Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Letter to LGBT people living in 2024

This article I wrote was read and performed as part of the Amorph14 International Performance Art Festival in Helsinki. Shawn Chua Ming Ren, a student at Oxford University, devised an installation in the subterranean annex/dungeon of the Muu Ry gallery and performed there. The piece "Corresponding with Differences" was inspired by the release of the Tom of Finland stamps in Finland in September 2014. Shawn had asked me to write to someone in the future, as if we're sending a message forward in time, so I decided to write to LGBT people living in the year 2024.

"Dear LGBT men and women in the year 2024,

As I write to you, I am embarking on another incredible journey. I won a six-month Fellowship at the Centre of Quantum Technologies in National University of Singapore.

I met a research student with an IQ of 150, 50 above the average IQ, and I asked him what is his dream.

“My lifelong dream,” he replied, “is to discover the nearest habitable planet to our solar system.” 

That kind of dream puts a perspective on how petty some of our more Earthly pursuits - such as the pursuit for material wealth - is on a cosmic scale.

I am also learning about how subatomic particles can behave in ways that are unimaginable to our daily experiences. In theory, these particles can go back and forth in time, communicate with other particles at great distances and travel through space at unimaginable speeds. They are not subject to the classical space-time physical laws governing large particles and molecules.

I bring this up because once these particles cluster to form suns, planets and living organisms on Earth, they lose the ability to travel as freely. Human beings are made up of billions of subatomic particles. In exchange for our earthly experiences, we gave up our subatomic superpowers. For lack of a better metaphor, we left Eden at the Big Bang, where subatomic particles began to cluster into larger masses. We became subject to the laws of gravity, and could only travel forward in time. We cannot travel back in time, and much of the past becomes irreversibly lost to us hurtling forward in time.

Discrimination amongst human beings – by sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation – is meaningless on a cosmic scale. 

Discrimination imprisons the human race, attempts to keep us in a state of survival like the rest of the animal kingdom. Fortunately, we invented technology, and made it possible for women to be modern leaders in almost every field. “The weaker sex” became a thing of the past. Science also proved that people of different races are inherently equal, and no single race can claim to be superior.

Technology also frees LGBTs. It allows us to connect, to find communities where there were previously none, to organize, to share our ideas and dreams. It allows others to see past our orientations to recognize the CEOs, sports heroes, scientists, artists, families and human beings that we are. It renders national propaganda and bias ineffective by giving us voices in the form of blogs, videos and internationally-circulated information. 

It's worth reminding everyone that the Father of Modern Computing, Alan Turing, was also a persecuted gay person. 

Like the research student with an IQ of 150, I also believe our destiny lies in the galaxies. I also believe that one day, we will have put aside all random labels and set forth into the stars. Technology will allow us to overcome the laws of gravity and we will once again travel at currently unimaginable speeds through space, like the subatomic particles that we all are made of. We will see and experience the universe like we never could on Earth. We would have regained some of those super powers we gave up when we became molecular clusters.

We are far from that future. You, in 2024, are still far from that future. But you are nearer than we were.  Before we can embark on that future, there are smaller steps towards that lofty goal. Before we can explore the universe, we must make discrimination a thing of the past.

How do we do that? How do we make sure this smaller project succeeds? How do we complete this small step so that we can proceed towards a larger goal?

We remind ourselves of the past. We forgive, but we should not forget.

In 2024, Singapore is likely more liberal. At least Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam would have same-sex marriages. Singapore cannot afford to be too far behind. The generations after the Internet would have grown to understand LGBT people, and would have followed in their Western and SE Asian counterparts’ footsteps to allow LGBTs to be a part of daily lives.

Younger LGBTs like you would have little experience of the decades we spent in the closets. You might have no idea what the closet is like. You might not know the pain and anguish we suffered living invisible lives and dying silently as if we never walked this land.

