I grew up trying to hide my immigrant, Asian identity. As if my black hair, yellow skin, and native dialect were not parts of myself that I should be proud of. I curated elements that would form a seemingly perfect personality to blend in and fend off any wandering thoughts of my natural gravitation towards boys. Society conditioned me to keep my head down and the more years passed, the higher the numbing, concrete walls grew around me. Behind those walls, I nurtured a dynamic, complex, empathetic person. Being a writer at heart, I was able to release my emotions, thoughts, and experiences through creations of words paired delicately on paper. Writing has always been a consistent source of comfort for me . There’s something beautiful about being able to read, relive, and feel something a previous version of “you” wrote years ago–almost like flipping through a little book of secrets that only you can understand.
From “What Are You?” to “I Don’t Know”
A Queer, Non-Binary, Mixed Race Japanese American Perspective
By Misao McGregor
“Half Japanese and half Scottish.”
That was the script/stock answer I had memorized by the time I was three. Upon meeting anyone new and telling them that my name was Misao McGregor, they’d inevitably request that I repeat my name once more, then go on to ask the all-dreaded question that so many mixed race AAPI people face: “What are you?”
I wore that answer proud on my chest. But that pride wasn’t necessarily rooted in my mixed race heritage. Instead, I took pride in the fact that I could satiate the curiosity of others and satisfy their need to feel as though they had stumbled across something exotic and worthwhile.
Little did I realize just how much I was pandering to the colonial framework of allowing them to own my identity in some digestible way, shape, or form. But how do you explain those kinds of concepts to a three-year-old?
You don’t. So you make it easy for them to understand by making it binary.
“Half Japanese and half Scottish,” I practiced in the mirror, parroting my parents and setting up a script for myself.
It was easy enough to remember and handy to employ when traversing the awkward criss-cross of questions. People “hate to ask” but they desperately want to know so it became my responsibility to conjure up an answer that could put us both at ease.
And for a while, it truly did.
In the very breath that I uttered such a clear-cut description of my ethnic makeup, I felt strangely validated. I had asserted myself to a stranger and told them, “This is me,” and somehow a type of agency seemed to follow.
But that feeling of agency never lasted long. Maybe only a second or so until they inevitably followed up with a back-handed compliment like, “Oh that’s why you’re so pretty,” read: “Oh I can recognize your whiteness now so that means you are, in fact, beautiful.” And with that, I’d be left feeling confused at the overall logic that attempted to justify my existence within a white supremacist world – a logic that I even participated in for so many years without question or complaint.
My mixed race AAPI heritage was the first pillar of my identity. I felt forced to embrace it early on since I had to consistently relate it to others with a smile. I slowly began to understand the map of binaries that I was expected to exist in between, but over time, I realized just how hypocritical and impossible those binaries were to upkeep in the first place.
Let me break it down for you.
I was mixed race so that was exciting. But I was Asian so that made me shy. I was assigned female at birth so that automatically made me submissive to men. And I was an Asian girl which sexualized and exoticized me even more. I still looked white to some which gave me a certain amount of privilege back. But then I was outed as gay in high school which dismantled my proximity to men altogether.
It seemed like with every rule, I managed to find a way to break it. Not intentionally so. But with a consistent vigor that I felt I had no control over.
I craved the script I had clung onto my whole life – “Half Japanese and half Scottish” – just for the sake of security and comfort. Upon discovering my queerness and enduring the traumatic circumstances in which that had occurred, I felt as though the script had been flipped on its head and I had not been privy to any of the rewrites.
But working through the trauma of being outed made me realize that this was probably the first time in my life that I truly had any type of agency over my identity at all. My race had already been laid out for me but my being queer was something nobody else could explain or lay claim to for themselves. In fact, me coming out at all was something nobody expected from me as a femme “straight-looking” mixed race Asian girl.
Asian women are almost always presented only when in relation to white men. They are painted as these little figurines who are innocent and demure, slender and quiet – the ultimate fantasy for European male colonial domination. And on top of that, they are expected to perform a type of asexuality – that is until a man aggressively takes a hold of them in which they must willingly submit to their force and fulfill only the wildest of their sexual exotic fantasies.
But aside from my being the very opposite of slender, quiet, and demure, I now understood that I would never be able to perform the asexuality/heterosexuality or virgin/whore complex as the literal thought of a penis both terrified and disgusted me (if you have a penis, that’s great! I have grown to recognize that penises are not just reserved for men, they’re an anatomical part of a human body regardless of gender – but I’m getting sidetracked).
