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February 02, 2016

A Letter to My Son for If You Ever Came out

A father examines his own feelings and the way society treats LGBT people in this moving letter to his son

by Ifan Ismail

Dear Son,
The world is changing. And as a father in today’s Indonesian society, one of the things I should be prepared for is the day I find out about your sexual orientation. This epiphany led me to write you this letter. Hopefully you will read it when... well, when you feel like it.
Because, as Queen says in their song “Father to Son”:
Take this letter that I give you
Take it sonny, hold it high
You won't understand a word that's in it
Funny you don't hear a single word I say
But my letter to you, will stay by your side

It might come across as too forward at this point: how can I write such a letter when we have only been spending three years together as a family? So of course "you won’t understand a word that’s in it". I haven’t even done anything noteworthy. But that’s OK. Let’s say this letter is a wellwisher from me to you, something that I can always edit and improve as time goes by.

The epiphany came to me when I was in college. As college students, we were discussing anything and everything – progressive discussions, or so we thought and wanted them to be – including on the issue of LGBT. Yes, we were wiseass back then, and we were probably wrong most of the time, but then what else is youth for?
Even at that point in my life, I was past the stage of being defensive of my acceptance of the LGBT community. Simply put, there had been too many stories and so much data that proved that one’s sexual orientation is far more complex than just being a factor that determines whether your will go to heaven or straight to hell. Even if we are willing to consider the concept that homosexuality is “God’s way of testing us”, it never should be treated the way it has always been: full of mistrust and prejudice.
That’s what I believed in then, until someone asked me: “Look at you being all tolerant and progressive, what if it is your child who came out?”
I was struck silent. We all were, and we chose to end the night with lame jokes about being single. It just felt “safer”.
Entering this phase in our life as parents, a new awareness emerges, telling us that we need to be more careful in our attitude and taking a stand. Often this “carefulness” turns into “compromises”, which in times can turn into “conformity”. We follow the consensus. What we know, in the case of LGBT in this country is that consensus is heartless.  Brutal even.
I remember this one time when your mother was crying – I forgot whether it was because she bumped her head into something or because she was watching a tearjerker movie – and you came up to her with a tissue, patting her in the back, and you stuttered with your still limited vocabulary, “It’s OK, Mom.”
I remember thinking, “Isn’t he a bit too soft-natured for a boy?”
That is not my only misguided moment. In one of your pictures, you have your head tilted in such a way that it gives the impression of an effeminate gesture. When a friend pointed this out, I reacted oh so quickly, “NO! It’s not what you think. He was singing, and that just happened.”
Then a thought interrupted me, “Why do I fuss about these things?” Have I turned into a conformist? So before this takes me further into ignorance, I felt the need to reexamine my views and principles.
The discourse on LGBT often strays into various territories: about sin, social acceptance, this right and that right, including the right to reproduce, the right to be true to your body and biological needs, and so on. We seldom venture into the deeply personal: what is actually going on in the minds of the LGBT people? Honestly, I have no idea. I can only begin to emphatize when I read personal memoirs depicting their inner struggles.
However, in society, the failure and the unwillingness to emphatize have grown to a level that I find is too much. And both sides of the spectrum have a role in this. So I am very curious about what is going on in their heads and their hearts.
For those who are loudly anti-LGBT, I have a question: Do you sincerely believe that LGBT is something to be condemned, or are you just socially pressured to believe that way?
For those defending LGBT, or even LGBT activists, I am aware, that because you are a minority, you tend to take a defensive stand, or even take a  “rebelious” stand. But are you convinced that your conservative oppositions are merely being hypocritical? Don’t you want to look into their fears, and their most basic values? Are you sure you can get sympathies and win this battle of discourse by ridiculing them?