So, if you’re reading this, I urge you to go into the archives, and look for our testimonials. Search for the transgender women who could only make a living selling their bodies in the 1980s – perhaps their files were in the police archives. Find out about the Fort Road raids and subsequent humiliation of gay men in the newspaper headlines. Read the many theatre pieces about gays, lesbians and transgenders in the history of Singaporean theatre, and the activists who first came out in spite of the dangers to their livelihoods. Remember those who worked behind the scenes to warn gay men about HIV and STDs, and the lesbians who stormed the United Nations conference as government officials tried to drown our voices. Read about Pink Dot, Oogachaga, AFA,, Blowing Wind, Wild Rice, The Necessary Stage, Drama Box, Pelangi Pride Centre and the fight to repeal 377A.

Remember those who fought to keep us disenfranchised, illegal and unequal. Remember Focus On Family, the AWARE saga, Pastor Lawrence Khong, and the former NMP Thio Li-Ann. Remember the leaders who were supposed to defend us but instead spoke against us for votes. Forgive but do not forget. Not so much that they will come for us again – bullies rarely return to the same preys once you stood up against them – but be watchful when discrimination rear its ugly head on other minorities. 

Remember what it was like for us, so that you might recognize it newly-cloaked, and catch the signs that it is happening all over again for others. Just as African Americans broke through their bondage to produce Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Barack Obama and Neil Degrasse Tyson, be the best you can be and be on the inspirational side of history. Stand against discrimination as it happens to other groups of people.

When agents of discrimination are at their lowest, the human race can finally turn our gaze towards the stars. May any LGBT stand an equal opportunity to be the captains of ships, heads of organizations and leaders of nations, or simply an equal shot at simple happiness in life. 

May your spirits soar like subatomic particles, communicate across the galaxies, and discover the mysteries in our vast universe." 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Great Diva Divide

I wrote this after a period where pop divas were dominating the headlines - Madonna at Superbowl, Whitney Houston's drowning death, Adele's Grammy domination. Some people will react by saying that I trivialize the Gay Movement by linking it to the pop culture. Yet, the function and usefulness of pop culture should not be overlooked. Ordinary straight adults channel a lot of emotions into their favorite sport teams, and why should sports be viewed as less 'trivial' than concert performances? The gay magazine the Advocate tried to put ordinary faces of gay activists on their covers for a while before the printed version stopped. The latest online issue features Madonna on the cover. Younger generation now uses the term "Born This Way" (coined by Lady Gaga) to discuss discrimination. 

But, no article will please everyone. There will always be segments of the gay population who find some thing more important than others. Why discount friends and allies who live, love and work in entertainment? Were Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin dissed by the African American Civil Rights Movement? Think not.

There is a popular story in the modern Gay Rights Movement. It was June 1969. Judy Garland, iconic star of the gay favorite “The Wizard of Oz” had just passed away. Many gay folks identified with the actress’s real life struggles, and many drag acts imitated her campiness. Some of them gathered on the fateful night of 28th June in a gay pub called Stonewall Inn, unsuspecting of the impending police raid.

When the police arrived at the Inn and started arresting patrons, they had no idea their action was stirring already volatile emotions. The gay men, lesbians and transvestites were deep in mourning for their diva, and were in no mood for the harassment. An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with his purse. As a lesbian struggled with an arresting officer, she shouted to the bystanders, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

The crowd went berserk. The Stonewall Riots made history as the American LGBT community finally turned grief into courage, and fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities.

While the Riot was real, the Judy Garland connection was tougher to verify. The long-standing love affair between gay men and their divas, however, remains easily observable into the 21st Century. Barbra Streisand and Kylie Minogue are just two examples of gay icons whose enduring careers are largely supported by legions of their loyal gaybies.

I shall leave the more solemn task of analyzing and documenting gay icons and their fans to scholars. The reason for me writing this article is simpler: friends.

For the last few weeks, I sensed a lot of turbulence amongst gay friends and myself on Facebook. Cordial adults turned sappy, irrational and downright hostile. My Wall was first assaulted by the leaked single of Madonna, then a brief euphoria that she pulled off a huge performance at the Superbowl Halftime Show. Hot on the heels was Whitney Houston’s drug-fuelled drowning, and tributes bloomed as friends posted her old videos. Before the familiar tune of “I Will Always Love You” started fading, Madonna’s new album dropped. The hostility between fans of diva-in-training Lady Gaga (whom Madonna labeled “reductive”) and fans of Madonna was renewed. Somewhere in between, Adele won a truck load of Grammys and suddenly Gaga’s blond ambition for the Queen Bee’s hive no longer seemed assured. To some fans, it wasn’t enough that they adore one, but their friends must hate the other.

