The Unholy Son

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When I was a child, I associated the Christian life with glacial stretches of boredom, punctuated by unannounced aesthetic bliss. Perhaps this was simply life in the suburbs. I grew up in Diamond Bar, about thirty miles east of Los Angeles, in a house with popcorn ceilings, a glass cabinet with ceramic figurines of angels, and a woven Thomas Kinkade tapestry above the mantelpiece that said “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” My parents, both immigrants from Hong Kong, were pious. We attended the Chinese Alliance Church in Glendale, and I dreaded the forty-minute drive there as much as I dreaded the sermons. As we passed through the City of Industry, billboards advertising the Spearmint Rhino strip club spoke of a forbidden world: blond women with windswept hair and gaudy, glittering eye shadow. I imagined circular tables with white tablecloths, indoor smoking. The women didn’t interest me. At church outings to Laguna Beach, I watched high-school boys play volleyball in the wind, bare torsos licked with a scrim of salt. My eyes followed the teasing line of their arms as they reached up to smack the ball like a punishment.

Our church held two services each Sunday: a large one in Chinese, which immigrants like my parents attended, and a smaller one in English, for second-generation congregants like me. A few times a year, including Easter and Christmas, we had a joint service, in which the two were combined. Pastors delivered the sermons in English and Chinese, alternating line by line, dragging out the morning while I imagined Pokémon in jungles.

Joint worship also meant that the congregation sang the hymns together. I felt a thrum of anticipation as the pianist began, and we rose. We sang nineteenth-century hymns like “How Great Thou Art,” my father’s favorite. On Christmas, we sang “O Holy Night,” which I loved for its majestically drawn-out vowels. My father began with patient reverence, restrained if not exactly relaxed, warming into an eager, bolstered tenor. His vibrato was steady, with a lilting note of elegy. As a nine-year-old boy, auditioning for the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music, in China, he had failed almost every test—he couldn’t read sheet music or play an instrument—but was admitted solely on the strength of his voice. There, he learned piano. After he fled the country with his older brother, to stay with his father, he conducted the brass band at a school in Macau. One of his three sisters, who was left behind in China, went on to join the Red Guard; his mother had died years earlier. He knew grief and exile and the separation of families, which led him to love music, which led him to God. In the chapel, it felt indecent to watch him with his eyes half lidded, his head tipped upward, ready to receive.

My father felt called to the ministry during his first year in America, where he immigrated to study engineering. “If the time comes, prepare me and I will serve you, Lord,” he prayed. In 2003, he left his career in cell-phone technology and enrolled in Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, in the Bay Area. I asked him, “Does that mean I’m going to be a P.K.?,” which meant Pastor’s Kid. I was fifteen. I did not want to be a Pastor’s Kid.

My father trained on the pulpit at Mandarin Baptist, where he preached to hundreds with the righteous anger of King David: someone convinced that he was a perpetual victim. He denounced gay marriage as a “moral decay.” He preached that gay “unions” were an “abomination.” God did not create people born with homosexual desires. They “chose” a life of perversion and would be condemned unless they renounced their “wickedness.”

I knew I was gay. I blamed myself for it, never God, even though it was beyond my control. I prayed and resented. At men’s-only church retreats in log cabins, I joined my teen-age brothers in Christ, and confessed that I struggled with lust, but always for girls. When I was baptized, at sixteen, I promised God that I would accept a life of solitude, so that I could declare myself in front of the chapel a Christian.

I channelled my teen angst into music I associated with greased black hair and eyeliner. When it came time to pick a college, I chose U.C. Davis, because it was far—a six-hour drive—from home. My first year, I d.j.’ed a show for the college radio. At four in the morning, the beginner’s slot, I biked down to the station to play for what I imagined to be three insomniacs hotboxing on a deserted county road. By scanning the cases in the station’s library, I learned about genres I’d never heard of. Were they even real? “Trip-hop” sounded like it was made up by a stoned undergrad. “Shoegaze” didn’t come close to evoking “Just Like Honey.” I tried to impress the upperclassmen d.j.s, who chain-smoked and had loud sex and read Rimbaud. “My friend thinks you’re cute,” one of them told me at a party, pointing to a tall man with a wiry, blond beard. It never occurred to me that she was trying to set us up.

