Meet 58-year old Singaporean Roy Tan; the unofficial historian of Singapore’s LGBT community.
Older than Singapore herself, Roy has personally lived through Singapore’s LGBT history in its entirety. From the birth of Singapore’s first gay disco in an obscure seafood restaurant in the early 1970s to the police entrapment and caning of gay cruisers in the early 1990s, Roy has lived through it all. And he has taken it upon himself to ensure that these salient events do not fade into obscurity.
I realised that if clippings were compiled instead of just being read and forgotten, they would form a very helpful ongoing narrative of our culture and history.
The gay community would no longer be a faceless entity and could discern the trends that were shaping it.
For over a decade, Roy has been relentlessly documenting Singapore’s LGBT history on virtual platforms such as the Singapore LGBT encyclopaedia hosted on Wikia and YouTube. But while Roy works hard to keep Singapore’s LGBT history alive, not much is known about the historian himself… until now.
Roy has very kindly agreed to share his story with us, and in turn, grant us a rare insight into a time when the gay community was actively persecuted and gay apps haven’t yet been invented.
Roy was just 5-years old when he first experienced same-sex attraction.
Trips to the swimming pool were a frequent family affair. And it was there that Roy had his first brush with homosexuality.
I would stare in fascination at the men walking around in the changing room, especially at their bushy pubes and large genitalia – appendages which I noticed I lacked as a child.
His attraction to the same gender grew stronger with age. By the time he started primary school, Roy was already busy experimenting with his male classmates.
When I attended school from Primary 1 onwards, I always had a best friend in class which I would become strongly attracted to.
We would proceed to explore each other’s bodies when the occasion was appropriate in a very innocent way, mainly out of curiosity. I had no inkling at the time that it was a sexual interaction
Despite the fact that Roy grew up at a time when gay apps haven’t yet permeated the gay scene, Roy was never short of company.
His peculiar trend of engaging in carnal activities with his best friend at each stage of his life was something that would continue right up through to his Army days.
As I progressed from primary to secondary school and then pre-university and National Service, my best friend would change but the intensity of the relationship and the love I felt was the same with each new, unique person.
The main problem about my relationships with my best friends was that even though we shared carnal pleasure, none of them identified as gay and they all got married to women later on in life.
Due to peer pressure, Roy too got himself a girlfriend while serving National Service. Although they would kiss every now and then, their ‘relationship’ was never much of a relationship.
She was rather envious of my best friend and would wonder why we spent so much time together.
She used to ask, “Why do you always listen to him?” I didn’t have the heart to reply, “Because I love him more than you“
Despite his attempt to appear straight, his homosexual activities however, did not escape the notice of his parents.
Born to a Buddhist family, his parents believed in the typical Chinese syncretism of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. Thus, homosexuality was never considered a sin in the household and Roy was free from the religion induced guilt that haunts many other gay youths.
During his twenties and thirties, Roy would often bring men back to his home to spend an intimate night with. Although his parents were well aware of what their son was doing behind closed doors, they never showed much of a reaction.
On one occasion when I brought a boy home for the night and was going down on him in my bedroom, my father peeped through the keyhole to see what we were up to.
When I suddenly opened the door to go to the toilet, my father quickly stood up sheepishly from his crouched, spying position and walked away.
Amazingly, neither of his parents made any mention of the incident the morning after. And they continued to be polite to every other boy that Roy ever brought home.
They did, however, expect me to get married to a woman and produce children.
Their wish never came true, and Roy found himself getting deeper and deeper into the gay community.
Roy stumbled into his first relationship while cruising at Hong Lim Park during the late 1970s. What was supposed to be a one-night stand unintentionally materialised into his first real relationship.
As his then boyfriend was very much a part of the gay scene, he became Roy’s window into the gay community. And Roy wasted no time in exploring the various secret gay social spaces hidden from public scrutiny.
The venue that struck me the most was Marmota disco. When I first stepped though the entrance, I was overwhelmed at the site of over a hundred homosexual men gyrating energetically on the crowded dance floor.
I almost fell to my knees and cried. My fears of being alone and not finding another gay person to spend my life with dissipated immediately. It was the first time I felt a sense of community.
During the next few months, Roy became a permanent fixture in the gay scene, and eventually drifted away from all of his heterosexual friends. But it was only during the mid 1990s that Roy made his foray into the activist community…
The birth of the internet corresponded with the birth of Singapore’s activist community. When pioneering activist Alex Au launched a gay news list (SiGNeL) in an effort to spark a dialogue on LGBT related issues, Roy became one of the forum’s most active contributors.
