Mental health advocate Jack Lam opens up about the conflict between his queer and Asian identities, and how he navigates life with depression while finding solace through media.
Effusive smile? Check. Charismatic presence? Check. Jack Lam embodies the typical Asian boy who has it all — smart, well-articulated, and a graduate from a prestigious American university. But underneath the charm lies an inquisitive soul that is struggling to connect his Asian roots with his queer identity — two halves of his life that has shaped him into who he is today.
Rediscovering His Identity
Even as a young child growing up in Malaysia, Jack found himself often wondering about his sexuality. “I feel like I’ve known that I was different my whole life. It wasn’t until I was 11 that I knew that I was gay, even though it still didn’t feel fully right to me. But I didn’t care much about conforming to masculinity,” he says.
Conformity usually relates to norms, which are commonly acceptable behaviours and beliefs that influence how we behave in a specific social group. They tend to be implicit in nature, but are powerful in shaping our lived experiences. In a patriarchal society like Malaysia where men hold prominent roles across political, social, and religious domains, masculine norms tend to be hailed as the ideals of being a good Malaysian man, where we are expected to be manly, aggressive, and dominant.
When we don’t conform to these preconceived norms, we are indiscriminately labeled as a social outcast by society — an anomaly, even though we are all born differently. “We shame people and we feel shame for not fitting in certain boxes, when the truth is nobody really fits in these boxes,” Jack muses.
When Jack was pursuing his studies in America, he began to rediscover his identity. He learnt that gender is fluid, and he did not have to limit himself within the boxes of the gender binary — a term that defines gender as exclusively masculine or feminine.
Because he refuses to be defined by society’s expectation of being a man, he finds comfort in a new identity that stretches beyond the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity — the genderqueer or non-binary. “It’s basically giving myself permission to not feel the need to be more of a ‘man’ or less of a ‘woman’, and just embrace the fullness of existence as a human being,” he says.
With this new understanding of his identity, Jack realises that being queer is about having an opportunity to live out the best version of ourselves by challenging existing gender and sexual norms, such as expectations in finding a partner, being monogamous, and getting married.
“It is to be critical of norms, and decide what’s best for you. Usually, it’s not the one-size-fits-all lifestyle that the characters in movies and TV shows have portrayed,” he explains.
Conflict Between Being Queer and Asian
Reflecting on his childhood, Jack experienced much tension from being queer, which mostly stems from the lack of positive LGBTQ+ representation in Malaysia. “I didn’t know any openly queer Asian folks. All I saw from people that I knew were homo- and transphobia, as they tend to use derogatory terms for queer people,” he says.
This led to a sense of self-hatred as he felt that his world was surrounded with people who are hostile against anyone who is not straight. “I hated myself for being gay, because I knew what people around me thought of gay people,” he recalls.
The internal conflict that Jack experienced intensified as his queer identity collided with traditional Asian cultural norms. Being an Asian, specifically a Malaysian Chinese, came with certain expectations on how one’s life course is charted — getting married, having children, and fulfilling his filial duty as a son that would bring honour to the family.
When Jack discovered his queer sexuality, the expected path that he was supposed to follow was disrupted. He thought that he was a disappointment to his family. “The only thing that constantly ran through my head was how I had failed them, even though they had given me everything,” he says.
Shame gradually crept into his everyday life — he could not talk about it without feeling ashamed of his sexuality. To compensate his sense of shame for being queer, he became an overachiever at school by getting top grades. “I intentionally began feeding this academic superiority complex — almost like a defense mechanism — thinking that if anyone ever used my being queer against me, I can say ‘at least I have straight As’,” he muses.
As Jack tried to make sense of his queerness, he also experienced another challenge at home — coming out to his Asian family. He shared that he only came out to a handful of his family members. “It often lies in the different understanding of queerness. To them, it might bring on a host of challenges or suffering. But to me, it’s part of my life story and it brings me great happiness. The only way to really prove that is simply to live my life as happily as I can.”
Jack’s coming out experience with his family reflects how homosexuality is still largely considered to be a taboo in the Asian household, and expressing queerness may give rise to social repercussions.
Dealing with Mental Health
With tension arising from these negative experiences in relation to his sexuality, depression started to loom large in Jack’s life. “I don’t know if I was ever clinically depressed, but there was definitely a couple of years when I would cry myself to sleep, wishing that I would either wake up straight, or not wake up at all,” he recalls.
When the feelings became too overwhelming, his thoughts wandered into a dark place. “It just got worse day by day, not seeing how things could get better. I kept wishing for change, or thinking about ways to live, like maybe I could marry a lesbian woman and we’d both lie to our families.
“But thinking about it like that just made me even sadder — there was no way I could be happy and still be a part of my family. So, I thought at the time the most rational thing to do and avoid disappointing my family in the long-term — was to kill myself,” he remembers.
When asked about how he copes with these internal monologues that are built upon self-criticism and societal expectations on being straight, Jack recalls that the fear of pain prevented him from dwelling further into negative thoughts. “Honestly, I only stopped because I didn’t know how to kill myself painlessly. I was too afraid of the pain to go through with it, and I am grateful everyday that I ‘chickened out’.”
Reminiscing, Jack shared that TV shows were his main source of escapism from the tension stemming between his sexuality and his family, as they offered him some solace in dealing with depression.
“I held on to the only way I knew how at the time — binging on American TV shows and movies. I swear, I probably watched every single American show that had a gay person in it. That gave me some hope that maybe I could also one day live a full life,” he adds. “I wish I could be infinitely creative and imagine my life outside the constraints of societal expectations. But watching other people, especially queer people, live their lives on the screen certainly helps.”
He described how TV shows such as Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Modern Family, Glee, and The New Normal, helped him understand and reimagine the different ways that he could live as a queer person. Yet at the same time, he realised that the characters were often white, and lacked diversity in representation. In recent years, however, things begin to change with the rise of inclusivity in media’s portrayal of queerness, where people of colour are also featured.
“I’m particularly excited when shows like Pose, Sense8, Orange is The New Black feature the faces of underrepresented queer people from different backgrounds,” Jack laughs. “I think that having media representation can help struggling queer youth realise that they too can become someone that they can be proud of.”
Living with depression is not an easy feat; it requires one to have a tremendous amount of patience, courage, and self-compassion. It is equally important for the people around to be non-judgemental in order to support those who are suffering from this.
“Be there for them without any judgement. Ask them questions to help them explore where these feelings are coming from.” Jack advises. “The best thing you can do is let them know that you will be there for them even though you may not have all the answers. Also, it’s always a good idea to encourage people to ask for help if they are open to it.”
Jack’s riveting narrative reveals a transformative experience that illustrates personal struggles and triumphs in searching, failing, and ultimately accepting one’s identity as a queer Asian.
“There are so many things to be grateful for in my life — from having a beautiful family that supports me to having amazing friends that make life so much fun,” he says. Amid the conflict of both his queer and Asian identities, Jack has finally found a space to breathe through practising gratitude, and reminding himself that he is not alone in this journey of self-acceptance.