I was a student at UC Berkeley when gay marriage was first legalized in San Francisco by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004. By then a junior, I had come to realise Berkeley was a beacon for both out and not-yet-ready-to-come-out students; it drew bright teenagers from all over America and the world, really, who were struggling with their sexuality; and for many of these students it was the first time in their lives they felt at home. Berkeley was where it was okay to be different, it was okay to be weird, it was okay to not be okay.
As you might imagine, Berkeley’s progressiveness was a hard pill to swallow for many straight-laced Singaporeans. Most of us came from sheltered backgrounds where our needs were taken care of and the only thing we needed to do was excel at school. I considered myself progressive; as an intern at Time Magazine I had earlier written a feature on Singapore’s gay community, speaking to many gay men and women about their lives. But nothing could have prepared me for my girlfriend’s confession in sophomore year. She had been dealing with depression for some time; gradually it emerged that as a conservative Christian she was struggling with her sexuality and a particular girl crush, which of course led to the next question…“the girl you have a crush on…is me?” Till today I still regret the loss of our friendship.
It’s probably impossible to have attended Berkeley without knowing at least one gay friend. I prided myself on having many; in my last semester both my housemates were gay men. But gay marriage always left me conflicted. Isn’t marriage between a man and a woman? If gay couples can’t have children, why would they want to get married?
“Why would you want to get married?” I asked my gay Singaporean best friend. “Don’t you all just want to have fun?”
Gay men and women, from my experience at Berkeley, just wanted to have fun. They changed partners as often as they changed socks, had no problem divorcing sex from love, and had no interest in long-term relationships. (This, I must note, was not unique to the gay community at Berkeley)
“Why do you think we’re any different from you?” The look of deep disappointment on his face surprised me. “Why would you think I wouldn’t want to get married, or have kids?”
As a college student, marriage and kids were a long, long way from my mind. But the idea that wanting long-term companionship and wanting a family was something universal blew apart all my preconceptions of what it meant to be gay. I suppose I was guilty of what many straight people then and now still think, that gay men (and women) are promiscuous and want a life of hedonistic pleasure. My best friend was back then and now only ever in long-term relationships, but I thought he was an exception, not the norm.
As I began to reevaluate my previous assumptions about gay marriage, I started wondering if the promiscuous lifestyles that some gay men led was not in some way a response to their inability to be “normal” and have “normal” relationships like everyone else. A friend I knew was dumped by his high-achieving scholar boyfriend who wanted to be “normal”—to get married and have kids, back then unthinkable for a gay man in Singapore. My friend’s ‘revenge’ was to go on a string of one-night stands and quick hook-ups.
But what really and truly changed my mind was the moment when San Francisco went against President Bush’s declaration of support for banning same-sex unions. Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, thus sparking the first in a long wave of legal challenges that eventually ended with the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage in 2015.
Photo: Liz Mangelsdorf, The Chronicle
Phyllis Lyon, left, and Del Martin, who have been together for 51 years, embrace after their marriage at City Hall in 2004. They were the first legally married same-sex couple in San Francisco
The papers the next day were filled with pages and pages of same-sex couples in tears: couples in their eighties who had been together for over sixty years, couples in their thirties and forties in every industry from teaching to government and investment banking, couples with young children, mixed couples, white couples, black couples, Latino couples, Asian couples. They looked just like you or me. As I read their stories, of their love and devotion to each other and the obstacles they had overcome to be together, their joy at finally gaining some form of public recognition, I could not help but cry along with them.
Till today, I believe the most powerful way of changing hearts and minds is for the gay community to share their stories. Not just through Pink Dot videos or blog posts, but by sharing your story with the friends and family around you. Unfortunately, I came to realise that most gay men and women, especially those working in the government, military, MNCs, financial and professional services, remain extremely closeted and tight-lipped about their loved ones. How open can you be when your entire career and everything you’ve worked for could be destroyed in one moment by a vicious police report? In the civil service, for example, I have heard that while it is fine if you want to come out, don’t expect to get promoted beyond a certain level as an open and out gay civil servant. It is considered especially suicidal for those in the teaching service to come out, even though some of the most kind and nurturing teachers I have known are gay. It saddens me that so many friends and colleagues I know have to repress or lie about their personal lives, living every day in fear of repercussion because of an antiquated colonial law.
Many Singaporeans probably believe that Section 377A has no relevance to their lives; they don’t know any gay people anyway so why should they care? I’d like to debunk that assumption. Gay Singaporeans are everywhere. They look just like you or me. They aren’t just “camp” (effeminate) or “butch” (masculine). Many of them are gorgeous, more manly/womanly than you or I could be. Many of them are in the news, on television, in the papers. But a great many more live everyday lives just like you and me. They are your classmate from secondary school, your friendly neighbourhood Auntie, the single man in your office, the unmarried cousin in your family. You just haven’t noticed.
In “voting” to repeal 377A, and by writing this, I hope that my fellow Singaporeans can open their eyes a little more and notice people who don’t lead lives like theirs. Singaporeans, myself included, are great at complaining. We complain about the drudgery of our everyday lives, skyrocketing prices, how Channel 8 dramas suck (confession: I’ve written some myself), why our lives are so dull, why Singapore is so boring. But we appear incapable of extending any empathy to people who aren’t like us. My “vote” for repealing 377A is not just for the gay community. It is my sincere hope that we can become more compassionate towards one another, that we learn to listen to voices that are different from ours, that we come to accept that our strength lies in our differences. Repealing 377A, I hope, will be the first step in Singapore becoming a more tolerant, diverse, and beautiful country.
If this has moved you in any way, do consider signing the ongoing petition to repeal 377A.