I'm lesbian, and I'm helping queer people come out to their families
By Lisa Twang, Jun 04, 2020
In June, the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies celebrate Pride Month. It’s a time where we recognise the impact which gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, pansexual, non-binary people and other members of the community have made all over the world. In Singapore, it’s celebrated through events like non-profit LGBTQIA+ group Pink Dot SG’s annual rally, which was first held in May 2009 and made history as Singapore’s first open air queer-supportive event, “supporting the freedom to love”. Its attendance has grown from an estimated 2,500 at its first event to 20,000 in 2019. This year, it will be livestreamed at https://pinkdot.sg/ on 27 June, 8pm.
To understand their challenges this Pride Month, we invited three individuals to share with us what they wished more people would talk about in relation to the queer community, and why these topics are so important to them. They speak about helping queer people and their families accept them for who they are, feeling invisible as a queer person, and how advocacy for queer pride comes in different shapes and forms.
Our ‘I’m queer, and this is what I’m fighting for’ series begins with Pauline Ong, an executive pastor at Free Community Church, which welcomes everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. One of Singapore’s few openly gay pastors, Pauline is also a trained counsellor, and has worked with with queer individuals and their families since 2012.
Here, Pauline discusses the difficulties queer people face when coming out to their families, and what she has learned in supporting them and their families through the process. She talks about why she’s chosen to help families of queer people, and how we can all learn to be more understanding of our queer friends and relatives.
I’ve seen many queer people come out to their families in my eight years as a pastor and counsellor. In my experience, when families find out that their son, daughter, brother or sister is queer, they can react in very different ways.
Sometimes, everyone is loving and accepting, and says, “Who cares?” But some family members feel confused, ashamed or afraid, and they don’t know where these feelings stem from.
I’m privileged, because my family has been very accepting of me as a gay woman, though I should also add that it’s taken them a long time to get there. I know it’s harder for others who are struggling with their identities and sexual orientation to navigate relationships with their families. There are very few safe and friendly counselling spaces for queer people in Singapore, so I want to do my part for our community as a counsellor for both Christians and non-Christians.
I feel that my relationship with my family changed for the better when I came out. Finally, I didn’t have to hide a part of who I was. I could be more honest, open, and more ‘myself’ with them.
Through working with queer people and their families, I want to help them improve their own relationships too.
Here in Singapore and Malaysia, our society tends to see queer people as strange or alien. In the media, we’re portrayed neutrally or negatively, but rarely positively.
On broadcast TV, newspapers and so on, positive portrayals of queer people and our lifestyles are not encouraged. We don’t fit into the typical family unit of a heterenormative husband, wife and kids: being queer is seen as a deviation from the norm.
To be fair, in Singapore, the Pink Dot event has been covered in the media in a neutral way. At other times, you may read about queer people in the news for more controversial topics. In Malaysia, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy, and homosexuality was used as a way to shame a political opponent.
When we read these things, it often creates a negative impression of queer people. It emphasises that we’re different, and that there’s a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
To make things more complicated, there’s another level of moral judgement if your religion doesn’t condone queerness. Some families have a lot of fear that their kids are going to hell because they are gay, and they struggle to accept this because their faith is important to them.
As queer people, we often think we are victims in some way, because society can be hard on us at times. But I also want to balance out the narrative, because there’ve been people who’ve surprised me with how open and accepting they are.
I’d say in the last decade or so, there’s been a lot more willingness to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues: and this goes for our younger and older generations, and even religious leaders. This gives me hope that things are shifting, and that people are more open to having a dialogue about queerness beyond the stereotypes.
I often tell people that when we come out, the most important thing is that we have to be alright with ourselves first, and come to a place of peace and acceptance.
Accepting yourself as queer is a journey, which takes time. And telling your family and friends about it is the next step in that journey.
For years, I struggled to accept that I was gay. I was a Christian and I’d been attracted to women since I was in my teens, and it wasn’t just a phase. I felt that I was a contradiction in God’s eyes: I prayed, fasted, and begged God to change me, and couldn’t understand why it didn’t happen.
During my dark times, I cried out to God, and felt peace and assurance flood my heart and soul. Somehow, I knew deep down that though I was gay, God loved me and was okay with me. When I went to Bible college, I also met people who helped me make peace with my faith and my sexuality, which was a crucial part of working towards accepting myself as both a Christian and a lesbian.
Often, we have so much fear about coming out; we think our parents will hate us, throw us out of the house, and we’ll be broken afterwards.
It’s true that not all families are loving and wonderful; some families are very difficult and may respond in violent or hurtful ways. Fortunately, I’ve found that being thrown out of home because your parents find out you’re queer is very rare. It does happen, but not as often as you think.
However, our fear of rejection can make us hesitate to tell our families that we’re queer. Why stir the hornet’s nest? Why create disharmony in the family? Some people feel it’s easier hiding their sexuality, and praying and hoping that no one discovers it.
Coming out can also be difficult on parents. There’s a saying that when we come out of the closet, our parents go into the closet. They feel like they have to carry this huge secret, that no one can understand.
Parents usually struggle when their queer children come out, because they may feel confusion, shame, and fear of the unknown. They may wonder: “If you’re gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. how are you going to navigate this world, which is not going to be very kind to you?”
