After 377A, what will it take for LGBT persons to reconcile their sexuality with their family, faith?
It is a struggle for some LGBT individuals and their parents to make peace. It is also a struggle for some to be religious and LGBT. The documentary Regardless of Sexuality examines how deep-seated the divide is.
SINGAPORE: Since fitness and lifestyle content creator Cheryl Tay went public with her relationship with a woman two years ago, she has felt accepted on most fronts.
The 36-year-old, who has 50,000 followers on Instagram, works with international brands, and no one has told her things like, “I don’t want to work with you” or “I want to drop you”, she said.
Rather the opposite in fact. “I’ve had so many strangers sending me direct messages … about what an inspiration we are,” she shared. “I’m like, ‘Me?’”
But that is only one part of her life.
Crucially, when it comes to her family, “they can’t get their head … around this concept” that she “genuinely developed feelings for someone (who) happens to be a woman”, she said. “They didn’t speak to me for months.
“I’m very sad about it because I’m very close to my family. … I wish I had the same kind of support and love from my family that I have from the public.”
As seen in the documentary Regardless of Sexuality, which premiered on Wednesday, some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals and their parents have struggled to make peace even after years.
It has also been a struggle for some to be religious and LGBT. And these struggles are not any easier even now when Section 377A, which criminalised gay sex, has been repealed.
WATCH: Can Singapore reconcile sexuality, family and faith? (47:37)
LEADING DOUBLE LIVES
For Ms Tay, life has become compartmentalised. She does not live with her parents any more but with her partner, Grace.
“I’m still part of the family — you know, Chinese New Year, birthdays, weekly family dinners. I still go back, but they pretend that she doesn’t exist,” said Ms Tay.
It’s almost like a double life, right? I want Grace to be part of the family … (but) how much do I want to push? So I’ve come to this stalemate.”
Gay film-maker Sean Foo, 32, also feels he is “living in two different worlds”. He came out to his parents in 2017, “and one of the first things they said was, don’t tell anyone”.
“They’re very concerned about what the relatives think, what the friends will think,” he said. “They see it as a stain, a shameful thing.”
WATCH: How far should LGBT young adults push for parental acceptance? (7:33)
But unbeknownst to them, he was already out online, running the LGBT content platform, Dear Straight People, which he founded in 2015 and which increased in popularity after he started publishing stories of Asians coming out.
“They know that their son is gay, but they think he’s closeted publicly,” he said, before adding with a laugh: “Then here I am on national TV, being very out.”
Asked if he was worried about bursting their bubble in this way, he replied that it may be “necessary”.
“I’m in my 30s, and … at the end of the day, I want to be able to bring my partner back home to them,” he said.
But he wonders if he should try again to seek acceptance from them now that 377A has been repealed.
His concern is that whenever he brings up any topic related to his sexuality, they all “get into a big fight”, which makes things “awkward at times” because he lives with them and sees them daily.
Ms Tay, meanwhile, has wondered if it is time to bring Grace along to a family gathering. But whenever her parents disapprove of something she does, they tend to “retaliate by leaving (her) out of family activities”.
“That really devastates me,” she said, adding: “Grace feels very guilty, seeing me so emotionally affected by my parents just because of our relationship.”
PARENTS BARE THEIR SOUL
On the other side of the fence, the struggle to accept an LGBT child — or make them change — can consume parents too.
One father, who shared his story on condition of anonymity, said he found out that his son was gay when he saw that the teenager’s phone had photos of him hugging another boy.
“I felt angry. Which parent wants their kid to behave that way?” said the father. “When I asked him why (he) did this to me, he (had) no answer.”
His wife was also angry and “disappointed” when he informed her — she felt their son was “abnormal”, he said. “But I told (her) things have already happened — we try to find a solution.
“Maybe we can send him for counselling. But she was reluctant to do that because she didn’t want everybody to know that her son (is) that way.”
The couple had a “big argument”, and she blamed him, he recounted. “She didn’t want to take care of the kid, so she just left us without informing us.
“I asked my son: Did your mum message you? He said no. So everything is on my shoulders.”
The man transformed from a “cheerful person” into a loner. “I took a lot of leave just to be (by) myself. And I took a lot of (sick leave). My superiors … said, ‘This isn’t you,’” he recalled.
