It’s a sunny summer day in Insadong, an art gallery and souvenir shop-filled neighborhood in central Seoul. I’m inquiring about prices with a shop owner as we stumble over each other’s languages, and to her my face doesn’t make sense with the English coming out of my mouth. Where Am I From? she wants to know. Why Don’t I Speak Korean? Am I Japanese?Aniyo, mi-guk, I reply. Ibyang. American. Adopted. She looks at me, shrugs, and quotes me 15000 won.
Back in the States, I sit in a packed room, listening to an Asian American community leader talk about the need for families to be more accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. I am bracing myself for what I fear will be the assumption that everyone in the room has at least one Asian parent and probably two. I’m not wrong and at this point, I’m not surprised. I feel my body sinking into the chair just as a fellow adoptee friend catches my eye and the glance we exchange is a non-verbal negotiation of who will remind the speaker this time that families with Asian children can look many different ways. However, I’m sleepy today and tired of the need for interruption. So, I say nothing. Silence. Invisibility. The speech continues.
The year I graduated from high school, the US Census measured my hometown in rural Western New York as 96% white/Caucasian. Not only was I immediately visible as different almost everywhere I went, but my white parents, having lived in places of similar racial demographics their whole lives, were ill-equipped to navigate the challenges of having a multiracial family. And our adoption agency did little to support them in having nuanced conversations with me and with each other.
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to grow up around other Korean adoptees, and each summer we attended Camp Chin-Gu and learned about Korean language, culture, art, and food. Sadly, Camp Chin-Gu was also my first experience with anti-adoptee prejudice. As we got older, the non-adoptee Korean and Korean American counselors would tease us about our awkward language pronunciations, our unfamiliarity with Korean food, our lack of Hangul skills, and our Americanized European names. By this point in my life, I had already experienced racially motivated bullying from my mostly white classmates at school – taunts of “Chopstick” and “Eggroll” permeate my memory. But to have other Koreans refer to us as “Twinkie” or “Banana” and treat us as though we weren’t “real” Asians was heartbreaking.
After that, I tended to avoid non-adoptee Asian and Asian American spaces, and the bonds I formed with my childhood adoptee friends strengthened as a result. I remember late nights and long conversations about motherland tours, difficult family dynamics, the white privilege we carried as a proxy of our parents, and times when we felt like outsiders everywhere. The original questions of self-discovery remained, but now I was working toward the answers.
Around that same period, I also began exploring my sexuality. First identifying as bisexual because I was drawn to people of various genders; the biphobia and monosexism that surrounded me began to root itself in my psyche. I wanted an accepting community, but quickly found that the “B” in LGBT(& sometimes Q) was often a tag-on identity that wasn’t truly embraced as valid. During a period where I dated only cis-women, many people assumed my lesbian identity and I did little to dissuade them, usually identifying as the overly ambiguous “queer” to avoid further questioning.
A turning point came six years later when, after several same-sex relationships, I began dating a straight-identified cis-male acquaintance from my undergrad days. Having recently moved to Central North Carolina, I was faced with questions about my sexuality from new friends who had assumed my lesbian identity. This time, however, instead of erasing my own visibility, I fought my way through years of internalized monosexism and was vocal not only about my own bisexuality, but also about the harmful implications of biphobia for the health and wellness of bisexual individuals and communities.
Moving again to Chicago soon after, I experienced more biphobia and monosexism than ever before, and the fact that nearly all of it came from people who identified as lesbian, gay, and queer did and still does feel even more isolating. I remember having fellow activists call my identity transphobic and tell me I was a sellout to “the movement,” being barred from lesbian and bisexual women’s groups because I “chose” to date men, and hearing multiple times that bisexuality wasn’t even real.
Faced with another challenge of occupying middle ground when the dominant narrative demanded either/or, I reflected back upon my experience growing up adopted: How did I reconcile my desire for acceptance with my memory of the strength that came from forging my own path? I decided to search for a community of people who would let my various intersecting identities speak for themselves, eventually finding an adoptee-inclusive pan-Asian LGBTQ group called Invisible to Invincible. The encouragement I found there helped me take pride in being bisexual and Asian American and adopted; it propelled me toward more local and national leadership opportunities.
These days, I’m having to publicly introduce my sexuality less and less; given my visibility within many LGBTQ organizations, it’s either already known or generally assumed. Instead, I keep finding myself in those same packed rooms of well-meaning Asian American leaders, the ones who want to create better and safer worlds for the next generation but whose views remain narrow. And there “coming out” feels much different.
“Coming out” is a term often used to describe a process of disclosing our identities or beliefs to ourselves and others. October 11, 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of “National Coming Out Day,” an annual campaign that encourages people to publicly share their LGBTQ identities and to have conversations with others about what being LGBTQ means to them. The Human Rights Campaign, a driving force behind National Coming Out Day, commemorates it each year with the assurance that coming out is an act of “bravery and authenticity,” with little regard for privilege or the desire of individuals to disclose. Still, in this context, coming out is often positioned as an end goal in the process of identity development, like crossing the finish line in a marathon full of internal and external obstacles where you’re greeted by cheering bystanders who immediately give you fruit, electrolytes, and a big warming blanket.
Coming out as an adoptee in Asian American activism, however, feels like a tiresome act of disruption. It’s not something I’m invited or encouraged to do. It’s not something that I’m told will bring me closer to my truest self, and it’s not something that authentically lets people in. This, of course, begs the question – who am I coming out for? In the last couple of years, coming out as adopted has felt less about me sharing my identity because people are welcoming me with open arms and more about me sharing my identity because people need or want me to educate them. It’s no longer about my voice or my truths, but about how they can be used by others in service to themselves. And I’m tired of only talking about my adoptee identity in the context of correcting what others are doing or saying wrong.
So, I issue a challenge to those in Asian or Asian American activism and organizing: Do not wait for the adoptees in your spaces to have to come out in order for you to begin your education on our histories. Read about and critically analyze the birth and life of the vast international adoption infrastructure. Fight for young parents and single mothers who want to keep and raise their children, including fighting for the resources they need in order to do so. Intentionally include adoptees and our voices in your work, especially in campaigns for Asian American visibility or policy change. Acknowledge the many ways that our families can look and the harm that policing some as “more Asian” than others can have on adoptees and multiracial/mixed-race people.
Maybe my identity will still feel like a between-space outside the borders of neatly drawn circles rather than in the overlap of the Venn diagram where they meet. Maybe who I am will continue to cause confusion, whether I’m on the streets of Seoul or in the conference rooms of New York and DC. But then, maybe both growing up adopted and living as a bisexual woman have prepared me for this ambiguity. What I do know is that the diversity of our diasporas deserve to be recognized.
~ Joy Messinger
Joy Messinger is a reproductive, birth, and social justice activist working at the intersections of adolescent sexuality and youth development in Chicago, IL. Born in Seoul, South Korea in 1982 and adopted at three months old, she emerged from her time living in rural Western New York and Central North Carolina with a background in social work and public health, a passion for community change, and a fierce but hard to explain devotion to college basketball. When she’s not working, Joy is active with local and national LGBTQ and Asian American organizations, serving as a Core Member of Invisible to Invincible: Asian Pacific Islander Pride of Chicago and the Board Co-Chair of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance. Joy believes in pushing the boundaries of inclusivity, building queer people of color community and chosen family, and cooking delicious food for everyone she knows. To contact Joy:firstname.lastname@example.org; about.me/joy.messinger.