However, unfortunately, when it comes to the contesting values, on the practical field, few have the time to investigate into the basic values. But someone has to do it. Ok, I’m rambling. Maybe this is just my excuse to buy time before I have to answer the all-important question about whether I am ready or not. I feel that I have to reexamine, am I ready to face the truth if you come out?
I can only say, in a very low voice, Son, I can only say, “I don’t know.” Even though my mental indicator is swaying toward “READY”, I don’t have the guts just yet to say that I am.
However, because I am investigating into my own values and bases for my attitude, for the sake of this investigation, I will say I am ready.
So now I guess it calls for an explanation: why am I ready, and why do I hesitate to say I am ready?
First, why I am hesitant to say I am ready. To put it simply, social pressure is not a lightweight issue. In movies and in a circle of people who share the same spirit, being a rebel, a defier, and a proponent of the "f*ck society" attitude is an easy and admirable thing to do. It’s like, it has been given from the start, that the “This is our stand!” attitude is the right one (well, good for you). This is often followed by an additional attitude that, “those who reject our values are conservatives, old-timers, non-progressive, bigots, unenlightened,” and so on, and so on.
I prefer to keep quiet and pretend to do something else – pick my nose, for example –when hearing such rhetorics.
There is something admirable behind the spirit of resistance with that level of anger. Personally, I was quite impressed (especially during my early years of college, when I was pretty much gullible about everything) with Iwan Fals, the musician, and his “prayer” when he sings, “Raise your fist against the conceited world, my child.” I always felt a heroic vibe, rumbling inside my chest, when I listen to those words. Even more so, when you were born.
But much too often, rebellious attitudes stray into their own fascism, from how to govern a nation to how to breastfeed your child. This includes, of course, LGBT issues. If there’s anyone who takes offense in my statement, Son, maybe they think I am talking about them. It’s all right. It’s just about whether you want to look inside yourselves or not.
Because I observe one small thing that can be trivial: a lot of the rebellious types that I know are the youngest child in their family. There is a thesis that says that the youngest in the family tend to rebel because their position enables them to do that, compared to their older siblings. It is very likely that their “lowly”status in the family becomes the main factor, so that when they grow up, they compensate with rebellious spirits and things like that.
But what often escapes our observation is the fact that the youngest kid has an advantage. The responsibility for the family on their shoulder is not as big as the one burdened on their older siblings. Yes, of course, the youngest have their own cross to bear, for example, they have to achieve things to get out of the shadows of the other family members, or something like that. But, it all leads to one thing: this factor is supporting the youngest kid to choose a different path. And because the older siblings have taken on the responsibility of the family's reputation, the youngest child tends to have it easy in choosing a different path.
What if the oldest child wants to rebel? Our society is not giving them that chance. The oldest child has to be the first to grow up, and “growing up” in this case means “compromising”.  To some children, something as simple to the chronological order of their birth time can change their obligation of learning from “raise your fist against the conceited world” to “go along with the conceited world”. Yes, I am “fortunate” enough to be the youngest child myself. But you are the oldest one. I feel that I need to warn you.
If one’s position and the potential pressure one must cope with in society can be determined by something as trivial as a chronological birth time, does fighting against social pressure become an easy thing? More so, when we’re talking about social pressure associated with a condemned sexual orientation. More so, in a society where even its intellectual insitution is playing safe, by refusing to be associated with a group of its academia members who merely wish to provide counselling to people having problems struggling with their being LGBT or LGBT issues.

