I grew up in an affluent, privileged, Chinese family in Singapore, complete with enrichment classes and Sunday school. I loved Barbie and Pokémon with equal intensity, and I would try to fit in with the girls while having no qualms about hitting a boy. I often thought about death when I was a child, but I suppose I had most of it figured out – eternity was taken care of by faith, and I would try to be a clever girl, marry a boy who would think my fat body beautiful, never have children, and die happy.
By the time I was sixteen, the issue of sexuality was close to my mind; not that I doubted I was straight – I just could no longer find any emotional conviction in the biblical truth I grew up with, that alternatives to heterosexuality were neither natural nor morally acceptable. Some of my closest friends weren't straight and I would not accept that they were going to hell because they weren't sorry about their sexualities. I fell silent about that which I used to protest with a vengeance, because I feared damnation for challenging the authority of the bible. Yet the taste of that silence in my mouth was that of remorse, resentment and the deepest sense of shame.
In my own small ways, I was beginning to question the legitimacy of heterosexism, like when I challenged my mom to consider the hurtful implications of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, or when I spoke against the use of "gay" as a term of ridicule in class. I dare not say that I was an ally then, neither was I familiar with the LGBT community – but that was when I started to throw out my prejudice.
At the end of my junior year in high school, however, I made a most unusual observation – I, a hitherto straight girl, was attracted to my butch-identifying soccer teammate. For all the months I spent scouring Google, however, I found no answer that hit home, being unable to trace any "classic" signs. There were no childhood crushes on older girls, or lack of attraction to boys. Neither was I able to identify with any of the "butch", "femme" or "andro" (androgynous) labels, further frustrating my novice attempt to find my place in the world of lesbian attraction. I was therefore ashamed to take on the identity "gay", "bi", or "queer", because those were for the self-assured individuals who got detected on "gaydars". Not I – I was in question; I was a poser.
I picked up Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography while searching for answers and any literature which portrayed queer people, even remotely. What initially drew me to the novel was how Orlando changes seamlessly from an Elizabethan man to a woman, with no perturbation or ceremony. But what did Orlando have to do with me at seventeen years of age, wondering if my attraction to my teammate was as innate as all the crushes I have ever had on boys; and if I was innately feminine or masculine?
At the core of Orlando were loves; for beasts, life and literature. But Orlando also had a multitude of selves that were hardly innate, but organic: Lord Orlando’s change of sex as if it were a costume defies its biological basis – just as I had inexplicably realised an attraction to butch women. Orlando played the parts of Masculine and Feminine as she found convenient, and loved a man as queer as she – just as I was often both, neither, or either masculine and feminine in expression.
I felt vindicated by the idea that identity may actually be performance, and that it may neither be consistent nor monolithic. The futility of my search for an innate "gayness" and gender expression was also hardly surprising or relevant to expressing my gender and sexuality as, say, an androgynous-lesbian, or butch-pansexual, or simply queer (they vary, and I do not mind). It was entirely possible for me to be comfortable with my identity without feeling that I had to justify it. A week later I participated alone in a local Pride event, Pink Dot, and as a symbolic gesture, had my picture taken while holding up a message in chalk, "I AM FREE TO LOVE".
I then made what felt like a remarkably risky move and came out to friends both in school and on Twitter and Facebook. I studied and shared Judith Butler's insights on gender fluidity with reference to the texts we were studying in Literature. I tweeted and retweeted news in the queer community, whether it was to triumph or to rage. I called people out for heterosexism, cissexism and that which was closest to my heart, monosexism. I got involved in a local organisation for queer women, as well as a queer book club.
And my peculiar change, and pride in its peculiarity, has in turn brought my closest friends and allies into my life – my first straight ally is also now my best friend. It has, however, cost me some dear friends, and a strained relationship with my parents. I lost my childhood best friends who could only "love the sinner and not the sin". My dad disapproved vehemently when I came out to him. His fear of what he calls a "deviant lifestyle" was part of the reason he would not support me to go to college in the US. My mom told my Sunday School teacher the last time she caught me watching a sex scene on The L Word – they are still praying for me very earnestly.
To anyone reading this and is in the process of questioning – I encourage you to be bold, both in your communities, and to yourself. Being bold in your community may mean putting yourself on the line, especially if your community is far from friendly – but it was because I put myself out there on Facebook that a closeted friend from church found me and finally started coming out. And sometimes we look for labels because it shows us that there are people just like us – it validates our identities and shows us that we are real. But being bold to yourself means that even when you fall outside of every label, or identify with none, you know in your heart that your identity is an experience that is yours alone – it may never be consistent or monolithic, but make no mistake that it is real.
More recently another teammate of mine said to me, "I think you really are just straight, but you're a poser." I was slightly shaken – her remarks refreshed the struggle of just a year ago. I replied, however, with a grin, "Maybe I pretend, but I love to play the part."
This was written in conjunction with Sayoni's event "Airing the Closet", to take place on 4 Aug (Sat) at 7 KICKstart BREWiches. More information here and on our Facebook event page.