I called out Tosh Zhang because we need to talk about discrimination

By Hoe I Yune, Jun 13, 2019

May 16, 2019 was probably just another day for you and me. But for Sarah, a 28-year-old Singaporean, it’s going to be a day she will remember for quite a while.

It was one day after Pink Dot announced Tosh Zhang’s appointment as one of the ambassadors for Pink Dot 2019. Sarah posted her thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, questioning the appointment. Her post was picked up by multiple online media outlets, and it quickly went viral. Quite a lot unfolded over the subsequent few days: Tosh stepped down from his appointment in an emotional apology; Sarah was widely criticised and questioned for her decision to pull up his social media content from 2010.

It would appear that nobody “won” from this incident.

But this story isn’t so much about why Sarah felt so strongly about calling out Tosh for his past misogynistic and homophobic tweets. This story is about understanding Sarah’s perspective on how discrimination remains prevalent in our society, although it might manifest in less overt forms.

* * * *

Hi, my name is Sarah.

I was nine when I found myself drawn to a 12-year-old girl.

The second I laid my eyes on her, I was instantly and inexplicably drawn. I wrote a note asking if we could be friends and passed it to her during a Brownies meeting. She wrote back, saying “yes”, but we never spoke after that and nothing came out of it.

This took place before I even knew what attraction was, and I thought it was simply admiration.

It was only when I turned 13 and entered secondary school that I recognised it for what it was. It never struck me as abnormal or wrong to have feelings for someone of the same sex, because there were a number of us having crushes on other girls. So when I developed feelings for a senior, I didn’t hesitate to tell all my friends about it. I never felt that it was something to be ashamed at all. Everyone was excited for me, as I would’ve been for them.

The moment when it occurred to me that LGBTQ+ isn’t completely or widely accepted in society was when I was in polytechnic. When I got together with my first girlfriend, I started reading more about same-sex relationships and taking an interest in current affairs. Through personal experiences and reading up on these issues, I gradually realised that our society may not quite be ready for LGBTQ+.

I’ve never felt the need to come out to my friends. Coming out feels like such a big and formal process, and I’ve never had to do that with my good friends because I’ve never hidden who I was.

Although I’ve never hidden my sexual orientation at work or in school, I have to admit that I do feel compelled to conceal it under particular circumstances. With people whom I meet in passing and think I’ll probably never meet again, I still feel like I’ll make things awkward by revealing this titbit about myself. I don’t want to hear any uncalled for opinions or comments that might make me upset or angry, so I avoid it altogether.

Once, I revealed to an acquaintance that prior to dating girls, I had a boyfriend. She casually said, “Oh, so you’re bisexual,” despite knowing that I identify 
as a lesbian.

I have also received comments from anonymous strangers online arguing with me, and telling me that having had a boyfriend disqualifies one from identifying as a lesbian.

In clubs or even at social gatherings among friends, straight men would make passing remarks about threesomes and how lesbians “just need to be fucked by a real man”. Understandably, I get very upset hearing these – they invalidate the sex that lesbians have.

Sometimes, even my lesbian friends would say that they haven’t “lost their virginity”, simply because they haven’t slept with a man.

It is saddening that people think that sex requires a penis. It erases and demeans the relationships that women have with other women, and implies that woman-and-woman relationship are just a poor substitute or temporary stand-in for sex with men, when our relationships ⁠— both sexual and romantic ⁠— can be just as valid, complex, and rich as heteronormative ones.

I have yet to come out to my family at home. I’m quite close to my parents and we get along well. They respect my privacy, and never ask me anything intrusive. They’re progressive in the sense that they do not nag at me about typical Asian parent things like getting married or having kids.

I don’t shy away from talking about issues that I care about like feminism and race with my parents, but my sexual orientation is a touchy subject.

I’m afraid it’ll jeopardise our relationship as they have not shown the most accepting attitudes towards homosexuality in the past.

During my teenage years, they suspected that I was gay and cautioned me against it by saying that it was abnormal. It was a long time ago but ever since, I’ve avoided bringing up homosexuality at home.

Honestly, I know I have said it before, but I am really afraid of hearing something hurtful, especially from people whom I care about. 

Perhaps it’s easier to be vocal with strangers and acquaintances because even if they say something upsetting, it is easier to dismiss them.

I can’t say for sure that my parents are still against homosexuality. I suspect that they know, because they do seem to go out of their way to be kind to my girlfriend: she and I have been together for almost four years. My parents love having her around the house, put in effort in getting to know her, and are always buying her food, and inviting her to family dinners.

I do plan to let my family know one day. One of the main reasons why I’m hesitant to come out now is because they’re getting on so well with my girlfriend. I don’t want to disrupt the status quo and undo the relationship that they’re building with her.

In Singapore, the LGBTQ+ community still faces legal challenges like Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men. To me, this indicates that the government is not ready to lead the way in enabling our society to be a more inclusive one.

