Coming Out As LGBTQ+ In Singapore
Being different has for so long come at a price, that is, with the fear of disapproval or being victim to shifty glances from loved ones. This leaves many in the LGBTQ+ community feeling trapped in a box with their thoughts and emotions, all alone. But despite the fear, some have bravely opened up the discussion of what it’s like identifying as LGBTQ+ in Singapore. By sharing their journeys coming out and navigating their sexuality, they have allowed the community to have a voice.
One of these individuals is Jeslene Chia, affectionately known as Jes among her peers, who shared her own experience with coming out on an episode of Ask ZULA. She opened up about being part of the local LGBTQ+ community, and grappling with the reactions of loved ones. During the episode, she also shared what it was like coming to terms with her sexuality after having suppressed her feelings for so long.
Finding out she was “different”
It all started when she was 8 years old, when Jes realised that her feelings for her then best friend went beyond just companionship. She started picturing scenarios like kissing her, which if anything, was “very daunting” to think about as a Primary 2 student. This was at a time when the notion of not being heterosexual was a topic rarely, if ever, openly discussed.
Her awareness about her sexuality came before the era of smartphones, so it seemed impossible to do any form of researching or even asking around about the topic.
“Obviously I was not going to talk to my friends about it. I [would] get bullied or get discriminated against, so what seemed like the smart thing to do was to keep quiet all the way until I was in secondary school”. With “no one to talk to” about her feelings and thoughts, there was no choice but to keep her emotions on the down-low.
Seeking refuge through Tumblr
Approaching her early teenage years, when the use of the internet and smartphones were growing, Jes turned to Tumblr. At the time, the site had an active LGBTQ+ community originating from America.
The community appeared “so strong and so proud”, which provided the openness in discussing the topic to shift her perspective from feeling like the only one to a more positive “I’m not alone in this world”.
However she also shares, “That also scared me because there is always the good side of the story, like seeing others being comfortable in their own skin, but along with it a scary side, which was observing others being discriminated against and not having equal rights”.
Secondary school days
Jes when she was still rocking long hair in secondary school
The fear of opening up remained into her secondary school days, and even expressing her more masculine side was something she did not dare do then. For her, this meant suppressing that part of herself and stepping under the cover of behaving like everyone else. This involved carrying herself in a way society deemed “normal” — so being in a relationship with another girl was a definite no-go. During this time she continued researching on Tumblr but kept her thoughts and feelings under tight wraps.
As a teen, Jes even had a boyfriend which she established, looking back that their relationship “was platonic more than anything”. Despite her boyfriend’s suspicions of her feelings for a fellow female senior, and even accidentally seeing an open tab on her laptop with content relating to LGBTQ+, the relationship continued for a good amount of time.
Dating guys in secondary school was her way of “figuring myself out” while she tried to fight her feelings in hopes of keeping others from suspecting anything.“I forced myself to like guys, so that’s why in secondary 1, 2 and 3, I dated them”. Even so, when it came to doing “normal couple stuff” with her then-boyfriend, it was something she simply couldn’t bring herself to do.
Crushing on a senior and teacher
Jes developed feelings for a female senior while simultaneously being in a relationship with her first boyfriend. In regards to acting on those feelings, “very minimal yet questionable” actions were taken from Jes’ end that would make others question “why is this girl doing this for another girl?”
“For example buying her drinks ah, and taking extra questionable care for her. There was always this bias towards that senior” she added. While never openly confessing to her senior, it seemed like “everyone knew” about her crush.
“Other than the senior, I did have feelings for a teacher…and I acted on them. When I was in secondary 4 or 5, there was this very good looking English teacher. I bought her chocolates and stuff, which I gave to her on a special occasion, like Teachers Day. She also had an “ask me” box, and when my junior told me about it I quickly took a piece of foolscap paper, and I can’t remember what question I wrote, but ended off with “you can call me”. Once I put the note in, the box was gone the next day”.
Opening up in poly
It came to a point where her emotions were overflowing, just as she was leaving secondary school. “So stepping into poly, it was the chance for a fresh start, I knew I wanted to scrap everything that I was”. Poly seemed to have a more relaxed environment with more accepting individuals — a space where she could finally breathe and be “ the real Jes”.
After growing close to some coursemates in the first 2 months of school, it seemed about time to make her emotions and identity known, for the very first time.
While rushing to complete a group project working late nights, her newfound friends collectively opened up about personal issues in a HTHT session. This gave her the chance to open up about the secret she’d been hiding for so long. Without hesitation, she came clean — “I think I like girls”, she voiced out for the first time. Her friend’s responses were inspiring – not only did they give her resounding words of support, but they also showed their full acceptance of who she truly was. Some of these friends are still right by her side to this day.
Sadly, not everyone in her life shares the same sentiment as them.
Family finding out
As she was growing more comfortable with her sexuality, her family started developing suspicions. They would ask questions like, “Why are you so close?”, referring to one of her past girlfriends who was on the same handball team as her.
“My mom hated handball. She didn’t see my love for the sport, she just immediately associated handball with me not being straight”. The knowledge that Jes was so tight with her “handball friend” was the root of her mother’s disdain … and this was just based on her assumptions at the time.
The first time Jes got “caught” was while sending her girlfriend off near her own home. Just as Jes leaned in to kiss her girlfriend on the cheek, her parents walked by. Their expressions were anything but approving, to say the least, but the incident ended up undiscussed.
Jes with one of the loves of her life: handball
Not too long after, she accidentally sent a text that was meant for her girlfriend to her mother. The text read, “Baby, I’m home” which she tried to cover up, even deciding to come home late that day to avoid the situation. At this point, there was no way her parents couldn’t take a guess at what was going on.
