Here I am

Mohd Ashraff is 37 years old. He works as a counsellor, and lives with his partner.

I gladly identify as a gay Indian-Muslim. However, I’m not able to openly identify myself as a gay man at work, but I warm up to people pretty easily and when I think they might be more open to diversity, I would tell them. I used to be a lot more careful about this, but with age and experience, I’ve also become more accepting of what I am and who I am.
Religion has always been a focal point in my life. In the past religion for me was always about the concept of sin; what you could do versus what you could not. For example, a man having sex with another man was considered wrong. A man should marry a woman and have children, as that was the right thing to do. That was what I was taught as a child. I come from a considerably religious family, and my parents put much emphasis on the importance of religion in our lives. From an early age, I started attending regular classes to study the Qur’an. But as I grew older I began to question a lot more. Looking back, I’m glad to have received the religious instruction, as it gave me useful exposure and the chance to look at issues from a different dimension as an adult.
I was not always comfortable about my religion and sexuality. In 2004 my grandmother asked if I would accompany her for Umrah, a mini-pilgrimage to Mecca. I was quite taken aback by her suggestion and said “No.” In my mind, I was thinking, “I’m gay, and God will not accept me.” I thought I was not ready to go on this pilgrimage, but at the same time I also knew that going to Mecca was like an invitation one should not expect or turn down, and not everyone who wanted to go could do so. It took me some time before finally making that decision to go, and eventually I did. Along the way I was filled with much worry and apprehension, about whether God would even embrace me, and whether there would be too many distractions. But somehow everything turned out really well.
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I hope people can read my story and understand that it’s about connecting religion with sexuality. It’s really just about being comfortable with who you are, rather than living with those painful feelings of guilt, and then trying to embrace religion into your life. Lots of people say that you can’t be Muslim and gay at the same time. That’s not true. Religion and sexuality are not separate entities that are mutually exclusive. It all depends on how we integrate them, and the importance that religion plays in our lives, which is also a very personal decision. For me it’s not about choosing between Islam “or” homosexuality, but merging my faith “with” being gay.
The journey I have taken so far is a connection between me and God, on a path that has been filled with light and blessings. Through His divine intervention, I’ve been blessed in my current relationship. Still, this is just the beginning for me. I’m thinking a lot more now, still rereading the Qur’an to continue to understand and look at it from different perspectives. I’m also taking my time to rediscover what’s been written. While still searching for the deeper meanings behind those passages, I’m also looking for the concepts of forgiveness and acceptance as told in the Qur’an, as they are both especially important to me.
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The above are excerpts from Mohd Ashraff’s full story, which can be read in the book.

I remember him

Tarry, in his mid-thirties, works in the IT industry. He likes to keep up-to-date with his electronic gadgets.

I have a photo of his tombstone here on my handphone. Here, you can see it. I took it recently.
The very first time I met Nasir was at the SAFRA gym in Toa Payoh. He approached me and we exchanged phone numbers.  He rang me later and we went to a hotel where we spent the night. The next morning, I called but never heard from him in return.
He was my first sexual partner, and I was naïve. I thought something had happened to him, as I didn’t know that some people would have sex with you and totally ignore you afterwards. I was pretty worried for days but there was nothing I could do, with no other ways to contact him as he wasn’t answering my calls and didn’t respond to my messages.
So after a while I just forgot about him, and started going out with someone else. We spent a lot of time together, but when it came to the crunch he said he wasn’t ready for a relationship, and not long after that, we stopped seeing each other. And just when I was most upset, I met Nasir again, a year after our first meeting. Because I was feeling so down, he decided to invite me to spend time with him in Kuala Lumpur. I don’t remember what we did there, but on the train ride back to Singapore, he asked me to be his steady boyfriend.
It was a rocky, roller-coaster kind of relationship. We would fight a lot, scold each other, then talk on the phone again and make up and cry over it. There were a lot of highs and lows. Since then, all my subsequent relationships have been less emotional and dramatic. There has not been any passion since Nasir. They were just very comfortable relationships.
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My memory is really bad, but I guess there are some things that you just don’t forget.
This year is the tenth anniversary of Nasir’s death.
He was an air steward, and had been flying for around two, three years when I met him.  Less than a year after we started getting together, he told me that he was afraid of flying, which obviously wasn’t normal for someone in his job. He said he would feel really scared and shiver on board, and couldn’t really explain why it was happening. He showed me a letter from an overseas doctor and told me he had depression. I can’t remember if he was on any medication, but he was afraid of seeing a local doctor for fear of losing his job.
I didn’t know much about depression at the time, and how serious it was for him. I suggested that he change his career and even helped him apply for a fitness instructor course with the Singapore Sports Council. I think he attended the first lesson a couple of weeks before his death, and whenever we met he would tell me he was feeling depressed but was trying to control it. A week before his birthday I went and bought him a present, a mattress which was to be delivered to his home.
Then one morning, a few days before his birthday, I received a call from his dad who sounded really upset over the phone. The police had just called to say they found Nasir’s body. His dad was not sure what was happening, and asked if I could go over immediately to talk to the police.
I couldn’t believe what I had heard.  I kept hoping it was a joke, that there was some misunderstanding or mistake.  As I drove from Toa Payoh where I lived, down to their flat in Bedok, I was telling myself that even if it was all true, perhaps he was injured. It couldn’t be happening.
At the time I didn’t know that would be the start of three months of intense drama. I remember waiting for the police to tell us what happened. This is what we were told: earlier that morning, some kids playing at the void deck heard a loud bang, and found Nasir’s body on the ground.
Apparently he had jumped to his death.
I was in a state of disbelief.
Then the police had to interview us, and wanted to look through his things. I thought there was no point hiding further, and told them that I was his boyfriend. As they went through his stuff I just answered whatever questions they asked. After that they sent the body to the mortuary at the Singapore General Hospital, and I went with his parents to identify it.
Muslim custom requires that the body be buried within the same day, and the funeral is usually held on the evening of a person’s death. I made a few telephone calls to his friends to inform them, and some of them came over. I didn’t know many of them, but I was able to recognise some.
Then, most unexpectedly, the mattress I bought for his birthday was delivered during the funeral itself. You can imagine how that upset everyone even more.
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Above all, I was haunted by that one big question: “Why did he jump?” I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the depression. We tried to figure out what happened – did somebody push him off? Was he up there that night to meet someone? Was he troubled over our relationship?
Sometimes I wouldn’t even know how to describe the feeling I had inside. There were no words for it. I would be asking myself questions like: What happened? What did I miss?
Why did it happen?
Although I’m not a religious person, I always hoped that he would come back as a spirit to talk to me and tell me what happened, and explain why he killed himself.
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I think what really helps people to move on is time. Some people require more time, some less. From my personal experience, one way to cope with losing someone is to just remember your time with them. You soon realise that people come and go, through death or other ways. Basically life is just full of memories. Just remember them, however you want to do so, and try to move on with your life. You can choose how you want to put those memories to good use and to cherish them. Some people do significant things in the name of their loved ones who have passed away. Different people do different things. The idea is that you try to move on, and you will, eventually.
Although I didn’t do anything special in Nasir’s name, I just remember him. Like talking about it now, this is my way of remembering him.
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The above are excerpts from Tarry’s full story, which can be read in the book.

