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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?



1. 2011-09-17 00:12  
Good article. But can some one explain why Kumar invited such a notoriously anti-gay person to his book launch?
2. 2011-09-17 00:12  
When I saw Kumar perform, drag was illegal in Singapore, so strangely all the drag queens were real women, trying to look like men in drag, and Kumar wore an ambiguous trouser suit.
修改於2011-09-17 00:18:53
3. 2011-09-17 03:46  
A refreshingly simple, direct and short editorial piece, which is right on the mark!
回应#4於於2011-09-19 09:22被作者删除。
5. 2011-09-17 11:11  
I am a bit puzzled here !!! The launch of his new book Kumar: From Rags To Drags was attended by guest-of-honor and Singapore minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Kumar ? Why of all people Bala ?????

I perceive him to be homophobic and so anti gay . Anyway all the best Kumar ( aka Koo Ma as in auntie in Cantonese ) , Do what you do best !!
6. 2011-09-17 11:42  
Well #no.1, I can think of two speculations...
1. It's Kumar's prerogative who goes to the launch
2. Probably as an 'eye opener' to Dr Vivian Balakrishnan?
7. 2011-09-18 10:42  
Kumar's story illustrates clearly the problem of difference not gayness.

In the minds of the ignorant - and the majority are ignorant by choice - it is the tom boy and the effeminate that are seen as gay in the sense of preferring partners of the same sex in bed. In reality only those invited to the bedroom know what happens there and it is not the case that all of these people are gay as defined above.

It is the outward difference that causes reaction, not the real sexuality - think about it next time you see a same sex couple in the street - are they friends or gay lovers or both?

Because you create friendships, does not mean you want sex with that friend, in fact by bringing sex to a friendship can destroy that friendship.

Tom boys and effeminate people are often more outgoing which allows them to make friends more easily.

8. 2011-09-18 11:42  
Maybe she's his mother?
Anyway, better late than never.....
9. 2011-09-18 11:44  
.....and I wish that Asians stop calling it 'sissy' behavour. It's degrading and disrespectful !!
10. 2011-09-18 12:21  
I honestly wonder why there's such a ruckus. I know of cross-dressers who are straight and just have this sexual fetish of putting on women's clothes or wearing make-up, etc. So, in that respect I do agree with #7. All is not what it seems but mainstream society's irrational homophobia likes labelling anything out of their box as "gay". When I was a kid, we had a neighbour who was so effeminate that even us kids took notice. But, he seemed happily married to a woman who seemed to get pregnant quite often -- up to 6 times, if my memory serves me right. Strange but true :-)
11. 2011-09-18 23:28  
I'm in two minds about this story.

Part of me says "well everyone guessed you were gay, despite denials and secrecy, so when you came out it was like, so what! We knew already, shame on you for not coming out earlier."

Another part of me says "We are individuals, what we are is of no concern to anyone else, we all have the right to live in peace"

I agree with #10 & #7 - it is ignorant (usually straight) people who are compartmentalising gays, assuming two effeminate guys are gay and sleeping together and having sex.

Likewise, a man dressing in woman's clothes is certainly not a gay trait, the number of women I've chatted to over the years (in a role as an agony aunt) and their boyfriend/husband wants to play convent school, or wants to play in frilly underwear and pantihose et.c. However, when they go through with the fantasy with the man, they report to have had the best sex ever.
12. 2011-09-19 00:21  
Kumar is more ballsy than any of his peers in showbiz. To actually admit that you're gay and do stand up, good on him.

We should never dismiss this as a 'oh, nothing new' event. I think it is a big deal to actually say, 'I am gay'. But I get how this can be confusing to some. I remember when I came out as Gay, many people thought I wanted to be like 'Kumar'. But the point is, Kumar's coming out will go somewhere. It facilitates discussions and people will start questioning the difference between Gays,Transsexuals and Transgenders.
修改於2011-09-19 00:22:18
回应#13於於2011-09-19 02:09被作者删除。
14. 2011-09-19 02:09  
But it's a shame there were no custard or fruit pies to offer his guest.
回应#15於於2011-09-19 13:36被作者删除。
16. 2011-09-19 13:36  
My sentiments precisely, #11 :-)!

All is not what it seems and we could each make our little corner of the world more conducive for ALL persuasions, colours and creeds by being LESS judgmental :-)

17. 2011-09-19 17:46  
You can ignore the elephant in the room as much as you want, but I still want to know why someone was invited as guest of honour who (according to the former MM/PM (am I correct in this?) ) thinks that being gay is a choice and supports criminalization. Has he changed his opposition in cabinet to repealing 377A? Or is he simply using Kumar to try and look less anti gay after his attack on a gay opponent at the election? One could say it is building bridges, but only if he is open to changing his views. Otherwise isn't it just like inviting Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin to be guest of honour at a gay wedding?

