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.