By: Otto Fong
While I am not religious, I like to think there is a reason for everything. In this chapter, I would like to share about my reason for being gay.
Some people think that gay men are a result of overbearing mothers and distant fathers. Some say that a boy can turn gay if his father is not ‘strong’ and the boy develops an ‘unhealthy’ bond with the mother.
I used to think my parents fit that stereotype.
Dad was a business man and spent days away from home. When he came home, he would sit back and read the newspaper. It was mom who cooked, cleaned the house and monitored my homework.
She was not easy to please.
She compared my test grades with every single classmate. If I scored a ‘B’, she caned me for not getting an ‘A’. When I scored an ‘A’, she demanded to know who in class scored higher, and why I could not score as well as them. When I scored the highest in class, she would demand to know what stupid mistakes I made to lose the last few of a hundred marks. She was the Tiger Mom three decades before that term was coined.
In primary school, the girls scored better than the boys. So mom often compared my results to the top girls.
“Mom,” went a typical conversation, “I scored a 90 in Maths.”
“What did So-and-so get?” Mom would respond.
“She got a 93,” I said, crestfallen.
“Why can’t you make fewer mistakes than her?” Mom answered sternly, “How can you lose to a girl?”
Over time, I grew to hate the top girls. I wished they were not in my class. Was that why I did not like girls?
I breathed a sigh of relief when I got into an all-boy secondary school. Finally, the bane of my shame was gone from my daily life.
Mom proceeded to ruin my secondary school years by restricting my social life. I was to report home immediately after school. On the rare occasions when I was allowed to go out with classmates, it was with a few nerds and our only allowed haunt was the Bras Basah Complex in Bain Street. Back in the 80s, all the major bookstores were in that building.
Once we left the bookstores, I was to catch the first bus home to an empty house.
Dad never intervened.
His attempt in bonding with me over my teenage years bombed terribly. He read extensively and was concerned with world affairs and politics, and that was what he could rattle off whenever we were together. In areas where a growing child really needed advice on, he was inept.
For example, after mom discovered my soiled bed sheet – onset of my puberty – she insisted dad talk to me guy-to-guy.
“Son,” he said of the issue, “in the mornings when a guy wakes up, he may find … erm … his thing … hard. That just means that he needs to pee. After peeing, the problem should go away.” That was the sum of information I got from my old man.
That talk perplexed me. It did not explain why I was fantasizing about the athletes in class, and why my ‘thing’ got hard thinking about their sun-tanned bodies. Coupled with mom’s insistence that I not mix with the ‘hooligan’ classmates who hung out and talked dirty, I lived with a warped shame about masturbation and sex.
I assumed that when a virtuous man and a pure woman slept side-by-side in the same bed, the man’s sperms would somehow crawl out during the night, inch their way through the vast wasteland that was the mattress and made an arduous week-long exodus towards the woman’s womb, like a microscopic expedition to Everest or the North Pole.
It was not until I studied sexual reproduction in science lessons and chatted with classmates that I realised that even my own parents must have fucked.
By 17, I was academically-advanced but had the social intelligence of a 10-year-old. It was this boy that my parents sent across the globe to America.
Mom prepared me well for rigors of university in a foreign land, but interactions baffled me. I was either hiding in a corner frightened at orientation parties, or getting drunk and making a fool of myself pulling a William Hung. I was a stereotypical Asian nerd, hanging out with a couple of other nerds and spending most of my weekends alone. Inside the darkened cinemas, I sat by myself while the American boys would be hugging their girlfriends close.
I utilised my only strength – the ability to pick out useful books in bookstores – and visited the liberal New York and San Francisco bookstores for gay literature. In the late 80s, the gay studies I found were either very academic (hence raising more questions than answers) or theatrical plays focused on social or political discrimination. The dominant mother theory, while rejected by professional researchers, was popular in ‘both armchair psychiatry and low-grade popular sociology’ (‘The Homosexual Matrix’, C.A. Tripp, 1987).
Hence, when I graduated and returned to Singapore, I carried as much angst towards a conservative society as I had new knowledge about living honestly as myself. Much of the angst was directed at my parents. Specifically, it was directed at mom.
My mother tried to integrate me back into the family with her usual bag of tricks, but I was fighting her in a clumsy bid to break away from her dominance. I had grown to distrust the parents whom I used to worship.
In those two decades, I became financially-independent, built a social circle of gay pals and finally moved into a family of two with my partner Han.
The fights with mom and dad, often verbally explosive, lasted two decades.
By then, I learnt (from a gay movie I caught in New York City called ‘Torch Song Trilogy’) not to want anything from mom except for some love and respect.
“Anyone who can’t give me those two things,” I often repeated the golden lines from that movie, “has no place in my life.”