By the relentless hair-pulling on every diva strand on FB, you’d think someone just insulted someone else’s mother!

After a few bumpy exchanges, I learnt a few things:

1. It is silly fun to insist that one diva’s song/album is better than another, but don’t expect the other guy to drop his divas and embrace yours. The entire exercise is futile – no one will change their views. Taste is subjective.

2. I shouldn’t feel guilty for caring about pop idols well into my 40s. I still care for a new Madonna / Gaga / Britney album, just as straight men my age are still cheering their favorite sports stars on the football fields or golf courses. Some like gifted sportsmen, we like strong female performers.

3. Being commercial artists, pop divas are savvy, clever promoters of their works. Charlie Hides, Youtube’s favorite cross-dresser, learnt a supposed-war between Madonna and Gaga is more interesting than Madonna’s love fest with Britney and Kylie. He is earning hundreds and thousands of Youtube ‘likes’ by impersonating the two ‘feuding’ divas. Madonna herself knows very well that a simple word like “reductive” can trigger a fan war with Gaga’s little Monsters, and it just keeps her name on our lips and ensures her continued relevance.

I also learnt that I do not have to justify my views on any divas. I won’t pretend to miss Whitney Houston. She was richly rewarded for her good work with millions of dollars – including my money - and she was responsible for her choices in life. I won’t pay $400 to go to a Faye Wong concert because I prefer my divas to move a little bit more on stage. Those are my views, call me a bitch, I don’t mind. My friends are fully entitled to their views as well.

Finally, I learnt that, important as my divas are to me, they should not come between my friends and I. I can’t have tea with Maddy, and no amount of Adele can substitute a shoulder to cry on if I fall. When I cannot find a single tune from my 100,000 song collection to figure out my next step, the crucial voice will more likely be a phone call away.

Judy Garland might be the star, but it takes a real handbag-wielding transvestite or a lesbian sister to start our revolution. Before you start a war with gay friends over diva trivia, remember who will be the ones who will truly be there for you. Save your fury and indignation for the people standing outside our hive – for those who are calling us undeserved names, for those who want to see us humiliated, and those who think our kind of love deserves jail-time.

In short, love your divas, but love your brothers and sisters more!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Search of Love!

(This article is based on a sharing session I gave at Singapore Management University on 7th Feb 2012. I’d like to thank Bridget Welsh and Alex Au for making this share possible.)

As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I decided to share the one aspect of my life that is relevant: my love. More specifically, I’m sharing how I looked for love in the 90s, in a decade B.I. (Before Internet).

In 1989, I graduated from Oklahoma State University and returned to complete my National Service in the Singapore Armed Forces.

At that time, there were a few places where gay men gathered to socialize. There was a pub in Orchard Road which catered mainly to foreigners and their admirers. There was a karaoke pub for local gay men, and I will share why I skipped that option later.

A third option was a Sunday Disco. Every few months, a local disco would open its doors to gay men on Sunday nights. I assumed that Sunday night was given to us because it was the least desirable evening to party late, and we would fill the dance floor and the disco owner’s coffers in a win-win situation. Every few months or so, the police would conduct a raid. They would line us up and take down our particulars, asking what used to be rather embarrassing questions such as, “how often do you come here?” Most of us would blush in shame and lie, “it’s my first time.” I remembered a rare brave soul (not me), when confronted with that question, defiantly answering, “oh, I come here so often I forgot!”

The intent of the raid might be routine, but invariably the clients would scatter and stay away. Awhile later, another disco would take up the baton and open its Sunday doors to us. We were shooed from disco to disco, and kept nomadic. Without a stable place to meet, we had no means of constructing our identities, friends and community. Without community, we were scattered and disempowered.

