Dear Mr Heng Swee Keat and Mr Gan Kim Yong,
In light of the recent discussion about HPB’s FAQ on sexuality and the debate over the past few weeks, I feel compelled to share my experience in the hopes that nobody else has to go through a similar ordeal.
When I was 14, I shared a very close friendship with a female classmate, and it soon developed into a romantic relationship. This was my first relationship and embarrassingly enough, I didn’t know about the existence of queer people and same-sex relationships. I didn’t think we were any different from our peers in relationships. The distinctions between homosexuality and heterosexuality simply didn’t register, and the relationship I had with her felt very much like a natural progression of two people who were in puppy love with each other. We were students newly enrolled in Dunman High School, enthusiastic about this new stage of our school life and happy with our connection to each other.
As such, I didn’t foresee the immense backlash, which came in the form of upset parents and a traumatising intervention by the school. Her mother found out about our relationship, confiscated her phone and turned it in to our teachers. Many things happened in quick succession after that. We were pulled out of class, made to sit with the Vice Principal and other school administrators to be counseled for hours on end for days. At that time, smartphones weren’t common and the older models were able to retain a long history of sent and received text messages. The teachers took the liberty of scrolling through every single one of our messages and scrutinizing our shared conversations. On top of this intrusion of our privacy, we were interrogated on deeply personal and intimate content. This was and remains until this very day, the most distressing moment of our entire ordeal. Our male Vice Principal, in the presence of other school administrators, quoted our messages aloud and asked us questions like “What do you mean by ‘Maybe we were doing it wrong. Maybe we should have been doing it horizontally.’?” I felt extremely uncomfortable, especially since this line of questioning came from a male adult authority figure, and it felt like a form of emotional hazing to me . We were instructed to sever all ties immediately – it was not sufficient to simply break up. Our subject teachers were informed to never allow us to work together on collaborative assignments – I couldn’t even practise ball passes with her in PE without being reprimanded. We were warned categorically never to be seen in each other’s presence again. This rule isolated us from our mutual friends as well, severing the only support system we had in school during this trying time. Cut off from my friends and targeted by my teachers, I felt abandoned with no one to turn to.
Along with this particular brand of trauma, I began to receive hostile calls and threats from my partner’s family members. Since approaching the school for help was the furthest thing from my mind. I turned to what I thought was the most reliable source of support – my parents. Unfortunately, I was met with open hostility and cutting remarks that I still have difficulty coming to terms with today. Not long after my disastrous coming out experience, the school informed my parents that my partner and I were continuing our relationship in secret despite their wishes. They were called down to the school and I was reprimanded in their presence. The school’s chosen course of action did not differ from their treatment of wayward students who committed some kind of grave offense. This further validated and justified my parent’s initial unsupportive stance to my honest disclosure, particularly since it came from a position of authority my parents (and I) trusted implicitly. With that, my last possible source of support was burned to the ground.
At this point, I felt like my partner and I were each other’s only support system. Instead of ending our relationship, the overwhelming pressure compelled us to stick together, and our relationship took a darker turn. We made a suicide pact and researched on possible ways to kill ourselves. My partner initially planned to gas up a room but was worried someone would smell it and discover us before we succeeded. We ruled out overdosing on over-the-counter painkillers because the chance of success was lower and opted to slit our wrists instead. The initial plan was to do it in a stairwell but she said we wouldn’t have sufficient towels to soak up the blood. The only option left was doing it in a bathtub and for that, a hotel room was needed. I made enquiries and found a hotel that did not have an age limit; all that was required were our passports. With a concrete plan of action, I took $500 and my passport from my parents’ bedroom drawer and we bought razors from a utility shop. We then tried to “settle” our affairs the best we could. My partner took her rosary and went to a church. Finally, we visited my brother at his school and then her sister at her school, thinking this was the last time we would be seeing our siblings. Fortunately, we did not follow through and eventually split up when she transferred to another school, but this was not the end to my agony because the bullying and abuse continued.
Being forced out of the closet only compelled me to try my best to ‘earn’ my way back in. I never spoke of what happened again, let alone begin to process and deal with my emotions, hoping that I could start the new school year with a clean slate. Little did I expect that the school’s intervention further sensationalized what had happened and inflamed gossip. Even when I assumed the identity of a docile heterosexual, I had to deal with homophobia of varying degrees. On one occasion, I was walking toward the school lift when a schoolmate whom I had never interacted with before spat on the floor and hissed “Lesbian.” Another instance was when, on our first interaction, a new classmate said with a knowing smirk, “I heard so many stories about you”. The bullying wasn’t only perpetuated by the students; some of my teachers had a part in it as well. Throughout my entire time in Dunman High, a male PE teacher constantly singled me out and made snide remarks about my sexuality each time he saw me. Even after four years, during my last year of school, he continued doing so. Once, he took attendance in front of around 70 students, paused at my name in the register and mockingly remarked, “You! Still have girl troubles?” It was extremely disturbing that he kept this up for so many years.
These were not isolated incidents. I suffered what felt like a never-ending onslaught of verbal and emotional violence from teachers and peers alike over the span of my remaining 4 years at school. These instances of homophobia set me back on my path to self-acceptance, denied me a healing process, and continued to contribute to my despair and distress for years. Without a safe space in the school to speak of my experience, I was emotionally incapable of fully acknowledging all that happened in its entirety. I felt reduced to my sexuality and began to internalise the negative attitudes imposed on me. I started to withdraw and isolate myself, afraid to place my trust in the wrong people like I did with the school and my teachers previously.
It took me four whole years to even begin to heal, during which I struggled with eating disorders and my health suffered. I spent a large part of my youth with a strong undercurrent of fear, shame, and a strong sense of disconnect with not only my peers, but also myself.
Now, six years on, I am in a better place and have come to fully accept and embrace my sexuality. I took years to realise that what Dunman High did to me was misguided and extremely damaging both physically and psychologically – it was nothing short of abuse. The way things were handled in my school was inappropriate, unprofessional and had deeply injurious effects. Rather than being sensitive and sympathetic to the needs of its students, Dunman High was irresponsible to teach me that my sexuality is something to be repressed and feared. It goes without saying that the teachers should not be perpetuating violence as well. I do not wish for any other student to be harassed in a similar manner by school authorities. As such, I urge MOE to reexamine the processes and procedures in not perpetuating harm to those they seek to educate and help.
HPB has done an excellent job with the FAQ on sexuality but there still remains the need to point youths to accurate and supportive sources of information about health and sexuality. Perhaps if I knew about organizations like Oogachaga that could guide and support me as I healed, I would not have felt so alone and helpless. As such, I sincerely urge HPB to reinstate the web links for the LGBTQ support organizations. It would go a long way in helping not just youths who struggle with issues pertaining to sexuality, but also their parents who otherwise lack access to information about organizations like SAFE who can link up parents of LGBTQ youth for support. Web links to such support groups would additionally help keep families together and reduce the anguish caused by ignorance and non-acceptance.
I write this in hopes for a day where LGBTQ youth can find a safe space free from bullying, discrimination and homophobia, and families will no longer be torn apart from ignorance and fear.
Chua Sing Rue
Email: [email protected]
Chua Sing Rue