBT students who were mostly white. At the same time, I didn’t want to jeopardize my friendships with other Asian Americans. I chose to hide my identity,” he said.
Years earlier as a student at Moscow High School, however, Chin already knew he was attracted to men. Coming out was not that easy, he discovered. “Even though Moscow is a liberal place, it was not a racially diverse community and fairly conservative,” he said. Chin’s mother was a high school teacher in a rural community, while his father was a business owner. “I learned from my parents the survival skills of not rocking the boat and bringing attention to yourself.”
As the only son to carry the family name, Chin was worried about his family’s reputation. “You are a reflection of your family, and being openly gay wasn’t something I felt comfortable about,” he said. Chin, 36, is an enforcement manager at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and oversees investigations of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
As it happened, it was Chin’s younger sister who first disclosed her brother’s sexual orientation to her parents. At the time, Chin was a study-abroad student in London in the spring of 1999. His sister emailed her two sisters to inform them about their brother’s relationship to another man and inadvertently sent the message to her parents.
Although Chin had already informed his sisters, he had not planned to tell his parents. “I knew they would be devastated,” he said. Chin immediately made a long-distance call from London to his parents and had a six-hour conversation with them. “I didn’t know if my parents would still love and support me. I’ve always wanted them to be proud of me.”
Ironically, coming out has brought Chin closer to his parents. For the eight years prior to disclosing his sexual identity, he struggled with the impact that knowledge would have on his family. “I was ashamed and didn’t feel I could be who I was,” he said. “I wasn’t sure they would accept me as their son. When I learned I was gay, it took me a long time to come to terms with myself. I felt guilty sharing it with anyone, including my parents.”
When his sister revealed his gay orientation, Chin said it became a real test of his parents’ love for him. “I prepared myself mentally that I could lose my family and friends because of who I was. I have some gay friends whose parents kicked them out of the house. I was so relieved that although my parents have a hard time accepting the fact that I am gay, they still loved me as their son,” he said. Both parents are retired and now live in Pullman, Wash.
Since coming out, the reaction of his friends and family has mostly been positive. “My immediate family has been very supportive.” Chin hasn’t shared his sexual orientation with his extended family, or friends of the family, out of respect for his parents. “My friends have been very supportive as well. A lot of my friends are people of color. My friendships have become a lot richer now that I can be more open about who I am.”
These days, Chin has a partner, German Gornalusse, 36, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Both met at Dharma Buddies, a Buddhist gay men’s meditation group and have been together since last December. Gornalusse, who is from Argentina, received his Ph.d. in microbiology at the University of Texas and did research on HIV AIDS.
Asian American gay men and women face the unique challenge of straddling the divide of ethnicity and sexuality, Chin said. “Being an Asian American gay male, I never felt like I was a part of either community. I have experienced a lot of racism in the gay community in terms of accepting peoples of color.”
Chin acknowledged that he also faced additional pressures from the more tradition-bound Asian American community. “Some of the homophobia that exists has come from my own community. If I were a white gay man, it would be easier. Being a double minority is oppressive in a dominant white heterosexual society. It’s a struggle to feel fully accepted in both communities.”
“In our society, there’s no embracing of being gay and a person of color,” Chin continued. “I’m wearing two hats and have learned to navigate between being an Asian American and a gay.” Chin feels a great deal of empathy for the ailing former Seattle City Councilwoman Cheryl Chow after her recent announcement that she is a lesbian.
“My heart goes out to her. It makes me happy that she came out as a lesbian, but I’m also sad that a pillar in our community couldn’t be who she was publicly. It makes me reflect on who we are as a society and how we deal with the intersection of being Asian American and gay.”