Many queer people find incredible strength and power in the act of coming out fully as themselves. While being able to show up as our full queer selves in our lives is a very beautiful thing, it can also be a lot of pressure to craft the perfect official coming out. This is especially true for aromantic and/or asexual folks, who still lack a societial template to navigate their sexuality, and for queer Asians, for whom coming out has communal repercussions. So what are you to do when you are a Vietnamese asexual and aromantic woman who grew up in white, cishet, francophone-dominated Montreal in the 1980s and 1990s?
This is Tam’s (not her real name) reality. I first met the 38-year-old office worker in a Montreal-based Asian group, and was struck by how open, upbeat and talkative she was. So getting to sit down with her to candidly chat about her journey navigating her asexuality and aromanticism was an absolute blast. Over many laughs, we discussed her confusing process into finding her sexuality, her dating adventures and how she came to find empowerment in the closet.
To start, can you tell me how you identify in terms of gender and sexuality?
Cis female, very straightforward. I am the only Asian who is aromantic that I know of. I have not met another person who’s Asian and asexual. And I haven’t met another person who is aromantic in Montreal. There probably is someone, but I’ve not met a single person.
Tell me about your journey navigating your sexuality.
This journey was very much externally motivated. Because, being aromantic, I didn’t give two fucks. I already had close friends and family who responded to my emotional needs. I understand romantic people desire that sort of connection with another person, but I never looked for it myself. So until puberty, I just thought I was different, but I didn’t think about it much more than that.
It started becoming a more pressing part of my life when people started asking me out because I didn’t want to go on dates. So I started wondering why. At 18, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as asexuality. So I just thought I was bisexual because I really didn’t care which gender was asking me out — I just didn’t want to date. I concluded that since I didn’t care for either gender, I must have been OK with both.
At 21, I found a site called AVEN which was, and still is, the main site for asexual people. I ended up on that site, and realized I was asexual. I still didn’t date anybody, so beyond that, I didn’t think much about it at all
When I was 25, my older brother and my dad sat me down separately and advised me to try dating. Taking their advice, I started dating. I had one short queer relationship and one long term queer relationship, even though I dated guys as well. I dated my first girlfriend for four-ish months. That ended not very great, but we’re still friends. I still hang out with her, her kids and her husband.
Then I dated my second girlfriend for close to five years. This is when I realized that I was aromantic because even though I loved her very deeply, the intensity was very different. When romantic people do something nice for their partner, they feel warm inside. Their partner appreciates it and feels warm inside too. I don’t have that feeling. I’ll do something nice for you, it’ll be like a fist bump. And that’s the end of it! I would do the same thing for my family or any of my friends. I’ll shower people with love, but that intensity is completely absent.
Even though she was willing to let that go to stay with me, I didn’t feel staying together was fair to my partner because she wanted somebody who was equally as intense. But I only had platonic feelings, so I made the choice to end that relationship — I was 33, understanding I was aromantic. I realized it was not the best idea to be in a relationship because I don’t have the same capacity for feelings as romantic people. My emotional intensity doesn’t go in that direction.
Have you been dating since?
I never wanted to date to begin with. I tried it, and I have determined that it’s not for me. I have not been on any dates since. I’m not closed off to meeting people, but I make it very clear from the beginning that I’m just not interested in a romantic relationship, mostly because they will be disappointed. They’re going to see that there’s something lacking immediately.
So you don’t date, but I understand you were very involved in the club scene. A lot of people in the queer community criticize it for being very heteronormative. What was your experience like?
At queer clubs in Montreal, heteronormativity is not an issue, but fetishism is a huge problem. Like, oh you’re Asian, you look queer, you’re a girl? People have a fetishized idea of Asians. And I’m not gonna point fingers at queer women or at straight men because everybody has fetishized ideals of queer Asian women. Even a resting bitch face can only get you so far. Some people are very persistent. You can look like as much of a bitch as you want, but sometimes that’s also a fetish. What are you gonna do?
How do people react to your queerness in Montreal?
That’s a loaded question. For the most part, people are either indifferent, or very nice about it. However, one time, at work, I was at the pride flag raising event of my company. When I sat down, this lady started making pointed homophobic comments while photographers were taking pictures of us. Then, she told me that she was my ally. Since I don’t share my personal life with colleagues, she was making an assumption about me, waiting for me to confirm her suspicions. It happened because I present myself androgynously at work. It was a very negative experience.
