Surrounded for the first time by a supportive culture and a community of LGBTQ+ friends, this software engineer is unlocking the key to self-acceptance
By Candace Whitney-Morris
Michelle Chen knew she was gay long before she came out. Growing up, she found it hard enough to admit to herself, let alone to say it out loud for others.
In high school, people would tease her with questions like, “Are you sure you’re straight?” Ever since grade school when she had to defend her choice to wear “boy’s” clothes and keep her hair short, she had to be quick on her toes, ready with reassurances. She’d reply, “Oh yeah, I’m straight! I have a crush on so-and-so. Don’t worry.”
Chen wasn’t ready to come out in high school, and the small town she grew up in wasn’t ready for her to come out, either. Neither were her traditional, Chinese parents.
“Any sexuality that isn’t straight is not accepted at all,” Chen explained of her family’s beliefs. “You have to conform to what everyone else looks like. You have to find a husband, have kids. That’s just your purpose.
“Even my parents believed that female children were lesser than male children. Navigating that space was really difficult for me growing up, because not only were they like, ‘Oh you have to have kids,’ but they were like, ‘You have to marry a Chinese man.'”
Chen decided to take her time before telling them that she was gay; she’d move away and get a job first.
In the meantime, the hiding was taking its toll: deep down Chen grew full of self-loathing, hating that she couldn’t conform to people’s expectations and suspicious that something was wrong with her.
The first taste of self-acceptance came during college where she met and befriended other lesbians. One summer, she traveled to New York City and experienced her first Pride parade.
“I saw everyone dressed however they wanted to dress; no one felt ashamed of anything,” she said. “I knew right then that I wanted to live my life this way, that I wanted to be as happy as these people.”
A fellow college student encouraged Chen to think about interning at Microsoft and then referred her and helped coach her through the interview process. The same year that Chen decided to come out, she got the internship and headed to Seattle for the summer.
“I was so excited, partly because I knew Seattle was super gay,” she said, laughing. She hoped that meant she could live more out in the open.
“When I came to Microsoft, I felt like I had found my place,” she said. Right away, Chen joined GLEAM, the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Microsoft that, among other things, provides mentorship to new interns who identify as LGBTQ+.
She interned again the next summer, and now one year later, she works at Microsoft as a software engineer. Although Chen didn’t originally know anyone in Seattle, she quickly made friends through GLEAM and in her neighborhood of Capitol Hill. “Now, almost all my friends are queer, and I see most of them every day.”
“When I came to Microsoft, I felt like I had found my place.”
The same year she started at Microsoft, she decided it was time to come out to her mother. As she dialed the phone, she gave herself a pep talk: “OK, Michelle, now’s the time. You are going to come out.”
Chen’s mom answered with, “I heard you got a septum ring.”
Taken off guard, Chen said, “What? Who told you that? How do you know these things?”
Her mom responded that she had her sources. “There are people in this town that tell me things.”
Chen was so frustrated that she just blurted out, “Oh, did they tell you I’m gay, too?”
“Wait, what?” her mom said, shocked. It took a minute for the news to sink in.
Chen recalled, laughing, “I mean, it was kind of nice because it took the focus off the septum ring.”
But then her mother said something Chen will never forget: “Oh, no, no, no. You should change. I can’t believe it. This must’ve been something I did wrong.”
Although Chen was not expecting an approving response, “it was still pretty shocking to hear from my own mother,” she said.
It has been a few months since that phone call, and while Chen and her mother maintain contact, she told her mom that she can’t visit her in Seattle until she’s comfortable with her daughter’s sexual orientation.
“It’s not something I can just sweep under the rug anymore,” she said. “I’d rather be happy than hide my true self.”
Chen doesn’t regret waiting to tell her parents, and she hopes to encourage others to take their time.
“I had to get outside of my small town and see that being LGBTQ+ is not a bad thing. It’s not shameful. There’s nothing wrong with dressing the way that you want to dress.
“There’s nothing wrong with who you are.”