I had a chance to sit down and talk with Karen, an avid fashionista and fitness enthusiast, and her partner Zarah, a young female chef in a male-dominated industry, about the personal and professional challenges that they face as a lesbian couple in Hong Kong, where there’s increasing LGBTQ+ awareness yet still no policy against gender or sexual-orientation discriminations. My first impression on Karen and Zarah was that they seemed pretty chill and laid-back. Karen exuded a sense of confidence and eloquence whereas Zarah appears to be more reserved and knowledgeable. All in all, the dynamic of the two, I got to say, was very interesting.
“I thought I was straight, but then I met my first girlfriend.”
As someone who had never been exposed to the topic of LGBTQ+ until moving to the U.S. 5 years ago, I didn’t know that my preference wasn’t male-exclusive. But there’s always this concept that: you know if you’re gay when you’re little. So I was curious if that’s the case for Karen and Zarah.
“I thought I was straight, but then I had my first girlfriend when I was 18 or 19. That was my converting point.,” Karen mentioned. She now identifies as bisexual — open to date both men and women. Zarah, on the other hand, had dated guys back in primary school because of the social norm that: dating should be between a guy and a girl. “We spent quality time together but it wasn’t love, it’s more like a friendship,” she claimed. It was in secondary school that she developed a different attraction, or “chemistry”, toward a girl in her class, and started to “dress more masculine”.
“Some TB (Tomboy) are not comfortable with their bodies because they think they need to act like men to attract girls or that it is simply a masculine representation,” Zarah explained.
Karen chimed in, “There’s a bit of a dark side, it’s like gender dysphoria. But it’s such a taboo in Hong Kong so they just live like guys but with a girl’s body. My ex-girlfriend refused to wear anything feminine and she sort of hated her own body.”
Accepting yourself vs. Being accepted
When asked if they ever came out to anyone, the two had a similar take on this – just go with the flow. Karen started, “When I was dating my first girlfriend, I came out to my best friend who was also dating a TB. But for my family, I never made a conscious decision to come out. I just brought her to family dinners.” Similarly, Zarah had brought Karen to see her family, “My family is very traditional so they are completely silent about the topic but deep down they know about our relationship status.”
Till these days, there’s still this stigma of being not straight, especially in the Eastern culture. It’s like if you are anything but straight, you are expected to COME OUT at some point, to which Karen argued, “You don’t need to openly tell everyone ‘HEY, I’M GAY!’” — she threw her hands up in the air, “You can slowly ‘convert’ your family by showing them how happy you are with that person, and that you are just living a normal life like everybody else. At the end of the day, your family never wants you to be hurt and rejected by your loved ones.”
Accepting yourself and being accepted by others are different. While trying to come to terms with their identity, the two also had to face a great deal of pressure from their families.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese and Catholic family (I mean, things just can’t get any worse), Zarah had struggled with “converting” into liking guys. “When faced with family’s unacceptance and conservative values, I felt oppressed. I had to hide from my family that I wasn’t in a relationship when I was dating a girl at the time. Gradually, I opened up more about my sexuality. I posted my relationship status with Karen on Facebook and that’s when my parents saw and asked me ‘What does it mean to be in a relationship?’ My family didn’t accept it at first and kind of acquiesced. But later on, they have become more open now.” She slowly leaned in and hugged Karen.
“What matters is establishing confidence and being sure what you want for yourself. You will need time and experience to know what makes who you are.”
Though without having to face an additional deterrence of religious beliefs, Karen has also faced denial, nonetheless. “I once jokingly asked my grandmother if she’d come to Zarah and I’s wedding, she replied with ‘I’d rather die’.” She brushed it off with her youthful attitude and continued, “but beyond that, things aren’t that bad, though my mom at first thought it was a phase, but now she eventually accepts who I am.”
Although the two once faced rejections, they have acknowledged and accepted themselves for being who they truly are.
