This was how I decided to end a speech to some 100 members of the graduating MBA class of 2023 at the University of Oxford in September, just about a year after I completed the course myself. Nervous was one word to describe how I was feeling. In my brief, I was told to "cheer them up" as the class was heading into the job market in the biggest recession of our professional lifetime. Oh dear.
I suppose in some people's eyes, I have a success story to tell. But I didn't want to tell people that they could have their version of success if they did XYZ. I don't know what or when that would be, and such words felt feeble against the cogs of macroeconomics. But I wanted to reassure them that whatever uncertainty and challenge they were presently sitting with was thoroughly relatable.
Most importantly, I wanted to speak to the half or more of the room that made it to the most prestigious university in the world, from minority backgrounds, that there was no rush to get anywhere. I wanted a hall of complete strangers to know, that my accomplishments, and theirs, are inseparable from queerness or whatever it is that often gave the world an excuse to overlook them.
My Brief Queer History
I first came out to a handful of close friends and my parents nearly 20 years ago. But I recently started referring to my "queer age" as 4, give or take a few weeks. What happened?
In short, my understanding of queerness, both my own and as a community of people, went through a marked transformation 4 years ago.
At age 13, my understanding of queerness was shaped by a combination of the following: portrayal of a singular gay man in a popular drama in 90's Hong Kong, online lesbian communities reinforcing male/female gendered roles, and stories from the Bible which happen to really hit the spot with "traditional Chinese values". It was a narrow and dark-toned sliver into the wholeness I've since come to know.
In 2018, after struggling to keep my live production business afloat, I began looking for a job (I later heard a bit of a dark humour about how the business would've shut down with Covid-19 anyway — the times we live in). I ended up doing some of my coolest work ever at a public art nonprofit for 2 years.
In the same year I started the job, I received a newsletter from my undergraduate alumni centre. Tucked near the bottom of the email was an advertisement for a workshop titled Emotional Intelligence — The Foundation for Your Career & Leadership Success.
My initial reaction was: hold up, you can work on emotional intelligence? I was raised on the belief that this was a thing you were born with (or without, in my case). Up until that point, no one had ever told me otherwise. I signed up, with a degree of suspiscion. Sadly, I couldn't find the original newsletter, but here's a screenshot of my registration. This is now an important piece of my queer history.
The workshop was my introduction to... everything? I learned some new vocabulary. Words to describe feelings. The power to describe feelings then made functional relationships possible in my adulthood, which now felt like it was getting a late start. When I saw how my life was changing before my eyes, I started looking for new words everywhere.
I found words to describe my identity beyond "lesbian" and "gay". I met people who lived all the different words and, in the absence of anything fitting, created their own strings of words so they could see themselves fully as they are. Even when the world rejected and invalidated their words as if it was anyone's business but their own, I saw their relentless joy and euphoria and how uplifting they were to newer, though not necessarily younger, members of the community.
Words helped me find my queerness.
Love, Abuse, Care, Neglect
Before you go on thinking I'm about to write about gay drama, let me affirm that you're probably correct, but I'm also going to write about love, in all its completeness, found in friendship and family.
There are so many pop culture references of queer dating being messy. And I don't just mean stereotypes, a lot of it is the truth I see in friends' lives, and in my own lived experience. I'm tempted to say that, if you take all the terrible reality TV shows and ridiculous drama comedies involving queer romance and throw them all together, you'd have my life's story.
But even in pop culture, the narrative is shifting. All messes, queer or not, have roots to trace back to. Abuse and neglect in a person's first known source of love promised, their parents or other primary caretakers, embeds in them an understanding of love that cannot be untangled from these fundamentally opposing elements. If you find yourself reading that last line again, I recommend jumping with both feet into works by people far more knowledgeable than me. Some of my favourites are All About Love by bell hooks and Like Streams to the Ocean by Jedidiah Jenkins.
Throughout my early relationships, I ran around the dating world like an overly excited toddler. I looked for the kind of love I had seen demonstrated and, therefore, have thought of as the only way it could be: care, with varying levels of passion, and most definitely some degree of emotional abuse and neglect.
Friends would often tell me now, how I'm good at bringing people together, forming communities. I'm still not used to hearing that. How could this quiet, awkward, and overpromised-underdelivered child have that kind of power? Because most days, that is who I am in my subconscious. Believing that I am who I am in reality, a proper adult with so much love to give (and equally as important, so much capacity to receive love), takes conscious effort. I have to decide to embrace my real self, and not what I was led to believe growing up.
I woke up choosing love today, and I'm proud of me.
When they showed me what love actually is
My healing continued with something obvious: examples of love. Although, they came from a non obvious place for me — the new work friends at my nonprofit job. In and through them, I witnessed trusting partnerships, nurturing parenthood, comradery, and full, platonic love.
In the 2 years of us working together, these friends gave me advice and support through the ending of a long-term relationship, the usual and some unusual familial woes, and a whirlwind romance. It wasn't easy to take advice, even from people who actually live by their words, that was often the opposite of what my learned instincts would tell me.
The transformation I'm trying to describe didn't even happen within the time period where we spent most of our days side by side. But in retrospect, those days laid the groundwork for everything else: rewarding new friendships I found after moving to the UK, a double-jump career change that led me to co-found the platform you're currently reading on, and a capacity for romantic love that is growing in parallel to my appetite for it.
So there you have it. This queer's history that began with a dysfunctional family, awakened by some special words, and nurtured with examples of love.
I was prompted to share my story publicly today for the first time, by a user that I don't know. Maybe I've been sitting on this story for a long time and it was just waiting for a random stranger's prompt. But I think that, more so, this community we're building together has given me the courage to look for that story and to tie it together, from the fragments that have shown up in my journal entries, conversations with friends, and in many a morning's sessions with my brilliant therapist.
From today, my work continues. When I inevitably feel impatient with the progress from time to time, I shall have the title of this post to remind me.
Modern (Queer) Love
Would you be interested to read a series of queer dating stories based on real life experiences, in the style of Modern Love? I'd share some of my own, but I'm more looking forward to sourcing from the queer community such stories heart-wrenching, wholesome, horrid, exhilarating, or anything in between.
Leave a comment if you're in for more, or have a story!
Disclaimer: team member posts, like this one, are not considered for the Friends Who Write writing challenge prizes.