In 2018 I decided to leave my home country of Singapore even though I once thought I would lead my queer adult life here because it was not a bad one. I decided to leave because I had met the woman I would marry, and there was simply no path for us to lead the sort of life we wanted in both of our home countries.
Being queer in Singapore is strange because on some level, it’s one of the better places to be queer in Asia. And on many other fronts, while it isn’t quite the worst, it’s also.. not at all fun.
Some time between 2012 (when I returned to Singapore) and 2018 (when I left again) civil society, and the state of queerness in the country, had a certain amount of momentum that made me feel cautiously optimistic. I am now of the opinion that that moment has passed.
The ‘fun’ bits about being queer here are:
- If you have a certain amount of money and class privilege, your life will be virtually indistinguishable from any other queer life you might lead in a major Western city
- If you have a partner who is either a professional in the right industries, or also a Singaporean or someone who has the right to reside here regardless of your marital status or sexual orientation, you will have a pretty decent life
- If you are important enough and your partner has the ‘right background’, there are ‘case-by-case’ ways to continue to lead a life in Singapore in important jobs and special privileges
- Homophobia exists at all levels of society but is virtually invisible in the upper echelons of English-speaking, cosmopolitan, world-traveling, Bali-on-the-weekends Singaporean and Singapore expat circles
- Dating opportunities, in terms of quantity and quality, is just as good as most major Western cities
- If your partner is also Singaporean, and you’re both above 35, you can technically purchase a subsidized public housing flat together under the Singles Scheme
- The lifestyle is nothing to complain about (but only of course if all of the above apply to you)
The not-so-fun bits:
- All of those things have to apply for it to be fun
- You will have zero legal rights forever
- The state of LGBTQ rights has not only stagnated, it is probably going backwards (significantly)
- Every interaction you have with the state as a queer person is an edge case
One in four heterosexual marriages are between a Singaporean and a non-citizen. We are a city-state, an entrepôt city, a trading post, midway between the world and back. It makes sense that would be the case. There aren’t any official numbers, since there’s no offical recognition of queer relationships, but an anecdotal guess would rate the share of transnational queer relationships in the LGBTQ world to be even higher than the heterosexual one. We’re a global-facing city, after all, and upper-middle class queer Singapore’s access to a cosmopolitan dating pool would not be surprising.
This is where the problem begins.
Even though the extent of this country’s discussion on queer rights at the moment starts with ‘should we repeal a Victorian law against sodomy?’ and ends with ‘what are the gays going to want next? Marriage?', I have been married for 3 years now. I have been leading a regular life in a society where it is so utterly ‘normal’ that being a cis lesbian is perceived to be regular and boring and not at all revolutionary in any way. I go anywhere, and old Asian ladies talk excitedly about how cute my wife and I are, and express outrage at why we can’t lead a regular life in Singapore, where we want to be.
How does one come back to… this?
I miss, so much, the heat, the humidity, the potential Bali weekend trips, the well-paid tech jobs in senior roles with far, far lower taxes, the quality of housing, the presence of a washer in every apartment, the public transit, the.. the everything. Nobody should ever have to leave home just to be able to be who you are. And yet, for queer people, leaving is not only about visas. It’s about a place to catch your breath because you’re just been sprinting and jumping over hurdles your entire life, only to find out that everyone else got to the finish line without a potato sack tied to their foot.
Being queer in Singapore is about having a potato sack tied to your foot. Some people, people like me, who have the above-mentioned privilege, think for some time that you can get away with whatever life throws at you because you’re used to winning the race anyway. But at some point you wonder why you had to win anything at all.
Today, I was reminded of this fact. We were at a government office trying to get something done, something extremely innocuous that is granted to any heterosexual Singaporean married to a foreigner. While I appreciate that we eventually got things done, every moment is one of debilitating terror. Knowing that what’s ahead of you is entirely ‘case-by-case’, that it depends on the beliefs and the feelings of the people you transact with, wondering if.. perhaps I had shown up as the director of a Singapore company (which I am) and not as the spouse of a foreigner (which I also am), I would have gotten this task done much faster without any questions.
On top of questions, there’s also the indignity of having your marital status yelled out loud in several languages, as if they’d never heard of such a thing.
I feel like Schrödinger’s Lesbian: I am at once a lesbian and not. I am married, there is no question about it, but that marriage does not exist, at the same time. If I were to be hit by a car tomorrow, and die, not only would my wife not be able to come to collect my body, she would also not receive a single cent from me. My sexual orientation matters, because the state does not want me to be visible or loud about it, but it matters as well, because the state also wants you to believe they are the best society in Asia for someone to be queer in, that there is utterly and totally no discrimination at all.
A few years ago I was interviewed by a local newspaper about my ‘unconventional marriage’. Not only was the focus of the story that I was so unconventional we had to leave the country, I spent the entire interview talking about insurance. Insurance excited me greatly. Not only because insurance is essential in healthcare-terrible America, but also because the very boring, blasé act of naming a person you’re married to as your next-of-kin is so revolutionary where I’m from. Between the quiet moments of our boring life filled with too much fur in our noses, and the indignity of justifying who we are to bureaucrats who think we don’t exist because it doesn’t say so in the SOP, I’m quite glad to be going back to boring. And fur. Boring fur and furry bores. But there is not a single moment where I wish I did not have to leave my home for it.