At the MLA, I meet a man who’s just delivered a paper on my first novel. We met 30 minutes after he finished.
I didn’t attend because I didn’t want him to be nervous, and later was told he was glad I wasn’t there.
We have a few awkward attempts at conversation, not because we don’t like each other but because I am his subject, in a sense. Most authors I know are a little uneasy at the MLA for this reason, for how at different times it feels like you’re a lab specimen who’s gotten loose. But also, he and a few other scholars at the event have assured me that I’m singular. I’m the only out gay male Korean American author.
I want to protest there’s others, but only out of some misguided impulse. And before I can, he says, I checked.
I feel like a mythological creature for a moment, or something out of a science fiction film. On the plane out, I’d read in Harper’s back page about a salmon they found, the size of a woman, dead and clearly trying to walk out of the water.
We have this conversation at a certain large university’s cocktail hour, located at a large, classic San Francisco hotel downtown. The room has a large bar and a demure table of food, and small cocktail tables no one is using. My critic and I are traveling in a group that we jokingly dubbed “The Gaysians” beforehand—a loose affiliation at best for a group of scholars from all over the country. We’re technically crashing the cocktail hour, as one of our group was invited and decided the invite covered all of us. We arrived as his entourage and stood out right away, as only a large group of gay Asian American men could.
It’s just me? I ask this in conversation with another member of the group.
Yes, he said, and laughed. I keep looking!
I think about it occasionally in the days after. It isn’t quite like being the last unicorn, but the first one. Or more like a unicorn pegasus, which I used to practice drawing when I was a kid.
I’m not exactly sad about it or upset—it’s an honor to be the first one, even if it’s hard to be the only one. I say hard because I know that the reason for this is that it’s hard to be gay and Korean, and hard to be gay and Korean American by extension. I know for a fact there’s others, unpublished, at least one, so it won’t be very long before there’s more–and then we can even have an argument, or a small cocktail party and then an argument. There’s a lot more to say about why this is true than probably fits in a blog post, so this is maybe my next essay—Koreans, for example, will often tell you there are no Korean gay people. Some of us will even tell you there’s no word for it, and even that it’s something that belongs to white people—many of my friends’ moms have put this line to them. I read in a book that an international lesbian and gay human rights organization put out that Korean gay men faced being declared dead if they came out, complete with their family having a funeral for them.
I remember being told the part about there being no gay people in Korea, and then going for lunch with my grandfather at the Army Officers Club in Seoul. In the bathroom, scrawled into the bathroom stall paint with a knife, there was some graffiti. It read
Korean Gay Sex Is Superior
I laughed and even reached out to touch it briefly with my finger. Before returning to the dining room.
This was the same trip where my grandfather would tell me I could have any woman in Korea. I just had to ask.