Content warning: This piece describes acts of homophobia and bullying that might be disturbing to some readers.
Since young, Kyle is always confused with how people look at him and why people like to call him names that are demeaning and hurtful. The term “gay” was not common during the ‘80s in Singapore.
A boy behaving femininely did not fit into how society thought a boy should behave Boys in this group are labelled “Ah Kua”. Ah Kua is a derogatory Hokkien term for a transsexual or transvestite.“Maybe something is not right, I have to be more like a boy,” Kyle recollected on his thoughts as a child.
Today, Kyle is a jovial, energetic, creative designer and Buddhist guide who volunteers at a soup kitchen and Buddhist organisations. Though he has gone through a hurtful past, he now recollects his experience with zen and ease.
He hopes that his sharing will spark a conversation about how it is okay to be different and how we can support our LGBTQIA+ friends within the Buddhist communities.
The Challenges of Being Different
Kyle was easily a bully’s target in school as the only boy in the choir. He joined the choir because he loved to sing but yet he was often called a “Sissy” for choosing to do what he loves.
“Every day I am thinking…am I going to be called something else?” Kyle shared. He would find longer routes to his destination to avoid a group of boys who would bully him.
Secondary school was where things escalated.
“If you like boys, then there is something wrong with you,” Kyle recalled. Boys would shame him in public by shouting derogatory names at him or throwing garbage into his bag.
Thankfully, he had four female friends who always defended him from the bullies. They made the pain of insults easier to bear. He recalled taking part in the school’s talentime competition, with the song ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey. The lyrics inspired him to go up on the stage to express himself and the audience was stunned at his performance. Kyle could reach all the high notes in the song. His performance led to less bullying as people saw his talent in singing.
Kyle felt lucky as the derogatory remarks were instead replaced with the nickname “Mariah”.
Mariah Carey’s “Hero” gave him the courage to be stronger during those tough times. The lyrics and tune provided a space of calm and refuge. “Mariah Carey and Whitney Huston are where my pillars of strength and inspiration came from. “That’s before I came into contact with the Buddha of course!” Kyle chuckled.
The Buddha as his inspiration
“I am not special, if I suffer I am not the only one,” Kyle realised as he found out about the four noble truths.
Learning the noble truths that life is subjected to unsatisfactoriness and there is a way out of it resonated deeply with Kyle. It gave him the empathy that he was not alone.
Bullying followed Kyle even when he was pursuing a diploma at NAFA. He really wanted the bullies to suffer badly. He was thinking about how to seek revenge all the time. However, he realised all the unhappiness and burdens within caused by hatred arose from being attached to his ego.
“At a later stage, I learnt more compassion.” Kyle shared. He drew his source of compassion from a Dhammapada verse on hatred.
“Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”
Responding to hate with hate only tortures oneself with anger, Kyle reasoned.
“Being kind to oneself is not just shopping or buying things for yourself. We always say be kind to yourself. When you are not angry towards others, that is when you are really being kind to yourself”
Kyle’s sharing struck a deep chord within me. In a society that starts talking about self-care, we often talk about the material. Kyle’s sharing nailed it that the emotional aspect is hardly looked at.
“Life without Dharma will be tougher to live on. The loss of my loved ones, the physical suffering from illness, the mental tortures of guilt and hatred. My suffering only I can relate to. No matter how happy one can be, the drum always sounds better when it’s far away.”
Kyle is thankful to be alive in this time where the Dharma still exists. He is constantly inspired by the teachings of Ajahn Buddhadasa, Ajahn Chan, Venerable Hsing Yun, and Thich Nhat Han., Without the Buddha’s Dharma, these masters wouldn’t exist.
Kyle has enormous gratitude for how the Dharma has transformed him.
I wondered to myself, “With so many challenges at school, was his experience in the Buddhist community any different?”
Gay + Buddhist?
Although Kyle never had negative experiences from the Buddhist community regarding his sexual orientation, challenges remain. Occasionally, when doing Dhamma volunteer work, he was apprehensive about sharing his sexuality as he was unsure how people would react.
He felt compelled to ‘tone down’ his behaviour when he entered the Buddhist setting.
“Why?”, I wondered.
Kyle shared that it remains a cultural taboo to say, “It is okay to be Buddhist and to be gay”. Something that is not discussed, creates uncertainty. There is a dearth of centres that have Dhamma talks and resources tailored to LGBTQIA+. Hence, there is uncertainty whether LGBTQIA+ members are welcomed.
The compulsion to tone down on his femininity eventually faded as Kyle developed his Dhamma knowledge.
He concluded that being LGBTQIA+ is not a sin. Rather, it is the way that we treat others and ourselves that matters more than our sexuality. Our thoughts, speech, and actions of kindness and wisdom are of utmost importance.
That made me wonder how we can better support our LGBTQIA+ friends.
