The Power of a Straight Ally
What happens when we show up for each other with unconditional love?
Pink Dot joyfully champions the freedom to love anyone of our choosing. Today, we shine a spotlight on a different, but no less profound type of love – and celebrate the freedom to love each other fully, unconditionally, and mindfully, for all that we are. In this personal essay, a contributor who prefers to go by “Sailor Starboy” (for reasons of safety) explores the life-changing power of an ally, and the inestimable value of being loved.
Trigger warning: This article touches on issues of bullying and homophobia.
Not trying to be dramatic, but for a gay man like me who is not openly gay (this is a pen name), the question, “Are you gay?” is adversarial. As if readying for battle, I immediately hold my breath and tense every muscle. There is a split-second to decide if my next move is to take offense or play defense, all while my internal alarm is wailing, “MAINTAIN A NEUTRAL EXPRESSION – JUST TRY!”
I had been conditioned to respond this way since I was a young boy. I grew up identifying with icons such as April O’Neil, Jem (specifically her rock star persona), and Linka. On Saturday mornings, after remedial classes, I ran home to make it in time to shout along to, “Moon Crystal Power, Make Up!” on Channel 8. But no, late ‘80s/early ‘90s Singapore was not very kind to boys who act like girls.
Sure, my parents could write it off as me exploring my musical aptitude when I “performed” with a table-tennis paddle and 30cm ruler, emulating Vanessa-Mae. But as open and loving as my dad was, his “Are you gay?” when he caught me unawares gyrating to “Spice Up Your Life” was harsh and rejecting.
When bullies in my all-boys secondary school taunted “Are you gay?”, they laughed as I clumsily responded, “I know I am slightly feminine but… but… I’m not gay,” – still clueless as to how their question was rhetorical and only a prelude to more vicious forms of abuse.
Day in, day out, navigating a minefield of social and physical threats was exhausting. I envied other guys who effortlessly waved off questions regarding their sexuality and did not seem to have similar internal struggles as I did. Maybe it is because they were already the heterosexual norm, or they could “pass off” as that and so were considered “normal”. On the other hand, I was constantly policed by fear and isolation; worried that someone will threaten to expose a shameful secret that, at that time, even I could not fully articulate.
I learned that the question “Are you gay?” was never a real one. I learned that no one was genuinely concerned. It never prompted any serious introspection or safe exploration of my sexuality and/or gender expression. When I had no power, all I could hear was, “Are you normal? You better prove that you are normal.” How was I even expected to answer other people’s questions on my sexuality, when I hadn’t yet figured it out for myself?
Mostly as a means to survive, I adhered to certain rules and a hyper-vigilant modus operandi:
So imagine the whirlwind of mixed feelings I had when my younger sister asked me point blank – “So, kor, are you gay?”
The context was rather unique. For one, it was not face-to-face. We were miles apart. I was at a friend’s apartment in San Francisco, California, while my sister was at home in Singapore. We were coordinating schedules over MSN messenger (!) because I was flying back to Singapore the next day and my family was going to pick me up at Changi airport.
I was also in a very different state of mind at this point. I had just ended a six-month university student exchange programme, which involved many firsts for me. First try at being independent and away from my sheltered, mummy’s boy life in Singapore. First Queer Studies class. First queer-centric CCA, attending the school’s Asian Pacific-Islander Queers student organization. First opportunity to explore a queer identity in an environment saturated with queer-positivity, in-your-face openness, activism, and idealism – entirely different from the one I grew up in.
To say the least, it was eye-opening, almost overwhelming. It all culminated in celebration of sorts, when I participated in my first ever Pride event, the San Francisco Pride Weekend. Mind. Blown. My ensemble was themed “hot pink & purple sailor jailbait” (wherever did I get the inspiration? *wink*), which, trust me, looked tastier than it sounds. And I fit right in with the legion of people who were on the streets – rainbow-clad, exuberant, distractingly hot, and mostly naked. By the end of each night, I was filled to the brim with immense
lust joy and love. Cue soundtrack, “This Is Me”.