Soon, signs began appearing in lawns which read “Vote Yes on Prop 8,” a bill that would ban gay marriage, again, after a previous ban, Prop 22, had been deemed unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court. Back home, my father was galvanized. He believed that he was defending the sanctity of marriage against the tides of “liberalism.” In Monterey Park, he organized a rally where his congregation members gave speeches and held picket signs. They printed T-shirts and baseball caps that said, “Marriage = Man + Woman.” He kept those hats in the garage. I saw them during my visits home, wondering if his hate was driven by a denial of what he suspected about me but refused to confront.

My father voted yes. Prop 8 passed.

In 2011, the year I moved to New York, gay marriage was legalized across the state. I started telling people I was an atheist. It was not about God so much as a belief that I would never grow if I obeyed my father’s religion.

In New York, I thought I would find my own version of the cultured, queer communities that I read about in “Another Country” or Edmund White’s autobiographical trilogy. Through my friend Garrett, with whom I worked at an online publication, I fell in with an assortment of queer club kids. They held readings at repurposed strip clubs, posed nude for erotic zines, walked runways. We went to illegal parties in Bushwick warehouses, and, if those parties got shut down, we went to the Spectrum, a divey club that stayed open after hours. My friend Ben chewed pink gum under the disco ball and timed his bubble to burst with the beat drop. Early in the morning, on our way home, we felt the pre-dawn breeze along our collarbones, and could see truckers in the windows of Tina’s diner, hunched over burnt coffee before their shift.

Through work, I got free tickets to events like the Armory Party, at the Museum of Modern Art. That was the first time I heard Venus X, a d.j. with long green hair—part alien, part anime. I heard one hour of her dark, candied set and was convinced that I had glimpsed the future. High-pitched vocals in clouds of reverb got chopped and screwed, tracks grinding together like powdered glass. Venus X introduced me to deconstructed club, a style of d.j.’ing that was explicitly queer and nonwhite. In opposition to the seamless transitions of minimal techno, this music became notorious for its abrupt genre changes. Venus could flit from Jersey club to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” to reggaetón to gabber. My friends went to her party GHE20G0TH1K, where Black, gay d.j.s like Ashland Mines worked the turntables as sinewy kids wearing Hood By Air vogued to ball crashes. I looked forward to the changes, which let me switch up my dance moves on a dime, from a techno stomp to some bastardization of ballet. I could be butch, or femme, or something in between.

Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in all fifty states. When the decision was announced, my friends were unimpressed. Garrett said that he felt like nothing had changed: gay marriage was already legal in New York, and it was time the rest of the nation caught up. Ben said that marriage was normative, and queerness was inherently transgressive. Secretly, I was elated, thinking that the victory poisoned my father’s precious “sanctity,” even as I felt like I was failing at being homosexual. I had never had a boyfriend, had never come close to finding someone I would marry, was relegated to the dark, anonymous encounters I had in backroom banquettes in Chelsea or sex labyrinths in Berlin.

When I was twenty-nine, I came out to my father. In a curt e-mail from New York, I made it clear that I had saved enough money to become independent, and I was cutting myself off. Then I deleted the e-mail from my out-box. When my father responded, I deleted his reply without reading it.

Is this where I talk about “chosen family”? I thought the club would always take me in—a fantasy, but one that was fun to fall for. I was dividing my time between New York and Berlin. I adored some of the people I met. A Polish music producer once made me a custom latex top before a party, showing me how to lather my torso with lube before putting it on. A Greek Web-site coder who moonlighted as a sex worker snapped photos with his Yashica camera. “The best thing about sex work is you get paid on time,” he liked to say.

I threw down on designer labels. One of my Grail possessions was a septum ring from Givenchy, the size of a half-dollar, which appeared on the cover of various fashion magazines the year it came out. Whenever I wore it to the club, everyone turned their heads, and I understood for the first time what it was like to be good-looking. When my group crammed into a bathroom stall to rail lines of ketamine on our phones, I had to take out my septum ring, snort from a steel straw I kept in my wallet, and then carefully place the ring back into my nose. Out on the dance floor, the high shimmered down, and I felt like I could fall backward into a bathtub of rose petals.

I barely thought of my father. So it surprised me, a year after I came out to him, when he e-mailed me. God had spoken to him in a dream, and commanded that he repent for condemning homosexuals. Would I see him?

He visited me in my railroad apartment in Bushwick. He brought me mooncake, my childhood favorite. I opened the window and made us hot tea and turned on the fan.

“Do you really believe you were born gay?” he asked.

I said yes.

“Have you ever had a boyfriend?”

I said no.

