This post is by Brittney Edelman.
“I have always been gay,” says Johnson Ngo. “But, I did not realize I was gay until I was a teenager.”
Ngo, 24, is a artist in Toronto, Ontario. With richly saturated and gloriously shiny black hair, reaching past his shoulders, Ngo regularly gets mistaken for a girl. He wears large frame glasses, slim-fitting trench or bomber-style coats, skinny pants and thrifted bow ties. He is beyond fashion trends. He has his own style.
Ngo is one of my closest friends.
We met mid-summer, 2010. We were taking a German cinema course through The University of Toronto in Berlin, Germany. He’s gay. I’m straight. When I introduce Ngo, I don’t tell those before us our sexual orientation. So, why am I telling you?
Ngo and I talk about life. You know, the normal things friends talk about: dating, men, women, fashion, getting drunk. Ngo talks about hooking-up with men, as do I. When the topic, “Born This Way,” was posted for discussion, I realized Ngo and I had not discussed this. Ever. However, being a gay male is a large part of Ngo’s life.
“I always knew I was kind of different, but I just thought it was because I was Asian and a brainiac,” says Ngo, who is Vietnamese and grew up in Niagara Falls with his mother, father and three siblings.
Ngo would play dress-up in his mothers clothes and enjoyed playing with stereotypical girls toys. When Ngo was two years old, he tried on his mothers high heel shoes and trotted across her room, only a few feet, until he tripped. He split open his lower lip and still has the scar, which he hid for most his youth.
In high school, “Everyone thought I was asexual, since I was so brainy,” says Ngo. “I excelled at physics and mathematics. They were my meal ticket to get into university.” Ngo wanted to study art.
On the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Ngo told his parents he was gay. This was one month before he left home for Sheridan College, a post-secondary school in Ontario.
“I came out to my parents right before my friends were about to pick me up to go out for a birthday dinner,” says Ngo. “They were really shocked and I was like ‘Oh, my friends are here. I got to go. Bye!’ The next day they told me that they did not get a wink of sleep. They threatened my life.”
His parents’ reaction pushed Ngo back into the closet for two more years. “They said that I was dishonoring the family and that no one needs to know. They said that it was just a phase and that it is not what I want. The said it [being gay] hurts them.”
Since, Ngo has not talked to his parents about his sexuality.
Two years passed before Ngo came out of the closet to his older brother, Simon*. Simon told him that he already knew. Two years prior, their parents had told his brother to tell Ngo not to be gay. Simon refused.
“He supported me silently. He waited for me to come out on my own terms.”
Ngo began exploring his sexuality in online chat rooms when he was 17 years old.
“Because I was in the closet for so long, I was trying to live vicariously though others by chatting with other guys anonymously,” says Ngo. As an adult, Johnson started dating men offline as well as on. “I began to understand where I stand in the gay community as an asian male.”
“Caucasian males, within western art and gay culture, are considered the norm – the ones with privilege. Asian males are the minority. On the totem pole, the asian male is the bottom and the Caucasian male is the top.”
Johnson explores this concept of race, sexuality and identity in his performance art. His most recent show was in February at The Rhubarb Festival in Toronto, Ontario. Ngo’s performance was based on an experience he had during the summer of 2011. He had been chatting with Cary*, an older Caucasian man, online for some time before arranging a date. Seemingly, Cary was a gentleman. They walked along the docks by Lake Ontario, on the southern side of the city. Sunset. Cary’s arm tightly around Ngo.
After their intimate stroll, they went back to Cary’s home to watch a movie.
“We started to kiss and cuddle, says Ngo. “Then he ran his hands through my hair and called me his China doll.”
Note: Ngo is Vietnamese.
The China doll is a Chinese maker of femininity, says Ngo.
At The Rhubarb Festival, Ngo did a one-on-one performance with different members of the audience, and showed each one how to make a geisha doll.
Geishas are traditional Japanese female performers. China dolls are dolls, typically female, made of glazed porcelain. Ngo is Vietnamese; male. During the performance he told the narrative of his date with Cary – Vietnamese opera playing tranquilly in the background and wafts of soy sauce and sesame oil drifting through the air.
The described date was not the only time he has been type-casted for his “gaysian-ness,” “asian-ness” or “gay-ness.” says Ngo. “I have the titled of ‘gold-star gay’ which means ‘never been with a woman.’”
Identity and sexuality and whether one is born gay or not is not a black and white issue, but rather many shades of grey, says Ngo.
Identity is not just about sexuality. Identity absorbs ones past present and future. Some people can have a larger capacity for love. They can love both men and women – in a romantic way or a platonic way, says Ngo.
“I want to make it clear that I am what I am. There was no choice. But some people do have a choice. I know where I am at and who I am, but it’s different for everyone. Everyone has there own choices to make.”
Ngo next performance will be at the Nuit Blanche Festival, Septemebr 29, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario.
Simon* name changed for privacy reasons.
Cary* name changed for privacy reasons.
Brittney Edelman (Cleveland) studied Journalism as well as Cinema Studies and English. She works as a freelance journalist and has been published in The Commoner Newspaper, The Globe and Mail, The New-Herald newspaper, Optimyz Magazine and broadcasted on CBC Radio. Her main interests are gender, sexuality, feminism, health, social justice, development and animals.