Coming out in perspective


Sayoni’s Coming out, coming home campaign starts today. I wholeheartedly support it.

I’ve never really had a coming out myself, at least not in the form of any major event. Maybe because it’s been a series of tiny moments where I’ve chosen not to pretend to be someone else, each has been relatively easy. By the same token, none has been memorable. And with the passage of time, I find it hard to recall any.

I wonder sometimes if the idea of a wrenching or a “cry a bucket of tears” moment is culturally contingent. And that if one’s family or environment is of a different profile, the process whereby people learn that one is gay is a totally different one. My theory goes like this: When a person is situated in an environment that is either negative towards homosexuality or so clueless about it as to not expect it, then the breaking of silence becomes a moment of import. Even the recognition of homosexuality within oneself is a big thing. But when the family or social environment exhibits no particular antipathy, and people around are able to pick up the signals, the process becomes a far more gradual, far less dramatic one. Knowledge just seeps into the consciousness of people around.

Looking around me, I think the latter is true of many friends I have. They gradually established who they were to everyone else around them, often taking advantage of the fact that others seldom know how to raise the subject anyway. First it becomes unspoken knowledge, and after that, there’s no point pretending otherwise any longer.

Some cultures, e.g. heavily Christianised or Islamised ones, tend to be of the first type: there is much denial and opprobrium attached to homosexuality, e.g. the United States of a generation ago, and surely, much of Africa and the Middle East today. Certain Christian and Muslim families in Singapore exhibit similar attitudes and behaviour. My observation is that their LGBT sons and daughters have a much harder time accepting themselves and coming out.

And yet, I know of none who regret doing so. Whether gradually or cataclysmicly, being out is just the natural place to be, like being out of prison.

The saddest cases are those who are themselves stuck in a self-imposed cocoon of denial when around them, their family and friends have moved on. They stay resolutely in the closet when outside, others have, firstly, become used to the idea of gay people and secondly, even learnt how to pick up the signals. Indeed, Singapore as a whole has shifted in that direction. Homosexuality has been an insistent topic in public discourse for more than ten years. Increasingly, the average Singaporean knows one or two LGBT persons among his or her family, friends or work mates. They are not so clueless that they can’t guess who is what.

In such an environment, he or she who continues to make herculean efforts to hide merely ends up looking silly. First of all, lots of LGBT persons around will be able to pick up in an instant that he/she is really gay. Not a few straight ones will be able to do so too. Moreover, the topic isn’t so taboo that people won’t talk. It takes one person to figure out that X is gay, and before long, that person may have told ten others.

The increasingly paranoid dishonesty of continuing to deny one’s sexual orientation is not only futile but self-defeating. It damages one’s overall credibility and puts stress on personal relationships. People around don’t know how much they should participate in helping one preserve the lie.

An extreme case was a guy who once asked me, “How is it that people know I am gay?”

I gave him a polite but vague answer: people aren’t blind.

It was bad of me, but I absolutely had to repeat to a third party that so-and-so had asked me this question. That third party then burst out laughing, for it seemed outrageous. “Oh, for goodness sakes, how many straight guys wear foundation? The fool really thinks people don’t notice?”

OK, as I said, it’s an extreme case, but even subtler give-aways can be picked up — one’s poise, expressive hands, the flick of the eye, or the unusually bright smile when boyfriend comes into view.

Quite memorably, I was once beaten to it by a totally straight ah-beng kind of guy who came to me, while I was organising a trip and assigning rooms, that I should put P and Q in the same room. Why? I asked.

“They’re a couple,” he said, somewhat astounded that he had to explain it to me.


“You can’t see?  You’re gay yourself and you can’t see?”

It should be clear then, what I should do, “but if I put them in the same room, wouldn’t they then know that we know?” I asked (though it was more like thinking aloud). “Would that freak them out?”

I am not at all suggesting prejudice and discrimination doesn’t exist, or that we don’t pay a price for being different. We do. But firstly, staying in the closet does not really help one avoid that price. You stay unmarried (in the heterosexual sense)  or you act furtively,  and there will be a price exacted from you by the state, maybe your employer and some of your friends (who really aren’t your true friends).

