Dear Straight People,
In this opinion piece, I hope to begin a national conversation by giving the responses of different Singaporeans to my tank top.
I met them in various public spaces, mostly cafés and restaurants, in the course of the week after my Facebook post about the complaint went viral.
They are not a representative sample of Singaporeans, but they can be trusted to give their honest response. In fact, when I asked them for their views, I told them that mixed feelings were welcomed. I think, in the current debate about gay equality, it is important to listen closely and understand one another before we reply.
When I wore a tank top to work out at SAFRA Mount Faber EnergyOne Gym, a few were unhappy with the words “Gay But Not Yet Equal” on the front of the shirt and “Equality For All” on the back. They claimed that I was engaging in social advocacy on a sensitive national issue.
According to Channel NewsAsia, SAFRA subsequently issued a statement that said my attire did not contravene any of the gym’s rules and regulations. I was allowed to use the gym in my usual attire and I continue to do so.
1. LLG: 69-Year Old Straight Female
Last week I met LLG twice at Artistry Café at literary events I organised. A 69-year-old writer, she writes:
My response to the slogan emblazoned across your top was, on both occasions, “Very American.” Otherwise, I didn’t turn a hair about your sexual orientation.
Why should I? I grew up during a more innocent time when the sexual divide was not so dogmatic and people generally took these things in stride because they didn’t know better, so to speak.
There was an athlete in my secondary school who was obviously “butch,” but we all thought her a tomboy. I did my Pre-U in Methodist Boys’ School, Penang. It was not unusual to see teenage boys walking to the canteen or to classes hand in hand. It was acceptable behaviour. That was in the sixties. I’m not sure if this is done anymore without raising eyebrows.
We knew about men who were girlies (in Hokkien, “char bor heng“), but apart from the occasional snigger and aside, they were pretty much left alone. I did not see any evidence of homophobia.
There were two teachers in my Convent who were great friends. I can’t recall if they lived together, but certainly they came to school and left together. One of them adopted a girl. Again, it was not unusual for unmarried women to adopt girls during that time.
2. CW: 40-Year Old Gay Male
CW is another writer-friend, who saw my tank top for the first time when we had coffee at Clementi Mall. My tank top immediately struck him as ‘A statement piece’ and then he thought:
I doubt anybody would really notice since Singaporeans have a tendency to be bad readers.
3. WP: 45-Year Old Gay Male
As WP, a 45-year-old arts administrator remarks:
Even when we were walking on the street and when we were taking photos at the National Library, there wasn’t much reaction from folks. I was expecting people to stare, but no one did (at least I didn’t see any).”
4. SS: 47-Year Old Straight Female
SS disagrees. She thinks Singaporeans notice things but keep quiet about them. She writes:
Advocacy in Singapore, especially around issues such as homosexuality, is seen as dangerous and taboo.
In this context, wearing a tank top which not only states one’s sexuality, criminalised under section 377A, but also asks for the law to be changed, carries the double charge of not only going against the Asian reluctance to talk about such matters in public, but also going against the law.
As such, wearing the shirt so publicly is not only extremely courageous, but it also demands change. And it is a change which I hope will come soon. Just as we accept the many races which make up Singapore, we should also be able to accept the many sexualities and genders which do so.
5. AG: 34-Year Old Gay Male
The so-called Asian reluctance to discuss such matters publicly is also a theme picked up by AG, a 34-year-old business owner.
When I first read news of Jee’s tank top causing a stir in the SAFRA gym, I asked myself if I would be equally courageous to do likewise. As an introvert, I probably wouldn’t, because I knew it was going to make people uncomfortable.
Many Singaporeans, like myself, were brought up in an environment where conflicts were frowned upon. When making decisions, we often pick the option that is perceived as the ‘most peaceful‘. That’s the problem.
When too many of us avoid confrontation, a false front that ‘all is fine‘ is established, and what is unequal will remain unequal. ‘Peace’ is nothing but an illusion when some people feel that they are more equal than others, and subsequently apply pressure to oppress those less privileged. The complaints about Jee’s tank top clearly illustrated that.
For change to happen, energy is required. When things are still, some friction is necessary. Needless to say, with friction comes discomfort. Many people proclaim they want change, but no one dares to be that first person to provoke the monster.
6. AT: 54-Year Old Gay Male
AT agrees with SS that diversity and disagreement should be embraced, not fled from. A 54-year-old theatre director, he writes:
I like Jee wearing the tee. Not because I’m gay but because it is good to remind the public and ourselves that those marginalised have aspirations and we need to articulate it instead of keeping it all inside.
When marginalised segments of the community ‘speak’, the privileged in society should make space and let them voice their concerns. And that should be the practice to encourage, so we can exercise the muscle for co-existence as our societies become increasingly diverse.
7. TSB: 47-Year Old Straight Christian Male
For TSB, a 47-year-old medical administrator, society must be built on the value of fairness. A fellow student from Oxford University, he writes:
I feel it is important that we treat everyone fairly and I agree that the LGBT community has in many ways been “picked on,” for example, your tank top saga. I think it is ridiculous that people have complained about what you wear.
