10 things I learnt (part 1)

When I started out 3 years ago to collect stories for I Will Survive from gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in Singapore, my primary intention was to bring together stories that could be shared and read by others. I was excited about embarking on the work as I knew what I wanted to do, yet at the same time unsure of how I would be received or perceived. Still, along the way, I somehow managed through and was humbly surprised to have learnt so much from the people I had met; old and new friends, acquaintances and interviewees who readily opened up to me their stories and their lives.

Here are just some of the things they have taught me.

10. Words can be hurtful, or empowering.

Several of the younger men talked about the numerous occasions where they had been called insulting, demeaning names.

Kenny recalled hearing terms like “bapok”, “paedophile” and “fag” being used on him by others; Kavin remembered someone screaming “Hey faggot!” at him while at the bus-stop outside his school; Zakaria was physically bullied in National Service and had to endure a fellow serviceman saying to him, “Since you think you’re a girl, and girls should do the washing, so you should wash my underwear for me.”

Fortunately, Pat had a more supportive experience upon his transition to a transgender man. He recalled his mother reminding him to change his name from the original feminine one, and also her saying that “I have to remember to tell people that I have 2 sons, instead of a daughter and a son.”

9. Human relationships are important.

I had always wondered whether LGBT people in a supposedly conservative, yet modern, Asian society like Singapore’s were left apart from their families, or if they continued to be a part of them.

All 21 people I spoke with maintained ties with their families of origin; several had been or were in meaningful relationships with a significant other. Bradley’s formerly ambivalent relationship with his mother eventually transformed into one based on mutual love and respect; the acceptance by Stefanie’s children of her transgender identity eventually gave her courage to appear as a woman to her spouse. When Frances first fell in love with another woman, after years of being unhappy with her boyfriend, she knew that things were finally going to be alright. Despite struggling with his addiction, Ethan continued to thrive with the unending support of his long-time partner.

The significant relationships they all have in their lives thus became resources for them to keep going despite various challenges.

8. Make no assumptions about people.

As a helping professional, one of the key principles we hold dear is respecting individual differences, and not make judgements or assumptions about the people we work with. Yet through working on I Will Survive, there were stories about how various professionals – social workers, school counsellors, teachers, police officers – would let down the very people they were supposed to be helping. This they did by making inappropriate comments and moralistic judgements about homosexuality and transgenderism, putting unnecessary pressure on coming out and making other life-changing decisions, and even breaching confidentiality without informing beforehand.

If you’re a helping professional who is in a position to be working with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender clients, here’s a Quick Reference Guide for Therapists published by Oogachaga.

If anything, it has spurred me to be even more mindful in adopting a accepting, non-judgemental approach as a person. Unfortunately, it also serves as another sad reminder of how even helping professionals are human, and in the absence of self-awareness and self-care, they too become subject to their own personal prejudices, attitudes and beliefs.

[To be continued in Part 2...]

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