Being a queer international student
I’m living a double life – one where I am free to be my true self, and the other slightly less so. The first is the life I hold dear to me. The second is the life I hold for my family – the life that I’m not ready to let go of, or fear to.
Like many queer people in the closet, you act according to the pre-determined gender stereotype you’re conformed to, to avoid arousing suspicion from mom, dad and grandparents. But in the shadows, or with a door stop in the bedroom, your real self comes out.
And that was what I did in high school, up to the point of graduation, up to the point of flying to Australia becoming an international student thirsty for adventure.
For queer international students, coming here is a part of liberation and a part of freedom, especially when there’s no relatives around. It can be incredibly lonely, but for some, it’s a new pasture where excitement outweighs homesickness and anxiety.
It’s the time to explore sexuality, to finally try everything and more. I found out my feelings for other guys were not a phase after all. But I was still deep into my religious Indonesian community, one where I gravitated to when I first arrived for comfort and familiarity.
At the same time, I went and met other queer people in secret through social media, joined clubs and meetings, and saw gay events whenever there I could be alone and unnoticed.
The new friends, the new group, and rainbow events that I joined were all visible to me, but they were non-existent digitally. Unlike my other friends who post every group dinner and outings, taking pride in their friendship and bragging about their camaraderie, I have to keep the memories locked in a photo album. Even up to this day.
And for a while, I had the best of both worlds. I kept my family within their expectations of me while at the same time making social hangouts a possibility.
Living in secret
During a dinner catch-up with one of my friends Michael, he told me about having a completely different experience. His parents back home have no access to Instagram or Facebook – only WeChat. As far as they are concerned, Michael’s world is in China’s popular social media app and their video calls alone.
“In WeChat, I only post things that are positive, about my study, about my work, about everything that they [home relatives, acquaintances] are proud of in my life… Because no one is going to investigate if you are doing well here or not, they couldn’t come here to prove it. I can post whatever I want to show to them,” he said.
Take it or leave it. When they are thousands of miles away, whatever you post is the only reality available to them.
“Everyone is an actor, everyone is pretending to be something that other people want them to be,” Michael said to me.
“Even back in China, before coming here, I always had two faces, in front of my friends and in front of my parents. I’m actually an extrovert[ed] person but I couldn’t find any topics [in common] with my parents, and they shut me down when I don’t think traditionally like them.”
It’s so interesting now to see Michael’s Instagram account, with vibrant, rainbow-filled images of him dancing in a Midsummer afterparty. His feed is queer, his friends are queer, and he’s proud of it.
Why do Michael and I do this? Why keep this facade of complicated lies to keep a double life? We’re not Hannah Montana, it’s not rich nor glamorous.
Fear, first and foremost – fear of what would happen if my family finds out. For me, they are active across my social media platforms, so posting freely is not an option. I can always make a different account and in hindsight I should have. But I’ve already connected with my queer friends here anyway.
My fear comes to the point where I become paranoid of any of my family members or their friends stumbling upon my photo uploaded by any of my openly queer friends. I remember once asking my friend to please delete his Instagram story because I was in it.
For us to embrace being queer we often have to do it in in secret, while acting as the straight prodigy to our father and mother. Otherwise we face scrutiny, rejection, disownment, or worse, being sent to conversion therapy.
But during my conversation with Michael, I realised and argued that sometimes it is necessary. It is a part of our growth. Without the secrets, the hiding, the prudence, we wouldn’t be able to accept who we are and our identities.
Extra for Michael, he finds it a fun challenge to live both of these lives. “This is the life, full of drama and performances. If you only live in one life, you only live in one side of yourself, which is boring.”
Merging in the future
As with every good story, there’s a climax and a falling action. Eventually we will merge the two worlds, but at this period in time, we both agree that colliding worlds is far into the future.
Our career and education comes first, because career marks our independence, and it is the key to merging the worlds. Courage comes second – the strength to face whatever comes next.
“If we were to take some steps to change [merging the two worlds], we would have to be ready to take up the consequences, either bad or good,” Michael told me. And he’s right. Coming out to your Asian family can be worse than telling them you don’t want to be a doctor.
There’s pressure for us to reach that independence, because our time is limited. But it’s also not a race. We have to fully be ready when the time comes.
What I am doing now isn’t the best way to live a life. I used to scrutinise myself for it. But I’ve come to terms that it is what it is. Without living a separate life, I wouldn’t be able to venture out and accept myself and meet my queer family.
Special thanks to Khiem Le for making this image for us
How are you doing? Are you living a secret life as well?
If you are feeling down or know someone who is, you can seek help through hotlines such as:
- Lifeline at 13 11 14,
- BeyondBlue at 1300 22 4636,
- Headspace at 1800 650 980,
- QLife at 1800 184 527, if you identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Students may also seek help from in-house university counsellors or helplines.