From shame to joy: one grad’s journey

December 13, 2013 — by Deepti Kannan and Michelle Leung
family
Friends and family celebrate Amy Chang's wedding last year.
2002 grad Amy Chang faced hardships in high school for her sexual orientation but found acceptance as an adult
Alumna Amy Chang, then a shy, awkward sophomore, twirled gracefully as she made her way across the wooden floor of Cirrus Dance & Arts, her dance studio. She was clad in all-black clothing, matching her long black hair tied neatly in a bun. A dancer since age 5, Chang thought nothing would get in the way of her passion and its pursuit — until one day during her sophomore year of high school. 
There were rumors going around that Chang was gay, rumors that at the time were false, since she had not yet figured out her orientation. But when the rumors leaked into the dance studio, one of Chang’s closest friends, age 12, suddenly stopped talking to her one day.
“I was driving myself up the wall thinking there was something wrong with me. I thought that I had done something wrong, that I needed to apologize to her,” Chang said.
For the next few excruciating weeks, every time Chang walked into the studio, her friend would pick up her bag and leave without a word, worried that Chang was pursuing her as a girlfriend. 
After weeks of desperate attempts to get her friend to talk to her, Chang finally got an opportunity at the dance studio’s annual open house showcase, open to the public. Prospective customers innocently engaged in small talk, picking up pamphlets and helping themselves to spring rolls, completely oblivious to the drama that was to come.
Chang approached her friend for the umpteenth time, but this time, before she could squirm away, Chang cornered her.
“Just tell me what went wrong. What did I do?” she demanded, her temper rising. She had lost her calm, and the girl, intimidated, began to cry.
“I was pretty emotional, pretty upset. I wasn’t being super calm and clear,” Chang said 13 years later. “I was really embarrassed that it was so public that I had made her cry.”
Jumping to her daughter’s defense, the friend’s protective mother yelled at Chang in front of everyone, publicly disdaining her, even though Chang had not done anything wrong.
“The thing about rumors, is, people talked about you behind your back and when I asked them to their faces, all her mom would say is that I was too old to be her daughter’s friend,” Chang said.
Chang’s mom later told her that her friend’s mom had suspicions because her daughter and Chang would send letters to each other — alleged proof that they were having an affair. But at the time, Chang was just confused and hurt.
“After I was yelled at in front of everyone, my [dance] teacher took me aside and told me I should leave. He was trying to protect me, but at that time, it just added to my feeling that I [did] not fit in, that I will never fit in.”
Chang did not speak to that girl again for 11 years.
“I felt very upset because even if I turned out to be gay, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would want to kiss every girl that I was friends with,” Chang said. “I hadn’t even figured out if I was gay or not, and I was already experiencing the discrimination as if I were.”
Today, Chang is happily married. While she is no longer the timid Chinese dancer, her journey to the marriage (now one year old) has been riddled with barriers and obstacles. 
 
Coming out
In her first year of college, Chang made the decision that many closeted gays fear — to come out to her parents. Although she was nervous, her parents had told her when she was in high school that they would be accepting if she came out as gay, which she said was “quite liberal for Asian parents.”
When she told her parents, just the three of them in their bedroom, their reaction was mixed.
“Their initial reaction was, ‘OK, we support you,’” Chang said. “But then they [got] really nit picky about my girlfriend at that time and said, ‘But, we don’t want her to come over to the house, not because you’re gay, just because we don’t like her.’” 
Chang said that they probably were just as critical about her choice of partner as they were about her brother’s girlfriend.
“Back then I totally felt like they were not OK with me being gay and were just in denial about saying so. And now I don’t feel that way anymore,” Chang said. “I think we are so ready, so prepared for people to reject you or to have a bad reaction.”
Regardless, Chang is grateful that her family was understanding about her orientation. As her family members started to learn that she was gay, Chang said she was fortunate that they did not make a big deal out of it.
For example, one day when Chang was heading home, she saw her grandmother in the driveway of her house. Her grandmother said, “I just dropped off noodles and soup; don’t forget to put that in the fridge,” and in the same sentence, “By the way, are you homosexual?”
Although her grandmother was surprised by Chang’s honest response, she nonetheless understood. Her main concerns, however, were whether Chang would be able to start a family and endure discrimination in the workplace.
“She was obviously coming from a place of love and concern, but what I was most grateful for was she was like ‘Of course we would still love you,’” Chang said. “‘We wouldn’t discriminate against you, but the rest of the world might.’”
In response, Chang reassured her, saying, “I’m not ruling [being heterosexual] out; I could still meet the right guy, I’m open to that.” She continued, “People in Berkeley [where Chang lived] are cool with things like that, and I could always adopt a baby.”
However, Chang said she has heard of much worse reactions. 
“[My wife] had a girlfriend who was Cantonese and Filipino,” Chang said. “When she came out to her parents, it was a much bigger deal. I’ve heard stories about somebody’s partner coming out and being kicked out and disowned.”
While Chang’s family was understanding, not all of the people in her life were as supportive. 
 
