“The longer I stay, the less like myself I feel”
What do we lose when we don't make space for same-sex relationships?
Being in a same-sex relationship in Singapore is to live in a state of constant resignation of the things you will never have. And if you refuse to be resigned, there is often only one choice – to leave. In this personal essay, contributor Ade Yeo explores leaving her home country for love, and why it cost too much to stay.
I’ve just told my family that I’m engaged. This might not seem like such a big deal, except that I’m a woman, getting married to a woman. I’m Singaporean, she’s Polish. We met in London and have been living together in Singapore for the past two years. Earlier this year, we made the decision to move back to London for good.
It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, despite knowing when we came back that our stay in Singapore wouldn’t be a permanent one. I returned to the place of my birth hoping that we’d feel as at home here as we did in London; that the bonds of family and community would be strong enough for us to try to put some roots down. After living abroad for seven years, I was yearning to speak Singlish at work, to have char bee hoon for breakfast and to be part of a culture I could identify with.
Saying goodbye now is hard. What makes it harder is knowing that the lives of the people you leave behind will never again intertwine this closely with yours. Knowing that, even as you say goodbye, you can’t be sure when you’ll see each other again.
But as hard as saying goodbye is, the truth is I have never felt more un-Singaporean than in my past two years at home.
Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with people about what it means to return to your home country and find out that you’ve outgrown the identity you once had, or rather, the one you were allowed to have. To return and find out that you miss the snug self-assurance of knowing your place in society, which you’d only discovered once you’d lived on other shores.
And then there are the other conversations – the ones that strike a deeper chord about identity, sexuality, and the experience of having privilege but no civil rights in Singapore. The ones that knock you out of yourself and show you – in ways big and small – how you won’t belong. These are some of them.
“Why don’t you want to settle down in Singapore?”
– Mom, doctors, bank clerks, and almost every person whom I’ve had to notify of my choice to move away.
I would love to. The Singaporean dream of owning a flat, a car and a steady job is immensely appealing. I see my friends and colleagues settle snugly into their newly renovated flats, push out babies, and build their lives one year at a time. Compared to moving across the world to political and economic instability (thanks, Brexit), rising costs of living and the danger of being mugged at almost every street corner, life in Singapore seems like a utopia.
But that’s what it is – a utopia – where if you do not fit into the prescribed roles that society wants you to play, the odds are never in your favour. Unlike my friends and colleagues, my fiancée and I will never be considered wife and wife. We will never be able to BTO and ROM. Yes, we’re engaged; I’ve just gotten used to calling her my fiancée instead of girlfriend. But I’ll have to mark my marital status as “Single” on government forms for as long as I live.
Despite some ups and downs, my family have been very accepting of my sexuality and the various partners I’ve brought home for family dinner. My mom, in particular, has been trying to get us to stay in Singapore since we arrived two years ago. If we were happy living in a bubble of like-minded friends, skirting around the law so that we could give each other the same rights as married couples, able to buy a resale flat or condo instead of using the subsidies that most young couples take for granted, then we’d stay.
But is it selfish of me to deeply feel that I deserve more than that? To feel innately Singaporean, yet excluded from most of the rites of passages that are intrinsic to a Singaporean identity, eats away at me and my self-worth. I don’t want to settle down in Singapore because the longer I stay, the less like myself I feel.
“I don’t think you should use the word gay, because that means that you’re happy.”
– Grab Driver
As a femme-presenting lesbian, I pass under the radar in almost every social situation. On one hand, it allows me to choose how I want to present myself based on the context and environment. On the other, I am invisible. Every new interaction I have has to be carefully weighed based on how much of myself I am willing to reveal, how receptive the other person seems to be, and how much fight I have left.
So I easily pass as straight, but come out to strangers every single day. In all types of normal, everyday conversations, even those about furniture or groceries. Because the feeling of inauthenticity when I let something slide is worse than the tension of correcting a stranger. It’s like hearing someone pronounce your name wrongly and being too polite to correct them. And if you listen to the wrong name for long enough, you start to question whether your name is really what you say it is. Which is ridiculous, because it’s your name. It’s my identity.
This was one of the more difficult conversations I’ve had. I had just moved back home, and my Grab driver was asking if my husband had also moved to Singapore with me. Throughout the conversation I had been using the noncommittal term “partner” with the female pronoun while the driver kept correcting it to “husband” with the male pronoun, and I had had enough.
