“Racism is the gay community’s dirty little secret”: Jason Om

Jason Om presenting live news bulletins in the studio at the ABC News Channel, Sydney. Photo: Glenn Chalk/supplied.

Jason Om’s new memoir discusses an extraordinary childhood and his two-decade battle to break down the wall of grief from a devastating family event. He discusses with editor-at-large Gary Nunn the gay community’s ‘dirty little secret’ and some secrets within his own family.

Journalist Jason Om’s dad is a man of few words and even fewer emotions.

In his memoir All Mixed Up, Om opens a window into his unusual family life as he grew up. 

That window was partially opened by a viral  2017 article the 7.30 journalist wrote for the ABC about his dad’s 16-year journey to acceptance of his son’s homosexuality. In it, he revealed that, even the year before, his dad was attempting to set him up in an arranged marriage with a woman. In an 11th hour volte-face, his dad voted yes to marriage equality. 

“People might already know dad from that story – it drew a huge public response,” Om tells The Sentinel.

“People really opened up to me about their own struggle with sexuality or being accepted. And I got tonnes of messages of support. So I’m hoping that the book has the same reaction.” 

And we certainly do meet Om’s “straitlaced and practical” dad in the book – via vivid descriptions such him “shuffling around the house in socks and thongs”, or in summer, “a lime-green sarong … I dreaded his Basic Instinct leg cross on the couch”.

We meet a stoic, strict and often silent man. But there was a mischievous streak. Om writes: “His trips to the toilet usually came with an announcement, ‘I go make poo’ as if he were a factory.”

Readers might be surprised, then, that the book doesn’t start with the writer’s dad, but his mum. Specifically, her death, when Om was just 12 and rushed into her room after hearing her wheezing and struggling for breath.

“Whenever I thought back to the night mum collapsed, I felt guilty. I ran through all the things I could have done to save her,” Om writes. 

Jason Om and his father at a party in the backyard of their Oakleigh house. Photo: supplied.

What follows is a two-decade-long “wall” Om builds to shield him from the raw sting of grief; a survival technique as his dad struggles to relate to his only child, regularly wishing Om was more like his masculine, sporty, “overachieving” older cousin, and never discussing his wife’s death. 

The day we meet, Good Weekend had just published the powerful opening scene where Om believed he had failed to save his mother’s life. Later, at the official book launch event, Om relived this moment and became choked up and tearful at the painful memory.

“It’s actually very fresh for people [to read],” he says. “Because it’s new for them. But for me, it’s something I’ve carried around for nearly 30 years now. Next year is the 30th anniversary of mum’s death.”

The story of how she died is something Om hasn’t even told some of his closest friends and family, making the six-year writing of his memoir a cathartic process.

A half-sister, an elopement and an investigation

After “running away” from dealing with his mum’s death by “throwing myself into my career”, Om uses his journalistic nous to investigate what actually happened to his mum leading up to her mental illness, interrogating his “confusing childhood”. 

He turns reporter on his own family, but “in a very kind and gentle way” to uncover the context of the mental health challenges his mum faced during his childhood (he describes much of her communication up until he was 12 as “gibberish” which he didn’t fully understand). The very thing that was his crutch – the distraction of his career – becomes the tool to shine a light on that darker, more vulnerable place he’d closed off. 

Along the way, he discovers an elopement, the reason for his grandma’s “coldness” (she asks for money for the unpaid labour of babysitting her grandchildren), signs of domestic violence from his mum’s first husband, more about the real story behind his mother “leaving” his half-sister in Malaysia and joins the dots on some of her more erratic behaviour. 

“It was very clarifying,” he says. “Mum’s sorrow had never been explained to me. I guess you don’t burden young children with that – trauma and complexity. And mum couldn’t explain herself as she was incapacitated. Dad was her carer.”

He was nervous about showing his half-sister the manuscript. “I do take a position on some things about her father in the book – it puts me on this awkward tightrope,” he says. “I’ve got my relationship with my sister – we’ve jumped in and out of each other’s timelines over the years – but I’m committed to mum and telling her story.”

He waited with nails bitten as she read it for her response, which massively relieved him. She called it a “masterpiece”.  

Similarly, his dad’s reaction was, whilst classically concise, also a relief. “I’m reliving things, it’s so vivid,” was his review.

Jason Om as a young child, listening to music in the family home. Photo: supplied.

“I’m hoping people focus on all the trauma and troubles we overcame and where we are now,” Om says of his dad.

Was there discomfort in him, a well-regarded, objective, impartial reporter accustomed to telling other people’s stories, making his own family the story?

