Stella Maxwell
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Director Alice Wu: Bring Back the Days of the Coming Out Letter

Alice

“I think I may be a bit depressed,” I told one of my best friends earlier this week.

Let me back up. I’m at my computer, sipping milk tea, about to write a personal experience about National Coming Out Day — a day of celebration if there ever was one.

I am fortunate to have entered middle-age where my being gay has settled comfortably into my skin. I am 50 this year; I came out at 19. I have now lived more years openly gay than not.

But yes, those first 19 years were anything but skin-comfortable. And the moment I came out to myself was awkward and weird and exhilarating and lonely and totally cliché. I came out to myself in college while taking a feminist studies class.

It was Fall ’89, the Loma Prieta earthquake had just ripped through the San Francisco Bay Area, and I took a class from Professor Estelle Freedman. She was a brilliant historian, a model of humanistic integrity, and the kind of teacher who changes your life.

That particular fall afternoon, she gave us an assignment: Write a coming-out letter to your parents. Not to send, of course, just to turn in. A harmless thought-exercise. I — still “straight” — felt a flash of panic. Then promptly blocked the assignment out of my head.

The night before it was due (my fear of not turning in an assignment overrode all other fears!) I went down the hall and borrowed two tape recorders and an extension cord. Some context: I spoke exclusively Mandarin to my parents but could not read or write. As we never communicated in English, we had no written communication of any kind. So I planned to record what I might — on phone, in person — say. Hypothetically.

But first, some logistics to wrangle! I lived in the inner room of a two-room double. As luck would have it, my roommate rather inconveniently also understood Mandarin. I worried she’d walk in, overhear me, and instantly conclude that I was gay. I set one tape recorder in my room, pressed play on Cat Stevens’s Footsteps in the Dark, vol. 2, took the other tape recorder and the extension cord into the walk-in closet, then shut the door.

I recorded… something? I don’t remember what. I do remember the smell of my cardigans, my flannel shirts. I remember the muffled sound of Cat Stevens singing, “I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul…” And I remember not knowing the word for “gay” in Mandarin.

I wrote a letter to Estelle who, unlike my roommate, rather inconveniently did not understand Mandarin. I wrote about how language determines reality — how not knowing a word for something might make it hard to know you could be that thing. How it seemed significant that I had not known the word for “gay.” (I also mused about not knowing the word for “pizza”… though I acknowledged that might be different.) How Cat Stevens reminded me of Harold and Maude, my favorite film in high school, though that was not gay, per se. Or was it?

I wrote the letter in an intellectual tear — I believe the words “deconstructing binary hierarchies” were used — until, at the bottom of the fourth page (double-spaced), I wrote: “I guess I’m writing so much because… I am gay. So there. I said it.” That part, I remember clearly.

It was an almost violent realization. And a ridiculous one: I was literally sitting in my closet, coming out of the closet. I felt a flood of relief. Then fear. Then deep loneliness. Then relief I could feel that loneliness. Rather than not feel anything at all.

So here we are today, on the eve of National Coming Out Day. It occurs to me that after making two films featuring queer Asian-American leads (Saving Face, The Half of It) — if there’s anyone left in my life that doesn’t know I’m gay… well, they are really, really not paying attention.

I’ve been thinking about how “coming out” is more than just telling someone your sexual orientation. It’s about telling someone: “This is me. Do you see me?” So many of us — queer, straight, Black, brown, yellow — have been trapped in our boxes for seven months. All the ways we are used to sharing ourselves with others can feel muted now that we are physically separated.

The other day I said to my friend, “I think I may be a bit depressed.” And she said, “Me too.” And we felt like we had, in a way, come out to each other. And it makes me realize that “coming out” is a life-long process of learning about oneself and then sharing that knowledge — that every year you grow something new to share with the people who matter.

So on this Pandemic National Coming Out Day, in lieu of mauling everyone with un-masked physical affection, I propose we find new ways to come out as ourselves to the people that matter. I’m not going to pretend it will be just as good. But I’m curious what we will discover. Here’s what I plan to do:

I’m going to write hand-written letters to the people in my life, past and present, in honor of that long-ago assignment, coming out to them in whichever ways might bring us closer. And I’d love to bring the lost art of letter-writing back into fashion (no surprise — The Half of It pretty much exalts letter writing!) so I’d be tickled if you’d join me. Write a letter to anyone — your high school crush, your childhood friend, your husband, your ride-and-die — anyone you wish to see and be seen by today. It doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph. I only ask that you write it as openly and honestly as you can.

May you have a sweet National Coming Out Day, coming out in any way you deem fit. Meanwhile, my friends, I’ve got a date with a rollerball and some stationary.

Please show your support on socials by posting a photo of the letter (postmarked or not) and use the hashtag #NationalComingOutDay 

Click here to listen to Alice Wu talk about giving the high school rom-com a queer twist on the LGBTQ&A podcast. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher

Alice Wu is the writer, director and producer of Netflix's The Half of It. Wu is a Chinese-American film director and screenwriter. After earning a master’s degree in computer science at Stanford University, she designed software at Microsoft before becoming a full-time filmmaker. Alice’s debut feature, SAVING FACE — starring Michelle Krusiec and Joan Chen and produced by Will Smith — made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired for theatrical distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. The critically acclaimed film garnered several festival accolades, as well as a GLAAD Media Award nomination for Outstanding Film-Limited Release and a Breakthrough Director Award nomination for Alice at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. Alice wrote and directed her next film, THE HALF OF IT, which she also produced with Anthony Bregman and M. Blair Breard for Netflix. The script was a 2018 selection for the prestigious Black List, an annual survey of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays. THE HALF OF IT stars Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, and Alexxis Lemire and is a modern-day “Cyrano” story about a shy straight-A student who helps a clueless high school football player woo the girl they both secretly love.

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