Great post from Singapore!
Unfortunately, I came to realise that most gay men and women, especially those working in the government, military, MNCs, financial and professional services, remain extremely closeted and tight-lipped about their loved ones. How open can you be when your entire career and everything you’ve worked for could be destroyed in one moment by a vicious police report? In the civil service, for example, I have heard that while it is fine if you want to come out, don’t expect to get promoted beyond a certain level as an open and out gay civil servant. It is considered especially suicidal for those in the teaching service to come out, even though some of the most kind and nurturing teachers I have known are gay. It saddens me that so many friends and colleagues I know have to repress or lie about their personal lives, living every day in fear of repercussion because of an antiquated colonial law.
I was a student at UC Berkeley when gay marriage was first legalized in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004. By then a junior, I had come to realise Berkeley was a beacon for both out and not-yet-ready-to-come-out students; it drew bright teenagers from all over America and the world, really, who were struggling with their sexuality; and for many of these students it was the first time in their lives they felt at home. Berkeley was where it was okay to be different, it was okay to be weird, it was okay to not be okay.
As you might imagine, Berkeley’s progressiveness was a hard pill to swallow for many straight-laced Singaporeans. Most of us came from sheltered backgrounds where our needs were taken care of and the only thing we needed to do was excel at school. I considered myself progressive; as an intern at Time Magazine I had earlier written a feature on Singapore’s gay community, speaking to many gay men and women about their lives. But nothing could have prepared me for my girlfriend’s confession in sophomore year. She had been dealing with depression for some time; gradually it emerged that as a conservative Christian she was struggling with her sexuality and a particular girl crush, which of course led to the next question…“the girl you have a crush on…is me?” Till today I still regret the loss of our friendship.
It’s probably impossible to have attended Berkeley without knowing at least one gay friend. I prided myself on having many; in my last semester both my housemates were gay men. But gay marriage always left me conflicted. Isn’t marriage between a man and a woman? If gay couples can’t have children, why would they want to get married?
“Why would you want to get married?” I asked my gay Singaporean best friend. “Don’t you all just want to have fun?”
Gay men and women, from my experience at Berkeley, just wanted to have fun. They changed partners as often as they changed socks, had no problem divorcing sex from love, and had no interest in long-term relationships. (This, I must note, was not unique to the gay community at Berkeley)
“Why do you think we’re any different from you?” The look of deep disappointment on his face surprised me. “Why would you think I wouldn’t want to get married, or have kids?”
As a college student, marriage and kids were a long, long way from my mind. But the idea that wanting long-term companionship and wanting a family was something universal blew apart all my preconceptions of what it meant to be gay. I suppose I was guilty of what many straight people then and now still think, that gay men (and women) are promiscuous and want a life of hedonistic pleasure. My best friend was back then and now only ever in long-term relationships, but I thought he was an exception, not the norm.
As I began to reevaluate my previous assumptions about gay marriage, I started wondering if the promiscuous lifestyles that some gay men led was not in some way a response to their inability to be “normal” and have “normal” relationships like everyone else. A friend I knew was dumped by his high-achieving scholar boyfriend who wanted to be “normal”—to get married and have kids, back then unthinkable for a gay man in Singapore. My friend’s ‘revenge’ was to go on a string of one-night stands and quick hook-ups.
But what really and truly changed my mind was the moment when San Francisco went against President Bush’s declaration of support for banning same-sex unions. Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, thus sparking the first in a long wave of legal challenges that eventually ended with the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage in 2015.