Out Editor’s Note: Released this week, Baby Steps was written, directed and performed by Barney Cheng, who reflected on his own experiences as a gay Asian-American man to tell an important, intersectional story. The film follows Danny, played by Cheng, who wants to have a baby with his American boyfriend Tate, but their efforts are complicated by his meddling Taiwanese mom. Below, Cheng opens up about him and his mom’s real life relationship, and how creating Baby Steps helped bring them closer.
It’s challenging being Asian-American and gay. Family relationships and cultural expectations complicate the layered identities of my Asian-American LGBTQ brothers and sisters. As a Taiwanese-American immigrant, I’ve always had to navigate my personal life in a unique cultural way.
I came from a single-parent family; my mother raised three children all by herself. Growing up in an immigrant household, I saw the sacrifices that my mother made in order for me to have a better life here. I wanted to show her that I could be successful so that all of her hard work and sacrifices were worthwhile. That made coming out to her especially difficult.
When I finally came out, it changed the dynamic of our relationship. My mother and I rarely talked about the gay aspect of my life. Whenever we got together in family gatherings, a well-intentioned but nosey aunt, uncle or friend would always innocently ask me:
“When are you inviting us to your wedding banquet?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Out of respect for my mom, I’d often just smile and shrug. They would turn to my mother:
“How come Barney’s still single?”
“He’s well-educated and successful. I bet he’s got tons of girls chasing after him.”
Then the inevitable:
“I know the perfect girl for Barney! My friend’s daughter also lives in Los Angeles. I can arrange for them to meet in the U.S.”
My mother would always uncomfortably try to change the subject or talk about my “girlfriends.”
Another relationship dynamic emerged after I came out to my mother. She’d direct all of her attention to my brother who could potentially give her a grandchild. My mother would meddle in my brother’s affairs, criticize the girls that he was dating, and even sabotage their relationships, making my brother’s life a living hell.
On the other hand, my mother never bothered me about my personal relationships. In fact, she has never asked whom I was dating or what was going on in my personal life. Most people would find it liberating and welcoming—not having a nagging helicopter mom—but for me, I felt left out.
After a while, we drifted apart. I made my feature film Baby Steps to communicate with my mother. I wanted to express my frustrations, as well as my love and gratitude for her. There were so many things that I wanted to tell her, but were difficult to put into words. What I couldn’t say in person, I put it on the screen.
Grace Guei, the actress playing the mother in Baby Steps, went to visit my mother in Taipei. Through Grace, I learned that after I came out to my mother, she had nightmares every night. It was the most difficult time of her life, and what made it worse was that she was all alone with no one to talk to. That made me sad. I wish I had known and reached out more.
What I couldn’t say to my mother, I wrote it in the script. What my mother couldn’t say to me, she expressed it through her actions.
When we filmed Baby Steps in Taipei, my mother would make me breakfast each morning to make sure that I was well-prepared for the long, hectic day ahead. We would have early 5 o’clock calls, and my mom would get up at 3:00 a.m. to make me breakfast. She didn’t have to say anything, but I felt that she cared.
Through the Baby Steps journey, we both took baby steps in real life to connect.
When we were promoting for the theatrical release of Baby Steps in Taiwan, I felt It was important for me to be openly out as a filmmaker and actor. My mother surprised me by joining me and Grace on a TV talk show to promote the film. On national television, my mother shared my coming-out story and her struggles.
She invited all of her friends to see the film in theater, and led a group of friends to attend rallies in support of LGBTQ and marriage equality rights in Taiwan. Through the film, my mother “came out.”
One of the important takeaways from Baby Steps for me personally—I underestimated my mother’s ability to evolve and embrace who I am. Images are powerful. They entertain, empower and heal hearts. Baby Steps gave my mother and me the opportunity to connect.