A Facebook message appears on my cell phone screen from a friend I haven’t connected with in eight years.
“Are you ever coming back?”
I repeat the question to myself as I stand on a wooden patio somewhere in the hills of Highland Park. To my left, two men in matching ball gowns kiss tenderly as they share a cigarette; to my right, a larger collection of inexperienced cross-dressers dance to Donna Summer. It is Pride weekend and the party is dress-themed. I am wearing a black velvet evening gown I borrowed from my neighbor, a drag queen. I take a sip of my bubbly drink as I stare at the profile picture of my estranged friend who never left home.
“Am I ever going back?”
I was born on the island of Java in Indonesia. I did not hunt for my food, nor was my house built on stilts above the ocean, although for many people on the smaller islands that is the case. The beautiful city of Bandung, where I was raised, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, making the traffic in Los Angeles feel like paradise.
People don’t believe me when I tell them Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. In fact, I won a hundred dollars just the other week from a Silver Lake bro who insisted on betting with me over the matter. I let him keep the money, but I left the interaction bewildered as to why you would test someone on the facts of a country they grew up in, and why you would guess Nigeria.
To say I grew up privileged would be an understatement. Poor white evangelical American missionaries transform into the 1 percent after relocation to a country where the exchange rate is 10,000 rupiah for 1 U.S. dollar. At my home in Bandung, we had two maids, a cook, a driver, and a night watchman. On one hand, employing southeast Asian locals is a helpful way to share your Western wealth. On the other hand, it creates the strangest Real Housewives spin-off known to man. Trying to live a life similar to that of Jesus, a man who washed the feet of sex workers, is hard to do when you have two women scrubbing your toilet.
As with many raised in the church, shame was a central theme of my growing up. With accounts of homosexuals being decapitated in nearby islands under Sharia law, and a Christian father in my local church being excommunicated for hooking up with his gardener, I felt stuck. My options were celibacy or death, and both felt lonely.
I remember the first time I saw a man kiss another. I was 9 years old, sitting in the Bali airport with my family and waiting to return home after a challenging week of sharing the gospel in one of the top tourist destinations in the world. An Australian man was leaving his Indonesian flame behind. The two locked lips and exchanged a sloppy, tear-filled goodbye.
“Disgusting,” I heard my sister respond. My stomach sank through the earth as I looked around the room waiting to be discovered. Even in this blue dot of Bali, the only non-Islamic island in the most heavily populated Muslim country in the world, I could not catch a break. In her defense, it was not a great kiss.
At 17, I made my way to the United States. When you graduate from an international school as an expatriate, you return to your home country for university. I dreamed of going to New York University but did not trust myself around a secular group of undergraduates. I left Indonesia to attend the “Harvard of Christian schools,” unaware it was also ranked as the number one most homophobic campus in America.
My first year at Wheaton College felt liberating compared to my experiences back home. For example, students were able to watch Darren Aronofsky films without being labeled pagan. But after eight semesters of signing a sheet of paper where I promised to “not participate in homosexual activity,” I found the same confusion creeping up. What was the point of living on earth when my “home” was prepared for me in heaven? Why was I given strong desires for intimacy with no outlet? I remember getting on my knees before graduation and praying. I didn’t want to spend my life waiting to die. I decided I was either going to kill myself or kiss a man. And thank God I chose the latter.
My college roommate joked when I told him I was moving to Los Angeles, “You’re going to California so you can be gay.” He was not wrong. Four years in and I have discovered loneliness does not disappear when you come out, but building community based in transparency is a step in the right direction.
Back in Highland Park, the new Ariana Grande song begins to play and the wooden planks of my friend’s patio creak as a dozen first-timers in heels squeal their way back to the main dance floor. I throw back my last sip of prosecco and prepare to join the festivities. “I’ll be back,” I reply to my friend from 9,000 miles away, “Lord willing.” I slip my phone into my purse and smile. The only shame I feel tonight is wearing pumps under six inches.