It was 2005. My relationship with family, society and country had reached a new low.
In spite of coming out to my parents for two decades, their acceptance of me and my partner Han reached a plateau at “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Family gatherings were filled with animated discussions of my two married siblings and their adventures in child rearing. Of my partner there was nary a mention. We continued to attend reunion dinners separately, like the mute gays no one knew what to converse about in front of the children. My parents had effectively built the immediate family a larger closet, one in which I saw no one leaving.
My workload was getting heavier, and I barely managed to publish one book in 5 years during my free time. Personal fulfillment in Singapore seemed a distant dream.
Most of all, our gay social life offered up the same few inconspicuous hangouts. Pre-Pink Dot and pre-Facebook, it was limited to discreet private house gatherings and poorly-lit karaoke lounges. Conversations were still guarded, as we kept our full names, work details and relationship statuses from each other due to fear of accidental or deliberate exposure. Staying together without legal recognition or protection, we could not even hope to start a family.
For us, a lifetime of status quo seemed like being trapped in a haunted house. Migration seemed to offer a bigger space for a better life ahead.
For a few years, I initiated the slow but steady process of applying for an Australian PR. Upon securing one for myself, I applied another for Han as my de facto partner. Australia has yet to recognize same-sex marriage, but has long granted gay immigrants in genuine domestic relationships spousal recognition.
Without a marriage license, we needed to produce several years of proof. We roped in friends to send us postcards from their overseas trips, making sure to address the cards to “Otto and Han”. We meticulously documented every holiday we spent together in photo albums. A few friends had to write testimonials of our relationship.
The application went well enough, and eventually we were invited to the Embassy for an interview.
The day came and we made our way to the lobby. We had never met officials of any kind as a couple, and frankly, we felt like visiting a courthouse or police station to be interrogated. Nervously we checked our documents for one last time: the heavy photo albums, the postcards and testimonials.
For the first time, our love was standing before a public institution to be scrutinized… and judged.
A friendly lady of Asian descent greeted us cheerfully inside the enclosed interview room. We had no way of gauging if she was gay-friendly.
The lady looked through the photo albums, postcards and letters. We were surprised that years of hard work were examined within a couple of minutes. Soon she set the stacks of books and paper aside.
“Tell me about the two of you,” She smiled.
I took the lead as Han was not in a habit of conversing in long sentences. Occasionally he would chip in when I was hazy about a date or location. We shared about how we met in 1998, how long we dated before we started spending the weekends together, and when we finally moved in together. We got very nervous when we could not agree on certain points, as it might be conceived that we were lying.
She was not satisfied.
“Tell me more,” She said after our collective account of our history together.
We frantically searched for information we missed out the first time around. I knew police interrogators often repeat their questions to check for discrepancies in the suspects’ accounts. While we did not lie or make up details, we were still afraid.
When the second round was done, we looked at her expectantly. Had we shared enough?
“I don’t know,” She said, “You have to convince me that you two are truly a couple.”
“Maybe you can tell us what you are looking for,” I was getting annoyed. I felt like an innocent man accused over and over of lying.
I looked at Han. He had run out of even the short sentences.
“Come on!” I thought, growing desperate, “This is our PR we are fighting for!” I wanted to yell out, but thought that getting emotional in an interview would be most un-Asian.
“I’m still not convinced,” The lady shrugged and sighed, “You have to show me something to convince me!”
“These photos are clearly genuine and collected over years,” I finally showed some of my irritation, “We have weathered seven years of familial indifference, societal ignorance and we are still together. I think we’ve shared all that happened to us in these years and can show you nothing more.”
She stared back at me, her expression a blank.
“You’re not expecting us to kiss or something, are you?” I asked. Han and I did not even have practice holding hands out in the open.
Our interviewer shrugged, unwilling to offer us any prompts or clues.
Since we had no practice with public affection, I figured starting then would be futile. We might look awkward, and could come across as if we were faking the relationship. At wit’s end, I felt defeated.
It was then and there that I flashed back to 1986. I was a lonely university student travelling with a group of international students to the Grand Canyon National Park in the state of Arizona, USA. We woke up early one morning, braved the chilling winds to witness first light. As we stood facing the endless snow-covered ridges, the first rays pierced the sky and flooded the misty scenery with an orange glow. We forgot the cold and stopped shivering. Everyone started hugging their partners, sharing their awe of the majestic view. I had no one to hug, and whispered a hushed ‘wow’ to myself.
When the moment passed, I made a wish: Give me a lover so I can share these wonders with him. Give me a lover so I never have to experience this world alone.
It seemed after all our hard work, our interviewer was unmoved. She might deny Han his PR. I might have to experience my new home in Australia alone.
I knew what my choice would be.
“Han isn’t very vocal,” I told our interviewer, “But his action spoke louder than his words. I was a mess before I met him, and a mess when we were dating. But he stood by me through the rough times during the economic meltdown of 1997, and I would not be the person I am now if not for him.”
“He is the most important person in my life,” I said, shaking my head, “If his PR isn’t approved, you can take mine back too. I’m not going anywhere without him.”
The lady blinked. I thought we were screwed.
“That’s what I was waiting for,” She smiled, “That tells me without a doubt that you love each other!”
We looked at her, baffled and relieved at the same time. I realized she was not an employer looking at skill sets and a professional demeanor during interview. She was waiting for our hearts to speak.
“Congratulations,” Our interrogator turned into Cupid and Registrar as she signed on the dotted line, “Welcome to Australia!”
Gratefully we thanked her and walked out of the room. We collected our documents and quietly left the embassy.
At the overhead bridge right outside, we stood above the passing traffic.
“We did it!” Han found his voice again.
That was the first time we ever got an official nod about our relationship. A country – not ours – recognized us as a couple.
“I feel like hugging and kissing you,” I said.
“Not here lah!” Han, never sure during the interview, suddenly became assertive. He was grinning from ear to ear too.
“Haha,” I grinned, “I can’t either, HUBBY!”
Subsequent events conspired to keep us in Singapore. But that’s another story.
Thank you for reading this article. This is a personal appeal from me.
I am a writer, educator and artist, and I hold scientists and thinkers in the highest regard.
Amongst them, Alex Au, of the Yawning Bread blog, is such a hero. He sees a bigger picture and dissects issues rationally. In the field of LGBT progress, he is one whom I look up to for clarity. Of all the tools in our shed, he’s one of the sharpest. Sometimes he cut deep and drew blood. He deserves our support and love.
This is a video made by artist Loo Zihan of him:
A detailed explanation of the fundraising is in this link, and a donation towards his legal fees would be greatly appreciated:
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
OTTOBIOGRAPHY: The Grand Canyon
It was 2005. My relationship with family, society and country had reached a new low.