Nonfiction by Melanie Espinosa Pang

Rock Step

My dad didn’t come to my wedding. Everyone thinks I should be sad about it. Especially my therapist. She brings it up often, even while I’m telling her about my childhood, but I try to let her know it’s not really something that weighs on me.

Sure, it’s upsetting, but the fact that it was not a surprise helps. He’s a consistent man. If my expectations changed that would be my fault. I believe that he believes there was no other choice for him, for his pride. It hurts, but I understand it.

I was in Dallas on a trip with my college marching band when I was brought to my first gay club by my shepherd into the queer world, Jacob, the most out-and-proud member of the band at the time. I can’t recall just how loud or how sticky the place was though I’m sure it was. I only remember feeling the rainbow rays of light on me, like little spotlights. I wore jeans and a baseball cap with my thick hair in a ponytail, bursting through the back loop, a common outfit for me at the time. For those who know the queer aesthetic I was familiar, my carabiner of keys hooked to my hip. To the untrained eye, I was just a nondescript Asian 20-something with gay friends who was a big fan of “come as you are” dress codes and, coincidentally, Lady Gaga.

The youngest child of a first generation set of siblings, growing up with shame can be so textbook it feels hereditary. Conditioned by my Chinese dad that attention is bad, I felt visible for once on the dance floor of that club, even desirable, because I was finally free to look and others were free to look back. “Coming out” is usually thought of as a proclamation to others; that night though, I came out to myself, within myself—a spiritual connection unlike any I had experienced before. And all from dancing in the dark.

I mean, of course, it’s sad and upsetting he wasn’t there, but there are so many other things I worry about. I work daily with LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, many whose parents have disowned them or worse. How can this “plight” even compare?

In my day-to-day life, I serve people who have experienced loss and trauma like I have yet to confront, people experiencing homelessness and all the challenges that brings. Their stories bring up an icky mix of feelings, their words inspirational and heartbreaking. In our current political climate, and just as life goes, there’s no lack of things for me to think about right before bed that keep me awake.

Will any landlord ever accept this client with a broken lease and a couple of trespasses on their record?

 What will happen to my friends’ undocumented families now that Senate Bill 4 passed in Texas?

 I wonder how refugees are feeling now about coming to the U.S.

 Will those transgender kids make it to high school?

 I’m so lucky I have my health.

 Will I always have a job? 

 What if I never learn how to cook a decent meal for my wife?

When she first set her eyes on me, I was dancing on a stage in a drag show raising money for a youth LGBT support group. Or, we met at a charity event, which is the truth—and what we tell potentially unwelcoming strangers. After over 10 years of nervous trembling at auditions, band concerts, and fumbling over my words in speeches, this was the first time I forgot to be afraid on stage. My Filipina mom always urged me to get over my stage fright, but I’m not sure this is quite what she had in mind. There, in my beard made of eyeliner, spirit gum, and cut up wigs. There, with my bound chest and men’s clothes, new conjured swagger. What stage, what fear? I was someone else and yet still me. I was celebrated, so I felt confident and most importantly, free to be confident. I was protected, safe. In the past, I had to work tirelessly to create a performance worthy of applause. Here, just being vulnerable and visible was enough to spark a standing ovation.

A handshake, silly Facebook exchanges, a year of long-distance romance, cohabitation, an array of jobs and job searches, two dogs, a graduate degree each, and 5 years of love, she surprised me with a proposal that took my breath away. She wore a classy red dress; I wore a matching bow tie she had given me the night before. Similar to how our relationship began, that it was revealed to us more than we chose it, we had all the early trappings of a family. We had come to this conclusion between us and within us. To me, the wedding would just be a proclamation of something we’ve known all along— as well as an excuse to dance all night together.

We chose to take dance lessons to make our first dance even more special. At our first lesson, I scrolled past headlines about how the Texas legislature began to review bills like the “license to discriminate” bill, which would allow private individuals the right to deny services to people based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” I swiped it away and turned my attention to our friends Denver and Aurora who graciously modeled and coached us through a few basic dance steps and turns. 

The day after the election of the most incompetent president in recent history, I began creating. With Evan and Jessica, we created visually pleasing action list newsletters to enlist new activists, joined secret Facebook groups to share information and strategize, and held venting or grieving sessions in our home. Since Inauguration Day, the oppressive dark cloud of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has taken up space, in my newsfeed, in my head and heart. The space I would reserve for work or play. The space I used to reserve for joy. January of 2017 began a whirlwind tour of speaking on panels about diversity and inclusion, activism, my life as a political social worker, and my life as an out, queer Asian American. My inbox continues to receive multiple notes a day asking me for help or recommendations: immigration lawyers, homeless shelters, agencies that help refugees, best places to donate men’s formal wear, and please come to this event in two days. I love to be of service; I also have my limits.

