10 Oct 2008

Faggot faggot faggot!

Befriended by former classmates on Facebook, Shinen Wong recalls being called "faggot" and other homophobic abuse while attending two prominent boys' school in Singapore.

Editor's note: Fridae welcomes its newest columnist, Shinen Wong.
Malaysia-born and Singapore-bred Wong is currently getting settled in
Sydney, Australia after moving from the United States, having attended
college in Hanover, New Hampshire, and working in San Francisco for a
year after. In this new fortnightly "Been Queer. Done That" column,
Wong will explore gender, sexuality, and queer cultures based on
personal anecdotes, sweeping generalisations and his incomprehensible

On February 12 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot and killed by one of his fellow school mates, Brandon McInerney, in their school E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California. King had publically come out as gay to his schoolmates, and was regularly verbally abused and harassed by his fellow students, partially because of his self-proclaimed sexual orientation. However, the bullying also intensified when he began showing up to school adorned in women's clothing and accessories, including high heels.

Since this appalling incident, several states across America have responded to an earlier 2005 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) research report by enacting legislation to prevent bullying in schools. The 2005 GLSEN report shows that bullying in the form of physical and verbal harassment is a national problem in schools. According to this report, terms like "faggot" and "dyke" are heard used in derogatory ways 'frequently or often' by more than three in four students in school. Over one in three students have experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation. One in four students have experienced physical harassment on the basis of their gender expression (how we communicate our sex and gender to others, such as by clothing, hair style, tone of voice, etc.).

And this, of course, is not just happening in America.

In Singapore, I was educated in a family of schools called the Anglo-Chinese School, or ACS. These schools were collectively part of a family of schools called the Anglo-Chinese School, or ACS. The original ACS school was founded by a British Methodist evangelist by the name of William Oldham, his Anglo name obviously lending to the school's credibility in Singapore as an outstanding progressive institution for young Asian bodies to succeed. Officer, scholar, gentleman, indeed.

With regard to my sexual orientation, my experiences in ACS were excruciatingly painful. From primary two to six, I was in the Anglo Chinese Primary School, where I was incessantly bullied by blatantly anti-intellectual insults such as "nerd," "four-eyes," and "ah kua," (a Hokkien term that is used somewhat synonymously with 'sissy'). It was around this time, when I was around 10 or 11 years old that I started realising my attractions to other boys. For me, socialising with other boys in the way that was seen as normal (including the lewd commentary about girls, or the sexual frustration that emerges from being crowded alongside other pubescent boys ending in the homophobic verbal bashing of our peers) was just... not what I wanted to do. I wanted to caress them, love them, hug them, show affection to other boys, but this was a time when aggressive heterosexuality was valued as the prime source of virile masculinity, while tenderness was derided as unseemly.

I remember it was around primary five that one of my form teachers Mr C passed away, leaving the students to ruminate about his death. He had always been one of my favourite teachers, and I had felt an uncanny with him, so I bawled deeply and passionately when news of his death reached my class. The tears would not stop coming. All the other students, though of course shocked by his departure, started immediately to gossip about his effeminacy, his apparent homosexuality, and suggested that he must have died of AIDS.

There was a vacuum where Mr C had been, and so relief teachers temporarily occupied his role. One of our relief teachers was a man whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, freshly out of National Service (the compulsory military service in Singapore), who never failed to call us faggots any time we disobeyed him. Or really, any time he just felt like it. He never had the gentle calm and typical ironic wit that Mr C had had. I missed Mr C's frivolity, that fucking faggot.

Fast-forward to secondary one to three (year seven - nine), when I transferred to another Methodist institution in the same family of schools, called the Anglo Chinese School (Independent) (ACS(I)). This school was seen as one of the best schools in Singapore that provided an education for 'O'-level tracked students. It was during this time, with pubic hair and armpit hair beginning to take root and sprout, signalling that awkward transition into puberty, that verbal violence began to be more persistent and pernicious.

I got called a 'faggot' almost daily by my peers. Faggot. Ah kua. Bapok (effeminate male). Fucking faggot loser. Dirty cocksucker. It was a slew of homophobic vitriol directed at me like pellets of never-ending spit, sometimes coupled with cowardly shoves and patrionising pats on my cheek, as if I were such a pretty, pretty girl. Not a single person stood by my side at the time, not even the few friends that I had, even as I later found out that these same friends were gay themselves. There were times where I became so terrified of going to school that I started burning the soles of my feet at home just so that I would yellow up in the face and become genuinely marred enough by the pain that I would be unable to get out of bed. I could stay at home.

One year, the torment of name-calling became so unbearable, that, when my parents were out of town, I skipped school for a week. When my father found out, the consequences seemed only the logical violent extension of the same homophobic patriarchal system that seemed bent on reducing me to a snivelling mess of hysterical tears. There were times I could not tell the difference between home and school. Of course, I had never really told him why I stayed at home to begin with. I now wish I did, for he might have understood. When I arrived at school that day sobbing and otherwise silent, nobody asked me the source of my tears. This was not atypical.

I have retained close to zero contact with anyone from my childhood growing up and attending these schools. Recently, a whole influx of classmates from this period in my life have added me as a friend on Facebook. Honestly, I have felt ambivalent about adding them as friends. Not because any of them as individuals was particularly mean to me growing up, nor is it necessarily because I retain a part of my petty existence that I believe to be justifiably pissed off for all the patriotic, fundamentalist, religiously ordained anti-faggot shit that I ever had to endure in the name of an education, but also because in a way, we were never really friends.

After all, we were all just kids. We were just children, sharing in the glorious ignorance we had absorbed through our families, television, the military, and arcane Victorian laws. Perhaps we were all comrades in silent complicity. Ashamed of our own emergent confusing desires, our hormones swirling and generating mysterious, confusing alchemy in our thoughts, whether hetero or homo, ashamed of that seeming paradox that arises only in homophobic society. That identity crisis in which our desire for male friendship becomes conflated with the desire for male sexuality, which in turn gets conflated with our fear of punishment. And so it was that the "faggot" epithet spilled out of mouths at targets like me. Only now, with news of Lawrence King's death, can I be sure that I was never alone in this. Though I am sometimes unsure of how different it might have been for me in Singapore, if my classmates had had guns.

Odd, isn't it, that Singapore, a relatively liberal island-Republic in Asia, in its pursuit of Anglophonic, capitalistic grandeur, grasping for the approval of the wealthy white Western world, and the nouveau riche of Asia, could invite such insane levels of European and American foreign investment while punishing its youth with the same homophobic vitriol as schools all across the United States of America?

"Faggot. Faggot. Faggot!" The whole school knew me by name. But one thing I learned from ACS was right, our motto: "The best is yet to be." That time is now. I have hardly a revenge, but for this dystopic, melancholic remembrance. My only revenge is commentary.