Sure, we don’t hear of horror stories such as gay kids getting beaten up in Singapore, unlike in other countries. But this doesn’t mean discrimination does not exist. It just manifests itself in less overt forms, such as the “casual” remarks that are passed off as jokes or compliments. My friends would get comments like, “You’re so pretty. It’s such a waste that you’re lesbian”, or my girlfriend and I would be asked for threesomes.

People also make jokes about “turning lesbian” because they’ve been hurt by men ⁠— I know they don’t mean it as an insult, but it does imply that sexual orientation is a choice, which I know opens up a whole other can of worms.

Singapore is home to me, but the older I get, the less welcome I feel. It’s not easy being in a same-sex relationship here. The reality is that I can’t buy a flat with my partner or have children if I want to. I have plans to leave Singapore, because 
I want to make a home in a place where 
I can feel free and not be 
discriminated against.

On the plus side, I don’t actually think Singapore’s laws are reflective of our society’s views, especially among the younger generation, who are slowly but increasingly becoming more aware and accepting. I think it helps that the Pink Dot movement has helped promote a wider acceptance.

I have always used social media as a means to share my thoughts. I’m not trying to be a hero; I’m just trying to do my part. I share my thoughts because I once read that there are many people who are on the fence, so if you can say even one thing to sway their opinion and make a difference, you should. Because that one person might be able to influence another person, and this can really spark the change that you want.

I don’t just speak up about LGBTQ+, but other social issues. When there was the furore about racist casting for Ah Boys To Men 4, in which actor Shrey Bhargava said he was asked to put on a thick Indian accent during his audition, I wrote a Facebook post pointing out how it bothered me that the loudest criticism seem to come from Chinese, who had no clue what it meant to be a victim of 
casual racism.

I’ve been supporting Pink Dot for years, and it means so much to me because it’s the only mainstream LGBTQ+ movement in Singapore. I feel so happy every time I attend the annual rally. We have a picnic, I bring my dog along, and it feels like I’m with family. I truly respect how people take time out of their own lives to show up, and make the LGBTQ+ community 
feel accepted.

Which is why when I saw that Tosh was named as one of the Pink Dot ambassadors, I thought, "Are you 
kidding me?"

Because I remembered how years ago, I came across his slut-shaming and homophobic posts on Twitter.

Pink Dot has always held a special place in my heart, and I wanted to understand why they chose him despite his perspective in the past, and to be assured that he has truly changed.

Tosh is a public figure with a large audience, and these tweets were made public and were not taken down. I know that this is something that has happened almost a decade ago, but since he agreed to be an ambassador for Pink Dot, I thought it was fair to ask him why he said what he said, and whether he still felt the same way.

It didn’t sit right with me to let it slide, when it was something that meant so much to me. I personally felt hurt and affected by his words all those years ago, and I just wanted to hear from him. I thought social media would be a way of having his answer (like his tweets) be out in the open as well.

Tosh replied to my Facebook post with an apology, then later posted again on his own social media platforms, citing examples of how he has lent his support to the LGBTQ+ community in the past year prior to his appointment as an ambassador.

He also posted a video of himself crying.

This is when I was hit by a barrage of negative comments. Some messaged me on Facebook, others DM-ed me on Instagram, but most of the comments were made publicly on Pink Dot’s Facebook page and Reddit. Some posted comments such as, “Isn’t Pink Dot about love?” or “Why are you not accepting of Tosh?”. Others called me attention-seeking and faulted me for digging up the past, and there were people who described me as being bullyish and antagonistic.

I do understand where they were coming from, and why they might feel that way. But it was also hard to be under all that scrutiny, and having people misunderstand my intent, and where I was coming from.

For rehashing the past, people said I wasn’t forgiving. But pretending something didn’t happen isn’t forgiving. Why can’t we find middle ground in forgiving people who 
have grown, while also acknowledging their past mistakes? Why does it have to be one or the other? 

The truth is, the things that he said are very common, and many people say them without thinking. Perhaps what he said back then wasn’t intentional⁠ — at some point we’ve all said something that we regret. Sometimes, certain words mean so little to you that you forget having ever said them but they can leave a lasting impact on others. His previous Tweets hurt me, my girlfriend, and our friends.

Even just revisiting the phrases he used reminded me of how those were words used to bully us when we were growing up. They made us feel sub-human.

Time can make people forget, but it doesn’t mean that the hurt didn’t happen. 

I had my doubts in calling Tosh out in public at first, but at the end of the day, I think it’s vital we talk about issues we find unsettling.

If we don’t speak up for what we feel is right, how can we learn to change and do better? For me, the homophobia I faced in the past pushed me to say something. 

At the end of the day, I believe speaking up is always going to be the first step against discrimination.

Photos and screenshots were provided by Sarah Yip.

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