I replied, “I’m gay. My girlfriend moved to Singapore with me.”
After a brief silence, he said, “I don’t think you should use the word gay, because that means that you’re happy.”
His comment hurt and confused me. I resisted conflicting urges to retreat into sullen, awkward silence or to lash out at a stranger who also happened to be in charge of my safety. The self-righteousness and self-assuredness in his voice made up for the complete lack of sense that was that statement, and shock silenced me for a minute.
“Gay” used to mean “joyful”, “carefree”, “bright and showy” – which later on became associated with being “uninhibited by moral constraints”, leading to homosexual men adopting the descriptor before it became an umbrella term to describe anyone attracted to the same sex. What the driver didn’t realise was that with its etymological history, the word gay has a unique connotation of “joyful immorality”, which is the only state of being that makes any sense for a LGBTQ+ person living in Singapore – you’re already branded as being immoral, so you might as well make the most joy from what you can get in life.
“How do you know I’m not happy? I am very happy.”
“Do people stare?”
– A new friend
Yes, because we’re amazing and they’re salty. But also because we lived in the heartlands of Singapore and were the only interracial lesbian couple in the neighbourhood. We got used to it, and actually we’re still not sure if the stares are because we’re an interracial couple, or a same-sex one. What we never did was let go of each other’s hands, or stop ourselves from being close just because an auntie is giving us the side-eye.
It takes courage to hold on to someone’s hand in the face of disapproval. But I’m a naturally confrontational person – a trait which has gotten me into trouble a few times, but has also given me the ability to live my life openly, confidently and without apologies.
So people sometimes stare. And we hold hands. We hold hands with each other in the hope that if other members of the LGBTQ+ community sees us, it would give them a little bit more affirmation and courage to push through their day. Visibility is an integral part of progress. The more people like us are seen as a normal part of society, the less people will feel that we are freaks undeserving of love.
Once, when my Mom expressed her discomfort at people staring at my fiancée and I as we held hands, my Grandma told her, “You only feel like this because you keep noticing other people staring. If you don’t bother about them, you won’t feel so uncomfortable.” It’s up to you how much you let the world get to you. When you feel like you should let go, hold on tighter.
“I get it that she’s gay, but why does she have to be so vocal about it?”
– Acquaintance to a friend, after our one and only meeting
I wish I had the chance, or the courage back then, to speak with this person again. This is what I would have said.
“I’m sorry you felt uncomfortable with our conversation, although truth be told my only recollection of you is your first name and what you said about me. Even though we never really got to know each other, your words stuck in the corners of my mind like a spider’s web. Catching my words every time I wanted to disagree, or make myself heard. Wrapping up my objections in invisible silk. And transforming them into silent acquiescence.
I would always think, ‘R said that I am too much, too vocal,’ and then shut up whenever I got the urge to contradict someone’s opinion. I guess this is how, over time, some people are conditioned to have no voice at all.
And although you probably never gave this comment a second thought, my discomfort simmered away for years. What bothered me the most was not what you said, but the fact that you chose to say it to our friend instead. Maybe you thought she knew me better, or maybe you just didn’t think she’d tell me about it. And what did she say then? Did she tell you that my voice is my only form of visibility? Or did she silently agree?”
That wasn’t the first or the last time someone told me, indirectly or otherwise, to shut up and fall in line.
With no political power, the only way I am able to make an impact is to be completely unapologetic about who I am. It’s easy to stay silent and pass under the radar, to accept life as it is and people as they are, and get by. As young girls this is what we’re taught, anyway – to not be too loud, to not fight back, to master other weapons. Let the boys run wild. Girls stay indoors and play quietly. But I never wanted to sit still, nor will I shut up.
“But this 377a law is not enforced, so what’s the big deal?”
– Childhood friend
After much campaigning by activists on both sides of the fence, Singapore has come to an “uneasy compromise” with Section 377a. The law doesn’t seem like it will be repealed anytime soon, nor will it be enforced by the government. It’s a stalemate, a stand-off.
A fun fact I like to tell people when talking about Section 377a is that it only applies to homosexual men because when the law was written, Queen Victoria didn’t believe that lesbians existed. How could two women, having no compatible organs with which to conduct sexual intercourse, be having sex? The very idea of it was absurd. And despite the generations of men who were persecuted and tortured because of this piece of legislation, despite campaigning actively for the repeal of it in Singapore, I also can’t help but feel a little bit left out.
