Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Reaching out to the ones we love
This February brings us two special occasions to be with the people we love the most - the Lunar New Year holidays and Valentine's Day.

For Chinese families, Lunar New Year is a time to reunite and strengthen ties through festive food and home visits. For couples and friends, Valentine's Day is a day where gifts of love and appreciation are exchanged.

While not all of us may be observing the festivities, and some may argue that an occasion like Valentine's has been overly commercialised, these moments still provide us with a good opportunity to gather with family and friends, and to show them how much they mean to us.

This February, we've included several personal stories about family:

- In 'A Family Outing', Alphonsus Lee shares his experience about attending, with his father, a reunion dinner organised for gays and their family members.

- In 'Coming Home', Clarence Singam talks about coming out and coming home to his family. We publish an extract of his story.

- SAFE founding member Khoo Hoon Eng speaks about her relationship with her two gay sons - a sharing which first appeared in the book, SQ21.

Alphonsus Lee, in his sharing, talks about the importance of reaching out:

"...in our lifetime, we will only have one father and one mother, and that term of endearment "kor" (elder brother in Chinese) or "zheh" (elder sister) will only sound genuine for our blood brothers and sisters. If we do not make an effort to reach out to them, then we have only ourselves to blame."

We feel this applies to every one of us, straight or gay.

As brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, as extended family, as friends, as a community, we can all do our part to reach out, and speak up, to show love, support, and true acceptance. Of course February isn't the only month when we can do so, but it can definitely be a good start.

With best wishes,

The SAFE team


Monday, February 12, 2007
SQ21 Khoo Hoon Eng
The following was first published in SQ21, a collection of stories written by local author Ng Yi-Sheng. The stories, all written from a first-person point of view, are based on interviews Yi-Sheng conducted with members of the LGBT community and their supporters. Hoon Eng's story appears in Chapter 14.

"I have two sons. They’re 24 and 21 years old. Yes, you can print their names: Shin Ming and Shin En.

When did I find out?

It was when Shin Ming was 15. He walked into my room one night. One of his good friends from ACS had come over for the evening, my husband was out of town, and I was lying in bed, taking a rest. And Ming walked in and said to me, “Mama, I’m gay.”

And so –

I was just so –

I guess before that I had my suspicions. I sort of knew, and yet at the same time it’s not something you ask. You don’t go to your son and say, “So, are you gay?” after all.

And yet when he actually announced it to me, I was still so stunned. My first thought was, “He’s going to have a really tough life.” It wasn’t me I was worried about, I was worried for him. He was still my son.

My second thought was, “How is his father going to take this?” Because my husband had had a gay friend in his university days at MIT, and I had heard him pass some remarks before like, “Such a pity, he was such a brilliant guy, unfortunately he was gay and he threw his life away working on gay causes, and then he died of AIDS.” So those were the two overriding concerns for me.

But of course at the same time there was a part of me that was trying to deny reality, thinking, “Hmm, well maybe this is just one of the weird projects he’s doing for his GEP.” Ming had always been a precocious kid: he had learned to read and speak very early, he would put on acts and plays using the sofas as a stage, even organising his cousins to act. Maybe he and his classmate had cooked this up to decipher the reactions of parents when they go and declare something like this.

But another part of me realised, “No, it can’t be, this is too serious.” Then I thought about how he’d had the courage to come and basically out himself to me. What should my reaction be to him, anyway?

So after that, I went to his room and I started talking to him. Basically, I gave him the usual mother’s reaction. “Are you sure? You know, you really don’t need to make any decisions right now. You’re still young. You should just continue to make friends with everyone. And maybe we shouldn’t tell your father yet.”

Anyway, that was my reaction to Ming. It made for some difficult situations, and looking back maybe I shouldn’t have said the last part, maybe I should have just said to him just be open with his father, although that was a very big worry for me. But Ming listened to me, and he didn’t talk to his father about it until two years later, while we were having dinner. By then, I think he felt confident enough to explain.

In the meantime, of course, it was very difficult for me to handle this by myself. All along I had this gut feeling that said, “Yes, he’s still my son and I love him.” I had been trying to see if I could find information on being a parent to gay children. At that time, the Internet was not so easy for you to navigate, so I tried to find some books in the NUS library on how to handle this. Eventually I bought one in Northampton, Massachusetts, one of the most accepting places in the world for GLBT people. It was called “Always My Child” by Kevin Jennings and Pat Shapiro, and it touched me a lot. But I was still very worried about what Ming’s future was going to be like, knowing the extent of homophobia in Singapore, as well as in Malaysia, where he’s still a citizen.

