Playing gay and the new normal

It’s getting to the point where if you find homosexuality offensive and do not wish to be “confronted” with it, you’re going to need to withdraw from the modern world. For example, there’ll be films and music videos that fill the entertainment pages that you can’t watch. If your friends talk about them over dinner, you can’t participate.

Two films with big advertising budgets now playing in Singapore cinemas will be off your list because they contain homosexual characters. One may not be such a great loss, it being rather mediocre, but if you for ideological reasons cannot watch the better of the two (and far better), then it’s your loss.

The mediocre one is J Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and rated M18 by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on account of “some homosexual content”.

I thought the subject matter was too ambitious for the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Also, Hoover’s personal life was not consistently documented historically and the gaps would have been a major problem for any screenwriter, not least one who chose to make Hoover’s personal life the centre of the story. The result is a rather superficial and patchy melange of different elements that don’t tie up properly. Many questions hang unanswered, though in a sense this reflects the difficulty in understanding the real and very complex Hoover. See also the Guardian’s review of this film.

The much better film is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley. It too has been rated M18, but for a “sexual scene”. Did MDA miss the homosexual subtext?

As you must surely know, it is based on John Le Carre’s novel of the same name. See the Guardian’s review of this film.

What you may notice about these two films, and increasingly, all films and television dramas with gay and lesbian characters, is that homosexuality is depicted matter-of-factly. Unlike films from ten years ago or earlier, when homosexual characters in a script would compel examination of the issue of sexual orientation whether positively or negatively, this is no longer the case.

And when you think about it, it was rather weird then. If a film has an Indian character, must it dwell on Indianness? If it has a left-handed character, must it offer a commentary on left-handedness? Or if it has a Muslim family in the story, must be offer judgment on Islam and Muslims?

Of course not. They’re just characters who behave in a manner natural to them, contributing in some way to the plot, not necessarily related to their Indianness, left-handedness or religion. More and more, that’s the same role played by gay characters nowadays. They are part of that natural mosaic that is humanity and hardly worth remarking on.

To remark or to respond twitchily is to betray one’s discomfort. Yet many Singaporeans still do, in effect preferring to stick their heads in the sand while millions around the world have moved on, even forgetting that only twenty years ago, actors would refuse to play gay roles; doing so was widely seen as a kiss of death to their careers.

* * * * *

The New Paper’s lead story for Tuesday, 14 Feb 2012, was of three junior college students who were punished for a jovial ‘dare’. Neither the students nor the school was named. The front page used the word “prank”,  but as you will see from the facts, that was the wrong word to use. In a prank, the recipients of the plan would be caught unaware and embarrassed. In this case, everyone participated willingly.

What happened, according to the newspaper, was this:

A week ago, ‘Andy’ (pseudonym given by the New Paper) promised to shave his head bald if two schoolmates (both boys) would kiss each other on the lips and allow themselves to be filmed. The two other boys did. Andy and others filmed it, but it was not reported to have been uploaded to the internet.

The incident took place in the school canteen with about 20 – 25 others around. Witnesses said it was no more than a peck, and over in seconds. They all saw it as a joke, but all those involved were promptly hauled up to the principal’s office and told to delete their pictures. Suspensions from classes were issued to the two boys who kissed — the newspaper did not say for how long — and Andy was pressured to withdraw from the school.


A post on the incident surfaced on an online forum last week. Netizens who commented on the post felt Andy should not have been expelled.

Wrote one: “In my opinion, there wasn’t any real need to expel the boy and I feel so wronged for the boy.

“You want to expel people who have pictures of themselves making out? Go ahead, and do it for ALL of them, and not only selectively.

Another added that the punishments were “unjust and draconian”.

— The New Paper, 14 Feb 2012, Boy was too scared to tell dad what he did, by Bryna Sim

The newspaper contacted the school whose principal said Andy had a history of disciplinary breaches, an explanation that suggests this was the last straw.

Huh? This can only be the last straw, if it is a straw. It can only be the disciplinary breach that hauls his record over the line, if the incident counts as a disciplinary breach in the first place. But why is a light-hearted schoolboy dare, teenage behaviour since time immemorial, a disciplinary breach?

Assuming the school anticipates accusations of  anti-gay discrimination, the school may say snogging between students regardless of gender is not allowed. Even so, were they snogging?  I think everyone in the canteen knew what it was — a tease and a dare. The two kissers were not made to do so against their will. They sportingly rose to the challenge — which, frankly speaking, I consider a rather positive attitude.

The school may say, a kiss, however short, is still a kiss. Really?  What if the drama club puts on a play that requires one character to kiss another, and the actors do just that? It’s an act, right? You’re not going to expel them for that, surely? But wasn’t what the two boys did for the dare an act too?

There’s no running away from it: The school over-reacted.