He declared that there was no group more persecuted by the evangelical church than homosexuals. It was gratifying to hear this, but I kept my poker face. He showed me the book “Changing Our Mind” by David Gushee, which debunked, one by one, the anti-gay verses in the Bible. I flipped through it. Unknown to his congregation, my father said, he had begun attending a group that helped parents accept their gay children as fully embraced by Christ.

“Does your church know you have a gay son?” I asked.

He said no.

I wasn’t invested in trying to salvage the past. There could be no sufficient apology, no reparation. I was only interested in what could be done now, for the future.

“There’s something I need you to do for me,” I said. “Would you tell your congregation about me?”

He said he wasn’t ready.

I looked at him, his face baked in warm shadow. Part of me had made the request because I knew he would refuse, yet still I was stunned. What was the point, then, of coming all this way? I saw him as a coward. Grumpy and confused, he rested his cheek on his palm, pushing his glasses up. He was stumped, tired of the canned lines he rehearsed, tired of his own voice. His face, brows knitted, grew uncertain. Now he looked amazed. I was not the son he thought I was. He started to cry.

Seeing him like this embarrassed me. I looked away.

In the spring of 2020, I was living in Berlin, writing for a menswear magazine that flew me out to cover Milan Fashion Week. In a car to the airport, our runway photographer coughed blood into a tissue and asked, “Do you think I have it?” Our colleagues back in Berlin joked about the virus until, of course, we could no longer joke about it. When the magazine laid off a quarter of its staff, I was out of a job. The clubs were all closed, so I did drugs in my bedroom alone. I thought the pandemic would end before my habit caught up with me. It didn’t, and my sublessor, an older woman from East Germany, kicked me out of my apartment because, one morning, I took so many drugs that I vomited all over the bathroom floor and couldn’t clean it up.

I checked myself into the Charité university hospital as a psychiatric inpatient. I’d inhaled so many powders that I started hearing voices in my head. Charité is in an old brick building with large turrets, like a castle. I wandered the halls barefoot, wearing the same black shirt, red Adidas track pants, and single pair of dirty underwear. “Herr Mak!” one of the nurses would exclaim, as if slapping her thighs for me to come take my pills. Occasionally, I sneaked off to the shower, either to masturbate or snort ketamine, which I still kept on me—just this last bag, I told myself. But I kept buying from a dealer at a park near the hospital.

None of my club friends bothered to come. “Can you have visitors?” a queer performance artist texted. “LMK when you feel up for company.”

When I asked if he could visit on Saturday, he replied, “Next week would be way better for me.”

In the end, I got expelled for using ketamine. I lived, for a time, in a rental I booked online. It was spring, and my nasal passages were swollen from pollen and snorting, so I would take hot showers, waiting until my sinuses cleared up. Then I’d rush back to my bedroom, half-dressed and wet, to snort another line before my sinuses closed again. Occasionally the stout woman in the second bedroom, who rented the place, would knock on my door and ask if I wanted to eat some of the pasta she had on the stove. I sat at a square table in the corner of the kitchen, eating oversalted noodles with anchovies. I was reminded of my mother, who still texted me images of meals she cooked, to persuade me to visit.

When a voice in my head warned that our mother would catch COVID if my sister visited her in Diamond Bar, I called to tell my sister. Then she told my mother that I sounded unwell. Soon, my parents called. I knew that if I told them about my crisis, I would foreclose any possibility that my life in Berlin could be repaired. I started crying. I said that I was a deadbeat and a junkie, but that I couldn’t go back to the psych ward. My parents said I should come home, they’d book me a flight the next day, just say the word. I closed my eyes and imagined the view over the pool from my childhood bedroom.

At the Los Angeles airport, where my father met me, I could hardly make eye contact. He didn’t ask any questions. He welcomed me home.

My mother made lavish dinners: salt-and-pepper spareribs, deep-fried walnut shrimp in garlic mayonnaise. We ate together as a family, except on Wednesdays, when my father fasted and prayed. In the afternoon, when I collapsed into long naps, I would hear the piano bench creak as he shifted his weight. He practiced piano almost every day, teaching himself “Clair de Lune.” I listened as his notes rushed and drifted. Afterward, he might walk the canyon trail, among wild cacti and rattlesnakes. He could stay there for hours, wearing a floppy sun hat and sunglasses. He called it “silent retreat.”

