We learned tolerance with hands entwinedI met Dong-ran when I first entered the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, as a high school sophomore in 1992. She became one of my best friends. It was my first time living apart from my family, and I was really nervous about living alone in a foreign country. Dong-ran, who is also Korean, was a lifesaver. She had already spent two years at an American school in Hawaii and quickly showed me the ropes at the all-girls school, helping me with everything from finding the right classroom to ordering food at restaurants.
We were inseparable. We had several classes together, did our homework together and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together.
Gay rights was a hotly debated issue at our school. As a newcomer to American society, I was really ignorant about the issue. In Korea at the time, the topic was rarely, if ever, discussed. I would not say I was homophobic ― I just did not have any strong opinions on the subject because it had never come up in my life.
But around the end of my first semester at Emma Willard, some of the American girls started asking questions about me and Dong-ran. They asked me if Dong-ran was my “special friend,” and I always answered “yes,” because she meant a lot to me.
Soon, we were invited to join the Gay-Straight Alliance, a gay-rights organization at our school. Bree Anderson, who headed the club, approached me one day and filled me in on the details of the club. She suggested that Dong-ran and I come to a meeting together.
Later we realized that our holding hands, sometimes sharing the same bed, walking arm in arm and planning weekend trips together ― all perfectly normal expressions of friendship in Korea ― told our American peers that we were a happy lesbian couple.
We were not, but going to the Gay-Straight Alliance meeting was very informative. I was able to learn more about the openness that much of U.S. society affords homosexuals, as opposed to the whispers and harsh treatment they received in Korea. Why had I not learned of any of these issues back home? I know that many Koreans, and indeed, many Americans too, are uncomfortable talking about homosexuality. But the Korean approach ― avoiding the subject ― is unhealthy, I thought.
Attending the meeting opened my mind. My special friendship with Dong-ran taught me another important lesson, and we never stopped holding hands ― no matter what other people thought.
by Ser Myo-ja