They sometimes feel guilty, and think: “My child is queer because of me. If only I was a better mother or father, then my child wouldn’t be queer.” I’ve had parents ask me: “Is my child gay because I’m a single parent, or divorced?” But it’s bogus that parents are to blame for their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. I think children can help by telling their parents that it is not their parents’ fault.
After you come out to our parents, I think you need to be as patient as you can. Understand that your parents may feel a sense of loss, and grieve for things they’d hoped for, like seeing you get married, or having grandkids. They need time and space to process this.
Right now, there’s a lack of support for parents of queer children in Singapore, so they can feel very alone.
When parents find out their children are queer, they may feel like they can’t talk to anyone, and their friends can’t relate to how they feel. I think providing more support for parents of queer children is definitely something we can do more of, because I’m not aware of any active support groups in Singapore for parents of queer children. But parents can also reach out to places like our church and LGBTQIA+ community organisation Oogachaga, which provide counselling.
I’ve found that writing a letter to your family is a very good way to come out to them. I actually wish I’d done that with my own family!
When we come out to our parents verbally, it often gets very explosive. We drop the bomb on our parents and there’s often a huge reaction: emotions run very high, people get agitated, and you can’t continue talking after that.
In a letter, you can explain things clearly, like why you know you are gay, what you’ve been through, and where you are now. You can assure them that you’ll always be their daughter or son, and that you love them in the same way you’ve always loved them.
A letter also leaves the door open for your family to respond when they are ready. Once they’ve gotten over the emotional shock and digested the news, they can continue the conversation.
You may also come out by introducing your family to your partner. In Asian society, this may actually be a better, more subtle way to come out.
Sometimes people just bring a partner home, and say: “This is my very good friend.” Your family may eventually guess that your ‘friend’ is really your partner. If they accept the two of you as a couple, your family may show this by inviting your partner over for dinner regularly, which I think is a huge step forward. But if your family isn’t ready to meet your partner, or you don’t feel confident in your relationship yet, you can wait for the right time, or choose not to introduce your partner at all. Only you know your own family, and whether they are open to this.
As Asians, we’re not used to talking about coming out in an in-your-face way, which is actually a very ‘ang moh’ thing. Telling our family we are queer may make them feel like we’re demanding their immediate approval of the whole concept of queerness, which feels overwhelming. Some families appreciate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, because it doesn’t force them to confront and accept the whole concept of queerness.
Even if things with your family become very difficult when they find out you’re queer, I believe there’s always hope that things will be better.
For people who anticipate that their families may react badly to their coming out, I’d advise them to be prepared to be financially independent. They may need to save enough to rent a place of their own, or have a safe space to crash with a friend or another family member.
I would hope that if your family loves you and wants you to be happy, they’ll eventually come around. When your family sees that you’re loved, and living your best life, they may realise that being queer has not taken away that part of what they hoped for you, which helps them slowly accept you. For families who may be difficult, and don’t change their minds 20 or 30 years later, it’s hard: but ultimately we can only do what we can. I think people can learn to accept this without giving up hope, which I know is very hard. But you can hold onto hope loosely, and continue to love your family even in the midst of them not fully accepting you.
If we’re focused on the small outcome (wanting our family to accept us as queer), we lose sight of the biggest outcome: our relationship with them. Build and grow your relationship with your family, and recognise that you may continue to disagree about the queer issue, but you can all learn to be ok with it.
Many times, we tend to come out to our families and start avoiding them, because we’re scared to talk to them. But that’s actually the time when we really need to be there for them. Whether it’s before, during, or after your coming out, show them that your love is constant, and reassure them that you’re the same child they know and love.
If you really struggle with your biological family, it’s important to find a family within the queer community (what I call ‘chosen family’). Family comes in different shapes and sizes, and sometimes it has to take on different definitions. It could be a church community, or a group of friends, that gives you the freedom to be yourself.
By helping one family at a time, and speaking openly about what queer people go through, I hope I can help more people understand what it means for queer people to come out, and how we can love and accept them.
I feel like as more people come out, and more people know someone personally in their family who is queer, it really helps society accept all of us in the queer community. When a brother, sister, niece or cousin comes out, their struggle to be accepted in society becomes real. You realise we’re all just human, and we have similar struggles in life.
I’m very encouraged to see attitudes towards queer people moving and shifting in our part of the world. And I think we can all do our part to teach others, like our children, to be more accepting of different types of people and families.
I’ve realised that children find it easier to understand what it means to be queer better than we think, because to them it’s all about love.
If we talk to them in a neutral way, and explain, “Uncle A and Uncle B, or Aunty X and Aunty Y love each other, in the same way that mummy and daddy love each other,” they know what we mean.
As parents, show your kids that you’re a safe space, and that they can always talk to you about things that you may not immediately understand. If someday, they feel like they may identify as queer, they’ll feel ready to share that with you.
Creating a more inclusive society - that’s more accepting of queer people and their families - starts with us.
Pictures provided by Leslie Kee for photography project Out in Singapore, and Pauline Ong.
For more on Free Community Church and its work with the LGBTQ community, visit https://www.freecomchurch.org.
Counselling is offered free of charge, with compliments of Free Community Church and its donors, and is subject to availability. To donate, visit https://freecomchurch.give.asia
My name is Lisa, and you can find me on @lisatwang on the Dayre app. I’ve shared how living with my parents over the last year has been both a joy and a challenge for me, and how we’ve grown closer and fought at times during the Covid-19 circuit breaker period.
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