Opening windows in my soul

© Braema Mathi

Reflections from a woman

Braema Mathi is a former Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore, a two-term former President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and former Vice-President of Action for AIDS. She led Transient Workers Count Too and its precursor, The Working Committee 2 (TWC2) from 2002 to 2007, and is a founding member of MARUAH (Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism). Braema is also the Regional President of the International Council of Social Welfare (Southeast Asia and Pacific) and has previously worked as a teacher, a journalist, in senior management and in research.

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I grew up not knowing what “gay” or “homosexuality” meant. I went through primary school,where no one spoke about relationships between people of the same sex.

In secondary school, I was amused, along with my friends, at the many girls who had massive crushes on a female teacher who was very sexy and pretty but not quite good at teaching. I could not understand it then, but it was good fun observing the behaviour of the girls who had a crush on her, and then talking about the subject among ourselves.

Back then it did not bother me too much, as I was busy having too much of a good time in school, making friends, studying and having fun at various extra-curricular activities.

I do not even remember wondering ‘why’. Perhaps I had grown up listening to many stories from my late mother who had dealt with life’s many twists and turns. Perhaps it was the story I remember of a transgender person in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, who used to work tirelessly at all weddings and funerals, and still faced unabated name-calling by the very people whom she was serving.

Perhaps it was the very culture of the convent school I was attending, which had “loving one and all” as part of its teachings. Perhaps I was just being naive for not even questioning anything. Or perhaps, I was already accepting diversity without being conscious of it.

As Bob Dylan famously sang, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” And I am glad for it. For it did not matter. I was already here, accepting that we are not all the same. I am grateful for the experiences, intuitiveness and lack of any prejudicial influence in my early years that have kept me somewhat a tad too innocent.

I became a teacher in an all-boys school. There were boys who loved to take part in drama, who were cruelly teased by other boys when they had to take on the female roles. As the teacher-in-charge of the Literary, Debating and Drama Society, I had to keep my eye on it so that no one was bullied or stigmatised for that. But there were also some boys who embraced the parts more enthusiastically than others, and so authentically too. They were teased mercilessly and it became my job to protect them from the constant flow of insults and humiliation.

It was then that I started pondering about the diversity of expressions in an all-boys’ environment. I found it harsher than when I was growing up amidst those same-sex crushes in my all-girls’ school. I felt for the boys who were still in their early teens – trying to simultaneously cope with school and puberty. I only knew that I had to put right where I felt that boys were being teased, or when I heard unkind labels such as ‘fag’ or ‘homo’ being used. I had thought it was just a passing phase, that they would soon lose interest in each other once they entered junior college and met the opposite sex.

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The above is an excerpt from the essay contributed by Braema Mathi. You can read the full essay, and others, in the book.

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