“I just came out to my 80-something father”

After my sister called me a homophobic slur, I felt overwhelmed by hatred. And I dialed our dad in angry tears

Topics: Pariah Personals, LGBT, Life stories, Real Families,

"I just came out to my 80-something father"The author speaks at the 2011 TED Conference about his choreography, framing his political dance works within the tradition of devotional art (Credit: James Duncan Davidson)
Inspired by the recently released film "Pariah," Salon teamed up with New America Media to run a series of coming-out stories by minority and immigrant LGBT youth. This is the final installment.

I don’t even remember how it began.

My eldest sister is in my apartment, screaming and yelling at me with a nonsensical fury. There is something about my not going to work. There is something about my going out late at night. Is this woman crazy? I shut down her every attack with calm but assertive responses, revealing the faults in her strange accusations. The exchange is escalating wildly, but she is unable to faze me. Finally, in an angry, spiteful resignation, she says, “You’re just a faggot.”

The shit was about to hit the fan. And, seeing this, everyone who intruded into the apartment with her — her husband, my brother — tries to pull her out of my path.

Growing up, I’ve always been the black sheep of my family. I was ripped away from my refugee parents when I began kindergarten, English gaining importance over the Khmer I spoke at home. My mother once threatened to disown me if I pursued the predominantly female art form of Cambodian classical dance. And, in line with the combination of my youthful independence and my family’s inability to guide me through American society, I defied my parents and left to study experimental filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute.

And now here I am, crying my eyes out in angry confusion, back with the family that my path has torn me from — back in my sleepy hometown of Long Beach — that has been nothing but cycles of poverty, ignorance and violence.

What the hell was I doing here? And how in the world did so much hatred come from my own family?

I grab my phone. I dial the number to my father’s house, and he picks up with his voice of aged calm. It is a calm that comes from having lived for 82 years, from living at the mercy of the land, sun and water in rural Cambodia. It is a voice that has lived through French colonialism, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and now, displacement and alienation in America. I begin in tears, speaking in Khmer, “Pa, guess what your daughter did? Who the fuck does she think she is?!”

“What’s going on?”

“Pa, I’m gay! I don’t care if you don’t approve. I don’t need your love if you don’t respect me! I don’t need it!” I am crying uncontrollably, and there is no response on the other line.

“Prum… Prum,” my father says after what feels like an eternity of drowning in my emotions. “Calm down. You are my son. And you’ll always be.”



My heart lifted.  Surprise began to mix with the chaotic flowing of emotions. I think I just came out to my 80-something father, and he was OK with it.  And it wasn’t the last time.

Things seemed to happen quickly after that.  I was creating a visible place for myself as an artist in California through shows, fellowships and public talks.

Looking back at the incident, I’m perplexed at how it happened that way. First off, in the context of Cambodian classical dance — the epitome of Cambodian culture — there is a space for those who don’t conform to hetero-normative molds of man and woman. During the height of Cambodian dance ritual, a lone Brahmin who is half male and half female appears to act as a messenger between heaven and earth. This sacred, divine sanction of queer is echoed in contemporary Cambodia, where men can have wives and boyfriends, and female pop stars enact homosexual romances.

My sister’s attack came off as an erasure of cultural memory, perhaps at the hands of colonialism and the fear-driven puritanism of American society. As a result, my original dance works became increasingly political, and I was preparing to present one of them at REDCAT, the premier venue for experimental performance in Los Angeles.

At this time, a reporter from the LA Times was interviewing me (for a story that never ran). She wanted to speak with my father. We met at the dance studio where I was teaching. After questions about my father’s life, she asks me, “So what does your father think about your being gay?”

“Pa, she wants to know how you feel about my being gay.”

“You’re gay?”

Oh dear. “Yes, Pa, I’m gay! Don’t you remember? I was crying on the phone and I was telling you.” The reporter is obviously wondering what is going on, as both my father and I seem confused. “I’m sorry.  He’s old.  And he’s forgotten that I told him that I was gay,” I say to her in English.

I ask in Khmer, “Well, Pa?”

“What is there to say? You are my son. I love you no matter what. As long as you are a good person, nothing else matters.”

My father, Sem Ok, passed away two years later, on Jan. 20, 2011.  It was my 24th birthday.  May he be remembered for his love.

Prumsodun Ok is an artist, teacher, curator, writer and organizer. His interdisciplinary performance works explore the tradition of Cambodian classical dance to address contemporary LGBT and social issues. He is a 2011 TED Fellow. He lives in Long Beach, Calif., where he is executive editor of VoiceWaves, a youth-led journalism project of New America Media.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>