There was one other place to meet gay guys – the open air space above Raffles Place MRT. In the early 90s, we hung out regularly, ‘cruised’ the back streets around the area trying to meet others. Guys from all walks of life roamed for love – yet, we were guarded about our true selves. Many used fake names. Conversations were inauthentic, full of gaps and closed doors. You can imagine that incompatibility was astronomical.

Most of my relationship then was conducted in secret from my family, colleagues and friends. It was like one frightened blind person leading another frightened blind person. They all ended in heartbreaks. Guess what? We endured these heartbreaks the same way we conducted our relationships: on our own.

Up till today, I have trouble sitting in a gay karaoke. The pub was filled with the mournful groans of broken hearts, much like a bear bile factory in China. Every other song was one of tears and crying softly over pillows. Two favorites were Sandy Lam’s “Loved Someone Who Didn’t Come Home”, and Faye Wong’s “Easily-Hurt Woman”.

Society’s message to gay men was this: “go out, and you risk humiliation, harassment and get labeled a slut. Stay home, avoid any gay encounters, and remain ignorant and stupid. But you’ll be safe.” If I had relied on the country’s media, I would have been deeply closeted, filled with misery, loneliness and self-loathing. To my credit, I chose slut over stupid.

I threw myself from one possible relationship to another from age 21 to 29. My lovers were varied: one boyfriend was so poor at expressing himself, he shared his feelings for me via song lyrics: “this is how I feel about you,” he would say to me every conversation, “press ‘play’ please!” Another wanted me to be his trophy, and dragged me from weary power lunches to dreary intellectual dinners. A third made me feel so safe, so loved for 8 months before it was revealed that I was his fling outside of a 16-year relationship. Oh, and by the way he was getting married too. Cue Faye Wong music!

Straight people liked to say that gay men cannot conduct successful, long-term relationships. The more likely truth is that given the lack of social, familial and legal support, it’s a wonder so many of us would not give up! It’s helpful to remember that even straight people face challenges in the pursuit of love – for in spite of all the support that family, society and law gave our straight brothers and sisters, divorces rates continued to climb.

By 29, I was ready to concede defeat. “Maybe it is true what they said about gay men – we’re just not built to have lasting relationships!”

Fortunately, my years out there paid off in two important ways: 1. after a couple of particularly nasty breakups, I started to appreciate the hurt I had unwittingly inflicted on some of my past boyfriends. My failures made me appreciate how valuable a good lover is. 2. An ex-boyfriend match-made me and my current partner, Han.

Han and I had been around the block a few times, so we were older and wiser. We dated for 3 years before he started spending weekends over. After 5 years, when we were very sure of our mutual commitment, I placed a downpayment for our first car. The car was to enable him to live with me on weekdays, and still get to work relatively conveniently.

As our relationship grew stronger, another miracle was happening around the globe: the Internet.

With the advent of social networking sites such as, gay Singaporeans started posting their profile pictures online. That, few realised, was the first tentative step out of the closet for the community.

Han and I started hanging out with other couples like us. With a growing community, and regular gossip, we gained valuable insights. For instance, in each couple, we observed that one would be sloppier while the other would insist on cleanliness. So it was and still is with Han and myself, and I used to think that difference was an irritation we had to live with. We quickly learnt, upon a visit to a couple’s home (they were both sloppy), that differences are what kept us from spinning out into extremes in our daily habits.

With that stability, Han and I were able to focus our energies on building our dream home. We are able to invest more energy in our individual careers, and we even have enough time left to welcome a lively Jack Russell into our lives.

My hunting days for a partner behind me (at least, for now, hopefully, for longer), I now turned my mind towards the greater society. Before I hit puberty and realized I was gay, I was first and foremost a lover of comics, science and science fiction. I have since embarked on a quest to get Asians to see themselves as equals in terms of science with their Western counterparts. Afterall, the problems of global warming and mass extinctions of animal and plant species cannot be solved by a science army of half-strength. I am now drawing and self-publishing a thriving brand of sci-fi comics called “Sir Fong’s Adventures In Science”.

