Being Gay in Singapore—A Friend Shares Some Thoughts

When I view videos or images of past Pink Dot events, it all looks so fun, so lively, so well-attended (for a Speaker’s Corner event!). I tend to forget its motive: to counter fear, ignorance, and prejudice towards the LGBT (that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community here in Singapore.

When I think of my close gay friends, I see generally happy, well-adjusted individuals, some in long-term relationships. Their outspokenness and apparent ease with sharing their gay relationships with our peers – not to mention achievement of middle-class success – means I’ve never looked at them and thought: marginalized.

But as Pink Dot 2012 draws near, I’ve become additionally conscious of my own heterosexuality. Perhaps it’s like being a middle-class Chinese in Singapore – you’re part of the privileged majority and therefore are generally insulated from the subtle everyday indignities encountered by those in minority groups. Then I read Alex Au’s Humanist of the Year Speech 2012, in which he said:

Those who are heterosexual live in a world where heterosexuality is normative: social conventions, expectations, law and institutions are built upon assumptions of heterosexuality. It’s as comfortable as wearing a right glove on your right hand. After a while, you’d hardly notice you have one on. But gay people have to go through life wearing the left glove on our right hand. There is no moment when we are not conscious of the misfit.

So I decided to call a girlfriend (let’s call her Gaby) to have a chat about something we’ve never actually talked about before, despite having been friends for over two decades: being gay in Singapore.

*Disclaimer: This is just one conversation with one gay friend – I do not presume it to be indicative of “all gay people”. But I learnt from it nonetheless, and got to know and appreciate a dear friend just that little bit better.*

Me: Do you feel discriminated against in Singapore as a gay person?
Gaby: In terms of not having equal rights, yes. For example, when you work in certain corporations, there may be benefits – such as medical benefits – for your dependents (e.g. husband or children). This will not be possible for a gay couple. In terms of housing, I will not be able to apply for public housing with my partner as other married couples do (unless we’re both over 35 and apply via another scheme). I’m lucky because H (Gaby’s partner) and I were able to afford to buy private property, but for young couples below 35, this may not always be the case.

I also have a gay friend who works in the hospitality industry. Normally, spouses of staff get to share the perks, which makes traveling together easier and more affordable. But she can never acknowledge her lesbian partner at work, and so this will not be possible either. At the same time though, I do understand that this can be tricky, for companies might think: what’s there to stop anyone from declaring someone their “partner” in order to enjoy the perks?

Me: Do you think legalizing gay marriage will solve this “loophole” then?
Gaby: I do think that some form of legal recognition will help.

Me: Why did you decide to hold a wedding?
Gaby: H and I have been going out for so long, and I didn’t want us to just be dating forever. I wanted her to know this is not just a “play-play” thing, to show that we are absolutely serious about each other, and for our friends to celebrate and witness what we have.

(The fact that I couldn’t post their wedding photos here made me realize that their not-so-secret relationship wasn’t exactly that open either.)

Me: Have there been changes over the years?
Gaby: I think there is a lot less discrimination now than there was, say, 15 years ago. There is more openness. I see the younger adults now being more open, not like last time. And of course, there are more gay icons too in popular culture. There are also friends our age who are now parents and because we’ve all grown up together and are rock solid friends, it doesn’t seem like such a big stigma.

Me: Do your straight friends make insensitive remarks that upset you? (Myself included!)
Gaby: No, generally most of my straight friends – and most of my friends are straight, by the way – are quite considerate. I do have one friend who will make disparaging remarks about a fellow gay friend and his Facebook posts, because the gay friend is quite open about his relationship. I asked her: “Why do you find it so annoying? Would you think it was disgusting if it was a straight friend sharing photos of his girlfriend?” Once, she also saw two old women whom she thought were a gay couple and said it was so strange, “so old and yet gay”. I was like, of course gay people grow old too right! But for her and maybe others, they can only imagine gay people in their youth for some reason.

Me: Do such remarks or incidents upset you?
Gaby: It’s easier for me because I have told my parents and they have accepted it. If I make a new friend and he/she cannot accept it, it’s not my problem, it is his/hers. My parents are the two most important people to me and they are the only ones that matter. I am blessed to have great folks.

Me: What about H? Does her family know?
Gaby: Her parents have accepted it but we try not to be too “in your face” around them. They come from a different generation and so we are mindful about it – for example, we won’t hold hands in front of them. During Chinese New Year, her family members will cook for us and I will be invited over; her parents have visited our home and so they know we share the same room. But we also reciprocate their acceptance by being respectful of where they come from, and how people from that generation tend to think. It’s about being respectful, both ways.

