A gay man comes out many times over in his lifetime. Even after coming out publicly in a blog when I was teaching in Raffles Institution – and making front-page news for it – I am still coming out every once in a while.
A few weeks ago, I told my new neighbor during a short chat. Before that, an old hawker in my neighborhood coffee shop gingerly but politely asked me about my partner Han and I. In both instances, being upfront about my sexuality was as casual as bringing up the weather.
I am aware that some of you thought it is very courageous. I keep check on that little sense of pride like how a guy with muscles tries to remain humble of others’ admiration when he flexes. Every gym bunny was once a skinny or overweight teen, and coming out is like building muscles over years of regular exercise.
Let me take you back to a time when my coming out was as awkward as my scrawny teen frame. That was my first time: a virgin coming-out story.
I was 17. After my O-Levels exam results, my dad decided I must study overseas and arranged for National Service deferment. I was sent to a liberal arts college in Middle America to prepare for my entry into a state university. Almost overnight, I was thrust from a rigid education system into an unprecedented level of freedom.
It was 1987. A Singaporean student on campus was sent packing by the FBI for keeping grenades in his dorm room, and it was the height of the AIDs epidemic. Rock Hudson passed away a few years before, Liberace died claiming malnutrition from a watermelon diet, and Keith Haring was diagnosed as HIV positive. The US Centre for Disease Control distributed an emergency safe-sex pamphlet to every dorm room in America.
Away from the watchful eyes of my mom, I began constructing a social circle on my own. While I hung out with the Asian students in the dorm, I felt it was also important to gain a deeper appreciation of the native culture. I decided the best way to do so would be to join a fraternity.
One of the staples of fraternities was the weekend parties, where beer was free-flow and people got drunk and had fun making merry. The frat brothers affectionately called me “Bonehead”, and I felt like I belonged.
I started dating an Asian student. I felt obligated because one must bring a date to the parties. My date seemed ready for more, and invited me to her room after one of the parties. She made me wait while she was in the bathroom for quite some time. After she sat in bed with me, we chatted and chatted before she started looking really bored.
Being gay, the thought of getting physical with her never crossed my mind. I talked till I was bored, and made an excuse and left. Later, I knew I could never want a woman like I want a man.
After the incident, I was deeply troubled. Since age 12 or 13, I had staved off the horror of being gay by pretending it might be a phase. While I swore I would never tell a soul about my persistent sexuality, the yearning for the touch of a loving male partner – and not getting that – felt like a giant boot being gradually pressed slowly but surely into my heart over years. I thought I could keep the passion bottled and contained in private moments of masturbatory fantasies, I was wrong.
The weekend after, I went at the party alcohol with a vengeance. After a few tequila shots and six cans of beer, I had forgotten momentarily about my problems. For those brief moments, I did not feel that boot on my heart.
“Hey, Bonehead!” A frat brother said, “Spin around 20 times!”
I did so to everyone’s laughter, and then I completely lost my inhibitions. What followed felt like a dream. Like an observer trapped inside my body, I passively watched as a distraught stranger cried his eyes out and telling a frat brother, “I love you! It’s not my fault! I love you! It’s not my fault!”
As I remembered it, everyone in the room was stunned. It took a while before a brother realized I had out myself in a drunken state, and he started dragging me out of the party before I humiliate myself further. I struggled so hard there was a bruise where he grabbed my arm.
The ordeal did not end there. Believe it or not, it started raining, adding to the drama.
When I reached home, I told one of my flat mates I loved him too. After they cleaned me up and put me in bed, I threw up all over myself before passing out.
When I woke up sober the next day in dried vomit, I began to recall the events last night.
“Oh no, this did not happen,” was all I could manage. My worst fear had become reality: everyone around me knew I was gay. I used to imagine I would kill myself if others found out about me. I imagined I would jump from a high-floor of a HDB flat.
I contemplated suicide by jumping as I lay frozen in fear under the sheets. I searched my memory for a tall building nearby, and then realised that the tallest building in the small town was just four-storey tall. I dismissed the notion of jumping quickly.
My wall of silence crumbled, and with it the illusion of my safe world collapsed completely. I was naked, defenseless. I had no words to defend myself, and I doubted anyone would believe my denial after the inebriated confessions. My first closet, carefully and zealously constructed by absolute silence since puberty, hit an iceberg of booze and sunk into the abyss.
And then something truly unexpected happened. I became keenly aware that I was still afloat. I did not sink with the closet! As I sat up alone in my room, my breathing and heartbeat returned to normal.
Mind you, I felt profound sorrow. It was the sorrow of the end of my innocence. I love my parents, and I would at that point do anything to live up to their expectations. I gave up after-school time of hanging out with friends so I could study for better scores, cumulating in perfect straight ‘A’s in my O Level exams. I was always home before the stipulated time, and I never did anything behind their backs (except daily masturbation and writing my own gay porn with our very first home computer).
I could no longer pretend I was that perfect son that my parents sent off at Changi Airport. In his place, stood a teen with raging hormones and a powerful urge to fuck and love. And he was resentful that society, family and he had conspired to keep him under.
That teen excited me at the same time: My worst scenario had become reality, AND HE – I – WAS STILL BREATHING! I SURVIVED MY WORST FEAR!
No doubt my flat mate would move away from me. No doubt my frat brothers would look at me differently from then on. For sure I would lose some friends from then on. But I recalled a few lines from a book I studied in high school literature.
The book was Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country”.
And it said, “Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey… but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”
My old life was destroyed. But I could build another.
Part of rebuilding my house was the tentative and often awkward coming out to friends and family. The overdue teen was an angry, resentful hatchling kept locked up for too long. I was going to reveal myself to the world, one confession at a time.
I would start building the muscles to come out over and over again throughout my life so that I would never have to experience the helplessness of that first coming out.
Let’s leave that for another story.
Otto Fong is a well known comic artist. He is also a playwright and a former science teacher at Raffles Institution.
Part 2 of ‘Ottobiography’ will be published next Thursday.
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