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, 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