I was still a closeted parent back then, and talking about him was very tricky with other people. After a couple of years, friends would keep asking me, “So does he have a girlfriend yet?” I didn’t know what to say, so I had to reply, “Ohhh, not that I know of.” That was believable, luckily, since we’d sent him to Winchester, England to do his A-levels.

En’s case was very different. He’s a very charming young man, and in contrast to Shin Ming, who had hardly any female friends, he had a whole long list of them. When he was five or six, we would visit family friends with daughters around his age, and on two separate occasions, the sisters would literally fight each other for the privilege of sitting next to him. So even from a very young age, girls tended to be very attracted to him.

In ACS he was also very much involved in drama, so you would have all these girls who would come for drama productions who’d be interested in him. They would call him up and talk to him on the phone, even late at night. So he would tell me about these girls calling him, and how one of them, also a very attractive young girl, had wanted him to be her “special boyfriend”. So he would discuss with me at the dinner-table whether he should be her boyfriend, and at that time I just gave him similar advice – that there’s no necessity to be a special friend until later on, and that right now he should just be friends with everybody. Later on he admitted he had been trying to throw me off.

It might have been when he was 15, while we were traveling in Vancouver, that I noticed how Ming was buying these books for young people about being gay, and passing them on to En. So when we came home, I saw En reading these books. I assumed that since his brother was gay, he was just reading up on the issue, so I didn’t think too hard about it. But one day, his father caught him reading these books, and confronted him, saying, something like “Is your brother trying to convert you?”

I know there’s no way you can convert someone, but that was what my husband said to him.

So that evening I went and talked to him. I said, “En, is there something you want to tell me?” And then he told me that he was also gay, and that it was hard, because as he said, “I know gor-gor’s gay, and it must be difficult for parents to have both sons gay.” I can understand now how difficult it must have been for him too. And so then after that I gave him the same spiel all over again – the one about continuing to be friends with everyone – and then I told him how I felt: that is, that I wasn’t worried about myself, but for them.

My husband didn’t react well. When he first found out about Ming, what he said was that he had sort of guessed already. But now when he found out about En, his reaction to me was like, “We seem to have hit the jackpot - what are the chances of both sons being gay? One in a few million?” He obviously had to voice what he felt, but I’m sure he was horribly, horribly disappointed. To his credit he has been supportive: he’s continued to love and support both of our sons, and I don’t think he treats them any differently, or loves them any less. Of course, being his wife, I have heard him say a thousand little things to me that I have to interpret as coming short of full acceptance.

The most telling moment was when we separated, about two and a half years ago. While we were going through the process of breaking up, the first thing he said to me was, “Good. Now that I have the chance to marry another woman, maybe my future children will not be gay.”

Of all the nasty and hurtful things my husband said and did to me during that troubled time, I would deem that one of the worst. It still rankles with me today. My reaction, once I began to think about it more rationally, was, “How can you say that about our children? What’s wrong with our children? Why would you even think that?” And later, “First of all, what’s wrong with being gay? Secondly, is he trying to imply that it was my fault that the two boys are gay? So if he marries his girlfriend and has some other children, he can be sure they will not be gay?” I have to understand that it’s all very difficult for men, especially misogynistic men who believe in the importance of a family line in “traditional Chinese” culture. My response to that kind of statement now would be “You should be so lucky if your future children, whether gay or not, are half as wonderful and loving human beings as the two sons we have.”

The important thing, however, is that he does support the children. When we visited their uncles and aunts in Australia, he and I both explained to the relatives the fact that our sons are gay. And when Ming went to Stanford and became involved with the GLBT groups, he agreed to appear in one of their publicity flyers as a parent who had accepted his gay child. I also visited Ming in university, and went along with him to the talks that he had organised to raise awareness amongst the other students about gay rights and culture. I think it really made a difference to Ming that I was willing to be there. I think it also made an impression on other students, showing them that a parent can be so fully accepting and loving of her gay child.

