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.)