And you can guess the most likely reason why: Homosexual panic. They may not admit it, but the phobia is showing. The principal and other teachers might even have imagined that if the video or pictures went onto the internet, it would be disastrous to their image and a black mark on their careers. They don’t seem to realise that a whole new generation sees it differently. Like having gay characters in today’s films, and going by the comments online, it’s no big deal anymore.

It’s when you make an issue of a non-issue, when you twitch, turn pale, deny reality and otherwise spew moral diarrhoea, that it becomes news.

* * * * *

Here’s a tip to that new generation: If your school bans kissing and if your teachers can’t differentiate a peck from snogging, or an act from the real thing, here’s another way you can tease each other with a dare without getting expelled: Dance with a same-sex partner.

10 Responses to “Playing gay and the new normal”

  1. 1 Poker Player 15 February 2012 at 11:12

    “For example, there’ll be films and music videos that fill the entertainment pages that you can’t watch. If your friends talk about them over dinner, you can’t participate.”

    Whole countries you can’t visit too. They would be the nicer countries too. There’s a correlation there.

  2. 2 Tony Ng 15 February 2012 at 12:01

    With regard to the filmic portion of this article, it reminds me of Morgan Freeman’s Black History Month interview on 60 minutes.

    Interviewer: How do you get rid of racism?
    Freeman: Stop talking about it.

    Here’s a link to the interview:

  3. 3 Robin Low 15 February 2012 at 14:29

    Homophobic is very serious. The inability to understand and the group think to condemn anything associated with a minority group of people actually causes more harm than to have an open mind.

    I have many gay friends, and they are just normal folks no different from anyone else in their ability to perform tasks. Keeping an open mind to other race, religions, or marginalized people makes you a more enlightened person.

  4. 4 Lee Chee Wai 15 February 2012 at 15:29

    Stephen Fry had a troubled youth, expelled from school and was arrested and jailed for stealing and using a family friend’s credit card. He later learned he had bipolar disorder and was manic-depressive. That helped him understand why he behaved as he did in the past. I’m not sure if he felt he was gay all along, or if he found that out later.

    In any event, look at him now. A great comic and comedian with a long and distinguished career. Dignified when presenting himself and a deeply caring and good human being.

    Sadly, I’m not sure Singapore society will be quite so kind to those poor boys after this “record” against them.

    Off-topic – love that video clip of Morgan Freeman, Tony. Thanks!

    • 5 Erica 16 February 2012 at 23:47

      I knew Stephen many years ago when he was a student at Cambridge, and he was out as gay then, and played Oscar Wilde in a uni production, which he reprised in the film “Wilde”, in later life.

  5. 6 StupidGenius 16 February 2012 at 16:20

    Just my 2 cents worth. Even if it kissing is an offence, there’s no way it warrants an expulsion. Denying somebody of an education is a serious punishment, that will affect the rest of the person’s life. It should not be used trivially. Those principals, teachers who wanted to expel the guy for a kiss, even if it is taboo (which I don’t think so), are the lousiest kind of educator.

  6. 7 arockefeller (@arockefeller) 16 February 2012 at 16:36

    I don’t envy your position, but I admire the work you’re doing to improve it. Another very thoughtful, well-written post.

  7. 8 lifeisamisnomer 17 February 2012 at 11:54

    I think, with regards to the expulsion of ‘Andy’ the point of the incident is not that the school is homophobic or experienced a sudden homosexual panic, but rather that the incident itself, committed on the school premises and with the parties involved wearing their school uniforms, was a breach of the school’s code of conduct, morals, values whatever…

    Assuming that the whole prank had been committed outside of school and no one was wearing their school uniform, then to say that expulsion was extreme and drastic could be fair and entirely reasonable. (But come on, it wouldn’t be much of a dare, if it wasn’t done in school, right?)

    So, coupled with ‘Andy’s’ supposedly-long history of disciplinary breaches, it would be unfair to dwell solely on the sexual nature of the incident and pass judgement that the school is homophobic (which it might be… but we don’t know…)

  8. 9 yawningbread 19 February 2012 at 16:15

    And there’s a third film now running: Albert Nobbs. A finely crafted movie, set in 19th century Dublin. There’s a loving lesbian relationship close to the centre of the story. Try to spot the two gay males too — not difficult, as they don’t try very hard to hide their true selves.

  9. 10 chazza boags 21 February 2012 at 12:24

    i absolutely loved Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. One of the best assembled cast of actors i have ever seen. especially loved bennedict cumberbatch’s character 🙂

    i have to say i was shocked by the jc’s response to the kissing incident. but when i recalled my own jc days, i didn’t find it surprising at all. when it came to disciplinary issues, jc’s always tend to over-react, whether its because of homophobic panic or just about anything else. i’m guessing its because most jc’s actually have very little REAL disciplinary issues to deal with so school discipline turns into micro-moral-policing. if this kissing incident happened in a rough neighbourhood school (any of those left?) where extortion, gang fights and truancy was rampant, none of the disciplinary crew would have bothered…

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