To a point, he says; he changed the names of those who requested privacy. “But at the same time, this is my family story too. I have a right to talk about it,” he says.

“I applied the same rules to my story as I would to anybody else I’m reporting on; it’s my job to push boundaries, ask tough questions to get to the truth and expect people to be open. So I applied that all to myself.”

He discusses the “immense odds” he overcame to discuss the 2017 viral story about his dad. He was terrified of two things: first, blowing his ABC career, “because people like me get dragged through the mud in some newspapers – especially by inserting myself, an ABC journalist, into a very public and harmful debate,” and second, the risk of putting his extremely private elderly dad in the spotlight. 

In the end, though, his journalistic instincts kicked in. “Dad changes mind on same-sex marriage after 16 years is,” he says “editorially, a fucking good story.” But he felt compelled and duty-bound to tell it for a broader reason: “Asian Australian stories don’t get told enough,” he says. “It’s my duty to be a voice for those people – I take that very seriously.”

What about the vulnerability for him, putting the most intimate and traumatic parts of his family life out to the world?

“I can divorce myself from the emotional aspect to a degree. That’s my job,” he says.

Sometimes, though, for both the stoic father and the hardened professional journalist son, the emotions spill forth. That’s what happened when, cameras rolling, he read out supportive reactions to the viral 2017 article to his dad. Perhaps for the first time ever, father and son shed tears together

Hacking through the “bamboo jungle”

Jason Om at his first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in 2020. His dad watched the broadcast from home. It was also the first time the ABC took part with its own float. Photo: Kevin Nguyen/supplied.

Some journalists are very quiet about their private lives, their personal relationships and their sexual orientation – especially if they work for a public broadcaster like the ABC, which demands fair, balanced and unbiased objective reporting for a wide audience. What made Om – a journalist for one of their flagship news programs – decide this a risk worth taking?

“We need people speaking out in our [LGBTQI] community,” he says. “We’re the cultural elite. We have a responsibility to tell the untold stories – including our own.”

The intersectionality of his race and sexual orientation also makes Om want to put his platform to good use.

“This memoir is the first gay Asian Australian memoir in 12 years. Who else is going to be speaking out for other gay Asian guys? It can’t just be me and Benjamin Law! Plenty send me messages saying, ‘I love seeing Asian men on TV’ or ‘I wanted to be a journalist, but I gave up as I’m gay and Asian; then I saw you.’”

He describes such career roadblocks as “the bamboo jungle, rather than the bamboo ceiling because you’re moving across, not up”.

Om has also battled the perception that, as a gay Asian journalist, he’d only do Asian or gay stories. It led him to, earlier in his career, deliberately avoiding reporting on Asian Australian stories. 

“It was a mistake to avoid those stories,” he says. “Now I have the confidence to say, if I’m doing a story, I’ve found it to have merit based on my editorial judgement, not because I’m advocating a position.”

There’s a deeper reason he feels he was mistaken.

“It does lend credibility to the story. If you understand the cultural nuances – which I do because I’m an Asian journalist, I get it, it gives you access; a passport into these communities that have watched you,” he says. “It means they might open up to me more, probably, than if a white journalist approached them.”

There’s definitely cause for optimism; when Om started his career, discussions about representation were “nonexistent”.

From cover of All Mixed Up by Jason Om. Photo: supplied.

The dirty little secret

On some issues, though, progress, although happening, has been frustratingly slow.

One of them Om calls out in the book is his experience of racism within the gay community.

“It’s a dirty little secret,” he says. “Racism has been widely accepted in our community – especially towards Asian men. It’s as if it’s acceptable to make a joke about them as ‘locker room talk’. Gay men have a real problem with this. It’s belittling.”

Having done a story on this, and felt the impact himself, Om knows the consequences.

“People didn’t want to go on record because they were so hurt by the experience. You could feel their sense of hurt really cut deep. The sense of rejection and exclusion. As gay men, we ask for acceptance, and yet we don’t always afford others the same.”

He does, though, sense the culture on hook up apps is changing as more people call out or refuse to accept blatant racism on profiles. 

This story – both his, and where it sits within the broader context – are, he says, just the beginning.

“The white gays may’ve moved on from this, but the Asian community is only just starting this conversation. There are still a lot of people who live with shame.”

Jason Om, his eyes twinkling with the hunger of a journalist abreast of a myriad untold stories, is hoping that telling his own is an important step in changing that.  

All Mixed Up by Jason Om is published by HarperCollins Australia.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney SentinelTwitter: @garynunn1.

For further news, features, reviews, interviews, opinion, podcasts and more, visit https://sydneysentinel.com.au. You can also like/follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.