Even though they were strangers and I did not know their stories (but any one of them very likely more riveting than the story of Bran with the three eyes), I was drawn to a sense of solidarity with everyone, connected in our universal struggle to love who we want, and be loved as our unabashed selves, in defiance of haters. Maybe this was what spurred me on to take a risk and change my MSN messenger profile picture to one of me in my full sailor costume, make-up, and smile – which inadvertently opened the door to my sister’s question.
My sister is two years younger than me and we were very close as young children; our toys shared (Barbie’s) houses, we repurposed sarongs as play tents, and we spent hours scattering poker cards in front of our fan, then dramatically brandishing the ace of spades.
Fast-forward, we almost did not survive a tumultuous adolescence when we were separately searching for ourselves, only to regain our footing in young adulthood. Because we were still rebuilding a kinship, a lot of thoughts flooded my mind, as I wondered if I should be honest with her. Will I ruin everything? I further catastrophized, What if she told our parents? Would I lose their support as well? Will I have a home to stay in?
In this particular configuration of circumstance, state of mind, and faith in our relationship, I took one more risk. I don’t remember the exact words, for this was about a decade ago, but I remember the warm and fuzzy feeling as if it were yesterday. She quipped that she had suspected all this while, which is not uncommon to hear in many people’s coming out stories. What made my heart swell was when she declared that she would love me, no matter what my answer was. She was the first person who directly, in no confusing terms, expressed her willingness to love me unconditionally.
Those were words on a laptop screen, but I teared nonetheless.
This is the part where you would insert the life equivalent of a momentous makeover montage, because I had grown up thinking that I would always be alone in this, before I went to California on my own for a crash course on “how you can live your life differently!” and then came back to Singapore – ta-da! – bestowed with a bona fide partner-in-crime.
I was thankful that I no longer needed to manoeuvre potentially awkward family and social situations alone. Quick-thinking, charismatic, and resourceful, my sister was always very willing to use her gifts to help me. My parents are
still in denial generally adopt an oblivious approach towards my sexuality and associated rites of passages. Once in a while though, they throw curveballs; at a family dinner, my parents once questioned when I would get married and offered me this reassurance: “Don’t worry about the money for the house, can combine CPF with your wife!”
Adept at defusing awkwardness, my sister distracted with choice lines – “Kor is so busy with work, when does he even have the time to date?” To other patrons in the restaurant, I am sure we seemed like any other Singaporean nuclear family. But underneath the faces of composure and filial piety, my sister and I, with the dexterity of early millennials, were simultaneously engaged in a flurry of WhatsApp messages on our phones – an all-caps outburst of “OMG WHY IS THIS STILL EVEN A TOPIC?!” interspersed with about another 50 lines of emoji of the rolling eyes, river of tears, and projectile vomit varieties.
My sister and I can LOL at the numerous anecdotes about tip-toeing around our (relatively) conservative parents and extended family. But this atmosphere can suddenly turn somber when we think about other detractors that are not so well-meaning. No, an increase in the number of allies in my life did not correlate to a decrease in number of incidents of discrimination. Was Thanos’s army not even bigger the second time around? However, knowing that my sister has my back fortifies the belief that I can overcome the aftermath of interactions with those people who may want to put me down.
Just a few months ago, I was giving a presentation, when I overheard an audience member go, “This guy very sissy, hor.” I suspect he thought he was using his whisper-voice. But, as mentioned, persecuted people are sensitive and trained to detect threats, at any decibel. Suddenly, I was plunged into a flashback of my young self again, paralysed by the all-too familiar feelings of being self-conscious, belittled, and ashamed. I felt thrown off course and the presentation bombed. What was different this time was that after that ordeal, I had somebody I trusted whom I could talk to about those feelings. Having her there to listen and express her indignation at my story validated my experience.
In fact, I cannot describe to the full extent how freeing it is, knowing that I can talk to my sister authentically about anything. I think it is beyond just my gay identity no longer being in the shadows. I appreciate someone who can talk to me about my everyday experiences in context of, but not limited by, my gay identity. My sister has that kind of power that makes me feel seen, heard, and deeply understood. She is her constant self – analytical, humorous, and patient – be it when I complain about boyfriends or ask her about recommendations for exercise regimes. She has casually browsed the R-rated (read: tastefully so) coffee table magazines I’ve bought without even blinking an eye. But I have never seen her roll her eyes farther into her head than when I remarked that I was really getting into “that new ‘Starboy’ song” – about half a year after it was released.
