The Dangers of Self-Censoring
A personal experience growing up queer in a conservative country.
A personal experience growing up queer in a conservative country.
“Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one’s own discourse. This is done out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities or preferences (actual or perceived) of others and without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority.” — Wikipedia
When I was 18, I came out to my family after my mum saw my girlfriend at the time using male pronouns for me online. I wasn’t ready, and that was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Luckily, my parents didn’t disown me. But my mum cried for me because “my life would become much more difficult this way” and that hurt her deeply.
Secretly though, I was terrified when I realised I wasn’t straight. I thought I was a disappointment to my family, with my own internalised homophobia. Growing up in poverty where the country had been suffered wars and famine for centuries, we were closed off to the world, ill-informed and ignorant. There was, and still is, a stigma in Vietnamese culture, that as a member of the LGBTQA+ community, you would never be able to have a decent life. According to filial piety (or hiếu in Viet), you need to respect your elders and bring no shame to your family. It is believed being a moral person means you have a decent job, you get married, and you have kids. That’s how you pay for the sacrifice your parents made giving you life and raising you. Thanks, Confucius.
If you had chosen to live your lives in this “alternative way”, you would have had to accept that you’ll be discriminated, you may never get a white-collared job, and you’ll probably die in a ditch somewhere. They even made a movie about it. Many queer people are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and hardships while trans people still face numerous obstacles to achieve an authentic life. They made a movie about that, too. So I thought that was the end of my life.
I knew I was different since I was a kid. I was always hanging out with the boys until my parents told me not to, around the time my breasts started to change. I never understood why. Slowly, the shame and fear of being the misfit, the outsider settled in. I tried to live up to my parents’ expectations of behaviours and obey the Vietnamese society’s ideology. I was censoring myself, bit by bit, until my soul was crushed under the weight of an intolerant society.
The lack of action from the government makes matters even more complicated. Politically, it’s never been illegal to have a same-sex partner, although you will be the talk of the neighbourhood. Vietnam is one of the most progressive countries in Asia in terms of LGBTQA+ rights, but we still have a long way to go.
My parents had so much hope for me to be successful, I had been the golden child, and then I was the rainbow sheep. My mum blamed herself for not seeing it, for being too busy to keep an eye on me, not that it would have changed anything. She thought she’d lost her daughter, due to her misconception of what being a lesbian means (I now identify as non-binary, but that’s a story for another day). She had dreams about it. My dad felt like I couldn’t have a wedding that he had wanted for me (in reality, it was not my dream to get married or to have a big wedding at all). His dream was shattered, too. My relationship with them was strained for years after that.
Things have got better, for other queer Vietnamese people, including myself. Working in creative fields allows me to be who I want to be. I also moved to Australia since. Things have turned out for the better, but here’s the catch; the shame I felt during my adolescent years had a devastating effect on the relationships I had with people. I couldn’t let people in. I couldn’t be alone with myself despite my love for solitude. Every relationship I had led to disastrous consequences, which made me angrier. I hurt people. I hated myself, and I hated life. I was miserable because I was trying to live up to someone else’s expectations of “normal”, not what made sense to me.
By the time I was 18, I had panic attacks almost every day. I was severely depressed without any help. I clung to whoever made me feel slightly better about myself. I romanticised people. I spent years hanging out those I didn’t like and weren’t great for me or my mental health, burying my sorrow with liquor, and then later drugs, from the age of 15.
Viet Pride 2016 — Photo by Kenh14.vn
Vietnam has changed a lot since I’ve left, maybe a bit too fast economically and socially but not politically. Some of us gay and trans kids realise the damage done on our souls and bodies. Most straight people still have no idea what we go through, what harm it does, they don’t even understand what being queer means, or they don’t even care enough to seek out information. Queer people are staying in the closet until the weight of that closet kills us one way or another.
Last time I visited home, my friends kept iterating to me that “no one cares about it anymore” and “there are Viet Pride parades now”. So does that mean the problem is solved? Not even close. An old friend of mine found solace in meth. Another old friend got married and conformed, I guess she’s “straight” now. Most of the others go about life aimlessly, lost.
Asian culture never encourages talking about personal feelings. It is considered selfish to live life free. Community and family is everything, you simply can’t do whatever you want. Talks about mental health are still non-existent. However, that guilt, that shame, if you hold it in for too long, it eats you inside out.
When you censor yourself, you lose the best parts of what makes you, well, you. Imagine living in a world where everyone is exactly the same, there would be no innovation. Society would never grow or change. Being exactly who you are is a radical act. When you accept yourself, you’re happier, you’re not busy being angry and sad all the time. You contribute. You have more time to love, to empathise, to respect your loved ones and those around you. Instead of unknowingly making everyone’s lives a living hell, including your own, you can do what you love, contribute to family and society, and give more. Your relationships with people become healthier because you’re kinder to yourself and others. They say hurt people hurt people, and I believe it to be true.
Censoring yourself leads to depression, anxiety and other health issues. Societies censoring people’s identities leads to apathetic and shame culture. Even though you have the support from your loved ones, the shame is still there, it is still toxic, which affects people’s mental health for many years.
I believe self-love is the foundation of everything. And to love yourself is the beginning of loving others. When people feel safe to be who they are, they grow to be happier. They have more chance to be successful, instead of burying their hurt. Society benefits as a whole. Diversity has been proven to help organisations evolve and innovate.
To end this, I would like to tell one story that is not mine. After nearly a decade since I came out, my family is more understanding, informed, and accepting. They have seen that I could have a good and happy life as a queer person as I’m lucky enough to live in an open-minded country, which in turns forced my parents to get out of their comfort zone. My mum has come to terms with my sexuality. She began to disclose our family one-time secret to relatives and her close friends.
One day, one of her best friends for 30 years came to her and said, “I’m also gay. Like your daughter, I’m a lesbian.” and that I could go to her if I needed to talk. This queer woman has conformed to society’s standards because she thought it was the right thing to do. She got married and had a kid. She then divorced her husband and spent the rest of her life taking care of her kids. I can’t imagine how hard that was for her to be in the closet for decades, thinking there’s something wrong with her. And how much happier she could be, what else she could have done for herself, others and this world.