Because, what kind of social consensus drives parents to choose a nod of approval from society over the love for their own children? 

Yes, I realize there are a lot of “More so”s in my previous sentences. It is because the problems are indeed multi-layered, and if not dealt with, they will become worse.
Now, let’s talk about why I say I am ready. After I spent this much time to stall, I have to come to this point, after all.
Hold on, let me catch my breath.
I am ready, because at the end of the day, I believe that everyone has to become an individual who takes responsibility for himself or herself. Of course, none of us can be fully detached from family or society – this attachment can come in the form of disturbance, but let’s not forget, also support.
And I am standing on this possibility of giving support. As a parent, I promise to never abandon my child. At a glance, that promise sounds like a no-brainer (“Well, of course, that’s your job as a parent, right?”). Moreover, taking into consideration that the world our children is living in is the responsibility of their parents’ generation. And, whoever asks to be born? Then, it is common knowledge that the main job of parents is to support their children. But, reality suggests otherwise.
In our society, we often hear about parents abandoning or disowning their children, because of things they consider a violation to social values. The most typical thing is regarding interfaith marriages and/or LGBT. Seeing these phenomena, I often feel, why is their love conditional? It’s like they’re thinking, “I will love my children only if they comply to my values.” But, again, I dare not judge. We never know what kind of social pressure that these parents are enduring, which leads them to disown their own children.
To me, this is the kind of social pressure that I am willing to take on; one that I think should be challenged. Because, what kind of social consensus drives parents to choose a nod of approval from society over the love for their own children? Oh, and if they say that they are choosing “a nod of approval from God”, the question remains the same: does it have to come to disowning your own children?
So, whatever happens, as a parent, I will be here for you—of course, while guarding your right as an adult individual.
I imagine, if this happens, people around us, with looks of pity or disgust (or both), will sneer, bully, or even harm us. At the very the least, they will console us, “We hope you can get through this tough time.”
Believe me, I will say “Amen to that!” with all my heart, because that kind of attitude itself is already a tough time for us. Although, admittedly, that will be the easiest "tough time" we have to face.
So, that is the promise that I’m offering you, Son. To love you unconditionally. You are free to be the person you choose to be. Please take me up on this offer should the time come. And should we both live to see the day.
Maybe I will not completely agree with your choices, but I have to look further into that. Why don’t I agree? Is it because I fear the hassle and (again!) social pressure I will get from your choice? Is it because I believe that God will condemn your choice?
Let’s be honest, I feel a little fear in me regarding the last question. But I now have faith in a compassionate and generous God. If there are wrong choices, I believe, nothing is automatic, like something that will automatically send you to heaven or to hell. I believe, you will understand this more when you become an adult and mature individual.
“Mature individual” is the other key to complement the love I was talking about. Because I believe this is the second main task of being parents. When you read this letter, I hope I and your mom have done the following things:
1. Preparing you to become a responsible individual with your choices and the risks that come with it
2. Preparing you to be an individual who spreads benefits and blessings for others
3. Instilling in you spiritual (and, all right, religious) values based on the paradigm of love.
A little heads up, Son. In the meantime, I will be sneaky by teaching you my conservative values, for the sake of two things. Firstly, I want to protect you from the social turmoil or even God’s wrath, and secondly, because I feel I have to give you what I know, as provision to accompany your journey in life. But, yes, of course I won’t demand you to use that provision bluntly.
To put it simply, I hope your mother and I will have tried our best, including providing you with a song reference that will feel pretty archaic to you, so that I believe you will not drag us to hell because of the wrong choices you make. Because, I don’t believe you will go to hell, as long as you become someone with good things to give to people.

If you grow up to become someone that is ready to hand out tissues for everyone else, whatever their choices are, or what their lives are like, and also ready to face the conceited world”, I think it is more than enough. 

The world is changing, Son. And what most people overlook is the fact that it will always change. That is why I hope you will grow up to become an individual who is ready to face changes, and not someone who desperately clings onto something he remembers or has memorized.
Because it turns out some things never change: the world is a cruel place. This cruelty not only oppresses the powerless, but also attacks those who  want to help the powerless. Just look at what is happening now with SGRC UI (Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies Universitas Indonesia) when I am writing this letter. And please don’t ask what is in store for those who fight back.
Compassionate love, and a free individual. I hope I have contributed enough and prepared you enough. I hope it will be adequate to keep you equipped for everything. With this paradigm, LGBT is only what makes life colorful. It’s not shame, and it's certainly not the end of the world.
It is also with this paradigm that I am able to reexamine your action when you were coming up to your crying mother with a tissue. You have love to share, and I believe, that is what I have to grow in you and use as a measure.
If you grow up to become someone that is ready to hand out tissues for everyone else, whatever their choices are, or what their lives are like, and also ready to face the conceited world”, I think it is more than enough. 
At this point, LGBT becomes such a trivial thing to be accused as the root of the problem.
Regards to the conceited world,
Your father
PS: Of course, there are possibilities for other twists in the plot, Son, because God is the Great Scriptwriter. If you, in fact, stray to become part of the conceited world, and maybe join them in condemning this and that, I hope you are still willing to read this letter. “My letter to you, will stay by your side”.

Ifan Ismail is a freelance writer who enjoys many things. His passion, however, lies in the magic of stories, which motivates him to focus on learning the art of fiction. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that he regularly writes screenplay for film and television, as means of artistic and financial fulfilment. In 2013 Festival Film Indonesia, he and Gina S Noer won the best screenplay award for Habibie & Ainun. He also has participated in Rumahfilm.org—a collective of film critics, journalists, and academics. Together, they publish critical essays on cinema regularly and Dissecting Indonesian Films: Political Economy of Indonesian Film Industry on 2011. This essay is written by Ifan for Jakarta Biennale 2015 in Indonesian and translated into English.