“You’re trying to lead me again.”
“Oh, I thought we were starting.”
“You have to have to feel me lead you.”

I only know how to dance like one would in a nightclub, which is not what we were going for for our first dance in front of family. I can keep a beat but learning any kind of coordinated dance usually takes a lot of repetition for it to feel natural; I hadn’t realized that just starting to do my thing was considered leading.

“Rock step, step … step” — we would repeat to each other to stay on beat. A few times, we would do the rock step for so long, nervous to deviate from the pattern, that we’d forget to do anything else. Once Denver taught us new movements, with fun checkpoint names like “hip, hip, hurray!” (to do a tuck turn), timing became a hurdle and the inefficient way I shifted weight started to get in my own way. 

Denver would remind us, “Everything happens on the rock step.” With that, I began to shift my weight more evenly, lighter on my feet, and think ahead faster. It began to click that the preparatory steps were just as important as the big flashy moves we sought to learn to impress our guests.

The next month, I was invited to speak to a gay-straight alliance at a public high school in honor of breaking the silence after GLSEN’s National Day of Silence, a reminder of all the voices that are silenced by ignorance and hate, the absence of LGBTQ+ people’s presence in our lives. I rode a wave of hope after our lively discussions about the fading desire for gender identity and sexuality labels and the need for more youth voices in policy-making. Faith in the future of humanity restored.

The following month Senate Bill 4 passed in the Texas legislature, forcing local law enforcement to act as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), codifying racial profiling and ripping immigrant families apart. My queer latinx community protested and organized, and I was in awe of their resilience and brilliant inclusive organizing. Their protests seamlessly integrated the existence of LGBTQ+ latinx people; no tokenism, no inauthentic pandering. It reminded me that they’ve been living this; many at the Texas legislature’s intentions have remained consistent, only the law now reflects their will. Not their first rodeo. In April, fliers in our local gayborhood were found at a bus stop, encouraging members of our community to commit suicide.

Also in April, I provided the keynote speech at my alma mater’s Lavender Graduation, a celebration for LGBTQ+ students who want to share their achievements without fear of rejection. The first of two students to graduate with a LGBT Studies Minor from the University of Houston, I was honored to meet and usher in the 30 or so graduates and future activists who may carry this torch, shoulder this burden, and continue to experience the barely won freedom of authenticity. Toward the end of my remarks, I looked at these bright young faces and thought, I may never get to say anything more to them after today. In tears, I read aloud an excerpt of Andrea Gibson’s poem Say Yes:

For scars becoming breath
For saying I love you to people who will never say it to us
For scraping away the rust and remembering how to shine
For the dime you gave away when you didn’t have a penny
For the many beautiful things we do
For every song we’ve ever sung
For refusing to believe in miracles
because miracles are the impossible coming true
and everything is possible

the world needs us right now more than it ever has before
pull all your strings
play every chord
if you’re writing letters to the prisoners
start tearing down the bars
if you’re handing out flashlights in the dark
start handing out stars
never go a second hushing the percussion of your heart
play loud

My mom called me three times to ask me to ask my dad if he’s coming to the wedding. I knew what his answer would be, and I knew he doesn’t like it when I ask questions I know the answers to, especially if it will upset him. In the heat of a fight he once warned me, “If you’re going to make me mad, I’m going to make you mad.” I didn’t want to cause her any distress, and it would just be one more boutonniere to purchase, so I finally reasoned it was important for me to call him.

After some pleasant small talk over the phone, he sounded like he was in a good mood.

An equally precarious situation, I wondered if his temper would flare sooner or later, angry that I would dare dampen his happy moment.

“Well, Dad, I also wanted to call to see if you might be coming to the wedding.”

He gave a dismissive huff. And without missing a beat: “No.”

I think I said I was sad to hear that, but that I understand.

“I don’t care what you do. I just won’t be there.”

Facebook post from May 10, 2017:

I'm getting married in 18 days, and with these headlines, it can feel like everything is out to take my joy away.

It's taking all my energy to protect it, so please forgive me if I'm not my usual self, if I have to give a little distance to the things that usually have my utmost attention.
I hope you'll understand and join me in preserving your joy, too. While we grind, let's also work to create, save, and savor the very things that make life worth all this weariness.

