From left: Hsieh Fu Hua with Rev Yap Kim Hao and Mrs Gracie Hsieh looking on (extreme right).
by Hsieh Fu Hua
First published in The Straits Times, 1 July 2013
Photo by Yvonne Loh for Pelangi Pride Centre
The writer, the former chief executive of the Singapore Exchange, is president of the National Council of Social Service and is also active on corporate boards and not-for-profit organisations.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s was a fascinating period of my life. I lived in a neighbourhood adjacent to the shanty area of Bukit Ho Swee where people and pigs lived almost side by side; and the district of Queenstown where numerous protests and riots took place.
Life at home was almost as interesting. Often we had visitors at our three-room Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flat from all backgrounds and various walks of life. They included artist, hawker, banker, English professor, Chinese scholar, mechanic, engineer, architect, gangster, policeman, soldier, shaman, monk, pastor and more.
We also hosted travellers from England, Japan, Cambodia, India and so on. My parents welcomed all and we got to meet very different people at first hand.
One of the more memorable visitors who spent time with us was a cross-dresser. He appeared in brightly-coloured cheongsam and thick make-up. My siblings and I enjoyed his company much. We were also struck by his gender-bending behaviour – although we didn’t have the words to describe it then – and his entertaining company.
Perceptions about different sexualities surfaced at school when fellow schoolboys in their puberty years began experiencing their masculinity or, in some cases, femininity. In my class of 40, there were three or four whose expressions of sexuality, unlike the rest of us, were inclined towards being feminine.
They were not called names or labelled in any way. There may have been the occasional teasing but we generally got along without these differences getting in the way.
University life was different. It was uneasy times, I observed, for those with an uncommon sexuality. Homosexuality was now recognised and derided. It was the late 60s.
Whereas young boys who acted in a different manner were accepted by their peers – albeit occasionally teased – it struck me that young adults of university age were more intolerant. This intolerance was harsher on those who were different, more timid and awkward. Ragging during the initiation period on entering university was tougher on those perceived to be somehow more effeminate or different in their sexuality. One schoolmate who appeared effeminate was badly abused by his peers and took his life in his third year.
At work in the 70s and 80s, the issue of homosexuality hardly emerged. Perhaps this was because, in those days, if one were gay, one submerged one’s true self, fearing career discrimination.
I did have a colleague who I learnt years later was gay. He behaved rather inexplicably outside work from time to time. He would introduce girlfriends as if they were his dates and later on gave the impression he was married. It was subsequently found out that none of it was true. I understand now that his then erratic conduct was to cloak his sexuality, which he was anxious not to reveal.
It was not till the turn of the millennium that gay people here started “coming out” or being open about their sexuality.
That might have something to do with a call by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for openness and equal opportunity in the civil service for this community.
It was at this time that my wife and I began meeting gay people frequently, at meetings initiated by my retired bishop and good friend.
In the many gatherings we attended, we heard them air their issues and angst. They shared their worries that coming out would draw unkind thoughts, funny looks, contemptuous remarks and even ill-treatment.
At home, many had families who expressed negative sentiments about gays, unaware that their gay relatives were hurting silently. Their social circles shrank when friends realised their different sexuality; some distanced themselves and others judged that they needed counselling and correction. Consequently, they stayed away from home, moved out or migrated overseas.
My wife and I heard true voices, observed genuine pain and felt their cut hearts. We did not need to debate the morality or deal with religious doctrine as we witnessed the truth of their marginalised state. We ask ourselves: what if our children are gay? Would we be ashamed of them? Cast them aside? Or would we still lovingly and proudly embrace them?
We have a range of gay friends and associates today.
My childhood experiences opened my eyes, ears and heart to people of diverse cultures, personalities and sexual orientation.
I realise we are all not that different, varying only in shades. And so it is with our sexuality where I see varying mixes of the masculine and feminine aspects within each of us.
It is human to want to belong, and to want to feel accepted. Many of us who pride ourselves on being kind and considerate people have our own blinkers. It is human nature to view oneself as different, separate and even superior to others. We associate with those who are like us, and feel superior and keep away from others.
Knowingly and unknowingly, we start to distance ourselves from people who are different or from other segments of society. In time, social circles stratify and certain groups end up at the fringe, disavowed, stigmatised and disadvantaged.
Few of us realise that in Singapore, gay people form one such community. While there are some individuals who are open and outspoken about their sexual orientation, there are many others who feel keenly their marginalised situation.
As individuals, our humanity rests on our compassion and relationships and sense of identity with each other. We are one and different. This is how home should and can be.
It is my fervent hope that we can make this country home for all, rich and poor, young and old, well and sick, able and disadvantaged, locals and migrants, regardless of origin, creed, shade and sexual orientation.
When Singaporeans share this bond of Singapore as home for all, then Section 377A which criminalises homosexual acts, will be an issue well behind us.