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.

So afraid for my life

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.
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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.
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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.
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The above are excerpts from Zakaria’s full story, which can be read in the book.