Leng is the youngest of four children, and is in her early 40s. She is a social worker and as part of her job spends a lot of time walking the streets and travelling on public transport.
I was sitting with my mother one day while she was having a very severe headache.
“What will you do when I die?”
It’s not something you expect your parent to ask when you are only 15 years old. I didn’t know what to say in response, but in my mind I was imagining all the possible scenarios of what would happen if she did pass away. Not long afterwards, she was admitted into hospital and diagnosed with a brain tumour. They performed an operation on her, and she lapsed into a coma from which she never woke. She died within days.
My father was heartbroken, as were my three older brothers. Maybe it was because I had been prepared by my mother for what was to come, so when it actually happened I didn’t cry, not even at the funeral. I was too caught up with thinking about what to do next, worrying about my dad and looking after him, as well as trying to take care of myself all at the same time. I always thought I was a tough person who could take charge of things, and was too proud to let myself succumb to grief. I became very rational, and wanted my father and brothers to stop crying and just get on with living.
But thinking back, it was a really hard time for everyone, as it all happened so suddenly. As the only woman left at home, much of the household responsibilities fell upon me. Although my brothers helped with some of the cleaning, I still had to cook for my dad and was expected to look after everyone. While preparing a meal at home one day, I accidentally cut myself with the kitchen knife. That was the first time I cried since my mother’s death. I thought to myself, why did she leave me this way?
* * *
I’d like readers of this story to stay positive after reading this. I once picked up $20 from the ground outside a lift, and was really happy about it; a couple of days later, I couldn’t find my wallet and was saddened to realise I had lost $20 in notes from my trouser pocket. It reminded me that in a way, nothing stays forever; not happiness, not sadness. Enjoy the happiness when you have it; enjoy the sadness too but don’t indulge in it. The sadness will not endure forever. There will come a time when you will be happy, and you will feel as if your life is lifted up again.
If you’re a young questioning woman reading, I hope you will have the patience for the necessary process of growing through your twenties and beyond. It can be a hard time, a period of searching for a lot of things, finding reassurance and re-confirming your own sexuality. Sometimes we get depressed and feel down while going through all that, because we don’t understand what we are facing. But after having gone through that stage, I feel it’s important to stay patient, and slowly journey on. Years later, you will look back and it will be something you can be proud of. Given your capacity and your circumstances, you know you would have already done your best.
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The above are excerpts from Leng’s full story, which can be read in the book.
Zakaria works as a civil servant in a government statutory board. He is 24 years old and grew up in a Malay-Muslim family.
When my father came out of the psychologist’s office, his eyes were red and puffy. As he sat down next to me, it was obvious that he had been crying.
“Pa, what happened?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, nothing,” he replied.
“Well if there’s nothing then why are you crying?”
“They just wanted to know how you are in the family, whether you get along with your siblings.”
Why would someone cry when asked that question? We are from a religious family, and I was shocked to see him cry because I think of him as a strong, stoic man. I wondered what kind of news would have brought him to tears.
I guess the psychologist must have told my father that I am gay and was getting bullied in the army. It’s not something that’s easy for any father to hear.
After that, he drove me in his taxi all the way from the Military Medicine Institute near Kent Ridge in the west to the Changi ferry terminal in the east. He was quiet throughout the journey, and when I got out to board the ferry to go back to Pulau Tekong he said,
“If you have any problems, just talk to me okay?” It was such an awkward moment for both of us as we didn’t know what else to say.
* * *
Pulau Tekong is home to lots of big insects. One night, they caught a really huge bug and chased me around the bunk with it. Sadly, I think they got real pleasure from terrifying me – seeing me running around, shouting and screaming. Eventually, when I thought they had grown tired and stopped, I went to bed – and found that the bug had been left there.
The taunting went on all the time. I grew used to being called names like “bapok” and “sissy”. They would imitate my voice and said things like “Hey, how are you? How are your friends at Changi?” They were referring to the transsexuals who would hang out at Changi Village; these guys thought that I was in some way like them.
All the little incidents built up. I couldn’t take it anymore; I felt like I was not valued at all in the platoon. It was as if I was just someone they could make jokes about and laugh at whenever there was a chance.
Things got even worse one night when I was asleep in the bunk after a hard day’s training. I suddenly awoke and found that someone had clambered on top of me, and was pinning me down with his body. I was absolutely terrified. I screamed because I didn’t know what he was going to do next. To make things worse, everybody else in the bunk just laughed. After that horrifying incident I had problems sleeping at night, because I was so afraid for my own life. It felt like I had lost all sense of safety, and worried that it might happen again. What would they do next? What if they decided to tie me up the next time I fell asleep?
I was sad and disappointed that they could find something like that funny. In a way I also felt sorry for them. I refused to show them my real feelings, so I just smiled and said I was OK. It was hurtful because it felt like they thought they could take advantage of me and not treat me like a human being.
* * *
I certainly didn’t ask for any of this harassment, and neither did I ask for all the bad things which came along the way. I declared I was gay to my officers back in BMT because I wanted to get away from the bullying and the hardship of trying to cope with people who were taunting me with their words and behaviours, telling me I was weak and affecting my confidence. I tried to hang on, but after awhile the emotional distress and pressure from all the taunting got way too much, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I just didn’t know how to deal with it back then.
I was sent to see a psychologist at the Military Medicine Institute. Hers was the first female face I saw in the army. She was stern and strict and not the friendliest person I had ever met – at least not on our first encounter. But I continued to see her for the next one and a half years while I was in the army. She was very helpful and taught me the skills I needed to help me cope with my situation.
It’s a myth that all gay men are weaklings and that we can’t handle National Service. Some of us can’t, but some of us can. Another myth says that all gay men are effeminate. Well, some of us are, but some of us are not. Many people also think that gay men are sexual beings, that we enjoy talking about, thinking of and doing sexual things all the time. That’s not true. It’s also untrue that gay men can’t contribute anything positive to the environment they’re in at that point in life, even if it’s the army.
Straight guys in the army really need to respect us gay guys. Please don’t judge us for who we are, and don’t expect all gay guys to be the same. The next gay guy you meet may be different from the last one you met. After all, we’re human beings and we’re also different individuals at the same time. Just respect whatever each one of us has to contribute to the army.
At the same time, I also believe that gay men in the army who need help with coping should go and ask for it, because help is there. It may not be available immediately but it can be found. There are lots of avenues for help in the army. It’s also important to be yourself when you’re in the army and disregard the bad things that other people may say about you, because you know yourself best and if you feel that something is not right and you don’t agree with it, you should stand up and speak out. Keeping it inside yourself will cause you a lot of distress instead. I think the army is a place where you can learn a lot of new things and skills on how to deal with different kinds of people and how to survive. I think I learnt all that in the army, the hard way.
* * *
The above are excerpts from Zakaria’s full story, which can be read in the book.