But let’s not wallow in self-pity and victimhood. Most people on this earth pay a price for something or other that they can’t control. Some people reach adulthood extremely short — under 1.5 metres — others can’t distinguish red from green, yet others are born into families mired in poverty and ill-health. And let’s not forget the tens of millions of people who are ethnic minorities in the societies they live in and who find themselves discriminated against their whole lives.

If we see it in perspective, being gay isn’t a big deal. It is when we so wrap ourselves in fear that it grows to become one big monster, and then only to ourselves. When to the rest of the world, we look like we’re always running away from an unseen monster, it only makes us look silly and ridiculous.

* * * * *

And while we’re on this subject, go watch Yossi, now showing at Cathay Cineleisure. The lead character leads a deeply closeted life until . . .

7 Responses to “Coming out in perspective”

  1. 1 Alan 4 August 2013 at 09:27

    Frankly there are so many closetted gays/bisexuals who are married as well and some are with kids and grandchildren as well. Not forgetting those gay ones who apply to become our new citizens & PRs under the pretext of being happily married as in so many straight couples from PRC? So many people are simply pretending that all is well.

    Do these qualify as a “happy family” which our G are trying to promote ? Or are we just being clueless what is really happening ? Reality sometimes can really be far from the truth.

  2. 2 yuen 4 August 2013 at 10:46

    eh… why is “coming out” still a big issue? most heterosexual dont feel any particular need to publicize their specific sexual desires, including maybe a hidden interest in homosexuality; surely we believe in privacy?

    not long ago, homosexuals could be subject to blackmail, which becomes impossible if the social environment is open about the issue; I dont think blackmail is much of a problem these days

    I understand gays still encounter some discrimination, but this is a separate issue from coming out – you could even say “if we all respect privacy, and nobody knows you are gay; then there can be no discrimination against you”

    • 3 yawningbread 4 August 2013 at 11:40

      You wrote: “if we all respect privacy, and nobody knows you are gay; then there can be no discrimination against you”

      Your entire premise rests on the “if”. All it takes is a few persons to break your convention and not respect privacy and blackmail becomes possible. As I have argued, society is changing, more and more people do not believe that sexual orientation is a private thing anymore, precisely because they do not see it as a big deal anymore. Like one’s food preferences or university major, it’s something people will talk about. How can you insist on privacy?

      In any case blackmail is hardly the key issue. The key issue is the person’s emotional well-being. There is much evidence out there that keeping a secret all one’s life is highly damaging to one’s psyche and a host of personal relationships with friends and family.

    • 4 Duh 4 August 2013 at 12:01

      “I understand gays still encounter some discrimination, but this is a separate issue from coming out”

      If being gay results in some form of discrimination, as you have claimed, then won’t it discourage people from coming out? I do not see these two matters as separate.

      • 5 yuen 4 August 2013 at 13:57

        my brother and I are related, but we are separate people; surely that is obvious?

        if the significance of “coming out” is it acts as the indicator of whether discrimination exists, then it is not the main issue in itself; discrimination is the main issue

    • 6 SGHeathen (@SGHeathen) 5 August 2013 at 21:22

      Yes heterosexuals don’t feel like they have any ‘particular need’ to publicize their ‘specific sexual desires’ because they do not feel stigmatized for doing so. Heterosexuals do it all the time for granted. Whereas homosexuals have for some time feel the ‘particular need’ to keep their sexual orientation secret. ‘Coming out’ does not mean saying that heterosexuals should be homosexuals. It is a signal for people and their close ones to accept them as they are. Men and women openly display their affection for each other. ‘Surely we believe in privacy’?

    • 7 bluetingeddreams 12 August 2013 at 17:03

      It’s not a matter of privacy, it’s a matter of not having to hide oneself. Why should homosexuals not be accorded the same privileges that heterosexuals often take for granted, like holding their partner’s hand without people taking a second glance or even just talking to their friends and acquaintances about their partners. Shouldn’t that be part of the basic rights that we all have as human beings?

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