In gay terms, I am ten years old this year, a young un. I was not out as a gay man to myself for the first thirty-four years of my life, even though I knew since primary school that I was strongly attracted to boys. I had to move from Singapore to New York in order to come out as gay. Unlike many friends, I lacked the courage to come out in Singapore. It was not easy to come out in New York either. I remember walking back and forth in front of a gay bar, terrified of going in. I had to join a coming-out group at Identity House for group therapy and discussion. I was not sick, but you don’t need to be sick to need therapy. You only need to be damaged. The first time I plucked up the courage to attend a meeting of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), I made sure I did not cross my legs in the room filled with gay Asian men; I did not want to appear effeminate.
But it was at the next GAPIMNY meeting, which of course ended with supper in a Chelsea restaurant, that I met my first boyfriend. Winston was smart, kind and gentle. We took long walks in the city and talked and talked and talked. I was studying creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College at that time, and could not wait for the weekends when I would take the half-hour Metro-North train ride from Bronxville to Grand Central Station, and then the subway to Brooklyn Heights to see him. Once, watching a movie alone in Bronxville, I decided to surprise him by seeing him mid-week. The visit was more for my sake than his, but he welcomed me, though it was past midnight, and I returned to the campus by train early in the morning.
It was easier for me to come out to my parents when I had a boyfriend. I did not make it easy for my parents, though. After telling them that I was gay, I told them next that he was visiting them in Singapore in three days’ time. They rose gallantly to the occasion. It was very difficult for them, for it was like mourning the death of a son whom they thought they know, but they welcomed Winston warmly. We went out for a satay dinner at Lau Pa Sat, or Old Market. It was harder for my sister, for she was a sincere Evangelical Christian. My parents were Christians too, but they came to Christianity late in life and, anyway, kinship, for them, trumps religion. Still, my sister asked both of us to her home for dinner. It was a magnificent gesture. Not of acceptance, mind you, for her religious belief forbids it, but of love. My parents still attend Faith Community Baptist Church (yes, where the senior pastor is the homophobic Lawrence Khong). My sister and her family are looking for another church closer to their home, the last I heard.
This summer I will visit Singapore, as I’ve been doing every year. Guy my boyfriend will join me there, for the second time. During his last visit, two years ago, he hated the crowded shopping malls, but he loved Little India, for its architecture, food and atmosphere. We will again stay with my parents, taking up one of the two bedrooms in their tiny apartment, my old bedroom, in fact. I’m looking forward to introducing him to my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in New Delhi at the time of Guy’s first visit. I don’t know how my sister will introduce Guy to my young nieces. She and I have not talked about it. We are very loyal to one another, but we don’t talk much. Some things do take time. I myself took a very long time to come to terms with my sexuality. The least, and perhaps best, that I can do is to give others time too.
Coming out does not mean I have all my questions answered, but it does mean that I can answer life’s questions more truthfully. What is the balance between freedom and responsibility? What are the claims and limitations of love? Why do I hit the gym so obsessedly? And it is not just a matter of truth. It is a matter of liberation. For only by understanding the truth about oneself and others can we expand the ambit of our freedom. The Bible has at least this right: the truth shall set you free.
What about the role of the law in guaranteeing our freedoms? The words of Michel Foucault are the lodestone to me in this respect. Asked by an interviewer if he saw any particular architectural projects, either in the past or the present, as forces of liberation or resistance, Foucault replied, “The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.” He does not mean, of course, that we should not try to change the laws and institutions to gain our liberties, but he insists that we cannot depend on laws and institutions to guarantee our freedom. For, as he puts it succinctly, “Liberty is a practice.” We must act as if we are already free.