Meet 48-year old Singaporean Otto Fong, the teacher who sparked a national controversy when he came out in 2007.
It has been almost a decade since Otto first hit the headlines for coming out publicly while still teaching at Raffles Institution. But his story hasn’t lost its relevance, given the fact that no other teacher has dared to follow in his footsteps since.
But hiding in the closet isn’t something only teachers do. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from interviewing so many LGBT people, it’s that the number 1 reason why Singaporeans decline a coming out interview isn’t because of friends or family. It’s because of their career. Or rather, the fear of how coming out can implicate their career.
So yes, Otto’s story may be almost 10-years old. But it’s a story that continues to be of relevance. And one that needs to be told over and over again until it becomes irrelevant.
Otto’s coming out journey started at the age of 11, when he first experienced same sex attraction.
In Primary 5, a new boy from Sabah joined our class and my hormones told me he was the most beautiful man on the planet.
But growing up during a time when information on alternative sexualities were almost non-existent meant that Otto was constantly plagued by the fear that there was something innately wrong with him.
It was a daily battle between feeling excited about men’s bodies and the fear that something was wrong with me.
I found a western book about sex for teenagers. Unfortunately, without Asian role models, I concluded that gays were only found in the West.
Otto carried that misconception with him well into his teenage years. He was only able to overcome the inner emotional turmoil that burned inside him when he was sent to the States for further education.
For the first time in his life, Otto had access to information that didn’t portray homosexuality in a negative light. It was also then that Otto had his first coming out experience.
After getting sloshed at a frat party, Otto confessed to a frat brother that he loved him in front of the entire fraternity. Despite the rather embarrassing circumstances, nobody at his University made much of an issue of it.
While I came out like Bing Bong (the pink elephant-dolphin from Inside Out) trumpeting his trunk, it was not completely unpleasant because the frat brother was so, so hot and non-judgemental
After returning to Singapore, Otto had a 3-year stint as an engineer before finally finding his calling as a teacher.
In 2000, Otto started teaching at Singapore’s top school – Raffles Institution. Despite being out to his family and friends by then, he kept his sexuality hidden in the workplace.
Once, I mentioned during interaction that all differences should be accepted, and that included being gay. That sentence strangely found its way to middle management, and I was casually told not to mention ‘gay’ in school.
I got the message quickly, and had been silent on the issue since.
For the next 8 years, Otto kept mum on the issue. And it wasn’t till he attended a sharing session featuring ex-students talking about how it was like growing up gay in Singapore’s schools did Otto have an awakening of sorts.
One of the speakers then asked the crowd at large “Why didn’t any gay teacher speak up for us?”
That simple question threw Otto off. And it was then that Otto realise that he had failed his gay students. And so, he decided to make the life changing decision to come out publicly.
The year was 2007. Singapore wasn’t as open then as she was now. There were no coming out stories on Dear Straight People every other week. No Pink Dot to look forward to. Barely any local LGBT role models for queer youths to look up to.
In short, coming out then was an incredibly risky career move. Especially for a teacher at Singapore’s top school. But Otto was prepared to take a leap of faith.
I wanted to do it for all the gay students in my classes and school.
It gave them something I wanted as a student but never got: a local, ordinary gay person as a role model.
On the fateful day of 8th September 2007, Otto came out publicly on his blog. The aftermath that followed was more dramatic than Otto could have ever imagined.
His coming out hit the front-page news and sparked a national conversation that involved the Prime Minister himself. Raffles Institution found itself getting bombarded with a barrage of angry letters from anxious parents calling for his resignation. Throughout the entire ordeal, Otto refused to issue an apology.
“You can fire me before I apologise,” I said to one principal, “I did nothing wrong.”
Despite the negative backlash, Raffles Institution stood up for Otto. And he managed to retain his job.
But more importantly, Otto accomplished what he originally set out to do – become a role model for his kids. Many of his gay students from the past and present flocked to him for advice, and even now, continue to look up to him as a mentoring figure.
I listened to their struggles and gave some small guidance and comfort without telling them what to do with their lives.
I became the teacher I dreamed of.
The entire episode also turned Otto into one of the gay community’s most prolific figures. And Otto has been putting his heightened visibility to good use.
He has delivered numerous speeches in various LGBT events, with the most prolific ones being a keynote address at Pink Dot 2011 as well as a speech to Gayglers – Google’s LGBT network. Recently, he also penned a well-received column for The Independent this year chronicling his experiences as a gay man.
