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30 Aug 2002

serving singapore as a gay man (part 2 of 3)

Coming out to the military is an issue all gay Singaporean men grapple with one time or other as all male Singaporeans must complete two to three years of full-time National Service. A young Singaporean man shares his experience of disclosing his homosexuality to the Singapore Armed Forces. This is the second of a 3-part series.

Click here to read Part One: (The First Doctor).

Part Two: The Second Doctor

He proceeded to ask me a few simple, if slightly perplexing questions:
Dr: Have you had sex with men?
Me: Yeah.
Dr: Do you cross-dress?
Me: Yeah.

I was then given PES D (temporarily unfit for deployment, pending further review) and scheduled for a medical review by an SAF "psychiatrist" at a later date.

For the medical review, I was asked to bring one parent and my school report book. How perplexing, I thought. Well, just to give part of the punch line away, you don't have to bring your report book if it's not relevant (maybe it's for those involved in gang activity or something else - I don't know), you can reschedule the appointment if you or your parents are unavailable on that day, and you DO NOT have to disclose your sexuality to your parent if you do not want to. You can do the last thing by telling the doctor that you would like to speak with him/her alone, without your parent's presence.

At the next medical review, I was asked to fill out a pre-check-up form. One of the questions asked for my perception towards serving National Service. The doctor asked me this question once more verbally later.

The medical review (to see how homosexual I was) was conducted by Capt. Julian Tan. My mom and I were sitting in the small waiting room outside the office. However, he called me into the office alone (this is when I may have wished to tell the doctor that I did not want to out myself to my mother).

I asked him whether he was in a rush. He told me that he usually spent about 10 - 15 minutes per patient. However, he was not in a rush. My mother and I had prepared a list of questions for him and I wanted to make sure we had time to ask them. When asked why I had questions, I told him that we wanted to know the full consequences of disclosure (my right as a patient) and SAF policy towards gay people in general. Naturally, he wanted to get his job out of the way and proceeded to ask his questions for me.

In general, the appointment was not a psychological review by a psychologist. Rather, it was a person asking a set of questions, set by procedure.

Capt. Tan: How do you feel about NS?
Me: I feel it is unavoidable.
Capt. Tan: Are you homosexual?
Me: Yes.
Capt. Tan: Do you cross-dress?
Me: Yes, for fun.
Capt. Tan: Do you cross-dress at home?
Me: Not that I know of. (I saw that he wrote down 'no'.)
Capt. Tan: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: No.
Capt. Tan: are you the man or the woman?
Me: Huh??! That question is irrelevant for me.
Capt. Tan (in response to my previous answer): Do you have anal sex? Are you active or passive?
Me: Yes, Both.

When Capt. Tan was done with his questions and his task was over, I asked my mother (who was waiting outside) to join our discussion. I gave Capt. Tan a copy of the questions before we began and mentioned that if he wished to speak in a private capacity (as opposed to being a representative of the SAF) all he had to do was tell me before giving his response. (See Appendix for the list of questions.)
The Interview: Deplorability

In this section, the label 'gay' only refers to those who have disclosed their homosexuality.

According to Capt. Tan, the purpose of the interview is to ascertain the "deployability" of the national serviceman. I presume that not only those who disclose homosexuality may be involved in a review such as this; for example, those who are/were gang members may also be reviewed. Specific to the gay NS man, Capt. Tan said that issues such as living with other men, and sleeping in the quarters as and bathing with other men - basically, questions of whether the gay NS man may fit in - play a part in the review.

However, note that the procedural set of questions above did not ask me whether I was comfortable or uncomfortable with working in close proximity with other men. Whether this procedure and set of questions is to protect the gay NS man from harassment, or to protect non-gay NS men from harassment (or both) is unclear.

On the question on where a gay NS man may serve out his NS (the question of "deployability"), Capt. Tan mentioned that "sensitive" areas are probably out-of-the-question. He did not elaborate on what "sensitive" may mean. Combat vocations were probably out-of-the question as well, and, judging solely from my experience, neither is training to be an officer. (If I did not disclose my homosexuality, I would definitely be back in Officer Cadet School.)