#thismarathonofayear #bittersweet

I choked back tears and waited until the call ended. I let myself feel the impact once I was in the bathroom and cried hard with the water running so no one could hear it. I left the bathroom and drifted around my home while I cried a more manageable, reasonable cry—like a reasonable person who knows how lucky she has it in many other aspects of her life would do—for another hour after that. I decided that would be the last time I cried about it, but then my therapist wanted to talk about it, so I cried again. And friends asked. And then I got married. Everyone who knew wanted to know how I was handling this.

She wore a simple white dress and gave me a white flower to wear with my navy suit jacket for our trip to the county clerk’s office. I wondered if anyone behind a desk would consider giving us any grief since the state senate had advanced a policy allowing county clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriages to recuse themselves from signing marriage licenses. The entire process was as smooth as could be; the person in the next cubicle over even congratulated us. We snapped selfies and ate lunch together downtown at a cafe called “The Honeymoon.”

In June, Houston will be the first city to build an LGBT senior housing project. This coming July, the Texas legislature will begin a 30-day special session to reintroduce legislation the governor deems a priority—among them, extreme anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s rights policies.

Eight days before our wedding, I helped a group of friends gather their thoughts as they planned a memorial service for a beloved community advocate and friend who passed away abruptly. I remember trying to keep composure and stay laser-focused on the notes I was typing so I could be a source of stability. A week after my vacation auto-responder shut off, I sent emails inquiring about increased police presence at our vigil to honor lives lost in the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting one year ago. This is what the LGBTQ+ community does.

We plan a vigil over night. We organize a town hall in a week. We meet to organize the next protest, to make signs, to schedule the next meeting with city and state leadership. We show up to meetings hoping others will show up, too, and if we’re lucky, there will be tacos.

The rotation is exhausting; the strategy and implementation happening all at once. There’s no practice run, only performance after performance. I’m no professional dancer, but any idiot knows that dancers are athletes and, when it comes to stamina and strength, so are activists.

My face went numb when I learned that legislation was on its way to the governor’s desk that would allow foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against me and that transgender kids would be denied access to use restrooms that affirm them in their schools.

How could I look forward to my wedding day while the world around me became increasingly unrecognizable to me? Reading the news felt like a hot iron flattening my heart. I shut off the newsfeed—the one inside the device in my hand, plus the one in my head. I decided to choose happiness and look forward to dancing with my beautiful wife and my loved ones at the wedding reception. 

I would argue that policy change is not the end but the beginning of another long, arduous process involving implementation, accountability, and evaluation. Passed legislation is not a reflection of actual changes in hearts and minds. Much like our relationship being revealed to us, policy proposals are an affirmation, or rejection, of all the work that has been done up to that point to create the world I want to live in.

Everything happens in the rock step. Everything happens in the shifting of weight in preparation for the right moment when long lasting change is in sight. Everything happens in the coalition building, the intersectional organizing, the empathy and understanding of how our pain relates to one another even though it's different—the same as in the relationship before marriage or the relationship between a parent and a child—this is everything, true change.

My dad’s absence at my wedding is a lot like when a policy finally hits the floor. It's the final test of the work that's been put in, and if I'm honest with myself, I've put in minimal work. Same as him. We haven’t yet learned to rock step together; he’s shifted little to no weight, same as me. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him dance, if ever. In this case, deciding to attend the wedding comes after deciding to be happy for a queer daughter’s marriage to another woman, not before.

Of course, I wish things were different, for me, for my family of LGBTQ+ people who live above fear and not in it. But what else can one do but continue to dance?

My dad missed out on a day full of love. It feels like everyone around me is sad about this for me, but perhaps I can’t give a reaction people expect because I think I have been grieving this since I was a kid, since coming out to myself—ever since I could recognize I would never be who he wanted—and I haven’t stopped.

Our wedding was every bit as authentic and saccharine as we’d planned and hoped. We were surrounded by love. A friend texted, “I basically was either crying or laughing the entire time.”

Just another reminder we have to keep dancing, even in the dark.

For everyone and for myself, I keep shifting the weight. When it seems impossible to continue, just rock step.

Melanie Espinosa Pang is a social worker, activist, and advocate. Throughout her career, Melanie has served in a variety of communities and capacities, aiming to further equity and lived equality -- from advocacy efforts to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in food deserts to serving as a case manager to refugee minors in foster care and young adults experiencing homelessness. Currently, she serves as Data and Program Evaluation Manager for The Salvation Army of Greater Houston and as co-chair of Mayor Turner's LGBTQ Advisory Board. Melanie lives with her wife and two rescue dogs in Houston.