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.
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.