I was the overdue rebellious child no longer content with being the Mama’s Boy. I was the alien gay son she could not talk about with her friends and relatives. I was the Westernised banana, yellow only on the outside, rejecting the stifling Confucian values she represented. I was a degree holder speaking logic and philosophy that her primary-school education could not prepare her for. These differences created layers of complexity to our relationship. We were two people shouting in a thick haze, choking on the poisoned air but unable to see each other.
As mom aged, she grew tired and wary.
In later years, after a fight, she would say, “I have nothing! NOTHING!”
“Come on!” I shot back with equal ferocity, “You wanted us to get university degrees. We did as you told. You wanted us to be professionals. We did as you told. You have grandchildren and a loving husband. Why can’t you ever be satisfied?”
In my mind, my mother was a manipulative, bullying bitch who threw daily tantrums to get her way. Like the evil court women in Chinese period drama serials, she would use emotions, charm and tears to puppeteer the people around her.
My life, on the other hand, got better. My partner Han loved me for myself and gave me the space to be myself, never trying to shape me into who I am not. His acceptance of me as myself made a huge difference (but that is another story).
With Han’s full support, I finally came out in 2007. Finally I experienced the freedom to be myself. I no longer walked in public for fear of being seen with Han, or was ashamed to laugh with more flamboyant groups of friends. I could face friends, colleagues, students and everyday strangers as myself, and I became comfortable in my own skin.
Being openly-gay changed me. Having tasted the pure joy of just being myself, but still remembering what it was like being in the closet, I suddenly caught a familiar whiff on someone else. One day, I looked at mom, and I was able to relate to her weariness.
I recognised she was also a prisoner. Instead of disgust, I became intrigued.
“I have nothing,” She said softly. That time, I heard something differently.
I began to use my experience as a closeted gay man to relate to mother’s life.
Mom grew up in a conservative, male-oriented society. She lost her chance to go secondary school because her family was poor. Her brother got to study while she dropped out of school. After marrying my dad, she wanted to learn music but her wishes had to be sacrificed because her husband’s career took priority. When we came along, mom’s interests took a permanent backseat and she served us fully from then on.
In our Asian values, a virtuous woman must obey her parents when young, her husband when married, and finally, serve her children.
We liked to think we have progressed in gender equality, but even the female classmates in my childhood were not spared: “How could a boy lose to a girl?”
Mom might not be a union leader like dad, but she led a peaceful strike in her factory that resulted in an amicable settlement between employer and workers. While many Singaporeans knew about the union men such as Lim Chin Siong and my dad, few remembered the female union leaders. After marriage, mom made sure we had the education she never had. What was her reward? She was despised by her own son, and blamed by society for his sexuality.
When I finally saw how much her suffering surpassed my own, I was moved to tears as she retold her story. She had tried many times to tell us, but I felt like I heard it right the first time.
In that moment, we reconnected.
Since that day, I began making up for my ignorance.
I approached a long-time theatre friend Kok Heng Luen (currently our Arts NMP in Parliament) and told him I wanted to write a play about mom. He jumped on the idea quickly and we began interviewing mom and dad. In 2011, the play was staged by Drama Box in the Arts Fest.
Mom was afraid to watch it, so she sent her friends on the first performance. She only attended the second performance after her friends gave the play a thumbs-up.
Through the interview and rehearsal process, I got rid of my misconception about blaming mom for me being gay. It was juvenile and completely ridiculous. I was just as misguided as the armchair psychiatrists believing in poorly-construed myths.
My two siblings grew up in the same household under the same conditions, and they did not turn gay.
A white rapper called Eminem made a career demonising his domineering mom and ruled the American rap charts for a decade. His large following consisted of mostly straight young men (and one gay older man – me).
It turned out that many people – straight or gay – grew up with domineering mothers and distant fathers. It had more to do with society expecting men to keep their feelings bottled up and be less expressive, and hoisting most of the child-rearing responsibilities unto women. Men, being the main bread winners, were away longer, while women had to take charge of the daily discipline of the children.
Mom had nothing except her wits and spirit. But she gave all of her children something she never had: the ability to reason, to have access to break out of the stereotypes. I did not have a fantastic childhood, but it was good enough to enable me to live a more fulfilling, open life. I might still faced discrimination, but mom and dad gave me enough tools to fight and defend myself.
My relationship with mom changed, and with that, my understanding of the discrimination for women and other minorities deepened.
Experiencing discrimination as a gay person, I better understood the inequality my mother faced all her life. Living through social oppression helped me realise how great a person my mother has been and still is.
If ever there is a good reason for me being gay, this is it.
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
Part 3 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-the-grand-canyon/
Part 4 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-all-my-lovers/
Part 5 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-gay-teacher/
Part 6 of OTTOBIOGRAPHT: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-a-tale-of-two-dogs/
Part 7 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-letters-from-students-and-a-parent-2007/
OTTOBIOGRAPHY: My Mother
By: Otto Fong