To not exist at all – in the eyes of the law or as part of society – is a life in limbo. We watch our friends grow into girlfriends, wives, mothers. Yet, we are forever ladies-in-waiting. Waiting for our chance to do the same but knowing that our lives and loves dwell in the shadows, that anyone can swoop in and take everything away with a signature on a marriage certificate. We wait till we’re middle-aged to start journeys that most begin in their twenties, that process of choosing, balloting, waiting and then collecting the keys to a home. But a 2-bedroom for one on the Single’s Scheme isn’t the same as a love nest for two. They’re not usually even in the same neighbourhood.
We cuddle nephews and nieces, watching them grow, while without legal IVF or adoption rights our own chances are flushed away in a sea of red each month. It’s alright, they don’t want people like us to be parents anyway. They let us live our lives, they don’t slander or imprison us. And that’s not too bad, is it?
The invisible net that is Section 377a might seem flimsy and insubstantial but it is still there. We feel it brush against our skin when we hear of raids in nightclubs, or of the release of confidential medical information. It sends a chill down our spine, then it’s gone and the party carries on. What is truly insidious about this law is not the fact that it is archaic and unconstitutional, but that it gives both sides the false assurance the each party will stay behind that line drawn with a stick across the sand. It is a glass ceiling on how “normal” our lives can be.
“This one is prettier than the last one.”
It was our first week back in Singapore and my fiancée’s first time in Asia. This was also the first time she would be meeting the entire extended family in person, taste Grandma’s cooking, and be truly immersed in the loud and exuberant chaos that is Saturday dinner at Grandma’s.
My Grandma and I have always been close. She would babysit me after kindergarten while my parents had full-time jobs, and after I got older she’d still come by twice a week with our favourite foods and family gossip. She’d be my defender against angry parents, even though I was usually deserving of whatever punishment was coming, and after my tears had dried she’d sit down with me and teach me more about life than the cane ever could. I never hid anything from her, and even came out to her way before I had the courage to tell my mom.
Most of my family’s liberal thinking comes from my Grandma. I realise how rare this is in a conservative Asian society, but she has always been of the mindset that being happy, and a good person, is all that matters. She never forgets a birthday, shows her love through food, and has been a guiding light by which I try to live my life.
Over the years, Grandma has met every single partner whom I’ve had a serious relationship with. With her, I never questioned myself. After I explained to her that this was who I am, she never pressured me to date boys or judged my partners based on their gender. Her only criteria for good girlfriends were if they were kind, if they liked her cooking, and whether they treated me well. So when I met my fiancée and knew that she’d be someone special, I immediately got Grandma on the phone.
“As long as you’re happy, I’m happy. We’ll have steamboat when you’re back, ok?”
So there we were, about to step through the door for our first steamboat dinner at Grandma’s as a couple. The door opened to a cacophony of noise – children running around and adults yelling at them, a large table being rolled to the middle of the room, dishes emerging from the kitchen one after another until there was hardly any room on the dining tables for the chopsticks. We stepped in. Grandma walked out of the kitchen, leaning on chairs for support, and I ran to hug her.
“Mama, this is Maja.”
“Ni hao, Auntie”
Grandma took her hand, “HELLO! Come, eat.” Then she turned back to me and said in Chinese, loud enough for the entire room to hear, “This one is prettier than the last one! Can she eat chilli?”
If my 88-year-old Grandma is able to love all of her children and grandchildren for who they are, then why is it a struggle for others to accept that people don’t have to subscribe to societal norms to be normal, and to be happy?
I recognise my own privilege of being born to a liberal-minded family, and to have the opportunity to move elsewhere and build a different life for myself. Some of us are struggling with much more complex problems, making the thought of living as openly LGBTQ+ seem impossible. Hopefully soon – whether it’s by being activists in our own ways, by never letting go of our partners’ hands, or simply by never letting strangers tell us who we are supposed to be – people like us will finally be able to feel truly at home in Singapore.
First-Person is a narrative column by JUNK, exploring the real lives and perspectives of people in (or influenced by) Southeast Asia. Have a first-person story to share? Email us at [email protected] for collabs.