The Accidental Advocate

Note: This essay was first published in Keeping It Under Wraps, an Anthology edited by Louise Bryant, Tracy Hope and Alnaaze Nathoo (2021)

For Camille

Another massage session with Li Hua is over. I feel relaxed, oxygenated, content. I’ve been coming here for years now. Pear blossom is the meaning of her name. This fine, middle-aged woman has a firm touch; her hands offer the right pressure. Chinese, as she is, I believe her to be the gifted recipient of a millennium of knowledge. Skills passed down generation to generation. There is such empathy in her touch, such care and generosity.

Ça va Camille?” She interrupts my reverie, asking me about my eldest daughter, adding, “Tulour pa copa?”

Li Hua arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, close to 10 years ago, but her French is still hard to decipher. There are plenty of French phonemes that the Chinese language doesn’t have and I presume, vice versa. I always struggle to understand her.

“Camille is fine,” I say as I get up from the massage bed. “She visited recently, when the airports reopened in the UK.”

Til Londo?”

“Yes, she is still living and working in London. She’s been there for five years now.”

Tulour pa copa?” She repeats the question. I replay the sounds in my head in an effort to make sense of them. Then I realize, Toujours pas de copain? She is asking if Camille still has no boyfriend.

I hesitate a second, then another.

“No, Li Hua, actually…Camille has a girlfriend,” I say. And, to make sure she understands, I add, “Camille likes women.”

Always that brief silence, that searching for cues in the interlocutor’s eyes. Did you understand what I just said? Has my revelation landed in a safe place? Are we good? Li Hua is wearing a mask covering her mouth and nose, but I see in her eyes that she is shocked. Her face looks like a surprised emoji.

Vous acet ça?” She asks whether I accept that. She takes a step back as she speaks. And, before I even attempt to answer, she says, “Emmen la doteul.” Take her to the doctor.

I am stunned. This woman does not censor herself; she doesn’t need thought bubbles over her head. It’s all out there. That, I suppose, is good. Other people silence their disapproval.

“Camille is not sick.” I respond firmly, but calmly. I am not angry. Rather, I am disappointed and sad. We are in Geneva in the 21st century, yet Li Hua is a product of Maoist Chinese upbringing. She was raised thinking people attracted to the same sex should be corrected, healed. That, too, has been passed on to her, generation after generation. I tell myself that Li Hua doesn’t know any better. I will learn later that homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997 and was declassified as a mental illness in 2001. But I am aware that even the modern, open-minded, liberal Swiss society in which I live breeds and harbours homophobes.

“Et son papa?” she asks about Camille’s father.

“What about her father?” I ask, putting my dress on. For a second, as the fabric passes my head, I surprise myself by sticking out my tongue to her.

Il acet ça?” She asks whether my husband accepts that. Then she repeats, “Emmen la doteul.” Take her to the doctor.

I reply, firmer this time, “My daughter is not sick, Li Hua. There is no reason to take her to the doctor. She is a healthy adult woman: beautiful, clever, independent. I stand by her.”

Voulez te?” She offers me a cup of tea, but there is something hasty in her tone and a busyness in her movements, which is new.

“No, Li Hua, not today.” I realize I, too, want this conversation over.

A moment later, I am sitting in the car with the motor off, wondering if I will ever come back for a massage.

“There is no reason not to come back,” my inner voice tells me. “You have to be tolerant to those whose opinions oppose yours. Show them their prejudices, but be firm.”

Then another voice says, “Don’t ever come back here! This woman just denied your daughter the right to exist as she is. Tolerating that is not standing up for your daughter.” And just then I realize I had never before been on the receiving end of a direct homophobic comment.

I drive home thinking of how many times my daughter must have experienced disapproval and rejection for her sexual orientation. I recall how discreet she always is about her girlfriends in public. And I think of how I could have responded to Li Hua with an easy answer, “No, Camille still doesn’t have a boyfriend.” That would have been a truthful statement and would have avoided further discussion.

But then, perhaps without noticing, don’t I choose these opportunities to sensitize people about same-sex relationships? It is ignorance that must be combatted. People are afraid of the unknown. Let them meet a lesbian woman — see her face, give her a massage even; see how normal she is — this will help break down the prejudices.

I think back to the time when I learned Camille was lesbian. She was a teenager, 18 maybe. If there were earlier signs, I completely missed them. She had recently been inviting a girlfriend over, and I sensed this was not just another friend from school. One day I asked her,

“M isn’t just a friend, right Camille? Are you… in love with her?”

She gave me a warm, shy smile. Her eyes affirmed, and I understood. That night I remember asking my husband,

“So what do we think about having a homosexual daughter?”

“Well…aren’t we liberal?” he said, but it didn’t sound like a question.

