TOBIN: Oh, we gotta talk to strangers.
KATHY: Oh, strangers. I don’t even like regular people that are my friends, sometimes. I don’t know how I feel about strangers.
TOBIN: This show is called Nancy, so, like, the question I’m asking people is: What do you think a show called Nancy would be about?
PERSON ON THE STREET 1: [LAUGHS] I had the same thought.
PERSON ON THE STREET 2: A show called Nancy.
PERSON ON THE STREET 3: I mean, it brings up the term of what it means in gay culture of being a “nance,” or “nancy.”
PERSON ON THE STREET 4: I think it would be about a little old lady named “Nancy” --
PERSON ON THE STREET 5: A 30- to 40- year-old woman whose husband left her --
PERSON ON THE STREET 4: -- Who has lots of cats.
PERSON ON THE STREET 5: -- Maybe one or two kids, and now she needs to figure out a way to support her kids.
PERSON ON THE STREET 3: Nancy. So what would you be discussing on your podcast?
KATHY: Well, it’s actually going to be an LGBTQ podcast.
PERSON ON THE STREET 3: Well, I like it then.
GUEST 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy,
GUEST 2: With your hosts, Kathy Tu and Tobin Low!
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Hey, mom, you want to introduce yourself?
VIVIAN: Hi, this is Tobin’s mom.
TOBIN: This is my mom, Vivian. If you need a visual, she’s a petite Chinese woman with transition lenses. Her driver’s license says she’s 5’2”, but she likes to say that she’s shrunk since then.
TOBIN: Mom, I have to ask, do you remember … um … that conversation we had when I came out? Do you remember the two things you said to me?
VIVIAN: I don’t. I think I was just in such, like, trying to figure out all my emotions at the moment. It’s pretty blurry to me.
TOBIN: I told my parents I was gay over Thanksgiving break of my freshman year of college … the night before I was supposed to go back to school. I had, what I would call, a vague sense of dread. But I thought I knew how my mom might react -- somewhere between a hug and a parade -- which is not what I got.
VIVIAN: Tell me what I said.
TOBIN: We had a conversation where you said, “I want to say two things to you that I would say even if you were straight. Number one: Don’t be such a slob, because no one’s gonna want to be with you if you’re such a slob. And number two: I think you’ve gained weight.”
VIVIAN: Well, I guess it’s kind of a compliment to me because those are just pretty normal things you would say to anybody. Even in that crisis of a moment, I think I still felt … you’re my son and I’m just gonna keep saying things that will improve you.
TOBIN: Can I tell you a horrible secret about coming out?
TOBIN: The first person I came out to was not my best friend, but a girl I knew who was obsessed with Will and Grace. And so, as a strategic move, I was like, “This’ll probably be a softball I can throw to myself.”
KATHY: That is very strategic.
TOBIN: Yeah, and then it backfired, because I came out to her and she was immediately like, “You are my Will!” [LAUGH] I love being typecast in my own life. But seriously, it was great to have somebody there who was an immediate cheerleader, and also sort of forcing me to, like, identify as a gay man, as a queer person. And I think that’s, like, a thing that queer people have in common, is these moments where you, like, have to define yourself.
KATHY: Over and over and over again, and to yourself and to other people, um, and it’s hard to do when you’re actively trying to figure it out.
TOBIN: Right. It’s, like, both awful and wonderful and sometimes a mix of both.
KATHY: Mostly mix of both. [Both laugh]
TOBIN: But I think, like, that’s one reason I’m so grateful we have this show, because I think that’s what the stories are gonna be about.
KATHY: Right, like, we’re going to try and capture people figuring it out in their own lives. Like the story of how I came out to my mom, and how it’s been this long ongoing process for the both of us. Because as much as I wanted an immediate positive response from her, or even just any response, that’s not what I got.
KATHY'S MOM: Hello hello. [MANDARIN] How are you?
KATHY: When I was about 5 years old, my parents told me we were going on vacation. So I packed up my little blue backpack, walked onto a giant airplane, and we moved. From Taipei to Los Angeles.
We moved so that my sister and brother and I could have a better education, so of course, right away they stuck me in school. And I, knowing no English, promptly failed first grade. But to be fair, I did start in the middle of the year and, you know, I thought I was on vacation.