It honestly took me until this past year with COVID lockdowns to finally make peace with the fact that I existed outside of everything I had ever been taught because, finally, I no longer had to perform.
Without any real contact with anyone outside of my household, my perspective of myself started to shift. I had always been defined by those around me. And even when I defined myself through my queerness, I was still basing my self-definition off of the subverted expectations of others and trying to reclaim the experience of being outed before I was ready to lay claim to myself.
Now, the script I had written was just redundant and unnecessary as I was surrounded by people who had come to know me not as a body who ticked off some diversity boxes on a form, but as a soul who happened to exist within particular frameworks that aren’t entirely endorsed by society at large.
Strangely enough, it was that lack of performativity that brought me to the conclusion that I identify as non-binary. And saying that outloud for the first time felt really scary to admit. It was as different as could be from, “Half Japanese and half Scottish.” There were no rules or expectations for me to fulfill or disappoint because non-binary, by definition, really doesn’t have one.
Having the authority over myself to admit that I was an ever-evolving being that didn’t have to exist inside of a single gender felt weirdly uncomfortable for me to claim. As much as being mixed race should have taught me that fluidity is, in fact, a state that a person can reside in, I was still forced to choose between the two – never quite Asian enough or white enough for any space that was predominantly one or the other.
So being non-binary got rid of those rigid structures altogether and reminded me that there really are no clear-cut answers when it comes to our identities. I will continue to change no matter what. And a part of that really terrifies me. But another part of myself feels so at peace with knowing that what I am in this moment is all I have to be. And I am always the one in charge of my own self-definition because no one else will ever know what it feels like to live inside my head, my body, and my heart.
I can still remember my brother’s face when I “came out” to him at seventeen-years-old. I write “came out” in quotation marks only because I had just been outed and still didn’t really know how I identified but figured that I should be the one to tell him before somebody else decided to. So I quietly and awkwardly said to him while we sat next to each other on the living room couch, “I’m not straight.”
He whipped his head around to face me with his eyes bulging out. But upon realizing the severity of his gut reaction, he cleared his throat and readjusted his posture to be more casual. He then tried to calmly and empathetically get out, “So what are you?”
But the question I had answered time and time again with such authority and precision had stopped me short for the very first time in my life. And all I could reply was, “I don’t know.”
The binary had broken. And I was suddenly free to be anything I wanted.
As much as I identify today as a queer, non-binary, mixed race Japanese American human, I still don’t really have a clear-cut answer to the stupidly generic question, “What are you?”
But that’s probably my favorite part. There’s no script for me to follow anymore. And there’s room for all of my intersecting identities to exist both inside of one another and side by side.
I get to learn about who I am everyday and discover new attributes or realms of my being that I once wouldn’t have believed were possible. But that’s the joy of being able to self-define without actually being confined to any definition at all.
There’s just a life waiting to be lived. And I’m so grateful to be alive and living in it.
I grew up trying to hide my immigrant, Asian identity. As if my black hair, yellow skin, and native dialect were not parts of myself that I should be proud of. I curated elements that would form
“Why do I feel so different?” I wondered to myself while watching a movie with my older brother and sister at home. We were all curled up on the couch and an unexplainable sense of dread and fear suddenly came over me. I was 7. I felt scared. I felt confused.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend yet?”, everybody kept asking me at home and in high school. I felt alone. I felt frustrated. I felt torn.
“This is my chance to start fresh. I won’t be different anymore.”, I persuaded myself as I unpacked my last box in my dorm room at UCLA. I felt excited. I felt hopeful.
“Everybody, meet Kenny”, one of my best college friends said as he introduced his new bf to the rest of the group. Everyone welcomed him with open arms. I felt surprised. I felt comfort. I felt pride.
“Gay, straight, black, white, we demand equal rights!” I yelled while marching down the street with strangers in old town Pasadena. It was a busy Saturday afternoon and we walked past restaurants where people stared at us through the big front windows like we were animals at the zoo. What are they thinking? What if someone recognizes me? What if I’m on the news and my family sees me? I felt cautious. I felt alive. I felt pride.
“Wait, everybody here is gay??” I blurted out loud with my eyes wide in disbelief. My college friends took me on a cab ride to my first gay bar in West Hollywood. Music pumping, disco balls, and shiny lights. I chugged my two-for-one drink down so quickly that I almost forgot to breathe. The foreign feeling of comfort slowly sunk in. I felt overwhelmed. I felt free. I felt pride.