A double closet

Lance is in his forties. He works as a consultant and often has to travel overseas for his job.

It’s like being in a double closet.  Being gay is one closet, being mentally ill is the other.
I have bipolar disorder. When I was diagnosed in 1988, it was known as “manic-depressive disorder”. The term “bipolar disorder”, which sounds more neutral, only came about 10 years ago as they thought “manic-depressive disorder” sounded a bit too psychotic. As the term suggests, it is a mental illness that results in severe cyclical mood swings, from feeling very low and depressed to feeling very high or elated. If left untreated or unstable, the mood swings can repeat themselves, ranging from monthly to weekly cycles.
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Talking about it now, more than 20 years later, I suppose it no longer hits me so hard, because I had been living with it all this while.
During one of my hospital stays, I became delusional and tried to run out of the ward, which was gated, locked and monitored.  When I finally came to consciousness again, I remember my hands and feet were being restrained with Velcro binders to the side railings of the hospital bed. Either I had passed out, or I was trying to run and had harmed myself in the process.
I went through regular sessions of electro-convulsion therapy, because that’s supposed to be one of the fastest ways to normalise the brain waves. One of my friends from secondary school said the sessions could have affected my memory, as there were things he remembered that I didn’t. I suppose it must have been quite traumatic for someone like him to hear that I had gone through all that.
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Back then, my mum was the only one looking after me at home. She once got so frustrated with me that she walked out of the house, saying she needed a breather. It was then that I swallowed my entire bottle of lithium-carbonate tablets. There must have been more than 100 pills. I remember drinking lots of water to wash the pills down.  Nothing happened. My desired result – death – did not materialise.
When my mum came home, she realised that all my medication had disappeared. Then I started throwing up quite badly. I was rushed to Accident & Emergency, which led to another extended hospital stay. Doctors had to put me on blood dialysis for several hours to clear my system of all the lithium-carbonate tablets I had swallowed.  Later, I remember the police coming to talk to me, and fortunately I was smart enough to say I had accidentally overdosed, instead of admitting that I had attempted suicide. They didn’t pursue the matter further.
My mum felt really guilty that I overdosed after she left the house. What she didn’t know was that I had deliberately tried to get her out of the house, so that I could be alone to proceed with my plans to end my life.
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Because of my mental illness, I had always known that my life would be a little different. At least now as a gay man, I also know that I’m not alone. I know there is a community of people out there. It means I’m not one-of-a-kind. I’m not an alien, and I’m not a freak.
If you’re reading this and you have bipolar disorder or some form of depression, go seek professional help. If you know of someone who may have a mental illness, advise them to get help quickly. Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness.  With the right medication, it is possible to live life normally, to study and to work. Get support for yourself, whether it is seeing a professional like I did, or receiving support from family and friends.  My parents do not usually give praise, but during one of my depressive episodes, they told me they were already very proud of me for completing my university studies after my first hospital stay. They felt it was already an achievement in itself. I felt very good on hearing this, especially since my parents were not usually open with their feelings. Having friends who may or may not know about it was important for me too. At least they wouldn’t give up on calling me or asking me out. That social support net was critical.
As for my sexuality, I always believe there is no one template of what it means to be gay. What’s important is learning to cope, and having the confidence not to feel like you’re a lesser person just because you are not part of the mainstream.
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The above are excerpts from Lance’s full story, which can be read in the book.