16 Sep 2011

Same sexuality, different drag

When Singapore's most famous drag queen (finally) came out as gay this week, many gay men and women dismissed his acknowledgement as being insignificant and superfluous since "everyone" already knew. Otto Fong argues that his coming out should be seen as important if the gay community wants the public acknowledgement and the respect that comes with it.

This week, Kumar came out of the closet! 

Kumar is famous in Singapore as a comedian, cross-dressing performer and top drag queen. He is also a household name as he has hosted local TV programmes since the early 1990s. At the launch of his new book Kumar: From Rags To Drags on Tuesday, attended by guest-of-honor and Singapore minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Kumar – now 43-years-old – announced that he is finally able to say that he is gay despite his denials in numerous earlier newspaper interviews.

Many gay men and women praised Kumar for his courage in online chatter, and just as many said that it is no surprise because Kumar is “so obvious”. Kumar’s sexuality, as some believe, is public knowledge – he still enjoyed fame and success as a performer – so his coming out would make no difference at all.

But I beg to differ. Kumar’s public outing is as significant as anyone’s public outing. It took no less courage for an “obviously gay” person to acknowledge that he or she is gay. 

Many people prefer that gay folks NOT publicly acknowledge our sexuality, even when all signs point to someone being gay. In the past, Kumar had denied that he was gay twice in the newspapers. So, even if there was acceptance, the acceptance was of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell No Matter How Obvious You Are” kind. We accept you – as long as you don’t say you are gay. 

That is why Kumar coming out is important: as a community, we want that formal public acknowledgement, and we want the respect that comes with it. The true test for Kumar’s relationship with the public lies in the next few years after he comes out: it should make no difference then that he said he is gay, since he is already an ‘obvious’ queen. 

A Madonna song was introduced this way: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, 'cause it's OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, 'cause you think that being a girl is degrading.” The discrimination within the community for drag queens and ‘obvious’ gays persisted till today. Perhaps some of us see their sissy behaviour as instrumental in the discrimination of the LGBT community? 

The real culprit of LGBT discrimination is not so much that ‘obvious’ gay people live openly, but rather that less ‘obvious’ people remain hidden, therefore offer nothing to counter the public’s perception that all gay people are somehow into drag or sissies (not that cross-dressing or being effeminate is wrong). The only way for the public to see the diversity, is for a diverse bunch of gay people to live their lives openly, isn't it? Seeing is believing. All else is propaganda.

When we were young, some of the straight-acting (in a sense, Kumar dear, we’re better actors than you) amongst us joined in the teasing of sissies. That sense of superiority never left some of us. We bulked up, and with our armor of muscles, are manlier than straight men. We think that this armour can protect us from the curious attention of our colleagues and friends – even though the same muscles are primarily designed to attract potential suitors and lovers (don't give me that "it's for health" talk – you can be perfectly healthy doing yoga or jogging). 

It might work for a while, but unless you’re married with children, eventually, people will see through that build. In other words, it takes a straight person to know another straight person – and you ain’t no straight person, bro! You are single, middle-aged, and have a buzz-cut, and you carry more name-branded clothes and bags than the average female colleague. If and when you come out one day, don’t be surprised that your friends fight to stifle the yawns as you did when you heard about Kumar’s outing.

Kumar may be the elephant in the room, but when he trumpeted, some other elephants in the room yawned louder than they should. That’s because some think they're much less obvious than Kumar – maybe because they think they are safe hiding behind the sofa and other tiny furniture in the room.

Kumar wears a dress, some of us wear muscles and A&F. Different drag, just as gay. There is nothing wrong with gorgeous muscles that light up the scenery and my Facebook, just as there is nothing wrong with dresses because they do that too. There is nothing wrong with coming out, and nothing wrong to stay in the closet.

But if we discriminate against our own kind, how can we expect equality from others?