History is a swamp

Today while thinking through some of the ideas and events in my new play Tango, a sudden recollection.

It was my A levels, the General Paper exam, 2004. Teachers from other schools had come to supervise the examination. One teacher in particular, a man in his late 30s, kept stopping in front of my desk during the exam. I had no idea why, but it was annoying.

Later, I got back and went on Trevvy, a gay forum that was super popular at the time. I was there to bitch about the exam with the small group of gay boys from my JC (each school had its own thread), where I was pretty open. I got a private message in my Trevvy inbox, from a stranger. It said: “is your name Joel Tan Wun Chuan? Please be careful, don’t be so public, it’s not safe for us AJs”. I put two and two together, the teacher must have known me from Trevvy.

At the time I found the message strange, creepy almost. I doubt I’ll ever fully understand it. I grew up in a time when it was generally okay to be open with your peers, when the prospect of being gay was starting to lose its dread, when there was even some optimism, some curiosity about it. Small social circles, online and off, formed around it. Some of us kept our anonymity. Some of us still used “AJ” to mean “gay” either because we couldn’t yet stand the sound of “gay” in our mouths, or we enjoyed having a secret code to speak in. There was a sense that as perilous as it could be, as people like that teacher portended it to be, being gay was mostly pretty fun. It was a halfway state, half in, half out, slowly emerging, a butterfly narrative. So I found the warning a little twee, almost backward.

This isn’t to say I couldn’t empathise. As a way to feel less lonely growing up in a pretty testy homophobic secondary school environment, around my teens I had started reading lots of Alex Au’s Yawning Bread, inheriting its indignation, in thrall of his ingenious close reading, his passionate archival. I developed a knowledge for the brutal legacy of homophobic state action in Singapore: the police entrapment, the raids, the public shaming. I learned about 377A, about Josef Ng.

But I gradually found myself slipping out of that legacy as I grew older; less fear, less condemnation. The state had started to ease off, and it was the beginning of the transfer of homophobic power from the state to private institutions: there was a lot of pain caused by homophobic church leaders, and in the public sphere, the occasional Thio Li Ann. But this was pain almost in the abstract, accompanied by a sense that one did not have to hide one’s disgust anymore. In the heyday of the talky blog, the sordid forum, the Internet became a resource not only for sex and affection, but also politics, a counter-culture, an imaginary space of very real solidarity. I started feeling empowered enough to slowly shed religion off my skin. It started with drips of unbelief, and years later I would finally make a break for it. Likewise, an understanding of my sexuality.

I don’t know why my teens have been coming back to me a lot lately. I’m almost 30 now, my sexuality on some days almost incidental to my life, on other days, the bedrock of my movement through the world. It’s an ebb and flow. There was a time I cowered under sheets crying to be delivered from my homosexuality. Today I sometimes say the same thing but with an ironic roll of my eyes, with a view to the hopelessness of gay men as romantic partners. But always a sense of movement away from those dark times, a transmutation of pain into irony, grief into camp, church into theatre.

I suppose that’s it: when we chart the experience of growing up gay, it’s almost always a narrative of shirking off something ugly, leaving it in the past. Some people want to tell you that it gets better, others that you get stronger, others that it was never as bad as it seemed. But the thing we do inherit is a shared experience of the closet, or whatever you call it: the melancholy of a childhood spent in hiding from yourself.

But is there value in the bathwater? I think so. Perhaps if things keep getting better, personal politics get thinner.

What happens when one day a young gay person grows up thinking that there’s something superfluous about activism, all this talk of struggle? We have it pretty good. Grows up to a point he rolls his eyes at it, thinks it’s twee?

I recognise now, 30 years old, that when I rolled my eyes at the creepy teacher warning me to be discreet over Trevvy, I was probably rolling my eyes at an entire 30 years spent living in fear as people like him were persecuted by the State, their safe spaces raided, their community eaten through by a disease, their dignity trampled on by the papers, their activists shamed and scorned, their desire outlawed and policed.

And that’s the legacy we’ve inherited even if we’ve not grown up with it. Its traces linger in the laws we keep, in the silence around gay lives in the media, in the persistent censorship of the arts, in the culture of embarrassment around sex and infection. The failure of our society to reckon with this legacy is the reason why it emerges, hollow but vicious, in the form it does today: in religious campaigns, in the state’s enthralment with moral panic. Things born in pain never go away, they stay around to haunt. History is not progressive, it’s a swamp; we wade through it thinking geometric thoughts. The 20-odd years since  Josef Ng got arrested for protesting police entrapment of gay men are an illusion: it has always been in the present, contemporaneous with censorship of nude bodies at the M1 Fringe Festival.

I find myself returning in spirit to the 80s and 90s because I observe in the benign faces of our leaders a horrible ability to pretend those days never happened. I was a child then, unaware of what was going on around me, and sometimes it feels distant and alien, but it’s left scars everywhere. On my own body, the way the hairs on my arm prickle when my dad sees me in drag, his fear for my wellbeing mixed with shame at my perversion. On other bodies, the way a young man refuses to make eye contact as we sit under my block before hooking up, as if ashamed of being seen in public. The public, for that matter, a space where religious fundamentalists baldly believe they own your body and desire, claim their right to legislate over it. My parents and I watching the news on world AIDs day, when we’re told about the rate of HIV infections in Singapore; how my parents shift uncomfortably around me. The police at Pink Dot.

Have we done enough to talk about those earlier times, to fully reckon with what happened and to track their echoes in the lives we lead today? Fully mourned those times and the people who lived through them, perhaps right and eager to forget? To force the State to reckon with that past. To help people understand that all this anger we see today is generations deep, isn’t a flash in a pan, isn’t an inheritance only of “Western” rights movements, but deeply, deeply ingrained in a local history of shame and violence.