Xin Yee (not their real name) shares with HOL on their journey of coming out as LGBTQIA+.
Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia, suicidal ideation and mental illness that might be disturbing to some readers.
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexuals. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some LGBTQIA+ members prefer the use of certain pronouns to reflect their gender identity. In this case, Xin Yee wishes to use “their”.
“I guess we all had inklings…you know, the dance of hormones, feelings you have as a teenager. I knew then I was gay.”
When I read coming out stories like this, I never related.
As a 13-year-old girl, I just recalled the pull of just wanting to get closer, and closer, and closer to some girls. There were no labels of relationships, normality, or even queerness. Just a simple innocence of “I just really like being around you, and I want you to like me too,” that’s it.
I was oblivious that I was different, and I was not aware of how sinister that simple feeling meant to others, and little did I know that could be the beginning of a crime punishable by death in 7 countries.
And then I start to learn about “the lesbians.” They are the red lines not to be crossed. Those who crossed them were treated with the same category as delinquent juveniles – who engaged in drug-taking, vandalism and gangsterism. At home, derogatory terms were thrown casually on people within the LGBTQIA+.
Conversations around them were about their differences, abnormality, and unnaturalness and almost always met with disgust and wagging tongues. Perhaps I was “fortunate” enough to not understand my feelings at that time, and hence I was not the brunt of the discrimination.
But I internalised the aversion towards them.
When They Become I
The complex feelings of attraction persisted and intensified. I liked boys, and I really like girls. I didn’t feel the inclinations towards expressing my femininity in stereotypical ways, nor did I feel the urge to become another gender.
I was beyond confused as there were no examples around me that I could relate to. Figuring out one’s identity and creating a meaningful sense of self in the world – one that is consistent and harmonious with what one feels-is immensely challenging.
Yet it is a crucial part of our lives. Thus, I set sail on my solo ship of exploration.
I remember navigating my exploration with much caution, as I have already internalised homophobia. I knew enough to live a double life. Away from my family, I opted for masculine clothes that I felt comfortable and free in. I gave myself bold side shaves and wax my hair up confidently like David Beckham. But when I was home, I always swept my hair over my forehead to justify that it was still “long hair” and that I was “normal”.
But of course, I was treading on thin ice – the desire to express myself freely did not sit well with my family’s heteronormative expectations.
One day, when I was minding my own business, I was beckoned into a room by my mother and, *surprise surprise* her gang of ladies, (comprising of well-intentioned relatives with the lethal combination of being too nosy and having too much time to spare ) to have “The Intervention to Straighten Me Out.”
Each relative had the unique role of holding 3 pictures:
A. Facebook photos of me in short hair,
B. Picture of male model with the same hair that I had,
C. Celebrities in the 2000s with cringy blonde long hair and feminine outfits.
They each interrogated me on why I was acting like a boy (picture B) and accused me of “Becoming A Lesbian.”
The bottom line was clear: My identity was not to be tolerated anymore and I had to “become” what was acceptable to them (picture C), and that the repercussions were severe. I was threatened to be “cut off completely” from the family if I were found to be “gay.”
I barely managed to keep an emotionless face and denied my way through their harsh (disrespectful, even) scrutiny but internally, my world shut down. I remembered feeling absolutely terrified, helpless and repulsed. These were relatives, family whom I spent weekly Sundays with, grew up celebrating birthdays, new years and achievements together.
They were supposed to be the people who had my back, not committing an “et tu, Brutus,” in the betrayal of “Julius Caesar.”
At the same time, I felt deeply hurt, ashamed and deeply alone in an overwhelming stew of conflicting emotions being rejected by my very own family. It was beyond what I even knew how to process. Eventually, I stopped expressing myself to the world, but my body continued to absorb all the stress as I tried very desperately to hide the emotions that I felt, while trying to force myself into normality, while fearing the terrifying consequences, while managing final year academics, projects and competitions, heartbreak etc……
And that’s when my body hit the breaking point.
I was diagnosed with a psychogenic movement disorder – which essentially was my body’s way of expressing the overwhelming psychological distress I felt through uncontrollable jerks, tics and even full-body spasms.