Normally, I would end an article with a punch – save the best for the last, I suppose. But I decided I wouldn’t. While Han and I have been together for 14 years, it really isn’t anything to gloat about. Being together is simply a preferred state of living for the two of us, and many of our single friends are doing perfectly well in their singlehood. If our years being out there in the wild, wild world of love and relationships taught us anything, it is that we simply can’t take anything for granted - and that includes the good things that can also come from single-hood.

Perhaps I can close and leave you with this: despite the draconian options society officially offered gay people in the past, it is possible to find true love against all odds. The only true way to stop you from loving someone is that you chose to stop loving. With that, thank you for reading, and may you have a great Valentine’s Day with your loved one, with your friends or with yourself.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unpublished letter to newspaper about Elton John's orchids

A couple of weeks ago, Elton John visited Singapore. He was honored with an orchid named after him, to which he attended the ceremony with his partner David Furnish and their son Zachary. A certain Josephine Tay wrote an indignant letter, saying Elton does not deserve that honor because he is gay.

I wrote a letter to Straits Times, our main national newspaper. While the responses published are good (according to the editors, 19 letters supporting Elton's honor, and 3 supporting Ms Tay), I'll leave you to guess why mine wasn't included. My view is that if Indians are insulted, a letter from an  Indian would be appropriate. If gay people are insulted, why shouldn't openly-gay people's responses be included?

"I am a gay Singaporean who grew up in a homophobic environment. When Elton John sang "I'm Still Standing", I found some courage to not give up and just keep going. When Princess Diana passed away, I cried with the millions who had heard Elton's "Candle in the Wind". Elton has battled homophobia, survived fame, and raised millions more for charity. And he continues to help younger artists like Eminem find their place. In his concerts, he sang with humility and grace, usually performing well over 3 hours to the delight of millions.

His achievements are monumental. His voice is a gift that lifts hearts and souls. While some insist that gay people cannot form meaningful relationship, Elton - like many of us - has a happy, stable family. Yet, for all his talents and humanity, Ms Tay felt that Elton's sexuality alone should discount his eligiblity for an acknowledgement. Does Ms Tay also feel that gay Singaporeans like myself, or even her gay or lesbian colleagues should expect no acknowledgement from our peers and country, even when we do our part in careers, family and society?"

Nevertheless, it is a positive step in the right direction. ST Forum pointed out that 19 letters disagreed with Ms Josephine Tay, while 3 agreed with her. I can only hope that these steps will continue, as more and more people understand the real facts behind being LGBT. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Same Sexuality, Different Drag

This week, Kumar comes out of the closet!

Kumar is famous in Singapore as a comedian, cross-dressing performer and the top drag queen. He is also a household name as he has hosted local TV programmes. At the launch of his new book “Kumar: From Rags To Drags”, attended by guest-of-honor and Singapore minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Kumar – now 43-years-old – announced that he is finally able to say that he is gay.

Many gay men and women praised Kumar for his courage, and just as many gay people say that it is no surprise because Kumar is “so obvious”. Kumar’s sexuality, as some believe, is community and public knowledge – he still enjoyed fame and success as a performer - so his coming out would make no difference at all.

I beg to differ. Kumar’s public outing is as significant as anyone’s public outing. It took no less courage for an “obviously gay” person to acknowledge that he or she is gay.

Many people prefer that gay folks NOT acknowledge our sexuality, even when all signs point to someone being gay. In the past, Kumar had denied that he was gay twice in the newspapers. So, even if there was acceptance, the acceptance was of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell No Matter How Obvious You Are” kind. We accept you – as long as you don’t say you are gay.

That is why Kumar coming out is important: as a community, we want that formal acknowledgement, and we want the respect that comes with it. The true test for Kumar’s relationship with the public lies in the next few years after he comes out: it should make no difference then that he said he is gay, since he is already an ‘obvious’ queen.

A Madonna song was introduced this way: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, 'cause it's OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, 'cause you think that being a girl is degrading.” The discrimination within the community for drag queens and ‘obvious’ gays persisted till today.  Perhaps some of us see their sissy behavior as instrumental in the discrimination of the LGBT community?