So obviously, I’ve learned English, but I’ve lost a lot of my Mandarin along the way. My parents speak mostly in Chinese, so our conversations are usually in Chinglish. When I was growing up, my mom would yell at me in Chinese to clean up the living room because something was out of place, and I would scream back in English, “I’ll do it soon!” And it usually was my mom doing the yelling because she did the bulk of the parenting.
So her opinion is the one I care about most. And frustratingly, she is the only one who refuses to hear me come out.
KATHY'S MOM: My name? Chinese name is Chen Shun Lien. English name is Emily.
KATHY: Her English name is Emily. She grew up in rural Taiwan, dirt poor.
ROSALIND: She told me that, like, when she was little, she would be so happy even just to have like a little bit of, like, chicken on the table or something.
KATHY: That’s Rosalind.
ROSALIND: Oh, I'm your sister, older sister.
KATHY: My mom was always working. She helped at the family laundromat, and when she was 16, she went to nursing school, because that’s what her mom told her to do. She worked as a nurse until she moved to the States when she was 33.
She’d probably say she’s never met a gay person in her life. That she knew of, at least.
The first time I came out to my mom was after I had returned from a college semester in Taiwan, relearning Mandarin. I was living in LA and in my first relationship with a girl. And even though I felt like my mom wouldn’t take kindly to this news, I felt like I needed to try. Maybe it’ll be okay, I thought. Maybe she’ll understand and I’ve been scared for no reason. And with my new Mandarin skills, I’ll be able to really explain myself.
So I wrote my mom a long email, and buried in the middle were four short sentences about having a girlfriend. As soon as I hit send, I felt like I had planted a bomb.
About an hour later, my mom called. She yelled and screamed for me to move home. And through my ugly crying, I remember her saying, “I was always afraid of this,” and “I can’t accept it.”
But I didn’t go home. In fact, we basically ignored that that interaction ever happened. Instead, my mom and I went back to fighting about everything else.
ROSALIND: I think you both have very strong personality and very strong cultural beliefs. Like, those ideas are very very different. So I think you guys clash a lot of the times.
KATHY: When my mom and I fight, she usually ends with, “Remember that you’re Chinese.”
ROSALIND: Remember that you're Chinese? The Chinese value the tradition of honoring the roots and respecting the elderly, the way you speak, the way you think has to be more of a conservative, it's a more conservative tradition, you know.
KATHY: Because she is so conservative, we clashed over everything. Growing up, we clashed because I never wanted to wear dresses or anything pink. We clashed because I wanted to play hockey and take martial arts classes. I wanted her to be proud of me for putting together my IKEA dresser without my dad’s help. She shook her head and said, “You better learn to let a guy help me or you’ll never find a husband.”
Back then, even though I didn’t always know I was queer, I knew I was different, and I was ashamed of it. So I spent a lot of time in my room watching TV, wishing I were someone else, and living in my daydreams.
KATHY: A few years after I came out for the first time, I was living back at home, single, and studying for the bar exam. I felt like I had no control over my life, and every day felt like a never-ending slog. My mom did her best to support me. She left me alone to study and she made sure I had food and snacks. But even with all that support, I felt like there was a wall between us.
At this point in my life, I was out to everyone I knew, and very happy about it. I guess what I didn’t expect was that I’d still long for my mom’s validation. So, sitting in my room, books and lectures screaming at me, I thought, “I need to come out to my mom again.”
But this time, I came armed. I found a Mandarin flyer from a local gay-rights organization. In bold type at the top, it said, awkwardly translated, “After Your Children Came Out … A Guide for Parents of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Children.”
I started a new email, attached the flyer, and pressed send. I emailed my mom, who was downstairs.
About an hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything from her, so I went downstairs into the kitchen where my mom was doing the dishes. I asked if she got my email, and she nodded. Then I asked if she wanted to talk, and she said, without looking at me, “What do you want me to say?” I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t have the words for “validate my existence.” So I said, “Nothing.” And we went back to not talking about it.
Which brings us to the third time that I’ve come out to my mom, a couple years later.
KATHY'S MOM: Hello hello. [MANDARIN] How are you?
KATHY: We sat down in my sister’s room, because it’s the quietest place in my parent’s house.
KATHY: Okay so, this is what I was thinking. We’re gonna talk about things, and then we’re going to use Google Translate for the things that don’t make any sense.
KATHY'S MOM: Ah, Google Translate. Sometime it cannot translate very good.