Emergency wards, ambulances, wheelchairs, a concoction of pills and painful injections were my best friend for the next couple of weeks and months. At my weakest, I was bedridden and completely lost the ability to perform normal functions like sitting straight up without toppling over.
I was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The Coming Out
As the desperation to rescue me from the lifeless form I occupied grew frantic, I saw my parents in a different light. They were by my side all day and all night. Without hesitation, they fed me, wiped me, and even helped me take showers.
But yet, the disconnect was there as I was still weighed down by the burden of shame, guilt and fear. I still didn’t see a way out to reconcile how I felt with how the world would react. Hope was slipping away and I was losing the desire to hold on.
One day, I whispered meekly to my mother that I wanted her to “please let me go”.
Amidst volumes of tears that could sustain an Amazonian rainforest, I vividly remembered her asking: “Please tell me what I can do to bring you back, anything at all”.
And the dam broke. I stammered and stuttered my way through four simple words: “Ma, I like girls.”
I closed my eyes in anticipation of the world to come crashing down, for her to disown me, for her to pack her bags and leave.
After 5 long seconds that felt like an absolute eternity, she embraced me tightly, and said: “No matter what, you are still my daughter and I will accept and love you unconditionally.” For the first time in a long while, my tears were of relief and not of pain; And for the first time in a long while, I slept soundly like a baby.
The Healing Begins
Coming out does not mean rainbows and sunshine immediately. Acceptance is an up and down process. Most days we struggled, and some days we were backtracking to homophobic/transphobic slurs and disrespect, but more importantly, we were making baby steps of progress.
I had to learn also that acceptance was two ways – it was not just about her accepting my reality, but also in me accepting her as a human trying her best to unlearn her perceptions shaped by past experiences and alienating cultural narratives.
We both had to learn and practice compassion to chip away at the hatred, aversion and ill-will accumulated within ourselves.
Coming out does not mean that all problems cease to exist. The hostility and discrimination imposed by society still remains,but the most beautiful part is knowing that my family will be there with me, supporting me as I go through these challenges, and that we are together in charting an uncertain future. Family becomes part of the solution in alleviating suffering.
Coming to terms with an identity and establishing a strong sense of self as LGBTQIA+ was crucial to me in my younger days, and it defined a huge portion of “me, myself and I” as I struggled to gain validation and feel accepted.
But as I grow with the Dhamma, I realised just how fluid the sense of identity/self-view can be. Who I was, who I am, and who I will be… changes.
Internally, you may evolve as a person, and perhaps other aspects of your identities might become more important as you grow as a person – such as your spirituality, hobbies, passion, your contribution to humanity and your definition of yourself may change accordingly.
Externally, you may be defined and categorised by others based on their perceptions. You may be everything, and everyone at once, and yet find no one static self at all. More importantly, as Buddhist practitioners, how can we aim to eventually let go of the attachment to the sense of self? As Venerable Soma in the Sister Soma Sutta(S N 5.2) wisely reflects that the moment we have strong identities of who we are, defilements arise if our ‘self’ is provoked.
In Singapore, while the LGBTQIA+ community is gaining visibility and recognition, they still face unfavourable odds in public housing policies, military, healthcare and education. This leaves room for more progress ahead.
My intention in writing this article is not to persuade you to agree on LGBTQIA+ issues or have debates. My sincere hope is that through sharing my story, I invite you to see the humanity that both you, and I, a complete stranger share. I hope you draw parallels between our life stories and journeys, and recognise that just like you, all I want fundamentally is to be loved, accepted and respected.
Dr. Maya Angelou captures this fundamental union of humankind very beautifully below:
“As Roman Slave turned Playwright Terence mused:
‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’
Even in someone very different from you or someone you perceive as heinous…‘I have in me all the components that are in her, or in him; Likewise… if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which he or she was born, it means so can you.”
Let’s look beyond our differences and celebrate our shared humanity. Let’s stretch to use our energies constructively, to generate compassion, empathy and kindness, and destruct energies of aversion, ignorance and prejudice within us so that we can eventually be liberated from the suffering eating away at our hearts.