On being awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest national award for culture and the arts, a journalist asked me whether she could use the term “openly gay” to describe me. A little stunned, I asked her what my sexual orientation had to do with the award. She explained that as the two other winners were married, she felt it necessary to inform the readers about my marital “status”, or something equivalent.
I paused, not quite knowing what to say. And then I asked her if she would use the term “openly straight” to describe them. The irony was not lost on her, and we had a giggle. I told her she could write that I shared my life and work with Tony, my partner of seventeen years.
When I finally accepted the award at the Istana, I ended my speech by thanking Tony publicly, and I might add, to great applause. The article regarding the ceremony made the front page of The Straits Times the following day. But, whilst my fellow winners’ spouses were mentioned in glowing terms,Tony was conspicuously absent. This lack of any acknowledgement hurt.
I’ve always liked the idea of marriage. I cry at weddings because there is something beautiful and romantic about finding someone, falling in love, and wanting to give each other the world. Forever. I imagined it’d be bliss to come home to a best friend at the end of a day’s work, someone to have dinner or take evening strolls with. It would be wonderful to always have someone in my corner, a constant companion with whom I could just be myself, and to grow old with. But, when I was growing up, I had little to look up to. There were no positive gay role models, and neither were there any gay television programmes, books or films with happy endings. So I dared not entertain the hope that marriage could happen for me.
In the summer of 1996, I met Tony at the “Brief Encounter”, a gay bar in London’s West End. I was meant to be at another party that evening, but my hot date had run out of battery on his mobile phone, and I did not own one. So my intended tryst was scuppered, and I needed a drink. It was “Disco Thursday”, and the place was heaving with an after-work crowd. As is always the case with gay bars, everyone was trying and never completely succeeding to be butch and cool. But when Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s Enough is Enough came on, the make-shift dance floor went wild and everyone started a sing-a-long. I found myself mouthing the words with a casual insouciance – one tries to look as if you’re enjoying yourself, but not too much.
And then I saw Tony, looking very handsome in his pinstriped suit, not a strand of his salt and pepper hair out of place, and with the kindest, most beautiful blue eyes. He, too, was singing. “I always dreamed I’d find the perfect lover, but he turned out to be like any other man…” We caught each other lip-synching across the crowded room, and laughed. And then, we proceeded to sing the entire anthem to each other. “Enough is enough, is enough, is enough… IS ENOUGH!!” We keeled over laughing. Sharing a sense of humour was a good place to start. When we finally recovered and spoke to each other, something clicked. That night, all our cares melted away and the world disappeared. We fell in love.
Six weeks later, on a moonlit street in London, Tony went down on bended knee and asked me to marry him. I remember being at once alarmed and moved. Given the improbability of such a union, and preferring to be romanced by chocolates, flowers and champagne, I declined. He persisted, gallantly getting down on both knees, and I agreed for us to be “boyfriends”. Needless to say, our encounter has been more than brief.
Within three months of knowing each other, we moved in together. And one year later, in 1997, we moved to Singapore. It is a place we have grown to love very much, and that we call home.
When marriage equality became real in the United Kingdom this year, Tony and I decided to get married. We envisaged an intimate, private ceremony with our families and our close friends. It would be an occasion to celebrate and affirm our commitment to each other as a couple. We chose the 1st of August 2014 for our nuptials to mark our 18th anniversary together. Homophonically, pun fully intended, 1-8-1-8 is auspicious in Chinese. A little luck is needed on all great adventures.
With our nephew as our ring bearer, our siblings as witnesses, our family and our closest friends, we exchanged rings and made a promise to love and cherish each other to the end of our days. It was well and truly one of the happiest days of our lives.
We never meant for our marriage to be a political statement or an act of activism. Notwithstanding that, I have come to terms with the fact that as a public figure, one’s personal joy sometimes becomes political.
Even as the LGBT community in Singapore struggles for equality and acceptance, there have been many incidents that have vilified us in recent days. These have ranged from the religious fundamentalists’ declaration of war on the community and a widespread and systematic campaign of hate to keep S377a on the law books, the attempt to undermine the Health Promotion Board’s guidelines, and the Wear Red and/or White Movement. In fits of moral panic,the MDA banned Ah Mei’s Rainbow, and the National Library Board shelved children’s books to its adult collection.
It is easy to see that all of this stems from the presence of S377a, which is in effect state-sanctioned bigotry. The verdict is still out on the constitutional challenge to this archaic law that discriminates against a vulnerable segment of our society. But, as it stands, neither the judiciary nor legislature seems to have the moral courage to repeal it. Between Goh Chok Tong’s, “We are born this way and they are born that way but they are like you and me” to Lee Hsien Loong’s “Why is the law on the books? Because it’s always been there and we should just keep it there”, we really have regressed, even as the world is waking up to the fact that LGBT rights are human rights.
In spite of everything, we remain hopeful.
Pink Dot continues to grow in size and meaning, proudly signalling a wish for a more fair and just society. The way we progress, how we regard human rights in our society, is always driven by the young, who are not married to the prejudices of the past. My personal interactions with young people, not least my dear nephews and nieces and indeed all the beautiful children at our wedding, give me hope for the future, and a distinct sense that time and history are on our side.
In the bigger scheme of things, Singapore is showing signs of maturing as a society. Our citizens, both straight and gay, recognise inequality, prejudice and hate-speech when we see it, and are now more ready than ever to call it out. We are finally beginning to have the important conversations that go to the heart of living in a true democracy. Because, truly, if we want to talk about our core values and community standards, these surely must include notions such as tolerance, inclusivity and diversity. I trust we will come to understand that this has as much to do with the protection of the rights of a minority, as it is about the will of the majority. The LGBT community is not going to go away or disappear. So the sooner everyone gets over it, the happier everyone will be, and we can get on with more pressing matters. Enough is enough.
And Singapore is changing. We were a little nervous about telling anyone outside our close circle of family and friends about our nuptials. In getting ready for our Big Day, we had to find and buy our wedding rings, tailor our outfits, get advice for our wedding cake, get our invitations and programmes printed. We had to “come out” again and again to complete strangers. But in our experience, these ordinary Singaporeans were nothing but kind and genuinely happy for us, unabashed in their congratulations and best wishes, offering to help us in any way possible.
This experience has affirmed our belief that the most important thing anyone can do as a human being, straight or gay, is to be true to oneself. We are so much happier if we can all be proud of who we are, how we feel, whom we love.
Our marriage is a declaration of our love, and we invite the world to share in our joy. We are deeply grateful for our wonderful family and our amazing friends, whose love and support has been a great encouragement and inspiration to us through the years.
In closing, I would like to report that your fellow Singaporean, Ivan Heng, is now “openly married”.