However, things are not helped (in my opinion) by some quarters of the LGBT community also taking an unnecessarily aggressive view towards the Christian and other religious communities. This inevitably leads to a tit-for-tat situation that doesn’t help anyone.
I am a Christian and would say that I generally hold on to “traditional Christian values”. At the same time, I genuinely do not have a strong position on issues such as whether someone is born gay, or chooses to be gay, or is affected by the environment, or some combination of the above.
I do feel that Christians need to be consistent. So even if we feel that being gay is “wrong”, it should not be any different from how we treat someone who overeats, or is obsessed with his iPhone, or enjoys going to the casino etc.
We can have a whole different debate on whether these and other things are “wrong” or not, but my point is simply that just as most folks won’t bat an eyelid if someone wears a t-shirt saying, “everyone should overeat” or “join me at the MBS casino”, likewise we should not be picking on gays.
8. BKJ: 34-Year Old Straight Female
Are gays being picked on? BKJ thinks so too. A 34-year old writer, she highlights that some spaces in Singapore are safer than others.
I think I was aware that in Tiong Bahru, the tank top was in a relatively “safe” space in Singapore, which is why I wasn’t as conscious of it?
I wonder if I’d be more on edge or at least aware of people’s varied reactions, if we were on the MRT or a coffee shop in a heartland neighbourhood, or near a church.”
9. FP: 33-Year Old Straight Female
I also met a group of former students for dinner at Robertson Quay. FP, now a 33-year-old education entrepreneur writes about our class reunion
I was expecting Mr. Koh to be wearing that tank top because he has always been the Mr. Koh that I know, someone who does things that he believes in.
I am not pro gay, neither am I against it. It doesn’t matter whether my friend is gay or not. He is my friend because of the values he holds and not the sexual inclination he has. I am always proud of him for being who he is.
10. GLG: 33-Year Old Straight Male
GLG, also 33, an engineer writes,
Actually I did not think much about how I felt about you being gay.
Seeing you and spending time together is more about catching up. I think it’s more of a social norm issue. Just hanging out with gays is perfectly fine. I also think that our society may not be ready accept it yet, although very slowly it’s opening up.
11. SPF: 33-Year Old Straight Female
SPF, from the same class, is now an accountant.
I don’t see anything wrong with you wearing your “gay” tank top. To me, it is just a normal tank top, sending the message across that gay people should also be treated equally. I think the younger generation is more pro-gay than the older one.
12. LBL 35-Year Old Straight Female
Also identifying as female and straight, LBL, who is 35 and self-employed, adds:
You are you, with or without your tank top.
However, when I saw your Facebook post, my thoughts were … aiyoh, no need tank top also know most of the men inside the gym are gays what. Complain what sia, Singaporeans!
13. Zen: 24-Year Old Gay Male
I was expecting some people to come up to me, to express support or otherwise.So far, only two did. Both were young. Both encounters were memorable.
I was at a bus stop along Beach Road when Zen, a 24-year-old accountant recognised me. He writes on his Facebook page:
I have visited the Mount Faber gym regularly before, and although I proudly wear pink to Pink Dot every year, I would never think of wearing such an outspoken shirt to the gym or in my everyday life.
I think it is safe to say that very few in Singapore would dare or want to wear a shirt with a “sensitive” slogan because we all know very well the reactions we will invoke, just like those of the complainants in the SAFRA gym.
But what is “the LGBT issue”? It’s not just a controversial issue of our society, it’s not just about the laws that should be repealed and the laws that should be in place, it’s not just about trying to instill a false sense of peace and harmony by placing barricades after barricades around LGBT voices. It’s really, simply, just the people of these voices. Me. Them.
And thousands and thousands of people in this small island: your family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, and yes, even the person in the same gym as you now. We are living, breathing people whom you keep in a container called “the LGBT issue” because you have an irrational fear or hatred towards us.
14: 15-Year Old Female
Another young person who recognised me, was a very small-sized girl who looked about 15. She said very shyly, barely audibly “I’m one of you.”
I was very moved by her strange expression, her inability or unwillingness to say gay or lesbian, and I tried clumsily to help by saying, “You mean you’re part of the LGBT community.”
She nodded. She has been to Pink Dot twice and each time felt rather overwhelmed. She asked me whether I was out to my parents. When I said yes, she said she was not out to her parents, and then asked me how long it took my parents to accept me as gay.
I told her my parents welcomed my first boyfriend to their home three days after I came out as gay to them. But it took them years to come around, just as it took me years to accept myself. And they were okay, though not altogether happy, with me telling our relatives 12 years after I first came out to them. It is a long process, with many small steps.
The girl had an expression I couldn’t read. We reached our station and, after bidding each other a friendly goodbye, parted. Now I wish I had said to her, don’t come out to your parents until you have the means to live on your own. It’s too great a risk. That’s the sad truth.
Continuing The Conversation
I will let 24-year-old Zen, the future of Singapore, have the last word:
It’s not easy to get Singapore to talk more, and understand more about LGBT, about us, but we have to talk. I fully support Jee Leong’s efforts in advocating awareness and promoting discussion; and just like Pink Dot and all the LGBT organisations, his efforts tell me and others that hey, you are not alone in this. As a nation, we can do better.
Written by Jee Leong Koh
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