“I just stay quiet and keep doing what I’m doing,” Karen shrugged, “if what people tell me makes sense, maybe I will agree with them. If not, I’ll keep doing my way. Though there’s resistance from my family in terms of my life trajectory, but I know they just care about me and come from a good place so I have to be respective and sensitive to their opinions. But that’s different from comfortably going with what they want me to do. Communication is a two-way street. So, by filtering their comments through a loving filter, I won’t feel offended. I’d just say ‘yes I do understand’, and keep doing what I think is right for me,” she looked over to Zarah and smiled.
I felt a strong opinion on this because I’ve been also facing a similar dilemma. My clothing style is versatile; half of the clothes sitting in my closet are womenswear, the other half menswear. Sometimes I like to dress more feminine, the other times gender-neutral. That doesn’t say anything about me or my preference, does it? But it has caused assumptions and comments about my identity and sexuality from other people. Yes, for some people, clothing style is a way to represent how they feel inside. But for me, simply like wearing men’s clothes doesn’t mean I want to be a man. I feel comfortable being a woman. I just don’t feel the need to always dress what the society regards as “feminine”. I like my fashion style and I take pride in the way I express myself. But as Karen said, “accepting yourself and others accepting you are separate.”
So… how do you two have sex?
Appearance can make a huge difference on your experience, especially in the workplace. Unlike Karen, who can easily pass as a straight woman with her long, wavy hairstyle, Zarah, with her short haircut and masculine clothing style, has inevitably faced assumptions about her at work.
Working in a male-dominated industry as a female chef is already hard, being a lesbian comes with even more challenges… and more funny stories too.
Zarah has had interesting encounters working as a female chef. “Being a female chef, there’s already this impression that I always have to rely on my coworkers. My appearance quite clearly shows that I’m a TB and some people would make assumptions and unfriendly comments to me. At work, I often encounter ignorant questions like ‘why are you dressing like this?’ and ‘how do you have sex with your girlfriend?’ If they’re asked in a friendly way, I wouldn’t mind answering but if they come from someone I’m not even close with, I would just ignore them. Overall, people wouldn’t treat me rudely but sometimes they would be overly curious about my personal life.”
I find it quite interesting how people often instinctively associate not just lesbian, but gay or other sexual-orientated couples, with sex; as if being not straight means you’ll have a more sensual sexual experience. They live normally just like everybody, they are human just like you and me. I think part of the reason why people would ask such weirdly intimate questions is because of the lack of sex education in Hong Kong. Sex seems to be a topic that all parents try to avoid discussing with their children. People generally have little knowledge about sexual wellness, let alone LGBTQ sex-ed.
Because of the unwanted attention Zarah has been given for the way she looks, I asked her whether she would prefer working in the kitchen, behind the counter, as to minimize customer-interactions.
Surprisingly, she actually likes working in open kitchen environment. She reasoned, “I get to interact with customers. Many of them are curious why a woman like me would work for such a laborious job. And the good thing is I can prove myself that I have the same ability to perform well in this job just like men.”
There are times when being a woman in a male-dominated workplace actually gives you the upper hand. Zarah recounted this one time when “a chef came to our restaurant and saw that I was the only woman working there at the time, so she gave me an opportunity to work with her.” And in general, she added, she is thought to be more organized and considerate than her men colleagues.
These so-called advantages, if you look at them in another way, could be a bad thing actually. Karen pointed out an example: “In Asia’s 50 Best Chef, there’s a category dedicated to Best Female Chef. It’s good because you are highlighting women’s achievements and encourage more women going into the industry. But on the flip side, are you saying that women chefs aren’t good enough to be in the Best Chef so we need a new category just for us? It could be both celebratory and derogatory.”
I’ve thought about this for quite a while now. What does it mean for both sexes to be equal? Does being equal mean women being differentiated from men or does it mean being integral and parallel with men? In what ways and to what extent should the line be drawn?
I described ourselves as Bad Gays
Karen described the LGBTQ+ community in Hong Kong as two groups: the “loud ones”, who advocate for rights and equality, and the “dormant ones”, or the “bad gays”. “I always say we are the ‘bad gays’ because we are not actively advocating but we are always being supportive to their causes. The locals are pretty low-key, the high-key ones are usually the expat white people,” she joked.