I reported her. Now she walks on eggshells around me, and I’m OK with that. She’s still employed, and as long as she doesn’t bug me, I don’t care. The only reason I reported her is because I don’t want her to do that to other people, especially [since she is in] upper management. She didn’t hurt me at all, because I have had to deal with much worse in my life in terms of racism. So what I experienced with her is half as bad as the things I’ve lived through as a person of color in Quebec.
I think what comes up again is that you get more flak for being Asian than for being queer.
Absolutely. In Quebec, there’s the language debate. I’m anglophone — I can speak French, but I prefer speaking English. That automatically puts me on a shittier level, because now I’m an anglophone, queer-presenting, woman of color. At work, as much as people have been very accepting, I worked 20 times as hard as the majority of the people in my office to get where I am today. I’m very happy now — I have a great boss and a great salary. But getting here is incomparable to people who are white and francophone, of any gender. They’ll get to places an anglophone, androgynous-presenting, woman of color won’t get to.
What should be done to combat Asian queer invisibility, and have you personally done anything to combat it?
I think that one of the main obstacles is always going to be the older generation. The first thing is to get our parents to be more accepting. Because if the older generation is more accepting, the kids are going to be more open to reach out. Queer Asians’ relationships with their parents will always play a part in their willingness to fully put themselves out there. Being out always negatively impacts the parents, even the parents who accept them, because their parents’ friends and communities will judge them. And do you really want your immigrant parents who don’t speak English or French well to be isolated from the only community they know? So it’s a very loaded issue. It’s an insidious problem that starts with the older generation and that carries over to us.
Do I feel like I’ve broached it? Yes, mostly because I talk to my younger friends, and I’ve tried to help them navigate these conversations with their parents. If homophobic commentary comes up with my own parents or other Asian parents, I’m very direct with them. Because I don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, they can’t accuse me of anything. I’m in a perfect position to always stand up to homophobes because it never impacts my parents. I don’t have a partner to hide.
Who have you come out to and when? Why them?
The first time, I came out to my mom at 18 as bisexual, and she completely ignored what I said. Then at 21, when I discovered what asexuality was, I came out to my mom again. She asked me if I could still date boys, and I told her yes. That’s where that conversation ended.
I came out again to my mom at 25 when my dad and my brother told me to date. But this time, she actually looked up asexuality, so she understood me a bit better. It was her first step in accepting that I was asexual. I came out to a couple of my friends because I thought they should know. Maybe three or four people because they were closest to me. Nobody really pressured me into anything romantic because they could sense I wasn’t open to it.
Between 25 and 30, I didn’t have to come out. If somebody asked me out, I just told them I wasn’t interested, regardless of their gender, without giving any reason, because it’s none of their business.
But when I realized I was aromantic at 33, that was a headache because I had to come out to multiple people. It was a lot of educating, because most people’s idea of happiness includes a partner. A lot of my close friends kept trying to set me up, and I had to tell them no. They couldn’t fully grasp that concept — it’s not their reality. And when something’s not your reality, it’s much harder to understand.
Who haven’t you come out to yet, and why?
Most people! If I don’t know you, I don’t tell you anything about my life. It’s not a big part of my identity.
I’m semi-closeted for a few reasons: one, to protect my parents and my family, and two, why do people need to know? I just don’t tell people because it doesn’t change anything. That’s my private life.
I haven’t come out to the majority of my family because we’re a nicer [version of] “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When I was dating my last girlfriend, they invited her to every family reunion. It was unspoken that we were seeing each other, but they never said anything. So it’s accepted as long as you don’t identify what it is. I also have a cousin who’s married and lesbian, with a wife and kids. They’re also welcome [to come] over, but we just call them roommates. So to most of my family I have not come out. It’s unspoken that they understand.
How do you feel about that arrangement?
I’m fine with it. I know that some queer people feel very differently about it. I understand where a lot of queer people come from, that feeling of oppression, shame and self-flagellation. But that’s not my reality, because I just view things very differently.
Right now, how does your family deal with your queerness?
My dad is extremely accepting: if I’m happy, he’s happy. My mom is more curious. She doesn’t fully understand me, but she accepts me as I am. And that’s all I could ask for. Because, honestly, she grew up in a country where she never even knew there were gay people. They are extremely oppressed in Vietnam. I can’t expect her to suddenly just develop all the terminology and knowledge related to queerness. The fact that she accepts me and has a vague idea of my life experience is enough.
My parents have come to understand that happiness is not so much being married, having kids, having a family, but instead, being happy living life right now and being able to take care of oneself — which is all I want. Having them change that life view was very difficult, but they were able to do so. Obviously, I’m sure they still get sad sometimes. But for the most part, they don’t press their ideas of happiness on me. They simply accept me as I am.