The One About Having It All
On Being Gay and Female in Singapore
If you were to meet me on the streets of Singapore, you probably would not peg me for ‘gay’. Apparently, ‘gay woman’ or ‘lesbian’ has to be one or several of the following: short-haired, oddball, butch-like; a flaming dyke. You would expect me to show up in a flannel shirt and in Birkenstock sandals to business meetings. If I am aggressive in them, that’s because I’m an ‘angry lesbian’ who probably doesn’t get enough, and if I’m not, then it’s just such a terrible ‘waste’.
I am not angry. Not nearly enough. My hair reaches my shoulders, and a little more. I am as much of a dyke as you’ll ever meet, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. I may not be a princess — I don’t even know how to paint my nails — but I ‘pass’ for straight. Not because I try or want to, not because I have anything to hide, but because I don’t know how else to style my hair, and this is the only way I’ve ever known to look.
You see, I am a 27 year old lesbian who has always been amused by how much that means to other people, instead of to myself. Classmates and teachers wanted to know, and said so in hushed whispers: “they must be dating.” (I would never assume two large people were dating just because they were both large and walking next to each other, so I do not understand this popular train of thought.)
Men with inquiring minds want to know, always: have I tried a man? If not, perhaps they could help me make an informed decision? Even the Social Development Unit has stopped sending me letters and brochures urging the benefits of marriage and procreation. I am, as you may say, not in a ‘phase’. (I did have a ‘straight phase’ though, but that fad did not last.) In eight years, I may be able to purchase a HDB flat of my own.
In about ten years of gay-ness, I’ve had a two serious relationships, the last which came as close to ‘settling down’ and ‘divorce’ as I may ever get. I have no trouble finding interesting lesbian and bisexual women to go out with in this city, or anywhere else I may be; in Singapore, I have rarely — perhaps never — experienced forthright discrimination in the physical way. But more on that later.
I am out to everybody, and I’d be surprised if anybody really cared (except for the religious). It has never stood in the way of career, money, social standing, power; it is irrelevant to most other parts of my life, but it informs my decisions. I no longer have any religious or conservative friends, for example; I don’t need them in my life. We would fundamentally disagree on everything anyway, from politics to Palestine to Republicans and Democrats and reproductive rights, and my gayness would have nothing to do with their bigotry. My sexual identity is as irrelevant to me as my race (Chinese) and nationality (Singaporean), or the fact that I have a head of rapidly graying hair (hereditary). All of those things are the parts which make up the sum of who I am, but on their own are insignificant — to me.
But I also know my Singaporean lesbian existence is not representative: I am a 27 year old lesbian with opportunities which have exceeded many of my peers’, straight or gay or otherwise. I have the luxury of travelling most of the time on business and leisure. I have the privilege of living on my own in this city — it’s difficult to lead an active dating life while living at home with your parents, like unmarried Singaporeans like us are supposed to do. I have a great day job, an active social life, no kids, no debt; I don’t even have to answer the regular Chinese New Year questions anymore. I have never worked in a place, or with people who cared about the fact that I am an out gay woman. In short, I can do pretty much whatever the hell I want.
Whether or not I can have it all is quite a different thing.
Some people have the rather odd idea that all gay people — men and women — are promiscuous, that we shag like rabbits, that we want nothing more than to get into each other’s pants, and anyone will do.
The lesbian cliché which comes a lot closer to the truth goes something like this: we meet in bookstores / poetry readings / book clubs. On our second date, we move in; we proceed to have a monogamous relationship for the rest of our lives, sometimes resulting in offspring, all the time resulting in cats (and dogs).
The reason why there isn’t, and will never be a lesbian Grindr is you’d have to change all the fields to ‘Looking for: long walks on the beach, someone to adopt a cat with. Available tonight in Pasir Ris — I have a toothbrush, let’s talk about our feelings.’
Singapore is a great city for young lesbians like me. There is a large dating scene, at least three lesbian parties a week, there is even the space to live a ‘normal’ life together, perhaps for a while; perhaps after a dramatic reduction of expectations. Because this is where it stops. Once you’re done with the partying, where do you go here? The only life that is known to me to be possible is a life of co-habitation with two dogs and a cat and perhaps a non-legally binding commitment ceremony with your best friends. If you’re really lucky, your parents might come too.
For some, that’s more than enough. The journey of finding someone special is difficult enough, not just for gay people, but for everybody with a pulse.
For others — that never will be enough. We have lost so many of our own, among them our brightest and best, to other cities and countries, and we’ll probably never get them back. When the time came for them to settle down, the idea that the place we call home wants us for nothing more than our pink dollars, perhaps even for our contribution to the fertility rate (with limits), but will not recognize our love, is more than they can bear.
So what I can have, and continue to have, is my young professional’s yuppie lifestyle with dates in amazing restaurants and bars; I can go to these parties, sometimes meet interesting women; I can continue to function as an economically active member of this society, pay my taxes on time and give money to my parents; I can go to Chinese New Year dinners without having to answer to anyone about my marriage plans (they don’t want to know).
I can certainly walk from Raffles Place MRT to Tanjong Pagar without anybody stopping to make a value judgment that I must be lesbian, and therefore something else as well.
What I cannot do, is I cannot walk the same distance with a beautiful woman on my arm, without someone else wanting to know about this terrible waste of a woman, for a woman to be with a woman, and I cannot know for certain that if I were to meet with an accident on this same walk, the beautiful woman who may be my life partner will have any more of a say in my medical and legal future, than any stranger who helps me at the scene or at a hospital.
What I can’t have, therefore, is immaterial. It’s not about the HDB flats I can or cannot buy. It’s that as a lesbian woman in this society, I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith. As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in conservative Singapore’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.
For someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best — live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death — and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be as our equals, and our love as deserving.