KATHY: Yeah but the point is if you understand me.
KATHY'S MOM: I understand, but you guys cannot understand me.
KATHY: Really? Because I think that you don’t understand me.
KATHY'S MOM: I don’t know. Okay. Whatever.
KATHY: Okay, so we’ll try.
KATHY: I wanted to try it this way because my previous attempts at coming out ended so abruptly. First she yelled at me, then she shut me down. But maybe part of the part was that I had been approaching it as an announcement rather than a conversation. So, this time, we were going to talk. She had the tools to ask whatever she wanted, and to say whatever she wanted. And I could, too. So I did.
KATHY: Part of me not liking myself for so long is that I had to keep hiding part of me from you because you refused to talk to me about it. And being… I mean I’m not completely gay, but I’m mostly gay. That’s not something you choose to do. It’s just something that you are. Does that make sense?
KATHY'S MOM: Yeah.
KATHY: You have no response?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] What kind of response do you expect from me?
KATHY: See that’s the same thing you told me last time, like when I sent information to you in Chinese, I asked if you had any questions, you said, “No. What else do you want me to say?” And I just want us to talk about it because it’s a big part of my life and I think…
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] If you insist, I will talk about it. I can’t do anything about it. [ENGLISH] I know what gay means. But every parent wants you to have a normal life. [MANDARIN] What I mean by normal is, marriage and kids. This is what I hope for you. This was the expectation from my parents, so I expect the same from my own children. We all have our own choices to make. If you really are gay, there is nothing I can do about it. Because this is your choice. I only hope for one thing, do not discount all men.
KATHY: Yeah, but that’s what I mean when I asked you do you understand what it means to be gay -- because that’s not how it works.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] This is how I feel. Why did you become this way? Why did you choose this? [ENGLISH] I don’t know. [MANDARIN] Is it because your family influenced you? Why do you think this way? Why?
KATHY: It’s not something you choose. You just are. I don’t have the capability of falling in love with men. Do you know what that means? “Capacity.”
KATHY'S MOM: Capacity?
KATHY: It’s not possible for me to fall in love with men.
KATHY'S MOM: Why?
KATHY: I don’t know. It’s not possible.
KATHY'S MOM: Did you try?
KATHY: Yeah, there’s no trying. There’s dating -- I guess that’s trying. But you don’t feel anything. And because you can’t accept me as a whole person, I’m always gonna feel like I’m lacking this -- in this relationship. And I can’t tell you everything because… so last month, December, was a really hard month for me. But the things that were upsetting me, I can’t tell you, because it would make you happy even though it makes me sad.
KATHY'S MOM: Why?
KATHY: Because there was a girl that I liked who didn’t like me back. And I was really sad for a really long time. But I can’t tell you that, because you would just be happy that this wasn’t happening for me. And so December was a really hard time, and why I wasn’t home so often. But I couldn’t tell you these things.
KATHY'S MOM: Hm. Understand.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] If you feel that you need to act this way to be happy and more comfortable, then go ahead. If you make this decision, or when you meet the right person, I guess I can’t do anything about it. [ENGLISH] So go ahead. What am I gonna do? [MANDARIN] But if you want me to totally support you, I can’t do that yet.
KATHY: The thing you should know, though, is that whoever my partner is doesn’t change who I am now.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I don’t think you’ve changed, I just don’t want to talk about it.
KATHY: But why?
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] I think this is my fault. I gave birth to you this way, isn’t that my fault? A normal life isn’t like this.
KATHY: Wha-- Who says what’s normal?
KATHY'S MOM: My generation, [MANDARIN] from start to end. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. But in my opinion, I expect my children to behave in certain ways, and if they don’t, I can’t do anything about it. I can’t say I reject you because if I do, you’ll be unhappy. And I don’t want you to be unhappy. If you ask me if I care, of course I do. But I will let go of my care, I will minimize how much I care. As long as you’re happy.
KATHY: I think that’s the only thing I can ask. I mean it’s not fair to change someone’s mind immediately.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] Okay?
KATHY: That’s fair.
KATHY: Coming Out Version Three: my mom didn’t say, “I understand.” She didn’t say “It’ll be okay,” or even, “I accept you.”