Pressure to be straight
Throughout her journey to realizing her identity, Chang has encountered much opposition that have made her try to change who she was. Almost every person she had confided in during high school tried to talk her out of it.
“They’d be like, ‘Oh don’t worry you’re just a late bloomer,’” Chang said. “‘You’re totally straight; your hormones haven’t kicked in yet. Some day you’ll find the right boy, the right guy.’”
In fact, when Chang was 18, one teacher in a dance conservatory in China told her that if she “wasn’t disgusted by the sight of heterosexual couples being affectionate with each other, then [she] couldn’t possibly be gay.”
Confused by these misconceptions, Chang decided to experiment with being straight.  
“I tried for many many years to get myself a boyfriend,” Chang said. “I felt like that would solve a lot of my problems and that then I could be normal.”
Yet, Chang said that it is sad that being “normal” is equated with being heterosexual.
“I really don’t like that term ‘straight’ because it implies that the rest of us are crooked,” she said.
Adding to the pressure to be heterosexual were the social expectations associated with being gay at Saratoga High.
“In Saratoga, it just seemed to me that if you were to be gay, it [would have] to be your entire identity or existence,” Chang said. “You’d be defined as the gay person.”
Even in college at UC Berkeley, Chang struggled to fit the gay stereotype. She tried to join Asian and queer clubs, yet found them too political, adding to her confusion.
“I’m not ashamed of being gay anymore, but I don’t really want to do political rows and stuff, and it seemed to me like if you’re gay, you have to be visible or you have to make a statement for gay people,” Chang said. “But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that so I thought I must not be gay. I must be straight and a late bloomer like my teachers say.” 
 
Being gay at Saratoga
Chang has always been socially awkward. She never smiled in high school, worried she might invite conversation. She would often sit alone at lunch in the poetry classroom or the ceramics classroom, a safe distance from the rest of the crowd in the quad.
With her pen nestled behind her ear and a handy notebook always with her in her black backpack to match her black outfit, Chang loved to write. A pair of Chinese drumsticks would hang loosely from her back pocket, a token of her passion for the arts.
At the school, Chang found it difficult to find someone who she could relate to, who was also confused about his or her orientation. In fact, she said that most people were either openly gay or deeply closeted.
“There were a couple of people all in the drama club who were like ‘I’m going to be an actress and I’m gay, and it doesn’t matter, and I have a crush on this celebrity or that person,’” Chang said. “It was interesting because after I [had] figured out my own orientation and come out to my own family pretty successfully, I realized slowly how many of these people that I went to school with had been gay.”
Face-to-face discrimination was less common on campus. However, Chang said that covert discrimination lurked in everyday conversations.
“People joke, and this is not just in high school, people say, ‘Oh that’s so gay’ all the time,” Chang said. “And we don’t stop to think about that.”
Even if the intent behind the words is harmless, just saying them aloud can cause harm, according to Chang. Few students, if asked, would openly condemn homosexual rights. But in their daily interactions, those same students who claim to respect gay people will use “gay” interchangeably with “lame.”
Chang compares these everyday insults to the discrimination against obese people. 
“You would never actually point at someone who was kind of overweight and laugh at them,” Chang said. “But there’s still all this kind of unconscious covert discrimination happening on a daily basis. And [people] absorb it.” 
In high school, Chang felt distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of such language. 
“For the friends I was closer to, I would tell them, ‘Can you use some other word?’” Chang said. “And they didn’t get it, because they didn’t think of me as gay. They didn’t understand why it was uncomfortable.”
When Chang was a freshman, a junior boy three and a half years older asked her to junior prom. Because she loved to dance, Chang excitedly agreed, envisioning a magical night of ballroom dancing and friendly socializing. However, her date imagined something slightly different.
“He really wanted more of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, and I was really uncomfortable,” Chang said. “He was older, he wanted to move faster. But I was like, ‘But I barely know you, can’t we be friends first?’”
That prom was the first and last dance she ever attended in high school. During her sophomore year, Chang had a crush on a senior girl who had hinted that she may have been bisexual. A talented participant of drama and choir, Chang’s crush was her ideal prom date. 
However, her crush at the time was interested in a junior boy, and Chang felt intimidated by the competition.
“I wanted to go with [her], but I couldn’t even think of how I would ask that,” Chang said. “I never asked, and pretty much I just didn’t go to any of the regular dances after that.”
Even so, Chang grew to really care about her.
“She was the only person I ever had a conversation with about being homosexual or bisexual,” Chang said. “She was one of the few people I talked to about the dance studio incident.”
When Chang was a sophomore, this friend committed suicide.
“She talked about suicide too, but it was always like a joke; nobody took it seriously until she actually did it,” Chang said. 
Chang struggles to get the words out — she stammers.
“It changed how I felt about people and how you think you always have more time to get to know them or tell them that you love them,” Chang said. “It made me feel like I have to be nicer to people.”
After her friend’s death, Chang began wearing all white, the color of mourning in her friend’s Buddhist culture.
 