Back home, En was also keeping busy. In Sec 3, he left ACS for United World College, which was a really good move for him, because I think he had been very unhappy due to the very strong sense of homophobia amongst the students. When he went to UWC, he found a lot more acceptance there, and he really just blossomed. He decided to set up a support group for gay people, the equivalent of what in America they call a GSA, a Gay Straight Alliance. He first talked about it with his tutors and they were all very encouraging, and when he proposed it to the principal the only issue was that she felt the name sounded too provocative in Singapore, so they called it the Gay Straight Forum instead. So he was able to organise talks, raising consciousness about what it was like being gay, and he actually found members for his group among the school body, gay people and straight people too. So that was a big step for him in his development, and a very positive experience for him.

I’m volunteering right now with Action For AIDS, and I’ve always been a life member of AWARE. This year I’m involved in their campaign on HIV and women, which is a big issue, because it’s very easy for a woman to get infected and in fact two thirds of the women who tested positive in Singapore appear to have got it from their husbands. HIV is always a major concern as well for parents of gay sons, anyway, even though the heterosexual transmission rate is still higher in Singapore. I did talk to my sons, and they both assured me that they knew about protecting themselves, which is a relief of course, because there are so many people in Singapore who should know better but who still take risks anyway. En even manned the Action For AIDS information booth alone when he was a first-time volunteer, when the executive director had to take urgent leave because of his mother’s death. The director only told me about this two years ago at the AIDS candlelight memorial, and he said that En had done the job like a professional. I couldn’t stop myself from crying, I felt so proud.

Volunteering has definitely widened my circle of friends and acquaintances in Singapore. I think my social world was quite limited before I got involved, since I’m from Penang, and so aside from my contacts at work there were really just my husband’s family and married couple friends. Two years ago, I met Alex Au from www.yawningbread.com, at the book launch of “People Like Us: Sexual Minorities in Singapore”. I started talking to him, and I said how I thought we should have some kind of support system for parents and friends of gay people who come out. And then he started telling me stories about how some people, young people that he knew, had told their parents and literally gotten kicked out of the house and then had nowhere to live. So then we started talking about how we could maybe get friends and parents together as a group, to see what we could do in terms of supporting gay people and the people close to them. He gave me the contact of another mother of a gay child, but she was too busy at the time, and I was going through very emotional times with my breakup, so we couldn’t pursue it that much. But now I’m starting to talk with Reverend Yap Kim Hao, so maybe we can try and start something like the support group I would have wanted back when my sons first came out to me.

Right now, both my sons are abroad. We e-mail, I call once a week, and they both blog so I just check their blogsites – this is the modern version of how parents keep in touch with their kids’ lives. It’s so much better than when I was at Smith College in the US in the 70’s, and a letter would take a week to ten days to go back and forth. Shin Ming’s finished his Bachelors in Philosophy from Stanford, but now he’s decided to go to Hastings Law School in the University of California, something practical. He’s been working for a nonprofit over the summer, doing legal work in the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. En has finished his IB and has gone to Dartmouth; currently I think his major is going to be Gender Studies, since it’s what he’s interested in. I’ve talked to his boyfriends a couple of times, over the phone and via the Net, through yahoo messenger.

I’m not sure where the two of them will end up – it’s not just a case of their wants and desires but whether they can get a job, and the fact that they hold Malaysian passports. But as I’ve told them already, what I really wish for their future is that they become productive members of society, and that they’ll contribute in whatever way they can using their skills, to the best of their ability.

I still wonder about the future. There seems to be too much reactionary religious influence that’s accepted by the policy-makers when they come up with policies. I believe that if gay couples have a commitment to each other, why shouldn’t we celebrate their love? Why not let them set up a family? Ming loves children, and he’s very good with his younger cousins, it would be a shame if he didn’t have kids – but the laws here wouldn’t let him adopt a child. People say, “Oh, we’re a very conservative society, and therefore we cannot do this or that openly.” But have we gone out and actually done a proper survey? Have we walked down the streets and actually asked people, “Would you react differently if you found out that someone’s gay?” I don’t think that people would worry too much. Gay people are people, just like gay children are still your children.

I want every parent to know that it really does get easier. The more you read and think and talk about it, the more readily you can accept it. It helps so much to be open about it, to speak honestly, just as they were honest and trusting enough to tell you about themselves in the first place.

Why be afraid of them? They really are still the same children that you loved the day before they outed themselves. And we will always love our children. That day, the day after, and every day after that."

Source: SQ21 - Singapore Queers in the 21st Century. Reproduced with permission from Oogachaga (publisher) and Ng Yi-Sheng (author). For more information on SQ21, visit its blog at http://sq21faq.blogspot.com.