The real culprit of LGBT discrimination is not so much that ‘obvious’ gay people live openly, but rather that less ‘obvious’ people remain hidden, therefore offer nothing to counter the public’s perception that all gay people are somehow into drag or sissies (not that cross-dressing or being effeminate is wrong). The only way for the public to see the diversity, is for a diverse bunch of gay people to live their lives openly, isn't it? Seeing is believing. All else is propaganda.

When we were young, some of the straight-acting (in a sense, Kumar dear, we’re better actors than you) amongst us joined in the teasing of sissies. That sense of superiority never left some of us. We bulked up, and with our armor of muscles, are manlier than straight men. We think that this armor can protect us from the curious attention of our colleagues and friends – even though the same muscles are primarily designed to attract potential suitors and lovers (don't give me that "it's for health" talk - you can be perfectly healthy doing yoga or jogging).

It might work for a while, but unless you’re married with children, eventually, people will see through that build. In other words, it takes a straight person to know another straight person – and you ain’t no straight person, bro! You are single, middle-aged, and buzz-cut, and you carry more name-branded clothes and bags than the average female colleague. If one day you come out, don’t be surprised that your friends fight to stifle the yawns as you did when you heard about Kumar’s outing.

Kumar may be the elephant in the room, but when he trumpeted, some other elephants in the room yawned louder than they should. That’s because some think they're much less obvious than Kumar – maybe because they think they are safe hiding behind the sofa and other tiny furniture in the room.

Kumar wears a dress, some of us wear muscles and A&F. Different drag, just as gay. There is nothing wrong with gorgeous muscles that light up the scenery and my Facebook, just as there is nothing wrong with dresses because they do that too. There is nothing wrong with coming out, and nothing wrong to stay in the closet.

But if we discriminate our own kind, can we expect equality from others?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Role Models

A special thanks to my straight friend Lim Teng Leong. A discussion he started made me write this piece!

The world shook today. Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, father of the iMac, iPod and iPhone, announced that he is stepping down.

The world shook too in the LGBT community. The person taking over the rein of Apple is Tim Cook, outed by Out magazine as a gay man. Cook himself has never confirmed nor denied his sexuality.

A friend’s friend asked, “why make his sexuality such a big deal?” Another said, “It shouldn’t matter.”

In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be a big deal if Apple’s next CEO is a woman, a minority or a religious person Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Hindu. Why make a big deal about Tim Cook being gay? Noone made a big deal of Steve Jobs being straight!

 Tim Cook of Apple | Apple Headlines - Mac, iOS, Apple News
Tim Cook - the new CEO of Apple

In the real world, a woman or a black person need not face that choice – the fact that they are female or a minority race is clear as day. Not so for a gay person. In the real world, most gay people keep their sexuality private.

I remembered growing up gay and searching desperately for a role model. Here was my journey:

From childhood to teenager, my only gay ‘role models’ were perverts and pedophiles prowling in the toilets. They were hunted, arrested and paraded on the national newspapers and tabloids. I remembered my mother said, “those sick bastards!” So I concluded I might be sick too.

When I discovered Yukio Mishima, a Japanese gay writer, I poured through his books, thirsting for some clues to guide me. Unfortunately, he was a strange fellow indeed. While I was thrilled that he declared his love for the same sex bravely, I was less happy about his morbid passion that gay love must end in suicide. Since he was the only Asian gay writer I knew then, I almost bought into that fatalism – there was to be no happy ending for gay relationships.

Yukio Mishima - talented but disturbed

In a better world, you might find it funny to know my next favorite role model, an unrepentant, cheeky playwright called Joe Orton, had his skull bashed in with a hammer by his deranged boyfriend, Kenneth Helliwell. After killing Orton, Helliwell killed himself with an overdose of pills.

Joe Orton - talented but died a violent death in the hands of his lover

AIDS unearthed a slew of celebrities - Rock Hudson, Brad Davis, and Freddie Mercury to name a few – and in the same breath, declared them dead or dying.

I soldiered along, and in the process found many LGBT writers and artists in my native land of Singapore. The arrival of Elton John, Ian McKellen, Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert lifted my spirits, but they, along with countless gay fashion designers and celebrity hairdressers, still did not fit my definition of a role model.

I may be an artist, but a part of me is decidedly a science geek.