Hong Kong is still far behind on the bandwagon of LGBTQ+ support. In 2016, the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission tried to push forward the enactment of a legislation against sexual-orientation discrimination but failed. As of today, LGBTQ+ members are under no legal protections whatsoever.
The passing of such policy could be very difficult, considering that Hong Kong is a socially and culturally progressive and (generally) opened-minded yet politically conservative place. I asked the two what they think could be done to help alleviate the unfair treatment that LGBTQ+ members face.
“…it will get better because more of us will start to come out and open up, and when it becomes normalized, then there will be less of a need of a top-down policy to legally protect the LGBTQ+ community.”
“That unacceptance and discrimination are rooted from ignorance and indifference.” Zarah said. “Because not many of us know anyone from the LGBTQ+ community so they don’t understand us as a minority, then they would say ‘why do I need to support you?’” She explained.
“We should educate the public about us, our values, and what we want. We’ve not been the best at that because we’ve been so silent. But I think it will get better because more of us will start to come out and open up, and when it becomes normalized, then there will be less of a need of a top-down policy to legally protect the LGBTQ+ community. When you are integrated into the society, people won’t feel like you are different and so treat you like everybody else,” Karen added.
Education is indispensable for a progressive society, but I think media is as important as well. As I grew older and met more people from the LGBTQ+ community, I realized the wrongful portrayal of media of its members.
In Hong Kong TV shows, gay men characters are typically portrayed with extremely flamboyant and feminine behaviors, high sexual desire, or doing something morally bad like sexual harassment. They are often treated with disgust by other characters, in a mocking and joking way, almost as if being gay is a caricature. This instills a stereotypical impression to the public that that’s how all gay people behave and act. “Sometimes it’s the behavior that people don’t like because who cares what you’re doing behind closed doors? What they are rejecting is PDA rather than your actual sexuality,” Karen said.
Zarah agreed with this wrong media portrayal, “Media always mispresents the truth and slanders LGBTQ+ members so people will have assumptions and view us as harmful, and being not straight as something morally bad,” to which Karen responded, “it puts a label on us.”
In my view, labels should be something that help you define yourself. Other than that, it should never restrict you into confining yourself into certain preferences and behaviors.
Who’s the boy and who’s the girl?
Karen recounted a time when she was being asked by her friend when she’s going to get married, to which she joked, “Zarah is not going to propose to me”. As she said this, Zarah playfully covered her mouth to shush her as we all laughed. And the reply her friend gave was, “Why don’t you propose?”
She reflected, “I had been traditional with having a man-and-woman relationship even though I’m in a woman-woman relationship.” It further shows how some of these prejudice values are so ingrained in us that we won’t even realize until someone points it out.
It’s more common to see a butch (masculine lesbian)-femme (feminine lesbian) relationship on the streets of Hong Kong, which reflects this Eastern traditional concept that a relationship has to be consist of a boy and a girl. Many gay couples often encounter questions like “who’s the boy and who’s the girl?”
Besides education and media influence, to her, Karen’s ultimate goal of achieving social acceptance is to legalize gay marriage, “having the society to accept us as legit parents”. “Some lesbian couples would break up after dating a long time because the femme would face pressure from her family to get married and have baby. Marriage in Hong Kong is always tied with children so just getting married doesn’t mean anything; the ultimate ‘milestone’ is having children.”
To me, a relationship should be a spectrum in the sense that there shouldn’t be restrictive gender roles in two people’s relationship, regardless of sexual orientation. For a straight couple, the husband could be the caretaker and the wife could be the breadwinner. For a lesbian couple, both women could act what socially identified as feminine. Physical attributes, preferences, work roles – they all shouldn’t define sexuality.
After the conversation, I found both of them very articulate, open, and honest about who they are and what they think. I especially adore the cute little gestures that they showed to each other throughout the interview. It’s hard for some people to comfortably express affection in public, let alone in a place where LGBTQ+ people are subject to discriminations without legal support.
My take-away from this interview, and hopefully to you as well, is what Karen said: “What matters is establishing confidence and being sure what you want for yourself. You will need time and experience to know what makes who you are.”