Coming Home
Clarence Singam is a counseling psychologist with Oogachaga, a charitable pro-people pro-family sexuality-affirming counseling and support group agency. This is an extract of an article he wrote on coming out.

"I still remember when Han and I first got together and moved in to a tiny apartment in Club Street. I had told mum that I was moving in with a friend and that the apartment was tiny. She asked me where he slept and I said that we shared a room. Some months later she decided to visit me. Mysteriously I started having severe gastric pains. It had not happened to me in a long time. I attributed it to work, which used to give me these pains which were so agonizing that only ulcer medication would work even though I had no stomach ulcers. So for four days as mum visited I was bent over in pain – literally. The visit itself was uneventful. She did not say anything about me sharing a bed with Han, being too worried about my state of health. However, less than an hour after she left, the pain just disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. That is how my coming home to mum began.

Where possible I don’t believe that coming out should begin by telling your parents you are gay. I believe we should come home first. When it concerns our family, our gayness is often not even in the closet – it just isn’t at home. So the coming out process to one’s family really should begin by coming home first.

The idea first struck me from a book called, “Tongzhi – Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies,” by Chou Wah-shan. The author asserted that, “In traditional Chinese (and I would add Indian and Malay) culture, an individual exists through and is defined by his or her relationship to others.”

It struck me that I had hidden my gayness from my family for over 20 years during which time I went through many struggles of my own to come to self affirmation. It seemed to me rather unfair then to just one day blurt out to them that I was gay – what more if it came out in the context of an argument. They wouldn’t have 20 years to work through the issues I had to work through. Also the fact was like anyone else I was scared – of disappointing mum and dad. I was scared that I would break their hearts and that they might reject me. Also I was keenly aware of the continuing pain that Han and his family experience over the conflict between his sexuality and their religious beliefs. I had heard at close range Han’s own heart rending experience of pretty much being thrown out when he came out at 18.

Not many people have the luxury of planning a coming out. Most of us try to avoid the thought completely. And for most of us it is a comfortable existence. But once in a while it just happens and we are caught off guard. For Han it was just forgetfully placing his diary open on this table. When confronted, to his credit he refused to lie.

I am not sure if I followed Wah-shan’s advice out of wisdom or cowardice but looking back I am glad I did. So instead of coming out I decided to come home first.

Establish Relationship

Wah-shan points out that coming home recognizes that our cultures are based on the primacy of relationships over the individual. So he suggests that coming out in the traditional Asian context involves firstly a building of guanxi (relationship). The purpose here is to build relationships between my biological family and my gay family.

After mum’s first visit, I began to invite gay friends over for dinner whenever she came. These were friends that I trusted and who took the time to speak to her, listen to her rattle and grumble about her pains and her difficult life, her stormy relationship with her husband. People who would tell her how young she looked despite her age and tried their best not to roll their eyes in disbelief when she told them how wonderful her son was but not to tell him she said that. Friends who would take the time to take her around if she needed to. It is a tribute to this bunch that mum still has a photo in her room of my friends Woo, Ho, Keong and Chan with Han and I having dinner with her. I still remember the occasion. Han and the rest were red from too much wine having laughing matches with mum. It is the only photo of a dinner gathering that I have ever seen her treasure. The point is, long before mum knew any of my friends were gay, she knew they were all human, spoke good Cantonese, would spend time listening to her and were all unmarried.

Reading this you are probably thinking that I have had a wonderful relationship with my parents. I probably do but it wasn’t always like that. I still have memories of mum thrashing me because she was so angry with dad’s infidelities but had no one to take her anger out on but me. Till today I sometimes struggle with a fear of being abandoned, because I am still haunted about her suicide threats because there were times in her life when things were just too difficult. Somewhere in my adult life, I had to come to terms with my parents’ own brokenness. I find our community constantly remembers PM Lee and SM Goh’s statement that gay people are just like you and me. But we forget that there is another side to that statement – that straight people are just like you and me. And I am thankful that at some stage in my life, I came to see that dad and mum really were just like you and me too. It is only from that point that we can build relationships."

Source: Coming Home - How I Loved My Mum (and maybe Dad) into My Life, by Clarence Singam. The full article was first published on Fridae.com. Republished with permission from the author and Fridae.com.

Clarence may be contacted at clarence[at]oogachaga.com.


Sunday, February 11, 2007
A Family Outing
The following is Alphonsus Lee's account of his experience attending the Safehaven Lunar New Year reunion dinner with his father.