Me: How do you reconcile your religious faith with being gay?
Gaby: I focus on what I feel to be essential truths – that one must be a good person, to know that there is someone that is bigger than you, to practice humility, to be compassionate and alert to your conscience. I believe that religion tries to teach us to practice humility, to be kind, caring and loving, to not be malicious and pass judgment over people. I recently had a conversation with a very religious elderly woman and I told her that I was gay. She said that it is not for her to judge, that we are only answerable to one person, and that is God. She said her job is to be good to others, and to remember where we stand in relation to God. She also said I was her first gay friend and, regardless of my orientation, she is proud to be my friend.

Me: A recent Straits Times article about discrimination of gays in Singapore mentioned that it seems to be easier for lesbians than it is for gay men. Do you think so too?
Gaby: I recently had this a conversation with a friend, who has a baby daughter, E. He said that if E was gay, it wouldn’t matter as long as she’s happy. But then he also admitted that it is easier for him to accept it if his daughter is gay than if it were his son.

Me: Why do you think this is so?
Gaby: Generally, where women are concerned, there seems to be a perception that it is more about emotional connection. For men, there is still this “boys will be boys” stereotype, that they are more promiscuous. A pretty girl who is “butch”, if she’s pretty, people can still say she’s pretty, but for guys, if they are “Muscle Marys”, they still get teased. The elderly woman I mentioned earlier, she called me to tell me that her young relative recently admitted to his parents he is gay. They will now have nothing to do with him! And he is/was their favourite son. She didn’t know what to do. I told her she must make sure that at this point of time, he does not feel alone, he needs his family and should be able to have someone supportive to speak to. So yes, I definitely feel boys have it harder. Somehow, parents just seem to find it much harder to deal with. Sometimes I suspect it’s to do with sex – their imaginations just cannot handle it. With girls, maybe it doesn’t seem to obvious, but then they think of their boys and the exploits of their “pee-pees’ being chummy with another…

Me: Ok, STOP!
Gaby: You see what I mean? The poor men definitely have it more challenging than us.

(Which again, brings me back to Alex Au’s speech, where he mentioned the “yuck” reflex when we’re confronted with male-male sexuality.)

Me: Do you think it is also because “girl-on-girl” has become eroticized in popular culture?
Gaby: Yes! If there was a group of straight men, these are the three preferred topics of conversation to engage them in : girl-on-girl, soccer, and race cars. Trust me….Soccer and race cars could be second, could be third. But girl-on-girl? Always first. True Story.

(In case you haven’t yet figured this out, my friend Gaby is somewhat prone to exaggeration.)

Me: Have you ever had to explain to a child – say, a niece or nephew – what gay is/means?
Gaby: Nope!

Me: Well, what would you say if they asked?
Gaby: I don’t know! I’m not the parent – you are. What would you say?

So finally, it was my turn to provide an answer. And I wasn’t prepared. And I’m still not entirely sure. So I think I will do what any self-respecting parent will do – I will Google it and get back to you! (Only half-kiddin’.)

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4 thoughts on “Being Gay in Singapore—A Friend Shares Some Thoughts

  1. I recently found myself still referring to my boyfriend as “partner” when I talk to straight folks, so that I can avoid using he/she, even if I have already come out to them. It’s that yuck factor, I’m sure, that makes me self-censor like this.

  2. What a heartfelt & candid conversation between 2 friends, & so beautifully beautifully captured!

    As for explaining to a child what being gay means…. here’s a conversation I (a gay man) remember having with my 2 nieces many years ago when they were still in their tweens:

    Niece no. 2 (who was then 8 yrs old): Jiu, why aren’t you married?

    Jiu (that’s me): Because I haven’t found the right man yet.

    Niece no. 2: But isn’t it supposed to be a man & a woman?

    Me: Well, sometimes a man loves a woman, sometimes a man loves a man (I didn’t get round to explaining the woman & woman part as her sister niece no. 1 interrupted her about something).

    Niece no. 2: OK then.

    Thanks for talking to each other & sharing it all with us!
    Yangfa

  3. Thanks Yangfa, for sharing your conversation with your nieces – matter-of-fact is a good strategy! Ron, I have become more conscious now of this tendency – hopefully ‘outing’ it will help change things (acknowledgment is the first step??).

  4. It is nv easy being gay in Singapore, frankly speaking. Society can have bapoks(transvesites) working in office and probably have these roles in tv but not but not butches or lesbians. I’m a butch and despite wearing like an office guy in shirt, I still have colleagues asking me if I have a boyfriend n i when I’m getting married etc. However it doesn’t happen to another colleague that is so soft and very womanly.. As a butch, not only when I go out with my gf, even out with friends n cousins, I get the stares, probably ppl are always having the mindset that “we” are together.. How cliche it is.. However I really liked this article. I’m a Malay and being gay is always a taboo to our race n religion.. Gay rights in Singapore may not be feasible for everyone due to race, religion, family acceptance etc. Even my 4 yrs relationship, only my twin sis know..

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