“Be sensitive to what you say as it may make them feel uncomfortable. You may be close but do not take liberty in sharing with others about the person’s sexual orientation.” Kyle advised.
He recalled that some straight friends might accidentally ‘out’ their LGBTQIA+ friends, leaving them in an awkward situation.
“If we are standing up for them, just defend them because everyone deserves kindness and no one wants to be treated harshly,” Kyle advised. He mentioned that is better to avoid ‘out-ing’ LGBTQIA+ friends if they aren’t prepared to share their sexual orientation.
As friends, we also can express skilful speech by not stereotyping a person immediately. Don’t call out someone for ‘straight acting’ if they are gay and expect gay people to have to act a certain way.
In addition, if you suspect that a friend is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, don’t ask them. They might not be ready to share and feel even more stressed.
One Buddhist community that helped Kyle was “RainBodhi” (HYPERLINK), which combined two words “rainbow” and “Bodhi”. It is a LGBTQIA+ friendly community that conducts talks and provides resources to help one another.
How can members of the LGBTQIA+ community develop more compassion towards themselves against a conservative society which may not always be understanding?
“Take your time and explore what is happening. It is always through initial confusion that we gain clarity and wisdom eventually. Once you understand your emotions, you know better about this “Me” and “I”. Pick up a Dhamma book to ground yourself.” Kyle shared.
Kyle added, “If you aren’t religious, then pick up philosophy or inspirational books.”
Remind yourself “There is nothing wrong with you”.
With Kyle developing so much wisdom over time, I wondered what Kyle would tell his younger self.
“Trust your instinct. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the way you are. One day you will know a group of people who truly love who you are. You will meet an amazing teacher, the Buddha. You will come across the Buddha’s teaching and it will transform you. Be kind to people as much as possible. I promise you, that’s the only way that will help you through all the struggles. ” Kyle encouraged.
“Stop obsessing with losing weight and lose the ego instead!” Kyle added in jest.
In the spirit of pride – acceptance and care- Kyle summarised his thoughts by sharing, “Keep giving joy and love to people around you, even when you can’t find it yourself. Because whatever hardship you are going through, all the joy and love you have given would come back to you eventually”
This article is a reflection of my personal take on the topic and is not representative of the views of any organisation or community that I’m associated with. Please take what you think is useful and filter out the rest.
The world has never been more united yet divided at the same time.
Social rights movements bring people together, but they also seem to tear people apart.
Why is that? Have we missed the plot? Isn’t the end goal to be at peace and to be happy?
I’ve been pondering over these questions for years, and the same is true for the LGBTQIA+ movement.
It’s painful to witness so much distress amongst opposing parties. In the name of justice and equality, people hurt and get hurt, intentionally or unintentionally.
For a long time, for the fear of being entangled in fiery feuds, I chose to unplug myself from controversial conversations. While I frown upon discrimination, I’ve never felt a need to actively or publicly speak up for the LGBTQIA+ community. I thought it would fuel hate and I want no part in that. Not until recently, I realised how my inaction can be contributing to the problem itself.
The onset of riots and protests in various countries was a sobering reminder that social issues cannot be swept under the carpet. The undercurrent of prejudice has already resulted in irreversible harm such as suicides, violence, and even murder in some countries. There is a tipping point before the issue snowballs into more serious damages.
Without speaking up for LGBTQIA+, silent discrimination remains rampant and goes unreported, affecting their work, relationships, and mental health.
A silent killer, some would say. LGBTQIA+ members suffer in the dark, believing that they are less than themselves and that they are unloveable. Explicitly expressing our care for them can make a positive difference. It might even save a life.
Having said that, to me, speaking up on this topic isn’t about taking sides. It isn’t about fighting for or against LGBTQIA+ because fighting only breeds tension. It is about bridging the divide between groups and fostering mutual understanding.
Hatred never ceases through hatred in this world; through love alone, they cease. This is an eternal law.
Dhammapada Verse 5
We can tackle this issue fourfold:
1. Recognise that beneath the differences, fundamentally, we are all the same.
At some point in our lives, we would have felt that we don’t belong.
Perhaps everyone else seems smarter or more talented than us.
Perhaps everyone else shares the same interests except us.
Perhaps everyone else thinks differently.
We may try hard to fit in and to live according to others’ expectations, only to be unhappy for pretending to be someone we are not.
We may question our self-worth, discount our own good qualities, and berate ourselves. Or we may size ourselves up to overcompensate for the deep-seated insecurities.
Not being able to feel accepted and to be loved for who we truly are can be painful. To have others criticise us for being ourselves hurts even more. No place would feel like home, no place would we feel belonged.
LGBTQIA+ struggle to feel belonged more than straight and cisgender folks. They are frequent targets of bullying and often suffer in silence, thinking that there’s something wrong with them.
According to a research study, “Sense of belonging displayed a significant relationship with depression and hopelessness and is likely to play a critical role in both the development of and recovery from depression.”.