Maybe an article for Fridae by the otherwise quite cute Vivian, clarifying his position would assist.
18. 2011-09-19 18:35  
very well written, esp last 2nd paragraph, sums it all up.

indeed, if we discriminate against our own kind, how can we expect equality from others.
19. 2011-09-19 20:36  
Kumar is fabulous, he just being himself, salute to kumar
20. 2011-09-19 20:51  
@19, no he's not, he's being contentious by inviting a political opponent of gay people to his book launch. However Singaporeans are too scared to say anything as usual.
21. 2011-09-19 22:50  
I'm rather more stunned that he claims to be only 43...
22. 2011-09-19 23:23  
It's funny how coming out "should" be regarded as a big step forward, and yet at the same time, sexual orientation doesn't matter.

From what I see, life goes on with or without kumar. It's not like we're going to put him up billboards and start heralding some kinda of pro-gay rights movement. It's unfair to him and is likely to provoke severe backlash from the public against the gay community.

Let the public start accepting that it is common to have people like us around themselves first.
23. 2011-09-19 23:39  
@#20: if what you've stated is true, being contentious is bad because.......??

The invited "political opponent", presumably an adult, can either accept or decline his invitation, and what harm has been done? A little "spice" may have been added to the event.

You've labeled "Singaporians as "too scared to say anything as usual"? Reads like a sweeping generalization. Are you just being contentious?
修改於2011-09-20 09:29:44
24. 2011-09-19 23:52  
agree with #22.
25. 2011-09-20 01:39  
agree with #22 too.

26. 2011-09-20 06:17  
"But if we discriminate against our own kind..."

this is discriminatory in itself.

How many people reading this relate to a drag queen as their "kind"? I don't. He's not my mum. Wasn't my dad. sHe's not "my kind". Best wishes to Kumar as himself.

The POINT about discrimination is not to label. Not to judge. To live and respect the living of others. Recognise that we are all individuals with equal rights (to live).
27. 2011-09-20 07:18  
eating and talking at the same time?! jeez ms kumar! a little decorum!
28. 2011-09-20 09:24  
Kumar's coming out is a personal decision and it is a decision he made about his private life and I don't think it necessary to use his coming out as a platform to socially educate people about gay issues. I appreciate Otto Fong's effort to further the community's cause but really, leave these people alone.
29. 2011-09-20 10:20  
Haha i totally love kumar...back when i was celebrating my 21st birthday, he was an awesome host at hardrock cafe
30. 2011-09-20 10:32  
In or Out, who really cares? I perfer Lady Gaga's new male persona, anyway Chinese drag queens have been around for centuries going way back to Beijing Opera. Some of us where A & F? Come on the writing here is way too stereotypical and germane. Where have all the smart good looking people people gone on Fridae? Its like a gay bar that the smart and hot guys don't go to anymore.
31. 2011-09-20 13:47  
2 letters: P.R. whatever it take to sell a book or 2.
32. 2011-09-20 14:08  
I think the common thread for flaming queens and closeted anal-retentive 'str8 acting' gay men is - fear of discrimination. Its a very real fear regardless of whether the perceived threat is very real or not.

Only Kumar knows best why he is admitting he is gay now.. he may be more confident of himself at 43, or he may be promoting his new book etc. Who knows? who cares?

Lets not be too quick to judge others of this fear of discrimination - perceived or otherwise.
33. 2011-09-20 15:46  
Actually nowadays i feel being straight-acting is more important in front of the gay community rather than the straight one. Everyone's so obsessed with hypermasculinity that if you don't subscribe to it, you're losing out. If you don't look like a straight man on the street, you're less 'dateable'.
34. 2011-09-20 15:46  
I don't understand why there's so much fuss about Kumar's sexuality (be it obvious or not). He gives us audience good entertainment when doing drag and that's ALL that matters! Period.
35. 2011-09-21 10:44  
#10, what you describe is a transvestite, there is a different between gay, transvestite, transsexual and transgender. Go check wikipedia for definations. Kumar's coming out can also be seen as to clear the air of people confusing him as tranvestite or transsexual. He is a gay man who likes to drag or we often called as a drag queen ('queen' refers to gay). Don't get me wrong, I am not saying labelling is important, its all up to the individual how would he/she like to be seen, as long as he/she feels happy about it, but knowing the different between the different groups gives you the knowledge for understanding why they do what they are doing. Kudos to Kumar for making the decision to come out, it may seem small to you but only he knows how significant for him and his life :-)
36. 2011-09-23 13:50  
#26, very powerful and poignant.

#35, if you've truly understood what I had written, you'd have noticed that I hadn't mentioned labels or labelling. What I had cited were the neighbours I had growing up as a child. So, the gist of my thoughts was more about societal preconceptions, misconceptions and prejudices. I had not alluded to anything Kumar did or didn't do.





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