After the series of occurrences, her mother finally came up to talk to her. The much-anticipated conversation went along the lines of — “Why are you like that?”. This made Jes feel upset and hurt – all she could say was say “sorry” to her mom, without room to even explain how she was feeling amidst the accusations. A lot of tears were shed but unfortunately, no understanding was reached.
Her sister, who served as a bridge between Jes and her mom, also shared that she felt disappointed about the whole situation. However, at the end of the day, she knew there was nothing she could do to change how Jes was feeling, sharing “you’re my sister after all”.
The conversation with her father seemed to share the same sentiment as with her mother, telling her “you know this kind of thing is wrong, right?”.
“I wanted to start the conversation with “Daddy, I don’t want to lie to you but my friend is not just a friend”, but after he started the conversation first, I just swallowed everything”, Jes emotionally shared.
With all that had taken place, she was left with only the option of swallowing her feelings and keeping them to herself. The truth of the matter was that her family couldn’t accept who she was.
The low point
Time passed and the situation just seemed to spiral beyond Jes’ control. One particular Chinese New Year – the first year she had switched up her long hair for a more “boyish” cut – snarky comments from relatives were thrown around. Her new look was anything but well-received. They were saying things like “ Eh you got son ah”, towards her mother. That CNY left her feeling traumatised if anything, not wanting to have to face them again the next year.
CNY the following year was no better, her mom making her dress more “girly” and controlling how she styled her hair. It came to a point that Jes couldn’t even bear to look at any one of her family members in the eye. All she could do was keep her head down and stay silent.
Thankfully, her sister noticed and asked Jes why her mood had changed so much. Opening up to her sister, she shared how all the pressure just made her want to stay locked up in her room.
“I even shared with my sis my suicidal thoughts, I really wanted to leave”, she admitted, because the whole situation had become too much for her, she didn’t want to just play the part of what her family believed was “normal”.
Jes (right) with her sister who’s become one of her pillars of support
This was the moment things seemed to take a turn because after her sister spoke to her parents, they eased off a little. She also finally had someone in her family to talk to about what was going on. Jes voiced out that her sister is her “strongest pillar of support”, listening when she needed someone to talk to and trying to make the situation better for Jes when she had hit rock bottom.
While it’s still not an openly discussed topic with her parents, they seem to have slowly accepted the situation in their own way.
Coming out more publicly on Youtube
As a familiar face on The Smart Local videos, Jes has spoken out about being part of the LGBTQ+ community, in turn becoming an advocate for others who have gone through similar situations.
The fear of her parents coming across the videos remains, but she shares, “I lowkey want them to watch”. Aside from wanting to help others with their journeys, she wants her parents to see the impact she has made in the community and how she’s not the only one who has struggled with such experiences.
Jes adds, “Speaking from a more digital media industry perspective, what I wish to see is more local Youtubers, with more LGBTQ+ representation. Try to normalise it, because we have the platform and viewers from all sorts of ages watching our content”.
Moreover, she wants to be able to “save” those who experience suicidal thoughts and depression as a result of all the pressures from society to conform to what’s “normal”. Her actions in helping others are something she hopes will make her mother proud.
The loneliness Jes felt when she was younger is something she never wants others to go through. And she’s doing just that by sharing her story and providing a listening ear to those who need someone around, someone to count on.
Advice from Jes
Jes also shares some advice for anyone who is on their own journey of self-discovery and of figuring out their sexuality.
“Come out at your own timing” is what she has to say, urging individuals to be patient with themselves. “Don’t do it because of peer pressure”, instead wait till you’re ready. Rushing to come out because others want you to is the dumbest and stupidest thing to do, she remarked. “You’re not being fair to yourself”.
Furthermore, she recommends that you should come out when you’re “ready to” and “financially capable”. She explained that doing so allows you to be prepared for the worst, including being kicked out. At least if you’re able to have that independence, you’ll remain self-sufficient because “no one is going to take care of you, you have to take care of yourself”.
She even emphasised that with respect to coming out, “there is really no need to”. It’s something that she shares many now view as a “cool thing to do”, when it’s not. It should be viewed as something you do only for yourself, for your own happiness.
Coming Out As LGBTQ+ In Singapore And Facing Disapproval
What Jes has shared inspires us to rethink the way we view coming out. While her experiences with family disapproval might be rather common in Singapore, one thing’s for sure: coming out is a personal choice, a judgment call that you have to be able to make on your own. However, even if you have to make that decision alone, that doesn’t mean there’s no one you can talk to about it. Don’t be afraid to talk to people who care and reach out to others in the LGBTQ+ community.
Even those not part of the LGBTQ+ community, support your friends or anyone in the community who just needs some comfort and encouragement.
Listen to them instead of making their lives tougher, if they’ve told you about what they’re going through it’s because they care and trust you. It takes all of us, as a society, to support our friends and loved ones because at the end of the day we all just want to be happy and feel loved.
For those part of the LGBTQ+ community, while it may sometimes feel like everyone around you doesn’t truly understand how you might be feeling, it’s okay. There are people who want to hear what you have to say and help you as much as they can. Here are some resources if you need someone to voice out your troubles too or just a space to feel safe:
Oochanga: Offers a variety of services, including support services through WhatsApp, for those in the LGBTQ+ community
SG Rainbow: Provides a safe community for LGBTQ+ men in Singapore through social and personal development programmes
Sayoni: Provides a safe community for LGBTQ+ women in Singapore with events and numerous advocacy programmes
Watch the full Ask Zula episode below:
All images courtesy of Jeslene Chia.
Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.