[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood….” That tune Mister Rogers used to croon in the opening of his celebrated kid’s TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, keeps repeating in my head! I guess because earlier today I spoke to my neighbor (by L.A. standards that means up to miles away) and he mentioned that he had some good dish he wanted to share. Since I was already planning to visit one of Los Angeles’ newest tourist attractions, The Petersen Automotive Museum, I invited Dustin to join me for a Sunday afternoon tour.
I “discovered” Dustin when a dear friend e-mailed a link to DearStraightPeople.com, where he writes about his decade long struggles of coming out in a Korean-American family living in the Pacific Northwest, eventually discovering self-love. Dustin attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Over the past several years, he’s worked in art departments on film productions, even working on John Legend’s “You & I” music video. He’s also an accomplished photographer.
In January, Dustin attended Sundance for the screening of a film on which he was the art director. The experience inspired him to continue with his own writing and producing. He’s currently polishing a script for a short film. Like all of us, Dustin is no stranger to life’s hard knocks. He cuts a dashing figure, but not long ago he was overweight and battled an eating disorder. Dustin has overcome these challenges in full measure.
Entering the newly renovated museum—the former Orbach’s department store—is like entering the
Land of Oz. It’s unusual, it’s sparkly, and it’s smart. The exterior will soon become a landmark that people from all over the world will want to see. It’s hot-red with brilliant silver-colored aluminum ribbons swirling all around the exterior. Truly an architecture masterpiece. There are three spacious floors with twenty-five galleries and they’re packed with interactive technology, including 160 screens. I haven’t even mentioned the awesome classic cars! Eye-catching to say the least.
Dustin and I pace through the exhibits on the third floor where we find the Little Miss Sunshine 1979 Volkswagen van, the Batman Batmobile that was steered by Michael Keaton, and the 2016 Aston Martin featured in Spectre, the latest James Bond film. Piloted by, dare I say, the seductive Daniel Craig. Okay…he’s a hunky hunk!
Resting on a nearby bench, Dustin lastly opens up.
Ruby Comer: So tell me, my dear, what’s…going…on?
Dustin Sohn: It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other so….
Well, this past summer I went through a tough situation. I hung out with this really handsome guy. [I arch my heavy reddish Joan Crawford eyebrows and smile mischievously.] Out of respect for his anonymity I’ll call him Josh. He was around my age and also Asian. After the second meeting, it was clearly evident how much he wanted things to work out between us. He recently had come out and was open about the shame and suppression he felt because of his religious upbringing. Traveling abroad for the first time, Josh ended up partying too hard. He learned the hard way that exploring your sexuality while simultaneously experimenting with drugs is dangerous. He contracted HIV. [My smile morphs into a grim frown.]
[Dustin’s auburn eyes are sullen.] How did you feel sitting there with him hearing this?
Honestly, it left me breathless, but I was determined not to make this a deal-breaker. I was so impressed with his courage and vulnerability to reveal such a fresh wound, but I suppose there was no other way around it. HIV or not, shame and loneliness are such universally human experiences, and so many of us crave the validation that we are worth love. [He pauses.] That was a rough journey I had to go through myself just from the twenty years of hiding in the closet.
It’s especially difficult for Josh. Apparently there isn’t a huge population of HIV-positive Asian men in the States. Josh mentioned feeling incredibly isolated because of this lack of community among gay Asian HIV-positive men in America.
Does he have support? Has he reached out to any HIV organizations?
He told me that HIV among Asian Americans is still a hushed topic. There’s no representation or a sense of community for Josh, and his loneliness is magnified. Josh told me that the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT) in Los Angeles helped a lot, but the group is small and it’s still a struggle. Since his diagnosis, he encountered two types of people. He had one group telling him about medication and emphasizing how he can live a long, healthy normal life, and the other group telling him how sorry they are, which didn’t make him feel normal at all. He ended by saying that he was just reminded that he’s living with something so stigmatized, it puts him right back in the closet—and ‘it’s pretty suffocating.’
Oh gee. How sad. So you stopped seeing him after a few dates?