From my observation, this is similar to the experience of women who work in the SAF, in its early days. In the past, women in the SAF in combat or command positions were virtually unheard of. They were far less likely to serve in combat vocations and were more likely to be in administrative/medical vocations away from frontline duty.

Whether there was an explicit, written policy towards the employment of women in the past is something I do not know as yet. However, the proportion of women in combat positions in the past, compared to the proportion today (coupled with the fact that the SAF actively welcomes women to join their team today), suggests some form of systemic discrimination against their being hired by the SAF for combat or command positions in the past. The difference for gay men today is that it is clear that there IS a written policy towards their employment, evidenced by the different treatment of gay men during the medical review process.

Today, to be precise, only the Navy carries an anti-gender discrimination statement within the FAQ-file on their website. Capt. Tan mentioned that female-to-male transsexuals who wish to serve NS may not do so. Capt. Tan did not mention any policy toward homosexual women.

On the other hand, male-to-female transsexuals (in any stage of their transformation) are treated on the same scale as gay men. Capt. Tan said that one of the purposes of the review was to "gauge how gay you are." On this (misguided and highly inaccurate) scale, hetero-men are on one end of the scale and women are on the other end of the scale.
Gay men who are masculine (i.e. who are "top", and do not cross-dress) are closer to the hetero-men end of the scale, while if the gay NS man cross-dresses, cross-dresses at home, is "bottom" or if the NS woman is a male-to-female transsexual, then you are closer to the women end of the scale.

I hope it is redundant to state that male-to-female transsexuals are not gay men, and gay men are not women.

According to Capt. Tan, homosexuality is not considered a disease or a mental illness. However, homosexuality and transsexuality are two conditions that are listed in an SAF "Directory of Diseases", he said.

When asked whether the gay NS man was seen as a liability, Capt. Tan stressed that I was not seen as a liability or a security risk. However, as mentioned above, he proceeded to contradict himself by saying that some "areas" are deemed "sensitive" and therefore a gay NS man cannot serve there. There was no further elaboration. This is a separate issue from whether gay and straight (i.e. heterosexual) men can live and work together.

Since sexuality is an identity in almost constant flux for some people, I asked Capt. Tan whether you could change your sexuality on record with the SAF. He said yes, and said that all you had to do was inform the nearest medical officer. I do not know if there is any more procedure aside from the act of informing a medical officer.

If you disclose being homosexual, the information you provide is, according to Capt. Tan, strictly between you and all the Medical Officers in the SAF. This may be true in theory, but I have personally had friends who had gone through NS tell me that other people may have access to this information as well, so this confidentiality may not exist in practice. Additionally, Capt. Tan assured me that future employers, government agencies like HDB etc, would not have access to my SAF medical record.

As mentioned before, I was told that I had to bring one parent with me (and my school report book). However, I did not have to disclose my sexuality to my mom if I did not wish to. I could have requested to speak to Capt. Tan in private. In fact, Capt. Tan asked me to enter his office alone in the beginning, and my mom joined the discussion only when he was done with his set of procedural questions and I asked her to enter the room. If I were not out to my family, I would have had to invent an excuse for my mom's benefit to explain why she had to accompany me, and not have the doctor speak with her.

I think it is reasonable for a gay NS man to maintain a silence surrounding his sexuality to his family, even though he wishes to disclose his sexuality to the SAF. This is a matter of anyone's right to privacy.

Capt. Tan mentioned that some conditions require parental confirmation. I did not ask what conditions would require this added measure.

Finally, Capt. Tan said that a counsellor would be assigned to me and I would be able to contact them should I require any support or advice. The medical officer at the unit I am posted to would also be party to my medical record. In other words, this counsellor and the medical officer would be two sources of support, should I need SAF assistance as a gay NS man. Whether the counsellor or medical officer is gay-friendly, or knowledgeable of gay-specific healthcare is not known to me.

(Part 3 coming soon)

Writer's note: Please feel free to share my experience with anyone to whom it may be helpful. Please remember to reference my name, as this work and the views presented are mine. If you wish to place this information on a website or other broadcast media, please contact me at limchisharn@members.asce.org.








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