You may notice an absence of overt straight-ally markers when it comes to my sister. She never identified or adopted the label. There are no rainbow overlays for social media profiles. Our conversations are not steeped in “woke” vernacular. I take heart that the ways of being an ally is proliferative.
I also find that being an ally is a two-way street. I am still learning how to be an ally to my sister, who experiences her own challenges with sexist attitudes and behaviours. Confession: I recognise how hypocritical it is of me to write about this, while there are still unfolded clothes on the sofa and dishes in the sink that our family just implicitly expects a girl to handle. Clearly, I need to put in more work to reciprocate. (I know you are reading this Mei Mei, I promise I will!) But if I may use this admission to illustrate a point – while one may not be a perfect ally, one can always learn and grow.
Over these years, it has become clear to me that the best way to learn about what I needed from an ally was to be one for others myself. This alliance my sister and I forged is an ongoing journey of nurturing safety, support, and trust for each other.
Outside of our sibling-verse, I also prioritise these values in the relationships I am building. It comes as no surprise as well that my sister is also a fierce ally to her friends. There are so many more stories of other types of allies untold. Isn’t it inspiring to envision what can flourish in safe spaces where people are accepted as who they are and do their best to lift each other up?
The significance and magnitude of those choices my sister and I made 11 years ago did not become apparent immediately. But when I suggested to my sister that I wanted to write this personal story about exploring my queer identity, with a spotlight on her, she eagerly offered, “Oh, oh, you can write about the time when you came out. Or was it when I outed you?” We had a good laugh about being on the same frequency because I had already proposed this exact story in my initial outline. But I don’t think it was coincidental that we converged to that moment.
In retrospect, my sister was the first person who gave me an opportunity to reframe the question “Are you gay?” in the context of a tender relationship. And with the right amount of time, she helped me peel away the earlier years of confusion and shame that had caked onto those words, at least long enough to realise that the question need not always mean rejection. Instead, my sister took a chance to express willingness to connect with me on an important yet vulnerable side of myself.
Having that experience was crucial for me to learn that I get to slow down and think about the meaning of the question “Are you gay?” and its many other iterations. (“Do you have a girlfriend?” comes to mind.) And to consider how I want to respond. Not every loud sound is a bomb going off. This was a new perspective for me to focus on genuine people who want to share a piece of my life, rather than the ones who, intentionally or otherwise, end up exploiting vulnerability.
So let’s Du-a Lipa, I am going to make some new rules:
When my sister and I were watching “Love, Simon”, and Jennifer Garner went:
“These last few years, more and more, it’s almost like I can feel you holding your breath […] Being gay is your thing. There are parts of it you have to go through alone. […] You get to exhale now, Simon. You get to be more you than you’ve been in a very long time.”
I knew that scene resonated with both of us (along with everyone else in the cinema), even if in different ways, because we walked this path together.
Since my coming out to her, my sister committed to showing up every day and taking small steps to stand by me. Her choices help make home, and the world, feel a little safer for me. Without her, I think I would not have started healing from past trauma and learning to tune in to more compassionate messages about life: I am worthy, I am loved, and I am safe.
Let me end off with a few more words dedicated to my sister.
Dearest Mei Mei,
We didn’t need to take a DNA test, but turns out we’re 100% that B… est Sibling Friends Forever. I tell you every day, in words or actions, how much I love you. This is another one of those times. I appreciate how much you love me too. Let me go fold some clothes and wash the dishes now.
As you can tell, these were but snippets of our lives, because I fast-forwarded the Frodo and Sam parts. (In-joke!) I don’t think it would downplay your legacy; your words and actions matter and they changed my life. We know what happened behind the scenes. Hopefully, there will come a time when it feels safer in Singapore and we can share these stories openly with our own names. Until then, this will do.
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.