The first thought that went through my mind as I saw my father cross both his arms and his legs while he sat at the table was that it was going to be a long night. His discomfort at being in the company of gay men and women was clearly evident. While I know him to be a rather chatty individual, he hardly spoke at all, which served to heighten my own discomfort and anxiety. Compounded with the responsibility of having to play host to a group of about thirty individuals, I could only down more wine in the hopes that it would calm my frayed nerves.

It was one week before Chinese New Year, and I was charged to organise a reunion dinner for Safehaven members and their family members. Safehaven is gay Christian support group which holds regular bible study sessions, and one of its resolutions this year was to encourage its members to come out to their family members so as to keep and deepen family relationships.

Rev Yap Kim Hao, the first Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church, kindly consented to attending with his wife and daughter, and saying a few words. And while it was relatively easy to book a room at the Teahouse Restaurant at China Square, it was much harder to convince members who were out to their families to bring them to dinner. You would think that a free a-la-carte buffet would entice quite a number of people, but the fear of what their family members might say is hard to overcome. In the end, we managed to round up seven brave souls and their non-gay family members.

My dad's first comments to me were "everyone is so badly dressed." For someone semi-formally attired in a long-sleeved shirt and pleated dress pants, I did not think that his fashion sense was particularly fantastic either. However, as I looked around, I saw a couple of guys decked out in gay men fashion of tight fitting t-shirts that looked two sizes too small which draw attention to the big pecs and bulging biceps. Perhaps my father simply cannot get used to why people must wear clothing that they might out-grow in a few months but the more likely answer is that gay men are always badly dressed – no matter what they wore.

Throughout dinner, I kept a close eye on my dad but I could not help but notice the other people around. There were two who brought their mothers and another three who had brought their siblings. But I have to take my hat off to one who had brought his ex-wife and daughter, who were seated at the same table with him and his significant other. If there were a role model for gay men around the world, it would be him. He had the courage to come out to his wife, and was able to gain acceptance for his homosexuality and his significant other. He was also wearing a tight fitting t-shirt.

If you think coming out to your parents is difficult, imagine what how many times more difficult it is to explain to your wife of several years that you are actually gay and that you're in love with another man.

We stuck to safe topics at our dinner table, such as how a mother was recovering from a fractured foot. The only time my father spoke at some length was to describe his work, another safe topic. Subjects like how he felt about his gay son and his feelings about coming to dinner were strictly taboo, and fortunately were not broached at the table.

Rev Yap's message was short yet poignant. He described his life and the hardships that he had to go through, such as surviving the Japanese occupation and as a parent bringing up his two sons and two daughters. Given that life is already so difficult as a heterosexual, he could only imagine how the difficulty is magnified for a parent of a gay individual.

At one point he said that whilst we are struggling to come out of the closet, our parents took over the places that we had vacated. I shared a laugh with the other parent at the table, and later someone explained: "When I first came out to my mother, she was very supportive of it. But she told me not to tell my cousins and relatives."

It was not until we were on our way home in the car that I managed to get some real feedback from my father. He had pretty strong views of us. He called us "lost," because in his mind, we did not know what we were doing. He described my role model's wife as "sad," perhaps because he did not see her smile that night. More likely, he believed that she was "sad" in his mind's eye, because he would feel that way himself if he were in her situation.

I told him that his views are judgmental because of his prejudices as a homophobe. He seems to think that, as gays and lesbians, we do not have a direction in life, that we are guided only by lust. How could he call someone "sad" if he did not know their situation, did not know them personally?

While I am saddened by his views, I am heartened by his quiet presence at the dinner. He had made an effort to show that he cares by attending the dinner and it is this show of love that continues to fuel my belief that one-day he will come to understand and be proud of his gay son. I told my dad that I wished he would make some effort to find out more about his son's life – about who his friends are, what makes him happy or sad, and who his significant other was; and that I would continue to love him as a father and friend no matter what his own views are.

The truth is that coming out to parents and family members is a difficult thing to do. Nobody ever said that is was going to be a walk in the park. Even more so in getting them to understand and appreciate a gay individual's life.

But in our lifetime, we will only have one father and one mother, and that term of endearment "kor" (elder brother in Chinese) or "zheh" (elder sister) will only sound genuine for our blood brothers and sisters. If we do not make an effort to reach out to them and help them to overcome whatever prejudices they have, then we have only ourselves to blame.

This story first appeared on Fridae.com in Jan 2004. Republished with permission from Alphonsus Lee and Fridae.com.