But it wasn’t till 2004 that Roy finally decide to step up to engage in some real-life activism. He attended a talk by Alex Au, and soon became a prominent figure in the activist scene.
In 2008, Roy took the initiative in attempting to hold Singapore’s first gay pride parade at Hong Lim Park. Due to a lack of support, the gay parade that Roy had hoped for did not pan out as expect. But his efforts eventually became the foundation on which Pink Dot was built.
Then in 2010, when the public was allowed to participate in Chingay, Roy and a friend made history by forming Chingay’s first gay contingent. Along with his friend who was dressed in nothing but a pair of skimpy shorts, pink wings and a feather tiara, Roy marched proudly with the other contingents while waving a rainbow flag,
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was in the audience of 25,000 people and he was shocked when he saw the two of us. The compere also drew the audience’s attention to our march.
Unfortunately, probably out of fear that there would be an even bigger gay contingent the following year, the People’s Association henceforth disallowed the public from marching.
But even before Roy became a full-fledged activist, he was already busy collecting every piece of LGBT related media he could get his hands on.
A natural hoarder, Roy had been an avid follower of LGBT related news ever since he was a teenager. His hoarding tendencies drove him to amass a huge collection of LGBT related media, which he eventually uploaded onto online platforms.
Seeing my collection of articles and videos grow gave me a great sense of progress and spurred me on to keep at it.
Roy’s fascination with Singapore’s LGBT history pretty much makes him a walking encyclopedia. He’s able to recall significant events with astounding clarity and one of the most memorable incidents that he related to me was Josef Ng’s performance art piece at Parkway Parade in 1994.
Ng he pulled down his briefs, snipped off his public hair and whipped bags of red dye on slabs of tofu to protest the police entrapment, imprisonment and caning of gay cruisers at Fort Road beach.
Even though Ng’s act infuriated the government and resulted in the banning of performance art in Singapore for a decade, it did highlight the issue in a very dramatic way and police entrapment using handsome decoys eventually stopped.
But collecting news clippings is not his only hobby.
An aspiring artist, Roy hopes to become an accomplished 3D artist one day.
A semi-retired General Practitioner, his ultimate goal is to ‘work with the community to achieve 100% LGBT equality in all aspects of life’.
Roy has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to answer our Q&A so read on to find out more about his story!
1. How was your first coming out experience like?
I did not proclaim to my family “I’m gay” but via my actions and relationships, there could have been no doubt in their minds that I was.
As such, I get the impression that “coming out” is more of a Western concept than an Asian one as most of my gay friends similarly have never uttered the same declaration to their parents. Their families matter-of-factly and tacitly accept their same-sex relationships without anyone having to preliminarily announce and attach a label to their sexuality.
2. How was it like for you growing up as a gay person in Singapore?
I rarely felt lonely as a child and a teenager because of my intense relationship at every stage of school with my best friend, who was always also my classmate.
As I transitioned into adulthood in the late 1970s, I began to feel isolated as my then best friend became less comfortable about our gay relationship and pulled away. Without the Internet, I did not know where to look for other homosexual men.
It was fortuitous that I chanced upon a Straits Times article one day which reported on the police investigation of public complaints about young boys holding hands at night at Hong Lim Park. My gaydar perked up instantly and I headed there to take a look.
When I arrived, I saw dozens of men, many of whom were young and handsome, walking around the periphery of the park on the footpaths. Hong Lim Park became my favourite haunt over the next few months.
3. How did your family respond to your sexuality?
I very often brought men home to spend the night with. If my parents happened to be in, I would introduce the person I was with to them. My parents were unfailingly polite and welcoming. They never ever asked me questions like “Where did you meet him?”, “What does he do for a living?” or “What is your relationship with him?”
However, till her dying day, my mother never relinquished the hope of seeing me get married to a woman and begetting her grandchildren, even as she was accepting of my homosexuality.
4. How and why did you get into Singapore’s activist scene?
Prior to the mid-2000s, I was content just to be an armchair activist. In fact, I never joined the sporadic SiGNeL social gatherings organised by PLU members like Miak Siew and Kelvin Wong.
I suppose I was thought to be more of an activist after I registered to hold Singapore’s first gay pride parade at Hong Lim Park in 2008.Soon after, I was also invited to deliver Singapore’s first outdoor LGBT speech at Hong Lim Park.
5. What motivated you to start documenting Singapore’s LGBT history?
Unlike race, language and religion, our demographic is not reflected in national census data and it is very difficult to tell, just going by appearances, exactly who is LGBT or what percentage of the population we constitute.
