(This article is based on Otto Fong’s speech at a sharing session held at the Singapore Management University on 7 Feb 2012.)
As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I’ve decided to share the one aspect of my life that is relevant to the occasion: my love. More specifically, I’m sharing how I had looked for love in the 90s, in a decade B.I. (Before Internet).
In 1989, I graduated from Oklahoma State University in the US and returned to Singapore to complete my National Service in the Armed Forces.
At that time, there were just a few places where gay men gathered to socialise. There was a pub in Orchard Road which catered mainly to foreigners and their admirers. There was a karaoke pub for local gay men, and I will share why I skipped that option later.
A third option was a ‘Sunday Disco’. Every few months, a local disco would open its doors to gay men on Sunday nights. I assume that Sunday night was given to us because it was the least desirable evening to party late, and we would fill the dance floor and the disco owner’s coffers in a win-win situation. Every few months or so, the police would conduct a raid. They would line us up and take down our particulars, asking what used to be rather embarrassing questions such as, “how often do you come here?” Most of us would blush in shame and lie, “it’s my first time.” I remembered a rare brave soul (not me), when confronted with that question, defiantly answering, “oh, I come here so often I lost count!”
The intent of the raid might be routine, but invariably the clients would scatter and stay away. Awhile later, another disco would take up the baton and open its Sunday doors to us. We were shooed from disco to disco, and kept nomadic. Without a stable place to meet, we had no means of constructing our identities, friends and community. Without community, we were scattered and disempowered.
There was one other place to meet gay guys – the open air space above Raffles Place MRT. In the early 90s, we hung out regularly, ‘cruised’ the back streets around the area trying to meet others. Guys from all walks of life roamed for love – yet, we were guarded about our true selves. Many used fake names. Conversations were inauthentic, full of gaps and closed doors. You can imagine that chances of finding someone compatible were extremely remote.
Most of my relationships then were conducted in secret from my family, colleagues and friends. It was like one frightened blind person leading another frightened blind person. They all ended in heartbreaks. Guess what? We endured these heartbreaks the same way we conducted our relationships: on our own.
Up till today, I have trouble sitting in a gay karaoke – which is often filled with the mournful groans of broken hearts, much like a bear bile factory in China. Every other song was one of tears and crying softly over pillows. Two favourites were Sandy Lam’s “Loved Someone Who Didn’t Come Home”, and Faye Wong’s “Easily-Hurt Woman”.
Society’s message to gay men was this: “go out, and you risk humiliation, harassment and get labelled a slut. Stay home, avoid any gay encounters, and remain ignorant and stupid. But you’ll be safe.” If I had relied on the country’s media, I would have been deeply closeted, filled with misery, loneliness and self-loathing. To my credit, I chose slut over stupid.
I threw myself from one possible relationship to another from age 21 to 29. My lovers were varied: one boyfriend was so poor at expressing himself, he shared his feelings for me via song lyrics: “this is how I feel about you,” he would say to me every conversation, “press ‘play’ please!” Another wanted me to be his trophy, and dragged me from weary power lunches to dreary intellectual dinners. A third made me feel so safe, so loved for eight months before it was revealed that I was his fling outside of a 16-year relationship. Oh, and by the way he was getting married too. Cue Faye Wong music!
Straight people like to say that gay men cannot conduct successful, long-term relationships. The more likely truth is that given the lack of social, familial and legal support, it’s a wonder so many of us would not give up! It’s helpful to remember that even straight people face challenges in the pursuit of love – for in spite of all the support that family, society and law gave our straight brothers and sisters, divorces rates continued to climb.
By 29, I was ready to concede defeat. “Maybe it is true what they said about gay men – we’re just not built to have lasting relationships!”
Fortunately, my years out there paid off in two important ways: 1. after a couple of particularly nasty breakups, I started to appreciate the hurt I had unwittingly inflicted on some of my past boyfriends. My failures made me appreciate how valuable a good lover is. 2. An ex-boyfriend match-made me and my current partner, Han.
Han and I had been around the block a few times, so we were older and wiser. We dated for three years before he started spending weekends over. After five years, when we were very sure of our mutual commitment, I placed a downpayment for our first car. The car was to enable him to live with me on weekdays, and still get to work relatively conveniently.
As our relationship grew stronger, another miracle was happening around the globe: the Internet.
With the advent of social networking sites such as Fridae.asia, gay Singaporeans started posting their profile pictures online. That, few realised, was the first tentative step out of the closet for many in the community and as one.
Han and I started hanging out with other couples like us. With a growing community, and regular gossip, we gained valuable insights. For instance, in each couple, we observed that one would be sloppier while the other would insist on cleanliness. So it was and still is with Han and myself, and I used to think that difference was an irritation we had to live with. We quickly learnt, upon a visit to a couple’s home (they were both sloppy), that differences are what kept us from spinning out into extremes in our daily habits.
With that stability, Han and I were able to focus our energies on building our dream home. We are able to invest more energy in our individual careers, and we even have enough time left to welcome a lively Jack Russell into our lives.
With my hunting days (for a partner) behind me (at least, for now, hopefully, for longer), I’ve now turned my mind towards the greater society. Before I hit puberty and realised I was gay, I was first and foremost a lover of comics, science and science fiction. I have since embarked on a quest to get Asians to see themselves as equals in terms of science with their Western counterparts. Afterall, the problems of global warming and mass extinctions of animal and plant species cannot be solved by a science army of half-strength. I am now drawing and self-publishing a thriving brand of sci-fi comics called Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science.
Normally, I would end an article with a punch – save the best for last, I suppose. But I decided I won’t. While Han and I have been together for 14 years, it really isn’t anything to gloat about. Being together is simply a preferred state of living for the two of us, and many of our single friends are doing perfectly well in their singlehood. If our years being out there in the wild, wild world of love and relationships had taught us anything, it is that we simply can’t take anything for granted.
Perhaps I can close and leave you with this: despite the draconian options society officially offered gay people in the past, it was possible for me to find true love against all odds. The only true way to stop you from loving someone is that you choose to stop loving. With that, thank you for reading, and may you have a great Valentine’s Day with your loved one, with your friends or with yourself.
Fridae is interested in receiving personal essays from LGBT readers in the Asia-Pacific region that illustrate the current state of love and relationships, especially aided by online dating sites, mobile dating apps, and social media. Essays should be between 1,000 to 1,500 words, and be evocative and compellingly told. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.