All along I thought if I could just get my mom to understand me, if I could just be clear, I’d reach her. We would connect, and she would accept me. But I was never going to get that in just one conversation.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] After our conversation I thought about it for a while, how I was going to say…
KATHY: Recently, my mom left me this voicemail.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] But I want you to know, if you need to talk about anything, call me…
KATHY: She said she and my dad tried their best to support me and my siblings, but their understanding of us is limited.
[MOM SPEAKING MORE IN MANDARIN]
KATHY: She wants me to know that I can call to talk about anything. She may not give me the answer I want, but she’ll be there to listen.
KATHY'S MOM: [MANDARIN] As you grew up, I knew you were different, but I hope you know what you’re doing.
KATHY: She told me that, as I grew up, she knew I was different, but no matter what I do with my life, she will always be there when I call. And my room will always be there if I need it.
KATHY'S MOM: Bye bye.
TOBIN: Is there anything that you ever had to tell your parents that was hard to tell them?
PERSON ON THE STREET 1: Um, that I was gonna move to New York without a job. Sell my car and move here without a job.
PERSON ON THE STREET 2: Okay, so ... Mom, dad, guess what? I started drinking.
PERSON ON THE STREET 3: Yeah, ‘cause my dad is really protective, so I wouldn’t be as open to him with my problems as I am with my mom.
PERSON ON THE STREET 4: There was a time that I told my parents I wasn’t going to college … [that] I was going to clown school instead.
PERSON ON THE STREET 5: Um, coming out was very difficult.
KATHY: One of the things I think that surprised me about coming out was that it really wasn’t just me who was going through something. The other person suddenly had a thing that they had to go through, too.
TOBIN: Yeah, like, I had no idea the amount of processing that my parents needed to do just to understand everything and to come to terms with it. We fought a lot and we had a lot of intense discussions. But the weirdest thing was that my dad, like, processed it through -- I guess I would call them five friends.
[QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY THEME]
TOBIN’S DAD: I became a total Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fan … boy.
TOBIN: I just wanna be clear here: my dad fucking loved this show. Like, he taped all the episodes. He tried out Ted Allen’s recipes.
TOBIN’S DAD: They were guys I thought it would be really fun to learn from and to hang out with for a week.
TOBIN: I remember you took, like, a lot of tips from them.
TOBIN’S DAD: Well, I took some personal grooming tips. For example, Carson, he gave me a new word which was ... I had already rolled up my sleeves for work because I work as a doctor, and rolling my sleeves up keeps them cleaner. But he called it “zhuzhing up” the sleeve.
TOBIN: You know, the show used to give me a huge amount of anxiety.
TOBIN’S DAD: Well, my anticipated thought is that it did because you thought it was too stereotypical. I thought that they were very comfortable in their style, so that it was kinda like, for me, “Stereotype be damned!” The one guilt I had was how much I told you I loved the show, and I didn’t know if that offended you.
TOBIN: In what way would my feelings have been hurt, though?
TOBIN’S DAD: Well because that -- I realized that you probably saw -- and I realized that I got that hint from you right away -- you actually said something to that effect, that you thought it was too flaunting-it, it was too gay, too put-on.
TOBIN: It was really -- yeah, I’ll admit, it was really tough because at the time it seemed, like, a million miles down the road from where I was. I think it was, like, at the time where I was figuring out I was gay this was really intimidating to see five guys who had these sort of, like, gay superpowers.
KATHY: [TEASING] Why do you hate Queer Eye?
TOBIN: Uhh, I mean, I wouldn’t call myself a Queer Eye truther, like, a lot of people are super pissed that this show is coming back. I definitely hated it at the time, but it had more to do with me than it did with them. Like, these guys on the show they didn’t seem like full people to me, and so they sorta didn’t help me imagine what my life would be like as an adult gay man … Which was funny because for my dad it did the complete opposite. it totally helped him do that.
TOBIN’S DAD: Let’s say ... This show gave me more security and some sense of hope for you in the future than, say, a movie like Brokeback Mountain, which sorta scared the shit out of mom and me.
TOBIN: I remember in some of the talks we had about -- after I came out -- that, you know, you had lost your best friend to AIDS and I -- whether or not we explicitly said it, I felt that that was one of the fears for me as a gay man.