To have our needs and aspirations adequately met by the government and by society, we have to come out and be more visible. A community needs to have a credible historiography to record its progress and setbacks or else we will forever remain invisible and sidelined.
I also have hoarding tendencies so my hobby was eminently in line with my quirks.
6. What were some of the challenges that you faced in trying to keep Singapore’s LGBT history alive?
The main challenge in documenting news and video reports is copyright violation. News agencies obviously want their articles to be paid for and not disseminated freely… So far, I have not encountered any problems and I note that bloggers continue to indulge in the practice. In any case, most of the articles get taken offline after a certain period so if I do not save them, the information would be lost forever and that would be to nobody’s advantage.
Another challenge is to be consistent in archiving and not to miss important articles. This becomes an issue when I take a long holiday. I am sure technology will come up with bots in the future to relieve the burden of having to archive relevant news articles manually.
Websites being taken down, hard disk crashes or natural disasters are other factors that can destroy the information I have collected so it is imperative that the records are backed up in more than one location.
7. What’s something surprising about Singapore’s LGBT history that millennials today would be shocked at?
Prior to the early 1970s, men were not allowed to dance with other men, even in gay bars! That is why Singapore’s first gay “disco” was located way in the outskirts of town, in the unlikely venue of a seafood restaurant at Punggol Point.
Before 1999, there was no gay sauna in Singapore. The first local gay sauna was Spartacus, located at 69 (the unit number may be humorous but not intentionally chosen) South Bridge Road. Initially, owing to police harassment, its proprietor, Max Lim, had to put up signs saying “No obscene acts allowed”. Patrons would obviously ignore the sign and do what they liked surreptitiously but after the police visits became more infrequent, the signs were taken down.
8. Having lived through Singapore’s LGBT history, what are your thoughts on the local gay rights movement?
The LGBT equality movement continues to gather momentum. There are more activists now than at any other point in Singapore’s history and their number will relentlessly increase – Singaporeans’ level of education keeps rising and more people are willing to come out and be vocal about the unfairness we face.
Nevertheless, each activist has his or her own idea regarding how best to lobby for change. Different strategies work in different situations so no one approach fits all. In my opinion, if you feel that your trajectory is correct, pursue it wholeheartedly regardless of what other activists advise.
Sometimes, even without lobbying by activists, the government decides on its own accord to make Singapore more gay-friendly. This was eminently exemplified during the Asian financial crisis which stretched from 1998 to the mid-2000s.
That is why I am one of the few activists that favour the Pink Dollar and economic approach to agitating for LGBT equality. Economic growth is the raison d’etre of the PAP. The citizenry are willing to put up with stifling laws and regulations only if they are sweetened by economic wellbeing. So it is imperative for the incumbents to keep the economy humming, and one way of doing this is to make Singapore more gay-friendly.
9. What advice do you have for gay youths living in Singapore today?
Be optimistic about the future of LGBT equality in Singapore, even though the status quo may seem quite depressing.
Gay marriage has been legalised in numerous countries in the West. Once an Asian counterpart like Taiwan follows suit, it will trigger a chain reaction and the dominoes will fall. If Singapore wants to retain and attract gay talent, she has no choice but to make her society more LGBT-friendly.
Live your life authentically as a gay person. If being your true self can change even one person’s opinion about LGBT people for the better, your contribution to the community is as significant as that of any prominent activist.
10. What do you think is the biggest misconception straight people have about the gay community?
The negative misconceptions are that the gay people are promiscuous and lust after everyone of the same gender, cannot contribute to the future economy which requires more children to be produced and harbour a sinister agenda to convert everyone in society into a homosexual. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We contribute to the economy and are one of its most innovative segments. We take care of our parents and relatives. We yearn to have stable, long-term relationships with loved ones who typify the characteristics we admire, not just any Tom, Dick and Harry. Many of us want to start our own families via adoption or surrogacy.
On the opposite extreme, there is also the stereotype that we are all talented, with high disposable incomes and few responsibilities. This view can be equally damaging as it downplays the real struggles that the less privileged members of the gay community encounter in their daily lives.
11. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It is not sufficient that we merely tackle homophobia. For enduring effects, we have to demolish the oppressive triumvirate of homophobia, nudophobia and sexophobia as each of these bastions of prejudice are mutually reinforcing.
Once again, Dear Straight People would like to thank Roy Tan for sharing his story with us.
If you would like to keep up to date with how Roy is doing, you can connect with him via Facebook.
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