The tail end of high school
Chang’s self-separation from social scenarios did not end at school dances. After her graduation, her parents urged her to go to the Grad Night to party with the rest of her graduating class, but Chang decided not to.
“If I were totally honest with myself now, I didn’t feel like I fit in. I didn’t feel comfortable,” Chang said. “I just didn’t want to go celebrate in a group setting.”
Instead, Chang had other plans in mind.
“What I ended up doing was going over to [my future] girlfriend’s house and spending the night with her,” Chang said. “That may actually have been the first night we kissed.”
Despite these incidents, Chang said that she was not alone in her journey to self-acceptance. In fact, English teacher Catherine Head helped her get past the discrimination she had to suffer.
One day, before class started her senior year, Chang told Head about her confusion, and painfully recounted the incident at the dance studio.
“She got really upset on my behalf, and I actually found that very helpful. Nobody had actually said to me, ‘That wasn’t right, what the [dance studio mom] said to you,’” Chang said. “I was all wrapped up in the ‘But what if I’m not [gay]? What if they just made a mistake?’ And [Head] said, ‘Even if you weren’t [gay], they shouldn’t have said that.’” 
Head is no stranger to the discrimination the LGBTQ community suffers. She has long been a promoter of LGBTQ rights and hopes to revive the Gay Straight Alliance group at the school. 
Even though this particular conversation with Chang, just one among many, happened 11 years ago, Head remembers it as clearly as though it were happening today. 
“Who you choose to love or who you do love — sometimes we don’t choose — does not change the feelings that you have when you love,” Head said, repeating her words to Chang. “And if you feel embarrassed, if you feel shunned, if you feel oppressed, it just makes it that much harder to reach out to the people who you love.”
Head recalls reassuring Chang “with a broken heart” that her feelings were a good thing, that she was a good person. 
“Anybody who is going to criticize [somebody for their orientation] isn’t right,” Head said. “When you talk to somebody, you don’t know if what you’re saying is going to help, because hurt can be very intense. I’m glad to know that it helped her. And I’m glad she married; I’m glad she’s happy.” 
 
Now, 10 years later
After double majoring in dance and English in college, Chang slowly started to adjust to being open about her orientation.
She now works as an acupuncture and dance choreographer. She met her wife Kate Sassoon in college when they both worked on a spring showcase together (Chang was dancing, Kate was taking a stage management course). 
After dating for a long time, they got married a year ago.
“It was really beautiful to see all of my family and all of her family all in the same place, and all of my relatives dressed up and supportive, sharing the same event and celebrating us,” Chang said.  
Although she has settled down, that does not mean that she does not still face challenges. Even now, Chang said she sometimes hides her orientation from her patients.
“Occasionally, if one of my patients or somebody who I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable with asks about myself, I will just change the pronoun, and tell them all about my husband,” Chang said. “In Chinese, the pronunciation for ‘he’ and ‘she’ is the same, so usually I can just kind of not go there.”
In addition, Chang said that sometimes her desire to one day have children gets in the way of fitting the misconceived gay identity.
“People who don’t want to have kids [are] not very sensitive about those of us who do,” Chang said. “There are people who are like, ‘We are gay, we don’t need family structure, we don’t need any of the societally imposed ideas or definitions.’ But there are still people who aren’t like that.”
Despite these minor setbacks, however, Chang said that her life experiences have shaped who she is today, and she is prepared to face any future hardships head-on.
“I definitely think I would be a very different person if certain things hadn’t happened. I can’t actually imagine what it would be like,” Chang said. “Now that I’m no longer trying to be straight, I feel like I have so much more energy to do other things with my life.” 
 
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