TOBIN’S DAD: Toby, the first AIDS epidemic broke in the early ‘80s, and it broke big and hard in the Bay Area. In the hospital I was part of teams that took care of many gay men who suffered from the secondary effects -- the secondary infections -- and then finally dying of AIDS, and so I saw that throughout the ‘80s into the ‘90s, until all the great retrovirals came on. And thankfully they were taking effect and having real positive effect. I remembered that was my first image, or fear, that popped into my head the moment you said that. I remember driving to work and at times kinda starting crying, and I would actually have tears rolling down my face thinking about you as a gay man and I remembered starting having to say to myself, “I am the father of a homosexual man.” And it wasn’t because it was a negative stereotype, it was because I had to recast how I thought about you as my son, from the day you were born to the time you went to college and like another door opened and suddenly it took us into a whole new universe.
TOBIN: So even though I personally wasn’t a fan of Queer Eye, I can appreciate what it did for my dad. Like, it let him see a different way of being gay, that my life didn’t have to be sad and tragic, but that I could be, you know, like, a happy fulfilled gay person who was accepted into people’s lives. Um ... and could give them tips on how to be a better dresser.
KATHY: Wait, did your dad dress better because of Queer Eye?
TOBIN: A hundred -- a hundred and fifty percent. He still rolls his sleeves the way Carson Kressley taught him to do in 2003, which was terrible because now he uses it as ammunition to make fun of how I dress.
TOBIN’S DAD: Okay, no, okay, now I have to share one guilty thing that I’ll tell you. We go out to Cleveland, and we have dinner with you and your first boyfriend. And I don’t know if you remember how you guys were dressed, but you guys were doing the -- I feel -- fashion faux pas of wearing denim top jackets and denim jeans. And afterwards mom and I were talking about it, and I said, “I have to tell you, Viv, they look like extras from Brokeback Mountain.”
TOBIN: Oh my God.
TOBIN’S DAD: I said that! I admit to you now that I said that about you. I apologize for that, Tobin. But, to this day, it still makes me laugh.
TOBIN: I would say it took me a long time to realize how much time he and my mom would need to just process everything.
KATHY: Yeah, I’m pretty sure my mom is still trying to process what we talked about. Like, honestly, I’m probably gonna have to come out to her again.
TOBIN: Do it for Season Two!
KATHY: People are gonna be sick of this.
TOBIN: But really, we do have so much more to cover.
KATHY: So here’s a preview of what’s coming this season on Nancy.
MARA: I fought it for a very long time. And one of the excuses I had was, “I can’t be queer, because I have too much going on.”
JACKSON: And so to have one of the protagonists and, you know, the most powerful, gracious, awesome wizard of all time being openly gay, would just be huge.
KATHY: Like, I always, like, never wanted to catch, like, a butch woman’s attention.
JOE: There is a whole narrative here that I was not privy to, that I had no -- that I didn’t participate in. I mean, your classmates are right: you’re speaking about a relationship that you had with me, but I didn’t have with you.
CHICHI: He got a kick out of a title called “Fortune Nookie.” I mean, you know, it’s a clever title. So is “White on Rice,” so is “With Sex You Get Eggroll.”
SARAH: Being a little, awkward 12 year-old gay kid and then seeing a charming, confident gay adult -- that allowed me to imagine an adult version of myself.
MAURA: I never knew that I could … [CRYING] that I could actually be a role model for somebody.
GREGORY: They say just that that cannot be, they say that it doesn’t make sense. How can I be a Republican and gay at the same time? It doesn’t make sense to them.
LINDSAY: And unfortunately a Nazi website picked up the episode and wrote an article about me. I didn’t know the Nazis still existed.
DOMINIQUE: So people say if you could go back and change everything that happened, what would you do different, and i’m being totally honest --
DAVID: -- be totally honest, please --
DOMINIQUE: I wouldn’t change anything, alright? I made a conscious decision to be in love.
[CREDIT MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: Okay okay, business time. Kathy, say your thing.
KATHY: Follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nancypodcast/ and Twitter at @NancyPodcast. We’ve got links, GIFs, and live video where we’re all going to hang out together. And don’t forget to give us a fantastic review wherever you get your podcasts. You know you want to!
TOBIN: Beautifully done, now let’s go to credits!
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Matt Collette!
KATHY: Sound designer…
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
TOBIN: Cathy-with-a-C Wong!
KATHY: Special thanks...
TOBIN: Suzie Lechtenberg!
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
KATHY: Anything else?
TOBIN: I -- I don’t know.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: [SINGING] I have a beautiful singing voice.
KATHY: [NOT SINGING] And I do not.