"Dear God!"

Occasionally when I walk home from the bus stop after work I encounter one particular cyclist who, whether he's on the same side of the road as I or the opposite side, will invariably exclaim, loudly, "Dear God!" At first I thought nothing of it; after this incident was repeated a few times, I mentioned it casually to my partner one day, who replied, "I would've been offended by a remark like that." I'm not sure if I've been desensitized to the attitude behind insensitive words aimed at me or if I really didn't care. But it got me thinking.


Back in the '70s, growing up with albinism in Singapore wasn't easy. My partial sight was one issue, of course, complicated by the limited availability of resources for people with disabilities at that time. But more complicated than my difficulty in seeing others was the way they saw me, for when you stick out in a sea of brown-skinned people, you are bound to get noticed. To be honest, "stared at" is a better way of putting it. It took many years before I finally felt brave enough to confront one starer with the simple question, "What are you looking at?"

East Asians tend to follow the mainstream, so that anything out of the ordinary challenges their comfort zone. Because of that, people's reactions to me were usually a mix of disbelief and discomfort. Once I grew to expect getting stared at, I learned to pacify myself by saying silently, "Here comes The Look again." People who had never met a Caucasian or didn't really know what a Caucasian looked like thought I was white. When they tried to converse with me in their broken English they were often amazed when I responded in their native language. Others ignored me; some tried to get away from me. One man almost bumped into a pole trying to escape.

Despite all of the staring going on in public, I was doing well in the private, Catholic school where I was enrolled and where my teachers were quite protective of me—sometimes overprotective. Once, on the playground when I was in second grade, a first grader knocked off my sunglasses during recess. I don't think he did it out of malice, but one of the teachers must have thought otherwise, because in the midst of my next class I was called up and told to go to the first grade class. There I was asked to find the boy who had knocked off my glasses.

Not being able to see well, I had to walk up and down every row of desks in the classroom. In fact I had to walk through twice because the boy hung his head so low that I couldn't see his face clearly at first. I wasn't sure which of us was more embarrassed by this episode; the kid, who I don't think was a bad person, never tried to befriend me after that.

The worst treatment, I was to discover, is usually reserved for the world outside of educational institutions. After getting my bachelors degree I was turned down for more than thirty full-time jobs. Were my partial sight or my albinism reasons for rejection? I'll never know. I did receive valuable feedback in one instance, but only because my sister's boss at the time was one of the interviewers. I learned that I was rejected for the job, as an administrative assistant, because the panel of interviewers thought my albinism would turn people off—and this was in a university setting. It was then I realized that I had to move to a place where people were tolerated for their differences.

So off I went to seek my fortune in North America, where I've found that people are generally more accepting. I've even received compliments that I could never have imagined before moving here. They've been almost all from women, though, who apparently love the color of my eyes and hair and want to know if they are the "real thing." When it was time to find a job after getting an advanced degree, my albinism seemed to become a non-issue. Since I had a specialized skill to offer I felt confident that at last I was being evaluated on my merits and not on my appearance.

But subtle rather than overt discrimination can still turn up in odd ways, something I learned from black friends. In parts of the country where an albino is a rare sight, an Asian albino is not even conceivable. In places like that I would sometimes get The Look from store clerks. The funny thing is that my sight is so poor I wouldn't know what had happened until friends told me about it afterwards. With no one around to tell me, The Look was lost on me.

While I was doing well in the professional world, my social life was a mixed bag of surprises and disappointments. When in 1993 I first came out as a gay man here in the United States, I didn't know where to find friends. Places where I thought I would find the most support, like the Metropolitan Community Church or gay community-based organizations, turned out to be major disappointments, and not for lack of trying on my part. People were cliquish; the only way you could break into a circle of friends, it seemed, was through a friend of a friend.

The only men eager to befriend me were those looking for love, not something that I was always searching for at the time. Ultimately, the friends I found came by accident, through things like a common interest in a research project, for instance. Most of them weren't gay but they accepted me for who I was, and that was good enough for me.

As for my love life, it was practically nonexistent. Sex was not absent entirely, but when it happened it was either a one-time affair or with a man who was in an open relationship with someone else. Going to bars was pointless, since I can't see much in dim light and don't really care for the club scene anyhow. Social events where gay men get together were equally perplexing because I never knew if it was my albinism that got in the way of sociability.

The biggest irony of all resulted from get-togethers where non-Asian and Asian men enjoy each other's company. In Singapore I was perceived as white, while here I am seen as not being Chinese enough. At these gatherings the non-Asians would talk to me but it was clear that I didn't meet their criteria for desirability. Expecting to see an olive-skinned man, they found that my white/blond hair and blue eyes did not pass the "Asian attractiveness test."

Looking for a partner got a lot brighteror so it seemed—when I discovered the Internet, where one can see potential mates through online ads with photos. But once I decided to post an ad, all sorts of questions arose: should I include a photo? If not, should I mention that I have albinism? Should I even assume that people know what "albinism" means (you'd be surprised to find out what people do and don't know)? Does trying to explain the term make my ad look silly, defensive, desperate—or a bit of all three? Should I post an ad aimed at the widest audience, or should I try to pass myself off as someone "exotic" by posting on sites where people look for Asian men, or even on sites that cater to guys with disabilities?

Alternatively, I could respond to ads placed by others and hope that they would not get too put off by my appearance. Both methods led to meeting interesting people along the way, but none of these encounters translated into meaningful relationships. Ultimately, I found little luck with online ads one way or another.

Eventually I had better luck meeting men in face-to-face situations where I was not looking for love. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that men met me, and started talking to me. One encounter resulted from teaching an undergraduate class (no, the affair occurred after the student was no longer my student—just wanted to be clear about that). Another was through a professional conference. Based on the encounters I've had with men who took an intimate interest in me, I'll have to say that the only common thread I could find was that, like my friends, they accepted me for who I am, including how I look.


Remember that cyclist? Finally I got a close look at him. He was cycling on the sidewalk (a no-no according to Atlanta traffic laws) and heading straight toward me. Because it was a narrow sidewalk I stopped and let him pass. At first I didn't realize it was him. Then, as he cycled past me, I heard again those two immortal words, "Dear God!"

"Dear God" was right. He was one of the ugliest people I've ever seen!

© 2004 Adrian Liau
Header © 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER


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Adrian Liau lives in Atlanta, GA. When not working, eating, sleeping, or taking care of other bodily functions, he delights in finding ways to annoy people who give him a hard time. Well, maybe not always. It depends on what the hard factor is about.



BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2004