The Power of Outness
Becca D'Bus reminds us that "It is by being out that we create the world we want."
‘Tis the season of Pink Dot. But after the photos have been taken, the ICs been checked, and the body glitter falls to the ground, what comes next? Contributing writer Becca D’Bus reminds us how we even got to the conversation about “living authentically”, and that visibility, activism and support should be a year-long cause.
Once again (actually for the 11th time), Pink Dot is coming around – a time when people in Singapore (now only Singaporeans and PRs) go to a park in the middle of the city to stand and be counted as people who support the “Freedom to Love”, whatever that means. In the days leading up to it, you can expect all kinds of programming created by queer folk. (But not the same queer folk who organise Pink Dot! No, definitely not.) This environment gives corporations a visible opportunity to support the good-for-business “Freedom to Love”, but conveniently, it also never gets as far as to speak about policy change.
The day after Pink Dot, various mostly straight people will go to, err, not brunch, dressed in white in support of… who the hell cares? Purity? Looking like the ruling party? Looking like semen?
And then Monday comes around, and everybody goes to work. The grind continues. Try not to get in its way.
A few months down the line, Section 377A of the penal code, the colonial holdover law that criminalises sex between men, still stands. Perhaps it will not be enforced, but most certainly it negatively impacts policy making in areas as diverse as media and censorship, education, healthcare, adoption, employment, housing and more. The whole effort quiets down again, just to repeat itself in 11 months’ time.
It’s almost as if queer folk don’t exist in the public consciousness for the other months of the year. It feels like any other time of year, there’s no critical mass of allies, except when there is some kind of news event – say India repeals their version of the law, or Taiwan legalises marriage equality – then we go through this again. Queers and their allies speak up. Anti-gay people work themselves up into some kind of online orgy of vitriol and hate. Meanwhile, let’s face it, young people are still wondering if there is a viable way for them to become fully formed adults, trans people still face violence, and I still can’t eat late night dim sum without being accosted by idiotic kids. (For context, see here.)
Here’s the thing, I don’t stop being queer after I pose for that Pam Oei-directed, pink-lit, group photo, and then go to some after-party. (And if you want to know which one, it’s this. Come!) And neither does any other queer person, actually. One of the side effects of whipping up energy is that there is a necessary lull after. It happens on the dance floor of any club, it happens in real life. We work up to a frenzy with Pink Dot, then we must slow down.
But life and activism must necessarily carry on. How?
“There really were people who were completely their full selves… It showed me nothing less than the idea that my life would be possible.”
When I returned to Singapore from living in Boston for almost 10 years in 2011, it was important to me to ensure that I would commit to making Singapore work for me, to sink some roots, and do my thing. And one of the things I resolved to do, as part of that, was to connect with the people who impacted my life positively, especially the ones I thought would have had no idea, and thank them for doing that.
A bunch of these people work in theatre, which, with all its artifice, was also a space where as a teenager I found art that was influential on my life as a performer. But more than that – people whose very existence were proof that I could, one day, not just live my life, but actually thrive.
It was in the foyers of theatres, just outside the stage doors, and later, as an intern, in the offices and dressing rooms of companies like TheatreWorks where I saw that men could be effeminate, and smart, and loving, and brave, and strong, and hurt, and powerful. It was there that I saw that there really were people who were completely their full selves – creating worlds on stage, for sure – but more than that, creating their own world outside the theatre. It showed me nothing less than the idea that my life would be possible.
The former Managing Director of TheatreWorks, Tay Tong, went from being a friendly boss and mentor, to an actual friend as I grew into adulthood. He was one of the first people I thanked in 2011, and also one of the first people I told when I decided I would pursue drag as my primary career. He once said to me, months later, that he worried that he was part of the reason I made that choice, and that he was somewhat responsible for me taking this kind of risk.
Well, the truth is he was, in part. And thank the heavens. I have never been happier, and I feel like I am fully being myself, every day. And I know that there are younger performers who, like me, don’t necessarily fit into the other ways drag is performed in Singapore. And through my work, they now see that their creative choices are possible, and their expressions can be celebrated.
