In response to actress Ellen Page coming out of the proverbial closet, a friend of mine confessedthat while she is open to the notion of homosexuality, she cannot help but be mildly perturbed by thethought of two women kissing each other.
As a foreigner to this country who has spent most of his life insulated from any gay individuals, I must admit that I was once subject to the same unease.
Never a wholly religious man, I do not consider homosexuality an outré and immoral vice. Regardless, an unidentifiable feeling made me cringe when I first saw two men kiss in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” nine years ago.
To a certain extent, my discomfort might have been a product of Hong Kong’s culture.
Homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1991, anti-discriminatory laws exist only for government jobs and same-sex marriage and unions are not formally recognized.
Even with recent progress made in advancing advocacy of LGBT rights, behind the façade of political correctness still lies a palpable aversion among members of Hong Kong’s older generations.
I thought attending an all-boys school would perhaps change my feelings by possibly exposing me to more members of the particular sexual orientation.
I was only partially right. My feelings of unease did dissipate throughout the years - but not because I was subsumed in a milieu that welcomes gays with open arms.
Attitudes towards homosexuality in my Chinese boy school could range from fascinated to apprehensive to hostile. The more effeminate of us were often subjects of needless speculation and mockery; the gays were often closeted. Homophobic banter was commonplace, and though most of it was but good-natured fun to bored teenagers, I could understand why some of our homosexual friends would be apprehensive to make their sexuality known.
Just before I left for Penn, a good friend of mine finally came out to me. At first I was alarmed - after all, he was the first homosexual friend I have ever had. But then I realized how much hurt he must have suffered at the hands of young men who have yet to learn of sensitivity in the three years we have been friends.
Perhaps it was the realization that my friend’s sexuality changed nothing about my perception of him - except for a newfound respect for his perseverance and courage - that changed my feelings. I believe that was the moment I truly recognized the cliché saying that sexuality is but another aspect of a person’s identity.
Coming to Penn brought forth a surprise - perhaps an overwhelming one at first, but a pleasant one nonetheless. My gay friends here are more vocal and unabashed about their sexuality (nor should they have any reason not to be).
Even as a straight male, the transition to an arguably more open-minded culture has helped make the Penn experience gayer, in both wonderful senses of the word.
The pervasive social liberalism that exists within the Penn community has recently brought me to the realization that as modern, diverse and international as the self-dubbed “Asia’s World City” is, my hometown of Hong Kong is still very much permeated by underlying conservative Chinese social values.
I have always considered my stance on social issues to be on the “liberal” end of the spectrum, so it was quite a shock to arrive to a community where “liberal” is considered the norm.
In particular, it has been the Penn communities’ overwhelming acceptance of homosexuality that has stood out and impressed me the most.
Although I have grown up in an international, Western influenced setting, the concept of homosexuality has always been a bit of a taboo and awkward subject, and at times a subject of amusement and ridicule. I remember my primary 5 teacher introducing herself on the first day of class as “Gay” (that was her first name), and then finding the immediate need to clarify a definition of “joy” and “happiness” amid a chorus of callow laughter.
Even as simple, nai?ve children, unaware of the true meaning and implications of this taboo word, my peers and I found it to be a source of amusement.
From attending an international secondary school, one of the main principles instilled in us was the idea of diversity and acceptance. Yet, I clearly recall the uproar and controversy (extending to teachers and staff) when an upperclassman “came out” through his blog.
I don’t believe that many, if any, of my peers are truly homophobic. Instead, it is likely that it is the unfamiliarity of homosexuality that brings the oftentimes unfortunate amusement that ac- companies its mentioning, and that has led the word “gay” to subconsciously become insulting and negative. `
In reflection, I imagine it is the importance that traditional Chinese values place on family that has resulted in the unfortunate ignorance and stigmatization that meets homosexuality within the wider Hong Kong community. Yet coming to Penn has truly made me appreciate the value of acceptance and openness.
Because only when an issue no longer remains taboo, and when a community is willing to approach and accept the foreign and unfamiliar, can true dialogue and harmony exist.
And thus, this is why I express my pride and admiration to be a member of the Penn community, where each and every one of us can all be equally as proud, just to be who we are.
Jason Choi is a College freshman from Hong Kong. He can be reached at email@example.com. William Zhang is a Wharton freshman from Hong Kong. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.