A rational, open-minded, liberal and generous man, he felt there was little to discuss. Nothing much had changed for him, except, he said, that he now knew his daughter better. The fact is, we didn’t have a problem accepting Camille’s homosexuality. Not having to come to terms with it, allowed me to move on to the next thing; making sure others accepted her sexuality. My mother, my sisters, my mother-in-law, friends, I felt an urge to reveal, inform, have them accept, and move on.

I don’t care about the gender of Camille’s partner, it’s character that matters, I want Camille, for that matter all my children, to have good, reliable, honest life-partners. But I know this immediate acceptance doesn’t come easily to all. I wish I could help those who struggle to accept their child’s homosexuality.

On several occasions, when I have revealed this information about my daughter, I have been met with understanding or have been asked for advice. When our cleaning lady learnt about Camille’s sexual orientation, she asked me, “Would you agree to speak to a friend of mine? You see, she recently learnt her only son is gay. She is devastated.”

I said, “Tell her that her son already faces tons of rejection. She should ask herself if she wants to be another person rejecting him or if she wants to be a supportive, loving mother offering a safe space for him.”

Many parents feel disappointed when they discover their child’s same-sex attraction. Many grieve for an image of their child that was fabricated in their minds and was in fact, wrong all along. Perhaps surprisingly, the revelation of a child’s genuine sexual orientation can bring parents closer to their child, as it’s an opportunity to know their identity better.

Li Hua’s comments provoke a debate inside my head. What is my public responsibility as a mother of a lesbian daughter? Do I have one, beyond protecting and supporting her as an individual? I had until now never thought of this. Yet, I realize that I do care to change hearts and minds and to contribute to a society that is open and inclusive, for my daughter and for any other discriminated minority. I tell myself, this means I should seize opportunities to be outspoken, to be a conscientious supporter. Am I already outspoken enough? And, most importantly, how open does Camille want me to be? Ultimately, I am sharing information about her. At this point, I make a plan to ask her.

I arrive home, drop my massaged body in the hammock and text Camille about the “incident.” I finish with a question, “Should I have answered with the truthful, but incomplete answer, ‘Camille still doesn’t have a boyfriend?’ or should I use the occasion to sensitize?”

And then comes Camille’s answer:

“My feeling is, if people don’t ask correctly, they don’t deserve the full truth. Less even a personal answer. When I am asked if I have a boyfriend, I almost always answer with a simple no. Only when asked if I have a partner do I offer a full response. And, as a survival rule, I never share this information when at the hairdresser or the aesthetician. It’s a safe bet, and maybe I exaggerate, but I don’t want to be in that awkward silence you mentioned. I prefer not to reveal it because every time it reminds me that the battle is not won, that there is still much to do.

But I refuse to hide. I will walk chin up with A.’s hand in mine on the street. I do it in support of gay boys and girls.

The comments we receive in the street are sexist and dehumanizing. But I will not stop holding her hand, neither will she stop holding mine.

It’s true that I am not interested in educating people. At times I try, but I get tired of it. Fortunately, there are others who do it more openly and are more engaged. We are all fighting our battles.

Oh, and of course Li Hua has asked me many times if I have a boyfriend. I’ve always said no. And now I know I won’t go to her again for a massage. I know the silence you are talking about. I don’t want to experience it.

I knew that Camille would have responded, “No, Li Hua, I still don’t have a boyfriend.” Does she choose that answer because it is wiser to avoid the conversation, the frustration, the pain, the irritation? I understand my daughter doesn’t want to go around stating her sexual orientation, just as my other two adult children don’t go around stating they are heterosexual. But I know Camille has been hurt. She doesn’t think she can “educate” all people on this subject, and she doesn’t want to. She, who has learnt through pain.

Li Hua’s homophobic reaction sparked a reflection on my public advocacy. I am proud of my daughter, her choice, her determination. I stand by her. This is part of who she is, and I now realize I want to say it publicly to whoever cares to listen and whoever doesn’t. I celebrate the diversity that Camille has brought to our family; she has enriched our lives, our perspectives, our understanding of gender and sexual orientation. I will not avoid the topic precisely because it is still a taboo for many. I will speak up because I can. It’s easier for me to speak; I am not the person experiencing rejection.

I stand up for my daughter’s right to live a full, free, self-determined life independent of her sexual orientation. From now on, I tell myself, I’ll be a more deliberate and outspoken advocate for diversity, visibility, affirmation and inclusion. Prejudice won’t vanish because we keep it under wraps. I will be more alert to homophobia and will seek to dismantle it whenever I encounter it. I will not demonize the homophobe; thus I will return to Li Hua, and when I have the occasion, I will try to persuade her that same-sex attraction is not a disease.

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