A physical attraction just can’t be sustained when the mental attraction isn’t there. [Dustin lowers his smooth, rich voice.] To be honest, I feel a lot of guilt for rejecting him because that could just reinforce his shame and self-loathing. It was so courageous of him to be so vulnerable, but I couldn’t continue to see him. I explained the situation to him and then cowardly ran. I refuse to be romantically involved with anyone who struggles to accept themselves. You have to find a way to love and accept yourself and you cannot depend on others to do it for you. If you love the vessel your spirit lives in, even if the world turns against you, your foundation remains unbroken. [He breathes a leaden sigh.] I really hope Josh can get there someday.
So well said, Josh, err, I mean Dustin. Gee, I’m so engaged in your story I got confused. Have you stayed in touch at all?
I recently reached out to him and he told me his family and friends still do not know he’s HIV-positive. Thankfully, he’s found therapy and a tiny support group. I hope this speeds up his healing.
Whew. I was really concerned for a moment about suicide. I wish Josh well; and look how much you’ve learned from a quick interlude! [He strikes a somber face and softly bites his lip, nodding.] How was living in the closet for you?
In high school, I prayed that my gay thoughts would disappear, and perhaps I wished I wasn’t Asian either. But blessings in disguise, there isn’t a more motivating reason to excel in the world than to be a person of color hiding in the closet. You must respect, love and accept yourself, regardless of how the world views you.
Without a doubt, Dustin. Say, how did you….
Sorry to interrupt, Ruby. I wanted to add something. I never really liked the term, “coming out of the
closet.” It trivializes the experience. For many people like myself, “jumping out of a plane” is way more accurate. It’s terrifying the first few times, later on it’s a total rush, and eventually you become so comfortable that it’s no longer a big deal. But no matter how experienced of a “skydiver” you are, you’re alive and you exist.
Nicely put. [Pausing, to hash over his wise words.] Back to my previous thought. How did you get that spiffy bod?
It was definitely a journey. I unintentionally lost thirty-five pounds in two months in college due to stress. Then I came out of the closet and started hitting the gym for fear that I would gain back the weight. I was so incredibly insecure about my masculinity and my social surroundings. The media contributed to the insecurity of all gay men. They were depicted as emasculated men but Asian men aren’t just emasculated, they’re asexual as well. I hated myself and I felt invisible.
Never look to the media for something positive. Oops, am I ditching myself?! What’s that saying by Ben Franklin? Yes, that Ben Franklin! “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” You can attribute that to reading too.
[Dustin nods.] Well, Ruby, I pushed myself into an eating disorder out of fear that I would gain back the weight. I would starve myself and then I would binge-eat and repeat. I was trapped in a vicious cycle. As it turned out, it was self-sabotaging because protein and calories are essential for muscle growth. I got myself on track and learned to develop a healthier relationship with food, learned to push myself within reasonable boundaries and learned to allow my mind and body to rest.
How do you care for yourself regarding STIs?
I use condoms and occasionally get tested. [He leans in.] Good health is a privilege.
My body and my soul, no truer words have been spoken! You being in “da biz,” what’s your take on this year’s Oscar kerfuffle about it being so White?
Our industry is so saturated with the same Eurocentric stories starring the same attractive Caucasian actors, and we have such a narrow idea of what’s considered attractive, standard, or normal. Anything that deviates becomes peripheral, abnormal, and/or unacceptable. There are Asians who wear colored contacts, and black people who bleach their skin.
Diversity and representation in film is so important, but we don’t look at it with a sense of urgency. But when you examine just how deeply it affects our society’s psyche, it literally can become a matter of life and death. I want to help bring diversity to the film industry and broaden society’s ability to empathize.
We rise and stroll gently over toward an exhibit. It’s a bright yellow 1971 De Tomaso Pantera that has a bullet hole in the steering wheel. Owned by Elvis, he shot it because the car wouldn’t start.
Ya know, some days I feel like that too! [We both laugh.] Dustin, tell me, who do you look up to and why?
Steven Yeun…for not only finding his own success, but for writing and producing projects in an effort to bring an increased Asian-American voice and presence to Hollywood.
I also look up to everyone in ACT UP and TAG featured in the documentary How to Survive a Plague. Before seeing it a few years ago, I had no idea all those medical advancements weren’t due to the research of doctors, but a result of activists, allies, and the afflicted patients bypassing the government and testing out non-FDA-approved drugs on themselves. They were racing against time to survive the epidemic. We only read about breakthroughs from scientists and doctors, but let’s give credit to the surviving heroes of the eighties and nineties.
Rev over to view more of Dustin’s photography at www.dustinsohn.com.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].