Showing acceptance and kindness towards the LGBTQIA+ has the power to reduce the numbers. If we see ourselves in them, we wouldn’t bring ourselves to inflict pain on them. We would even want to protect them.
Shifting the perception of “you versus me” to “us” erases any divide that caused us much agitation, and it would foster much-needed harmony in our society.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.
Dhammpada verse 131
2. Transcend the rights and the wrongs
How many times have we hurt others and ourselves while trying to be ‘right’?
Just because someone else thinks or acts differently doesn’t make him/her wrong.
Right and wrong isn’t all black and white, as seen in the trolley problem. Our perception of what is right or wrong has been influenced by various causes and conditions since we were young. Our environment, faith, knowledge, etc, shape our beliefs, which colour the lens we use to see the world.
The moment we hold on too strongly with our ideals, we start to project them onto others unconsciously. We unwittingly try to fix those who possess a differing opinion just to fit them into our reality, and rationalise why it is okay to do so (even if it hurts others).
But in the process, we are likely to be far from rational. Think about the last time when your ideals were challenged. How did you feel? Probably angry or lousy. I too would feel the same. Clinging to our views creates an emotional load in us, clouds our judgement, and can cause us to react to others unskillfully. We might be right in fact, but wrong in Dhamma.
To foster harmony and understanding, we first must drop the need to be right all the time.
We don’t have to agree with each other to respect and accept each other. Even if we cannot accept, we don’t have to hurt each other.
When the mind doesn’t grab hold of things, when you don’t find any “thing”, any opinion, any fixed position to delight in, then that is what brings about the end of quarrels, the end of disputes, malicious speech, the taking up of weapons and of argument – that’s where contention comes to an end, where the mind doesn’t relish taking hold of “this is my position!”.’
Madhupindika Sutta (MN 18)
2. Overcome discrimination by overcoming irrational fears
Discrimination often stems from irrational fear. When not understood, our unconscious fear can cause us to instinctively inflict harm on others.
I saw this first hand as when my 2-year-old niece screamed at the sight of a flying ant. She was so fearful that she smacked it while in tears (thankfully it flew away). The ant was just minding its own business. Why, at such a young age, does my niece feel a need to hurt the little ant?
Do we carry similar reactions towards people — carrying fear or ill-will towards LGBTQIA+ members or towards society who seemed to be against LGBTQIA+?
Some researchers theorised that our primal instinct is to protect ourselves from perceived danger, and to give us an evolutionary edge. Fear can also be learnt. For example, if our parents demonstrate their fears of spiders in front of a child, the child is likely to develop the same fear.
The piece of good news is that these fears can be unlearnt by shifting our perception.
Learning that the little ant has a father and mother, and wants to be happy, my niece stopped crying in fear. Eventually, she apologised, looked out of the window and said: “I want to see the ant find its mummy and daddy.”.
Faulting others or ourselves for being fearful is like punishing a child for being scared of insects.
We all have our implicit biases and prejudices, but acting on these unskillfully is not okay.
A constructive approach is to educate ourselves about the opposing views in hopes that our perspectives can be shifted, and that misconceptions can be cleared.
Fearful or negative feelings that can sow the seeds of conflict need to be understood in order to be let go of. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to widen our perspectives:
What caused me to feel this way towards (X)?
What assumptions have I made about (X)?
In which instances could my assumptions be wrong? How can I validate it?
What are the admirable qualities in this person/community?
He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth,
that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.
Dhammapada verse 257
4. Collaborating to create a safe space for all
As a democratic society, we have our rights to speak freely. However, freedom of speech comes with great responsibility. Free speech doesn’t mean hate speech. Words have the power to heal or to hurt.
All of us can do our part to join efforts in creating a safe space to communicate our feelings, and to establish mutual understanding so that we can co-exist harmoniously. Many times, we speak with good intentions, but how we say it and when we say it can burn or build bridges.
The teachings on Right Speech come in handy here. The Buddha taught that a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken:
“It is spoken at the right time
It is spoken in truth
It is spoken affectionately
It is spoken beneficially
It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
– AN 5.198
The following are examples to illustrate how these factors can be applied in real life.
John does not support LGBTQIA+ due to his own beliefs.
Lydia identifies herself as a lesbian.
A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable for them.
– John Stuart Mill
We all have a part to play to put out the fire of ill-will in this world.
If we see someone discriminated against, speak up for them rather than watching from the sideline.
We can proactively advocate kindness and compassion through healthy dialogues.
For myself, I’m making a commitment to:
Engage the LGBTQIA+ community, to understand ways I can make them feel included in society.
Start conversations with friends who are non-supporters, seek to understand their point of view, and brainstorm on ways to unite despite the differences.
I invite you to join me in this journey to plant the seeds of harmony.
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.
Many LGBTQIA+ people continually face generations of hate ranging from disrespectful slurs, homo/transphobic hate crimes, religious persecutions to even death sentences in some countries.
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.