One night, when I thought my parents were asleep, I put on Wu Tsang’s “Wildness” on the living-room TV. Released in 2011, the film documents Wildness, a queer party that the filmmaker and Ashland Mines threw at the Silver Platter, a gay bar near MacArthur Park, in Los Angeles. The bar was a haven for the Latino queer community, but Tsang threw her party on Tuesdays, the bar’s slowest night, drawing an art-school crowd. Tsang also opened an informal legal clinic across the street, where activists and lawyers counselled people who went to the Silver Platter and were under threat of deportation, or had been excluded from inheritance by homophobic family members.

I put on the film because, though I felt burned by night life, I missed it. In New York, I had admired Tsang, who is queer and Chinese. I styled my hair like her: sides shaved, topknot of black hair. Mines was a pioneer for deconstructed club before there was a name for it; in New York, I had seen him play GHE20G0TH1K, switching from shattering glass to Kelela’s smooth R. & B. vocals. I would punch the air, then ease into a body roll. My body had its own language. It taught me that within each of us are different ways of being, which allow us to relate to those who live differently than us.

Soon after I turned off the lights, my father walked down the stairs.

“What are you watching?”

I told him it was a film about a queer music scene. He cocked his head with a familiar, inscrutable curiosity.

“Can I join?”

As he sat beside me, the TV reflected on his glasses, I felt nervous, on the verge of laughter. The film includes a scene where a performer, in a white baroque wig, uses her teeth to pull a string of anal beads out of another performer’s asshole. I looked at my father, horrified at how he might react. Yet he seemed pleasantly amused. He stayed for the whole thing.

I spent almost a year in California. Watching my father, I admired his spiritual practice. He had retired as a minister, but he often comforted the dying at their bedside. He still officiated funerals, sometimes multiple times a week. He valued this work, because he believed that to be close to suffering was to be close to God. Whenever I asked him about his practices—the prayer, the fasting, the meditative walks—he became laconic and withdrawn, so I learned not to pry. In my bedroom, I meditated on my own, closing my eyes until a knowing silence swaddled me with warm disinterest. Repeatedly, I mouthed the words to the Third Step Prayer, “Relieve me of the bondage of self . . .”

My father still attended the church group for parents with queer children. He’d been going for five years. One morning, I went with him to an online video session, and a grid of Asian faces appeared. I saw Uncle Chek and SuJanne, two parents my father had been working with to translate the David Gushee book into Chinese. When it came time to introduce me to the group—“and your pronouns,” the facilitator had instructed—I could feel everyone’s eyes press in on me. I was wearing a jejune orange pullover with a print of a snake emerging from an inverted pentagram. I stretched my lips in a joyless smile. But when I glanced at my father, he seemed proud.

“This is my son,” he said.

In Diamond Bar, I started to associate the Christian life not with flights of spiritual escape but, rather, with the daily momentum of universal forgiveness. I forgave the sun for the rashes on my forearm, and the squirrels who vexed my mother by eating her roses. I forgave my father.

When I returned to New York after the pandemic, to begin grad school at N.Y.U., I surprised almost everyone in my life: I became a Christian again. It seemed like the queerest thing to do, this abrupt change. I discovered the work of Linn Tonstad, a theologian who, in one particularly memorable passage, relates the glory hole to Kierkegaardian notions of unconditional love. Through Tonstad, I found the work of the Argentinean theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid, who believed that, if God created us in his image, knowing the queerness within oneself was to know God more profoundly. This scholarship could swerve from Kathy Acker to liberation theology and ancient apophatic traditions. “The kenosis of omnisexuality in God is a truly genderfucking process worthy of being explored,” Althaus-Reid wrote.

Then, surprising no one, I fell in love. Drew was the first boyfriend I ever had. I was thirty-four. “Get on top of me,” he’d say. I’d lay like a starfish on his stomach, and he would say, “You make me so happy,” and it startled me to think that it could be true.

I returned to the dance floor. I forgave the club. The first one I went to with Drew was Basement, to see Juliana Huxtable. “I love this sound,” I said to him, a stupid grin on my face. Chromatic scales showered down over hand claps. Drew danced with his eyes closed and I jumped on my toes. I felt not as if we were listening to sound but as if we were within it, vibrating, with the world around us radiant in indeterminacy. The future could be different from my predictions, precisely because the past might not have happened the way I thought it did. I had always thought that my father hated others because he loathed me. I thought my very being was a reminder that he had failed as a father, as a man. But now I remember when he caught me, as a child, in his closet, pressing my face into the rack of silk ties he wore to church. He had lifted me into the air, making the whistling sound of an aircraft, marvelling at this giggling boy created in the mystery of his own image. ♦


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