Apart from being a vocal LGBT rights activist, Otto is also an award winning comic artist, best known for his popular science inspired comic book series – Sir Fong’s Adventures In Science. Unbeknownst to many, Otto was also a former playwright who wrote one of the two first R(A)-rated Mandarin plays in Singapore in 1992!
Currently working full-time in the National University of Singapore, Otto is an avid toy collector and aspires to promote science to young people.
Otto has very kindly taken time out of his hectic schedule to share with us more about his infamous coming out episode, as well as reflect on why no gay teacher has dared to follow in his path since.
1. How was your first coming out experience like?
It was a weekend in our school town in Oklahoma. My fraternity had a beer party. I got drunk quickly and lost my inhibitions for the first time.
In front of everyone, I told a fraternity brother I loved him. The next day, I woke up lying in my own vomit and recalled that my worst fear – being discovered – had materialised.
Fortunately, I did not want to end my life. I was again lucky that the same frat brother came forward – at the urging of our frat sweetheart and his future wife – to listen to me.
2. How did your family respond to your sexuality?
They fought me, but when they realise that my sexuality was not fluid, they went into the closet with me.
They stopped talking about me at family gatherings. They talked about my straight siblings and their usual processes with lovers then family. But of me, they mostly stayed silent. I don’t blame them – they never had the positive vocabulary as the newspapers reported only the negative aspects of the issue.
12 years after telling my family, I started dating Han, my current partner. I insisted on bringing Han home to my family. My parents saw that Han was having a positive effect on me in general, and slowly warmed up to him.
BUT we were all still in the closet and living with skeletons.
3. How did your coming out affect you professionally?
The con is that people with strong views against LGBTs will shut me out regardless of my skills and strengths. This makes getting supports, grants and positions difficult. Since there is no legal protection from discrimination for gay people, some people can still bar me and discount my contribution to society solely on the basis of my sexuality.
The pro is that I value those who are still willing to work with me on various projects. I enjoy working with these people because I know they hold the principles of non-discrimination in their hearts. Often the leaders of the schools would approach me to thank me for the talks as they enjoyed the ideas I shared.
4. What was the greatest reward for you in the aftermath of you coming out publicly?
My ex-students came forth to voice their support – both publicly and privately. Some of them kept in contact. I was invited to their church weddings, book launches, and once I attended a graduation of young teachers as an ex-student’s role model. That remains my greatest reward.
5. In hindsight, would you have done anything different about the way you came out publicly?
If there was one thing I’d change, it was my impatience that ordinary LGBTs are still not ready to come out to their parents. I used to advise everyone to come out to their families, but now that I am older, I understand that different people will come out in their own times.
Of course, I still believe that the LGBT situation will only change when enough people fight this within their own families. We cannot expect to reap the rewards of foreign LGBT efforts or the few local LGBT volunteers without working on the local front ourselves.
The LGBT community is still discriminated by Singaporean society – but that is something that can only change when enough of the community has the courage to face the music in their own families.
6. It has been almost 10 years since you came out publicly and yet, no other teachers or civil servants in Singapore have followed your lead. What are your thoughts on that?
I was frustrated but at the same time, not surprised. Our current PM takes a different public stance on this issue from his predecessors, so it is harder for more to come out when the top person is perceived to be unsupportive of LGBTs.
There is a more concerted push-back effort from conservative elements to modify the rules to make coming out more difficult. When I came out, a blog was very new to the policy makers. Now, the policy makers have become more sophisticated in their handling of social media.
At the same time, the younger generation – both straight and gay – are no longer without positive role models. I am still a strong believer that the young will always want to – and should – outdo their older generation. So I am quite sure at least some young gay people are already changing the society in ways more relevant and effective than my generation. It certainly won’t look the same as my coming out.
Of course, if there are a few civil servants or teachers who are willing to come out collectively, that would be quite a ripple effect. The Avengers are certainly more effective than just Iron Man on his own.
7. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the gay community?
That we are fundamentally different from the other communities.
But we’re not. We’re not smarter, wittier, more creative or intelligent. We have our scientists, engineers, authors, cashiers, teachers, taxi drivers. And we have our fools, paedophiles, rapists, drug addicts, kidnappers and murderers.
Just like every other community, regardless of race, religion or sexuality.
8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
These are my ‘truths’. They are as authentic as I can present to you. But they should not be the readers’ truths.
Thank you for reading to the end – and feel free to reject or embrace anything I shared here. If you want to be truly happy, you must learn to find your own truth within. And we should all have the good grace not to force others to live by our truths only.
Once again, Dear Straight People would like to thank Otto Fong for sharing his story with us.
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Note: Some quotes used in this article have been lifted from Otto’s column on The Independent with his permission.