“Maybe your parents are just limited when it comes to this.”

Mr. Howell spoke slowly from the chair he had somehow managed to squeeze out from his desk and turn, to face me. My senior year English teacher’s office was so small, one of us had to stand. In between periods, in the middle of a popular corridor, I felt like someone stopping by a hot dog vendor’s cart on a busy city street. Except, I wanted to cry. Except, I felt that the person standing shouldn’t cry, that crying was an activity best suited to chairs or, even better, sofas. Then again, people cried at funerals, didn’t they? I’d yet to attend one, but I’d seen funerals in movies—people in fancy dark clothes, crying. Standing and crying. A butler, sometimes, holding an umbrella because the sky is bursting and the newly orphaned has inherited vast sums that will one day go toward crime solving and parental death-avenging.

There were times during my last year in high school when I wished Mr. Howell was my father. And my guidance counselor, Mrs. Geiss, my mother. There were mornings while solving for y or reciting Moliere, that I wished my parents were dead.

“Maybe they’ve never known anyone gay before, so they don’t know how to deal with this.”

This, meaning, you. Meaning, their gay son. Meaning, the person standing in front of his English teacher, again, trying not to cry, saying no, I don’t need to sit. Everyone’s still alive, right? No reason to cry, in any position, on any surface. I didn’t tell Mr. Howell that sometimes I wished I were dead. I told Mrs. Geiss that I was looking forward to college, that things would be different soon. I would no longer have to come home every afternoon to a mother and a father who told me I was disgusting, that I had to change, that deep down I was normal, right? Normal, meaning, the you they could love. Meaning, the person who only has long talks with his English teacher about English. Meaning, alive and never wishing for anyone’s death.

“Maybe you can give them another pamphlet. A book.”

I looked at Mr. Howell. His warm, advice-giving face. Brown eyes, closely cropped brown hair. Like a handsome Benedictine monk, capable of solving crimes. Actually, he was a practicing Buddhist and knew a great deal about Eastern thought. I wanted to ask Mr. Howell to talk to my parents, who weren’t Buddhist, but were steeped in Confucianism, its patriarchal narrative, its heterosexual imperative: every son must marry a virtuous woman and produce ever more sons.

“It seems like they’ve hit a wall, reached a limit they didn’t know existed within themselves.”

I thought about Mr. Howell’s word, limit. Somehow using that word had made my teacher seem less handsome, less monk. I felt the heat rise in my face. Rise and redden. I knew he meant it only in relation to my parents’ disapproval over my sexuality. But the word felt like a diagnosis of a condition, a diagnosis of a bigotry fundamental to my parents’ make-up, a trait that would not change after a pamphlet, a book, a personal letter, a patiently logical discussion of differing interpretations of Confucius. What if Confucius and culture were just excuses? After all, I knew of other Chinese parents who were more accepting or at least open-minded.

“Maybe they can’t be taught, not now anyway.”

Probably. Yes. I nodded. The possibility that my parents might never—listen to me? love me?—filled the hallway I was standing in. I wanted my teacher and I, both of us, to sit. I wanted us to sit together on the floor. I wanted to tell him my parents were not limited, not broken or stupid. I wanted to tell him so I could hear other words and possibilities, out loud. So I could hear myself say something warm and handsome, open and vast about them, my mother and father.


The 2016 elections of Donald Trump and Mike Pence have already made this country a more dangerous, less livable place for women, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, people of color, trans people, queer people, and anyone who inhabits more than one of these subject positions at once. I’ve seen poems and essays trying to depict our new leaders as though they’re somehow misunderstood. I’m not interested in humanizing the outrageously powerful and greedy, those who dehumanize the vulnerable here and everywhere. I’m not going to sing campfire songs with white supremacists and misogynists. As an editor and an educator, I will continue to do everything I can to amplify the voices of those on the margins and open readers up to new alchemies of language and seeing. As a writer, I will continue to dream, to question, to fight.

As a queer person of color and a child of impoverished Chinese immigrants, I refuse to let anyone tell my story for me. Other than the deliberate altering of names, this brief essay is as close to my memory as I could write it. This work attempts (again) to tell the painful and true and unresolved story of engaging with my parents’ deep homophobia. Sometimes, the essay’s ending seems lovely and hopeful to me. And sometimes, it reads more ambivalent. I want to defend my parents and then I don’t want to. I want to hold them accountable and I want to give an account of their humanity, their vulnerability.

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming this spring from BOA Editions, Ltd. Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry and The Best American Poetry. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and Lambda Literary, Chen is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.