LGBTQ+ individuals in Singapore share their thoughts, journeys and hopes for the future.
These are some of the responses we received when we asked members of the local LGBTQ+ community what it’s like to grow up gay in Singapore.
We have gay bars, LGBTQ+ organisations, queer-friendly businesses and the annual Pink Dot (a non-profit movement that supports the freedom to love for everyone). But juxtaposed with government policies, media regulation and the non-enforcing Section 377A of the Penal Code, Singapore makes a peculiar city for LGBTQ+ individuals to grow up in.
That’s why we spoke to queer individuals about their personal experiences against the backdrop of the city they call home.
The adolescent years
Teenage years are more often than not filled with insecurity, excitement and self-discovery — a kaleidoscope of intense emotions. And if you happen to be queer, it adds a layer of complexity: struggling with self-identity and wanting to be accepted.
Eric Lee, who works in the media industry, realised he was gay when he was 14, but he never told anyone.
“I was always quite comfortable being myself, but that changed when I got to secondary school,” the 28-year-old says. “I would put on this facade to make people think I’m introverted so they would leave me alone. Obviously, it didn’t work that well in school, because naturally humans, even at our young age, can recognise differences easily. I was singled out very quickly as the weirdo that didn’t fit in, and I ran with it for most of my childhood.”
Eric’s experience is a similar theme most LGBTQ+ individuals face during their formative years. For 26-year-old Germaine Thomas, who was a tomboy, she felt comfortable hanging out and playing soccer with the boys, “being part of the gang”. But that changed when she went to an all-girls school.
That’s when she realised that she was “very much different from other girls”. Being in a new environment, Germaine got attention from her female peers and received love letters. So she started questioning herself.
“Why do they like me? Is it because I’m doing something or is it because of the way I look?” These were just some of the questions that ran through her mind.
It’s tough growing up in an environment where being yourself may lead to bullying and taunting. While we can’t change public perspective overnight, we can try to provide a safe space for queer individuals to express themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, 26-year-old Divya Kumar shares with us how she’s lucky to have family members who are supportive of her.
“Bullying was one of the main challenges I faced. Sometimes the feeling of unworthiness took over me but my close friends and parents were my source of happiness. I would often open up to them about what I was going through and they were always there to share a listening ear and a helping hand.”
However, there are still many reasons for queer individuals to stay in the closet: worries over what their friends think, fears of rejection from their family and dilemmas over conflicting beliefs.
The struggles of coming out
As a personal choice, coming out is a unique journey for every queer person. It’s a sign of bravery and self-acceptance.
Germaine came out when she was studying in polytechnic. “I realised I do have friends who love me the way I am. They could see I was hiding and struggling with my confidence, my self-esteem, my self-identity.”
She attributes her coming out moment to having a good support system and feeling loved. But she doesn’t believe in labelling herself. “I don’t call myself bisexual or any of that because there’s no need for such labels. I see myself as Germaine.”
National Service can be an intimidating experience for gay men. But for Eric, that’s where he blossomed, finally feeling comfortable in his own skin to open up to his peers about his sexuality.
“I had other gay platoon mates who were completely comfortable with people knowing. I started hanging out more with them and naturally, people just knew.”
He credits his gay army friends for his personal growth and helping him realise there’s nothing wrong with being queer.
“I never had gay friends until NS, and they taught me so many life lessons. They taught me how to be myself. They taught me how to act in front of my peers without pretending to be somebody else. They taught me how to command respect from my peers in a heteronormative society.”
Sharing a positive anecdote, Eric recalls being touched by a gesture from his superior. “Someone in a different platoon in my company was bullied for being gay, and in response, my Commanding Officer (who is a Sikh) wrote a speech and announced to the whole company that he would not tolerate any instances of gay-bashing.”
As for Daphne, she recalls a poignant moment after coming out to her mother. Initially upset, her mother came around after watching interview videos where people used religion as grounds for their prejudice. To that end, her mother told Daphne, “God loves you no matter what.” Coming from someone who was staunch in their faith, this made Daphne’s self-acceptance grow.
The act of coming out is intimidating in itself, and such conversations can look different between friends and family. It’s not just about revealing yourself; it also involves education. But how does that look like? According to Daphne, “it hit me that what others think doesn’t really matter. I have God’s acceptance and my family.”
The media we consume can help shape our identity. Representation is important because it helps us feel validated, valued and, most importantly, that we’re not alone. And no, we’re not talking about caricatures or stereotypes.
Case in point: The L Word, a show about the lives of a group of lesbians and bisexuals in Los Angeles. That resonated with Germaine and helped her sort through her feelings.
Eric’s first encounter with LGBTQ+ representation on television was with Glee. Known for its groovy covers of popular songs and positive portrayals of gay characters (we’re looking at Kurt and Blaine), the show made a huge impact on his perception of LGBTQ+ relationships.
But one show that truly opened his eyes to the LGBTQ+ community was Queer as Folk. “That show just blew my mind and made me learn so much more about the LGBTQ+ community, its tumultuous history, and what it stands for. Queer As Folk was really ahead of its time.”
Daphne saw herself in the movie I Can’t Think Straight. It tells the story of a girl from an Indian family who comes out as gay and ends up being with the person she loves. “It made me feel like one day, I will have my happy ending too,” she says.
What will Singapore’s LGBTQ+ scene look like in the future?
No one really knows the answer to this question. For change to happen on a bigger level, it has to start with individuals. The road to equality may be a long one, but a collective ripple effect can potentially lead to progressive changes. Germaine echoes this belief, saying it starts at home with education and conversation.
Daphne believes the first step Singaporeans can take is to create a safe, non-judgmental environment. “Just because society deems it as something out of the norm, we have to live in shells and that’s unfair. We’re humans just like everyone else.”
Eric wishes to see proactive actions by government bodies, including listening to LGBTQ+ concerns and dialoguing with queer community leaders, for an inclusive society. He doesn’t foresee prominent changes soon, but he remains hopeful for the next generation.
Perhaps one day, we’ll truly celebrate Singapore as a place of inclusivity, going beyond race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation.