When I told my parents I was gay, the first thing they said to me was, "We're bringing you back to Taiwan." In their minds, my sexual orientation was America's fault. The West had corrupted me with divergent ideas, and if only my parents had never left Taiwan, this would not have happened to their only daughter. In truth, I wondered if they were right. Of course, there are gay people in Asia, just as there are gay people in every part of the world. But is the idea of living an "out" life, in the "I'm gay, this is my spouse, and we're proud of our lives together" kind of way just a Western idea? If I had grown up in Taiwan, or any place outside of the West, would I have found models of happy, thriving LGBT people?
I had similar notions. As an HIV social worker in San Francisco, I had met many gay immigrants. They told me their stories of persecution in their home countries, just for being gay, and the reasons why they escaped to the US. I saw how this had beaten them down. After 10 years of doing this kind of work, I needed better stories for myself. I knew the world was far from perfect, but surely not every gay story was tragic.
So as a couple, we both had a need to find stories of hope. So we set off on a mission to travel the world and look for the people we finally termed as the "Supergays." These would be the LGBT individuals who were doing something extraordinary in the world. They would be courageous, resilient, and most of all, proud of who they were. They would be the kind of person that I aspire to be. Our plan was to share their stories to the world through film.
There was just one problem. We had zero reporting and zero filmmaking experience. We didn't even know where to find the Supergays, so we just had to trust that we'd figure it all out along the way. So we picked 15 countries in Asia, Africa and South America, countries outside the West that varied in terms of LGBT rights. We bought a camcorder, ordered a book on how to make a documentary—you can learn a lot these days—and set off on an around-the-world trip.
One of the first countries that we traveled to was Nepal. Despite widespread poverty, a decade-long civil war, and now recently, a devastating earthquake, Nepal has made significant strides in the fight for equality. One of the key figures in the movement is Bhumika Shrestha. A beautiful, vibrant transgendered woman, Bhumika has had to overcome being expelled from school and getting incarcerated because of her gender presentation. But, in 2007, Bhumika and Nepal's LGBT rights organization successfully petitioned the Nepali Supreme Court to protect against LGBT discrimination. Here's Bhumika:
What I'm most proud of? I'm a transgendered person. I'm so proud of my life. On December 21, 2007, the Supreme Court gave the decision for the Nepal government to give transgender identity cards and same-sex marriage.
I can appreciate Bhumika's confidence on a daily basis. Something as simple as using a public restroom can be a huge challenge when you don't fit in to people's strict gender expectations. Traveling throughout Asia, I tended to freak out women in public restrooms. They weren't used to seeing someone like me. I had to come up with a strategy so that I could just pee in peace. So anytime I would enter a restroom, I would thrust out my chest to show my womanly parts, and try to be as non-threatening as possible. Putting out my hands and saying, "Hello", just so that people could hear my feminine voice. This all gets pretty exhausting, but it's just who I am. I can't be anything else.
After Nepal, we traveled to India. On one hand, India is a Hindu society, without a tradition of homophobia. On the other hand, it is also a society with a deeply patriarchal system, which rejects anything that threatens the male-female order. When we spoke to activists, they told us that empowerment begins with ensuring proper gender equality, where the women's status is established in society. And in that way, the status of LGBT people can be affirmed as well.
There we met Prince Manvendra. He's the world's first openly gay prince. Prince Manvendra came out on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," very internationally. His parents disowned him and accused him of bringing great shame to the royal family. We sat down with Prince Manvendra and talked to him about why he decided to come out so very publicly. Here he is:
I felt there was a lot of need to break this stigma and discrimination which is existing in our society. And that instigated me to come out openly and talk about myself. Whether we are gay, we are lesbian, we are transgender, bisexual or whatever sexual minority we come from, we have to all unite and fight for our rights. Gay rights cannot be won in the court rooms, but in the hearts and the minds of the people.
While getting my hair cut, the woman cutting my hair asked me, "Do you have a husband?" Now, this was a dreaded question that I got asked a lot by locals while traveling. When I explained to her that I was with a woman instead of a man, she was incredulous, and she asked me a lot of questions about my parents' reactions and whether I was sad that I'd never be able to have children. I told her that there are no limitations to my life and that Lisa and I do plan to have a family some day. Now, this woman was ready to write me off as yet another crazy Westerner. She couldn't imagine that such a phenomenon could happen in her own country. That is, until I showed her the photos of the Supergays that we interviewed in India. She recognized Prince Manvendra from television and soon I had an audience of other hairdressers interested in meeting me. And in that ordinary afternoon, I had the chance to introduce an entire beauty salon to the social changes that were happening in their own country.
From India, we traveled to East Africa, a region known for intolerance towards LGBT people. In Kenya, 89 percent of people who come out to their families are disowned. Homosexual acts are a crime and can lead to incarceration. In Kenya, we met the soft-spoken David Kuria. David had a huge mission of wanting to work for the poor and improve his own government. So he decided to run for senate. He became Kenya's first openly gay political candidate.
David wanted to run his campaign without denying the reality of who he was. But we were worried for his safety because he started to receive death threats.
At that point, I was really, really scared because they were actually asking for me to be killed. And...yeah, there are some people out there who do it and they feel that they are doing a religious obligation.
David wasn't ashamed of who he was. Even in the face of threats, he stayed authentic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Argentina. Argentina's a country where 92 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Yet, Argentina has LGBT laws that are even more progressive than here in the US. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America and the 10th in the world to adopt marriage equality. There we met María Rachid. María was a driving force behind that movement.
I always say that, in reality, the effects of marriage equality are not only for those couples that get married. They are for a lot of people that, even though they may never get married, will be perceived differently by their coworkers, their families and neighbors, from the national state's message of equality. I feel very proud of Argentina because Argentina today is a model of equality. And hopefully soon, the whole world will have the same rights.
When we made the visit to my ancestral lands, I wish I could have shown my parents what we found there. Because here is who we met:
One, two, three. Welcome gays to Shanghai!
A whole community of young, beautiful Chinese LGBT people. Sure, they had their struggles. But they were fighting it out. In Shanghai, I had the chance to speak to a local lesbian group and tell them our story in my broken Mandarin Chinese. In Taipei, each time we got onto the metro, we saw yet another lesbian couple holding hands. And we learned that Asia's largest LGBT pride event happens just blocks away from where my grandparents live. If only my parents knew.
By the time we finished our not-so-straight journey around the world, we had traveled 50,000 miles and logged 120 hours of video footage. We traveled to 15 countries and interviewed 50 Supergays. Turns out, it wasn't hard to find them at all.
Yes, there are still tragedies that happen on the bumpy road to equality. And let's not forget that 75 countries still criminalize homosexuality today. But there are also stories of hope and courage in every corner of the world. What we ultimately took away from our journey is: equality is not a Western invention.
One of the key factors in this equality movement is momentum, momentum as more and more people embrace their full selves and use whatever opportunities they have to change their part of the world, and momentum as more and more countries find models of equality in one another. When Nepal protected against LGBT discrimination, India pushed harder. When Argentina embraced marriage equality, Uruguay and Brazil followed. When Ireland said yes to equality, the world stopped to notice. When the US Supreme Court makes a statement to the world that we can all be proud of.
As we reviewed our footage, what we realized is that we were watching a love story. It wasn't a love story that was expected of me, but it is one filled with more freedom, adventure and love than I could have ever possibly imagined. One year after returning home from our trip, marriage equality came to California. And in the end, we believe, love will win out.
By the power vested in me, by the state of California and by God Almighty, I now pronounce you spouses for life. You may kiss.