It’s not without its downsides, of course. I don’t necessarily feel safe going to work in drag on the trains. I know that my non-gender-conforming presentation out of drag causes a lot of people to do at least a double take, if not straight up point, stare, or in other ways engage with me uninvited. Those are realities for sure.
But I am comfortable in my skin, and let’s face it, the oddness of my appearance makes it so that the norm in these spaces gets shifted, just a bit. And dammit, the ventilation afforded by wearing caftans with no pants in Singaporean heat? That there are people out there with moist scrotums who will never experience this relief is the very definition of toxic masculinity.
“Being out, we become more fearless, and powerful.”
One of the most frequent themes of gay activism is the idea of coming out. The narrative of which usually looks something like coming to terms with your sexuality or gender, then telling people around you about it, maybe in stages, maybe all at once. And then when you’re out, people around you will see that lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer/asexual people are not that scary, and underneath it all, just like the rest of “us”!
I’ve never bought this idea. For so many reasons. The activist in me will point out that it is simply not safe for every queer person to come out.
But really, I roundly reject the idea that, when you strip away the most superficial layers, queers and non-queer people are all the same. The most antagonistic version of myself will say that we’re not alike because queers are: sexier, more beautiful, more creative, more resilient and just plain better than folks who are not. I do actually believe that. But more than that, I also refuse to believe that people – queer or not – are all the same. That idea is demonstrably false – the AWARE saga showed us that some people are just rotted inside.
Current culture bears this out. We are told in contemporary (mostly Western-oriented) culture that there is value in being yourself. In fact, it is offered ad nauseam as the magic pill to all kinds of socially awkward situations. See a hottie in a bar and want to chat them up? Go over and just be yourself. Trying to ace that job interview? Definitely watch your etiquette, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. Wondering how to make small talk at cocktail parties? Talk about the weather, of course, but just be yourself. And this list goes on and on.
We now see that the best employers are the ones who not only encourage, but provide for employees to bring their fullest selves to the workplace. These strategies might include flexible work hours, working from home, offering nursing rooms in offices, offering childcare close to the office, happy hours, affinity groups, and so on. Part of that thinking is, of course, that by offering these measures, companies attract and retain the best minds, but also that staff are able to not be distracted by the burden of hiding their lives.
People call this “being your full self” or “being authentic”. Some others might describe this as measures for diversity.
Queer folk have always done this.
We call it being out.
We recognise that being out isn’t just a weight off our shoulders, we know that with being out, we become more fearless, and powerful. It is by being out that we create the world we want for ourselves and those around us.
“The outness of these sissies showed me that I could thrive.”
I am lucky to have supportive family; they love me, they engage with my art, my life, my friends, and they’ve gone as far as to call out their friends who have expressed less-than-kind views of queer folk… and then brought them to watch RIOT!, my drag revue. But none of them could possibly do for me what those theatre sissies did. The outness of those sissies showed me that I could thrive.
This is not an indiscriminate call for more queer people to come out. Do it when it is safe, when it will not compromise food in your stomach and a roof over your head – fully acknowledging here that Singaporeans seem to move out of their parents’ homes relatively late in life. I would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that Singapore is, plainly, not equal and queer people are institutionally and systematically oppressed.
No, this is a call for us all to acknowledge that there are people who are creating their world in Singapore by living their lives authentically. Many of them are queer, many of them are not, but they are giving full expression to their passions, identities, and otherness. They are all living in outness.
They will show the way and create a culture that celebrates difference – not as a beautiful thing to embrace and buy, but as a powerful force of creation.
Becca D’Bus is Singapore’s biggest drag queen. Maybe she’s just been described as “outsized, outspoken and generally out there”; regardless, she’s definitely an outie. Go see her for real at her RIOT! drag revue, The Glory Hoes, and weekly at Lulu’s Lounge.
JUNK supports the multifarious, diverse voices of Southeast Asia. Have a point-of-view you’d like to share? Email us at [email protected] for collabs.