“It’s nothing you did, it’s just who I am”, I cried out to my mom and sister behind chokes and tears. The tears rushed down my face like a flood and I wished it would wash away the pain. On that day I single-handedly changed my life, and theirs, with only a few words: I am gay. I felt liberated. I felt sad. I felt guilty. But, I felt pride.
“Look at these faggots!”, a stranger said as he lunged towards me and my boyfriend at Disneyland. We were just holding hands. And neither of us let go. I felt disgusted. I felt angry. But, I felt pride.
“It was great, my girlfriend and I went to brunch and hung out at the beach”, I responded after my coworker asked me about my weekend. I hesitated and did an instinctual pronoun change in fear of getting outed at work. I didn’t even hear the rest of the conversation. My mind drifted. I felt ashamed. I felt guilty.
“You’re all going to hell!” A biker yelled as he sped past us at the AIDS walk. “Fuck you!!!” I jolted back. I was furious. I felt energy. I felt pride.
“Would this have been different if it was a picture of me and my gf?” I thought to myself. My mom was having an open house with the realtor. She quickly put stuff away in my closet, including a framed picture of me and my bf kissing. It wasn’t meant to hurt me. But the daggers of betrayal stung like hell as I sat on my bed and fought back the tears by myself. I felt exhausted. I felt disappointed. But, I felt pride as I stood that picture right back up on my desk.
“Does Uncle —— even know who he’s going to marry??” My 6 year-old niece asked my sister innocently. My fiancé and I had just FaceTimed them to share the exciting news that we got engaged. My sister tells her: of course, Uncle —— and ——- are getting married! “Oh, ok!” my niece responded cheerfully. I felt hope. I felt grateful. I felt pride.
“We should just skip the Bahamas” I told my husband after researching potential vacation spots. First and foremost, always having to do a google search on “location name comma gay-friendly comma safe”. I felt annoyed that we had to do that. I felt uneasy.
“I would never support anyone or anything that is against you. Never”, my brother reassured me as our late night conversation spun from a stupid sandwich at Chick-fil-a to politics and human rights. I felt lifted. I felt safe. I felt pride.
“I do”. I said, with my hands gripping my husband’s firmly. We were nestled deep in the redwoods surrounded by 70 of our closest friends and family. We listened to the rain fall outside on the deck without a worry in the world. I felt fearless. I felt home. I felt pride.
“A marriage is between a man and a woman”, the officiant started at one of my closest friend’s beautiful outdoor wedding. I felt my husband tighten his grip around my hand. We sat in one of the front rows right on the edge of the aisle. I felt eyes watching us, the only gay couple in a crowd of over two hundred people. I felt disappointed. I felt embarrassed. I felt frustrated. But, I felt pride as I squeezed my husband’s hand tighter and bit my tongue.
“Know that there is nothing wrong with you and you are a beautiful human being. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise or make you feel like being different is bad. Be true to yourself and your core, surround yourself with those who support and lift you, and everything will be okay”, I said to my 12 year old cousin in the U.K. who shared that he is transgender. I felt love. I felt protective. I felt pride.
Right now, sharing the most intimate details of what made me who I am today is utterly terrifying. But as I look around social media and in my circles, seeing and hearing other people’s inspiring stories—I feel community, I feel power, and I feel pride. I speak for those who have not yet found their voice or those who can’t speak up. I march for those who are no longer with us. And I feel for those who are still discovering themselves. I feel pride to be an advocate to educate younger generations that we need to celebrate our stories and most importantly, that we are free to be who we are—authentically, with no excuses or apologies. Just pride.
Lastly, I’ll end with what Pride means to me. Pride means loving yourself. Pride means family, whether you’re born into them or you choose them. Pride means holding hands with my husband and not apologizing for it. Pride means teaching my niece and nephews that they should always, always be true to who they are. No matter the circumstances. Pride means speaking up if someone makes inappropriate comments, intentional or not. Pride means coming out, showing up, and lifting up the LGBTQ community when times are tough. Pride means refusing to accept that anyone should grow up feeling like they aren’t normal. Pride means finally accepting that you were born to stand out even when people may want to keep a part of you hidden. Pride means sharing who you are with the world, not suppressing it. Pride means never having to ask for permission to be your true self.