neil Be­fore God

Each is­sue, Esquire asks Neil Humphreys to fo­cus on a dif­fer­ent emo­tion. This time it’s shame over Sin­ga­pore’s treat­ment of the LGBT community.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

Shame­ful gay rights.

For two weeks, I was a gay hairdresser. But I was not al­lowed to come out. A higher power ush­ered me back into the closet.

All right, I was a gay hairdresser on a Me­di­a­corp drama. I was young, naïve and didn’t know any bet­ter. I’m talk­ing about ap­pear­ing in a Me­di­a­corp drama. I had no qualms about be­ing a gay hairdresser.

On the con­trary, I chan­nelled my in­ner Stanislavski and went full method. I vividly re­call a ‘ com­ing out’ mono­logue in a dimly lit hair salon. There were wob­bly voices and thou­sand-yard stares, looking to the hori­zon in search of in­ner peace but find­ing only a bored cam­era­man scratch­ing his tes­ti­cles.

Still, my youth­ful ide­al­ism was con­vinced that the wayang per­for­mance had a greater pur­pose. A gay char­ac­ter com­ing out on a main­stream English drama was a rar­ity, per­haps even a first for Sin­ga­pore.

Nat­u­rally, my skin colour pro­vided a safety catch. The gay hairdresser was not a Sin­ga­porean but an ang moh, a prod­uct of the deca­dent West, where ev­ery night was pre­sum­ably an LGBT mardi gras. (Of course it wasn’t. On my hous­ing es­tate, LGBT mardi gras were only held ev­ery third Satur­day.)

Still, I was qui­etly proud of my mi­nor con­tri­bu­tion to gay ac­tivism in Sin­ga­pore.

How­ever, when the show was even­tu­ally broad­cast, all traces of my gay­ness were re­moved. The fren­zied cen­sors had gone to work with their scis­sors.

I was no longer a gay hairdresser, just an an ang moh hairdresser with loud clothes and a scar­ily bouf­fant hair­style.

As the se­ries went out be­fore so­cial me­dia, there was no al­ter­na­tive voice to hide be­hind, no online avatar to vent my fury. So I did the Sin­ga­porean thing. I raged in si­lence against the cen­sored ma­chine.

Of course, it’s easy to be smug, par­tic­u­larly as a leftie Western au­thor raised in that afore­men­tioned cra­dle of sex­ual he­do­nism (and by the way, it al­ways tick­les me when con­ser­va­tives ex­press their fear at all the sex­ual promis­cu­ity that has ap­par­ently cor­rupted the West. I grew up in the West and never found any promis­cu­ity and I looked ev­ery­where. I was des­per­ate to be cor­rupted.)

But the un­com­fort­able truth is my child­hood re­la­tion­ship with the LGBT community was, in ef­fect, a mi­cro­cosm of Sin­ga­pore’s awk­ward re­la­tion­ship with the LGBT community. Ho­mo­pho­bia was ev­ery­where.

As a child, I had a mother with many gay friends and an in­fat­u­a­tion with drag queens, a woman who keenly em­braced al­ter­na­tive life­styles. But other mem­bers of the fam­ily rou­tinely threat­ened aban­don­ment if I so much as glanced at a Barbie doll.

In a British, work­ing-class en­vi­ron­ment, ho­mo­pho­bia was a way of life in the 1980s. To sug­gest oth­er­wise would not only white­wash an ig­no­rant cul­ture, but also do a tremen­dous dis­ser­vice to those who fought such ig­no­rance. And then, Sin­ga­pore hap­pened. Or, to be more spe­cific, a pack­age tour hol­i­day to the United States with a group of ho­mo­pho­bic Sin­ga­pore­ans hap­pened.

The dispir­it­ing episode earned its own chap­ter in my first book; such was the ex­tra­or­di­nary im­pact it had on my un­der­stand­ing of ho­mo­pho­bia in Sin­ga­pore.

Af­ter a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, the tour bus took us through San Francisco’s Cas­tro Dis­trict, a prom­i­nent gay vil­lage, to give trav­ellers a chance to gawp at the ‘ex­hibits’.

On the bus, young and old Chi­nese faces were pressed against the glass as the tour guide pointed out gay cou­ples hold­ing hands or oc­ca­sion­ally kiss­ing, treat­ing them as zoo at­trac­tions for his gig­gling pun­ters.

Some took photos. Oth­ers warned their chil­dren of tak­ing such an evil path. It was im­moral, shame­ful. It was against the word of God, Govern­ment and ev­ery

But there is no equal­ity. Sec­tion 377A of the Pe­nal Code re­mains. Even if the gov­ern­ing pow­ers prom­ise to “close one eye”, the stigma en­dures.

in­quis­i­tive aun­tie at ev­ery Re­union din­ner. The ‘gays’ ex­isted only to en­ter­tain the chuck­ling ho­mo­phobes. They were freaks on a side­walk to be pho­tographed and ridiculed, but never en­dorsed or ac­cepted.

I was no longer a mem­ber of tour party, but an ex­tra in a sit­com from the ’70s, the one where ev­ery punch­line in­volved skin colour, sex­u­al­ity or a blonde woman’s enor­mous breasts.

But that bus tour was in 1998. When I chron­i­cled the ex­cur­sion 20 years ago, I an­tic­i­pated con­sid­er­able progress in the en­su­ing decades.

And there are the an­nual Pink Dot cel­e­bra­tions now. More peo­ple are com­ing out. TV shows and movies with prom­i­nent gay char­ac­ters are no longer treated with the kind of dis­gust that should only be re­served for Trans­form­ers se­quels.

But there is no equal­ity. Sec­tion 377A of the Pe­nal Code re­mains. Even if the gov­ern­ing pow­ers prom­ise to “close one eye”, the stigma en­dures. Of course, it’s all the ang mohs’ fault. When­ever those in au­thor­ity are chal­lenged by lib­eral snowflakes like me, the old colo­nial trump card can be whipped out at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

If you hap­pen to be­lieve the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Depart­ment has an Or­wellian un­der­tow of sur­veil­lance and con­trol, then blame the British! It was their depart­ment first.

Sec­tion 377A seems like an in­tol­er­ant relic from a by­gone era? Blame the British! It was their law first. A Sin­ga­porean TV drama at­tempts to sur­rep­ti­tiously sneak in a pro-LGBT sto­ry­line through an over­wrought gay hairdresser? Blame the British! An ang moh played the part first.

De­fend­ing the per­sis­tence of an out­dated law on the grounds that it was the work of an idiosyncratic le­gal sys­tem is a shaky ar­gu­ment, par­tic­u­larly if the ec­cen­tric Brits were in­volved.

Re­mem­ber, a British law states that no pota­toes can be im­ported into Eng­land if the im­porter has rea­son­able cause to sus­pect that the pota­toes are from Poland.

So it’s a bit tricky to handball Sec­tion 377A over to the for­mer colo­nial masters, par­tic­u­larly when same-sex mar­riage is now recog­nised in Eng­land (though, bizarrely, the sneaky Pol­ish potato law re­mains on the books.)

How­ever, progress has at least been made on the me­dia front.

Un­like my gay hairdresser, the gay teenager in the re­cent ro­man­tic com­edy Love, Si­mon wasn’t cen­sored in Sin­ga­pore.

The movie was slapped with an R21 rat­ing, but the Os­car-win­ning film The Shape of Wa­ter was only rated as M18, an ex­as­per­at­ing in­dict­ment of our sur­real and slightly ir­ra­tional coun­try.

Watch­ing a young gay man fall in love is clearly a greater threat to our so­cial fab­ric than watch­ing a woman have sex with a fish mon­ster.

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