What I need, is a modern-day Leonardo DaVinci, or a contemporary Alan Turing: someone who is gay but cannot be pigeon-holed into a strictly artistic environment. So you can imagine my excitement when news of Cook’s sexuality broke!

Alan Turing - conceptualized the principles of modern computing, instrumental in stopping World War II. Rewarded with chemical castration. Committed suicide.

And my disappointment when later articles clarified that he never came out personally. Waiting for my role model feels like grasping at mirages in a desert.

Tim Cook has been an integral part of Apple. How big an influence or inspiration he has been, or will be, to such an iconic corporation remains to be seen. It would be great if he comes out, but what if he doesn’t? Afterall, filling in Jobs’ enormous shoes is already a monumental task. He should decide for himself if coming out will be to Apple’s advantage.

We may never get his own confirmation.

Until then, he cannot be a role model for me or my community. But I realised something: I can wait for that elusive gay role model to show me the way, or I can be that role model.

I won’t be holding my breath for Cook or any other gay men or women. I won’t sit and wait for someone to share his or her formula for success. There is no road map that will point the way towards my dreams.

“Fine!” I tell myself, “all the sweeter when I get there first.”

And with that, I put my best foot forward.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wild Rice's "Family Outing" - LGBT plays are a cornerstone for Singapore culture

(Photo courtesy of Charmaine Tan)

I attended Wild Rice's staging of first-time playwright Joel Tan's play "Family Outing".

Significantly, this is the first time a local gay play attempted to fuse religion with sexuality where the son did not turn away from his sexuality*. The playwright manages to present what was once un-presentable on Singapore stage. It wasn't a perfect piece - it ended where I felt it was to be an interval. For a devout religious family to come to terms with a gay son, experience of my friends showed that it can take years or decades. A friend once told me, "when a son comes out of the closet with his parents, the parents often go into a closet of their own." Perhaps the mother would deploy her arsenal of church friends and even pastor to 'set the boy right', perhaps she would have to struggle privately. For a drama mama, the protagonist's mama sure got over herself in a period of time that is nothing short of miraculous. But Joel should be applauded for writing an enjoyable play with a gay protagonist that, even in death, insist on being happy and true to himself. I'm sure the story connects with many religious gay people, and even a non-religious gay person like myself can relate to the struggle to reach out to mom and dad. The play is a notable entry into a canon of LGBT plays in Singapore, and Joel is a young playwright whose future works will be thrilling and exciting.

(*Strictly speaking, The Necessary Stage's "___ Can Change" contains a segment with a gay religious son too. In that play, the son chose to leave his boyfriend, get married and start a family to please his mother.)

I'd watched a few notable gay plays in the recent years (Drama Box's "Bondage" and Wild Rice's "Asian Boys Vol 3"), wrote the first Mandarin gay play (Drama Box's "Another Tribe") and all my plays feature gay characters and some gay themes, including this year's Arts Fest play HERStory. Since Russell Heng's "Lest The Demons Get To Me", Eleanor Wong's "Mergers and Accusations" and Michael Chiang's "Private Parts", I'd attended some local gay plays.

A majority of the local playwrights have their own gay plays. Virtually all local drama groups have staged gay plays. Asking friends to name some, I was greeted with a barrage of plays old and new. It appears that gay plays are not just a regular occurrence in the local scene, but one of the main themes that kept propping up. No amount of bullying or discouragement seemed to have dented our merry spirits.

Yet, our local media authorities have continued to discourage this genre of plays. Shouldn't they recognise the LGBT's huge contribution to the development of local culture instead? Without exaggeration, the gay play IS a cornerstone of Singapore culture and should be recognised and acknowledged as such. Below is a Facebook discussion of local gay plays. 

My dear LGBT friends, let it be known that we are the soldiers who built Singapore's Great Wall of Culture**. Unlike the thousands who died anonymously building the Great Wall of China, we will not let our contribution be swept under the rugs.

(** This is not to disparage the straight giants of culture in Singapore - Kuo Pao Kun for example. If I name straight names, I might be unwittingly outing the gay ones who're not out-out yet.)