"What you risk reveals what you value.”
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
“Coming out” is a very interesting concept, often imagined to be a straightforward process boasting one of two outcomes: 1) You come out and the person you’ve come out to accepts you and loves you for who you are or 2) You come out and the person you come out to rejects you and your life is left forever in an irreparable state of despair.
Not that either of the above does not happen; I certainly know of coming out stories that have involved the protagonist being accepted with great love and without question. I also know of stories that have involved the protagonist being thrown out of the house and in one case, moved out of the country.
But more than often, the stories I hear involve long drawn-out and often messy processes that span weeks, months, years. They involve uncomfortable silences, awkward dinners and painful revisitations of the subject at hand: Parents pretend they do not hear you, friends get all self-conscious about the things they say, colleagues tiptoe around the issue like eggshells they’d wish you’d never scattered.
I reference other people’s experiences because my “coming out experience" does not seem to fit into what a “traditional” coming out is normally perceived to be: I’ve never really come out because I’ve always been out. And while I was a kid, I was kinda of yanked out (explanation to follow). So when I was asked to be part of Sayoni’s Coming Out Campaign*, which launches as part of IndigNation 2013, I was concerned that my story might not even be relevant. It was the slogan that finally convinced me: “Come Out, Come Home”.
Come out. Come home. The summon suggests an invitation to “return” that I felt was relevant to me. Like many queer people, there exists a complex relationship between my sexuality and my personal experiences of the word “home”. For those of you who know me or have heard about my experiences with fundamentalist religion, you will know my story: When I was twelve, my mother, who read “sexual deviance” into the way I dressed and behaved, had me exorcised in an effort to expel the “lesbian demons” from my body. It was a long and traumatic affair, one that resulted in a deteriorating relationship with my mother that distilled itself into years of monosyllabic exchanges and the occassional screaming match about how and why I was going to hell. Eventually, after college, I relocated without telling anyone where I was going or that I was not coming back.
The immediate result of this: Because I had no savings, I lived hand-to-mouth and spent my early-to-mid twenties getting evicted from housing I could not afford. I moved house seven times, lived through power cuts and learned to enjoy instant noodles. For the first few years, I could’t afford a computer and worked at the library and at internet cafes. Once, I stole food. During the worst of times, I become acutely aware of my privilege: I had a choice to go home. But that would have meant re-entering a space that was emotionally unsafe and in which I would have had to make compromises in terms of who I was, so I never did. Making that decision repeatedly helped me own my decision to leave and made me realise how important living life on my own terms, authentically as a queer person, was to me. And today, I am grateful at having been given the opportunity to have made that choice again and again.
Fighting for a space in which my sexuality was not deemed some dirty, sinful thing, even when I was still living with my blood-family, made me realise how being out in society is often an act of defiance – an act of disregard to so many of the dangerous lies we’ve been made to believe about ourselves and the people around us; about what is acceptable or unacceptable, what constitutes family or doesn’t, what is valuable or not. This sense of empowerment is what I was referring to when Jasmine, who interviewed me for the campaign, asked me about how I’ve benefitted from being out. I feel that fighting to be unapologetically open about my sexuality has empowered me to reject so much of what has been socially constructed, extremely fast -- I’ve learned that family are the folks you feel safe coming home to and not necessarily the group of people you were born into, I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to homophobia and have no qualms calling people out on it, and I talk to my students freely about issues of gender or sexuality unconcerned that someone is going to yank me out of the closet.
And this same disregard for what has been normalised as “socially acceptable” permeates into other aspects of my life as well – I dress and decorate my body how I please, I feel no need to subscribe to society’s ideologies regarding beauty and success, and my identity is not rooted in my material possessions.
But perhaps one of the most important things to me about being out is the opportunity it has given me to be honest in my creative work, a lot of which deals with my experiences of queer desire. Because every now and then, when someone – usually a young person- says that my writing has been a source of comfort, I am reminded of why being visible is important. And I remember how comforted I was by all the points of visibility I had growing up in a country that appeared unflinchingly homophobic: Jeanette Winterson’s novels, Melissa Etheridge’s music, Cyril Wong’s poetry, People Like Us (PLU), RedQueen, the audacity of any queer person around me who dared to be out and the ferocity of any straight person who dared to be an ally.
The concept of visibility often reminds me of one interpretation of a biblical tale in which Jesus fed a crowd of five thousand with five loaves and two fishes:
Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.
He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.”
But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” The disciples did so, and everyone sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
Luke Chapter 9, verses 12-17.
It is generally believed that Jesus performed a miracle and with the help of god, multiplied the food to feed the masses. However, a less common interpretation of this story I’ve come across, offers a different reading that touched me deeply. It suggests that people venturing into remote territory without bringing food along would have been an unlikely scenario. It proposes that people were reluctant to take their own food out, in case others around them had not brought any. After all, sharing with others would mean that they would have had less for themselves. Jesus, on the other hand, by offering to share his own food, had touched his followers with his selflesness. In turn, they too took out the food they had brought. It is in this way that the loaves and the fishes multiplied and no one went hungry.
The parallel might seem a bit of a stretch for some. But it makes perfect sense to me: Sometimes, people need to see something in order to be it. When one person demonstrates the courage of visibility, you can be sure that it will encourage someone else to do the same or at the very least, make someone examine their own reasons for not coming out. Or make someone who is feels afraid and alone because they are queer, feel a little better about themselves. I just feel that the more of us who risk the joy of being ourselves – at home, at work, at play – the more likely we will live to see the day when coming out is no longer a risk…. when being ourselves wholeheartedly is something that is embedded into the everyday rather that something upon which either utter rejection or social acceptance is pivoted.
That being said, I do not use the word “risk” lightly. I’m not advocating that every closeted personal declare their sexuality upon the world. I am aware that my ability to be out without too much adversity, has been afforded to me by numerous privileges. If you feel as though coming out might result in physical, emotional or psychological violence against you, do not risk your safety. Just understand that your situation is unjust, that it is not your fault and that Singapore does have resources that can put you in touch with support and community, should you want it.** I also recommend this book.
What I am advocating, is that those of us who remain closeted in order to protect the benefits afforded us by the status quo, rethink the impact (or lack thereof) of our actions on a society racked by inequality. If maintaining the normalcy of a life in which clubbing once a week in one of the few spaces you feel allowed to be yourself means that you’re free, think again. If you think that letting a homophobic joke pass at the table for fear of outing yourself hurts no one, think again. For every privilege enjoyed by a queer person who maintains the status quo, another queer person is experiencing violence or discrimination at the hands of that same status quo. Every time we pander to the system that condemns us for who we are, we are reinforcing the same system that oppresses, demonises, criminalises us. You might think that you have mastered the system when in actual fact, it has mastered you. Or as Audre Lorde so eloquently put it, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
What I am advocating is that for those of us who can be out, we must be. We cannot live off the spoils of those who have fought for the rights that we now enjoy, knowing that so many others among us live in fear, pain and loneliness. Our rights must come at the price of creating safe spaces in which others can also dwell without fear, violence or discrimination; they must come at the price of visibility, of reminding those around us that we exist not as abstract concepts, but as human beings.
This gesture of solidarity is basic to our freedom as a community and central to strengthening its support networks. For every person who loves you on condition of your sexuality, there is another who will love you regardless of it: So leave the master’s house, come out, come home.