It was a difficult time for his son too, he acknowledged. “He did message me (saying), ‘I’m sorry, Dad. This isn’t (what) I want. This isn’t me. I don’t know why this happened to me. The feeling just comes naturally.’”
It has been five years, and the man is still trying to make his son change. “I won’t stop helping him,” he said. “I want him to be a normal person.”
Asked if he might ever accept his son as gay, he replied: “Not at the present moment, because I still hope that he’ll change.”
The team from Regardless of Sexuality wanted to hear from more parents and reached out to LGBT support groups that help them. A Catholic group responded and got its members to write down their deepest thoughts.
“I feel betrayed and broken-hearted. But the worst feeling that’s killing me is guilt. I’m not a good mother. I’m the one who made him like that. … It’s really my worst nightmare,” wrote one mother.
“He’s a sweetheart, the kindest among his siblings. How could it happen to him?”
Another parent, who had suspected his son was gay, initially hoped he was wrong.
“With the suspicion confirmed, I had to move on to deal with loss,” he wrote, citing his son’s lost opportunity “to have a traditional family (or) a church wedding or the birth of his own child”.
There were more than statements of shame and stigma as parents expressed the “anxieties that every parent has for the future of their child in an uncertain world”, observed Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of OnePeople.sg, the national body promoting harmony.
One parent wrote: “Our son is intelligent, multi-talented and loved by family and friends. But will he continue to be loved if they know he’s gay?”
Another parent whose son is gay wrote: “It’s our greatest hope … that he’ll be given a fair chance in life, and that he’ll be accepted and valued for who he is and not be branded as weird or queer.”
SEXUALITY AND RELIGION
Sexuality becomes an even more contentious issue for some parents when there is another layer of complexity: religion.
And it can be no less difficult to deal with for religious LGBT individuals who practise Christianity or Islam, two major religions that are conservative about gay rights.
Mr Nazirah Nazim, for example, agrees that his sexuality is a sin in Islam and is something to be overcome. “But it’s not easy,” he said. “(However) strong our faith is, we can’t stop our desire.”
It is an inner conflict that 46-year-old Karen Lee, a Christian, has also faced but “not any more”.
She used to be a lesbian for 23 years and married a woman in Canada. “We were (among) the first five couples to have got married in Toronto. I was proud, living a very vibrant lifestyle,” she said.
But since 2018, she no longer identifies as lesbian. “I just want to have a genuine relationship with God,” she said.
Mr Kelvin Tan, on the other hand, has had a different relationship with faith. He grew up in a free-thinking family.
At the same time, his mum was a conservative woman who feared that he would not be accepted by their extended family and by society.
“Every time I had to hide something about my weekend or hide something about my life, I felt like I was telling myself that I wasn’t okay,” he recounted.
“Over the years, it accumulated. And in 2019, I had some mental health crisis.”
Then he turned to the church. He became a Catholic in 2021 at the age of 37. “I think it’s my faith that actually helped me to come out … fully accepting myself as a gay man,” he said.
As for 37-year-old Sariyan Safee, being in a loving gay relationship does not get in the way of being a good Muslim — although at one point, he did not think he could reconcile the two.
“I love someone whom the text says I’m not supposed to, but then the text also says that God is all-loving,” he cited. “He’s all about forgiveness. … He’s all about acceptance.”
Then his father said something that made quite an impact on him: “Do what’s good (on) your own terms. And whatever that you do, God will still love you because He made you.”
Mr Sariyan also recalled his father asking him if he was happy and giving him this piece of advice: “If that’s all … you’re looking for, and it doesn’t impact anyone else, then you’re on the right path.”
And that is the approach he has taken towards sexuality and religion. “I can go to the mosque. I even went on the Umrah (pilgrimage),” he said. “I was accepted.”
LEADING THE FLOCK
Not everyone, however, in the two communities of faith can be accepting of LGBT people. So how are their religious leaders in Singapore dealing with the collision between LGBT concerns and religious doctrine?
In the Catholic Church, behind closed doors, Father Adrian Danker has been helming a spiritual group open specifically to LGBT Catholics.
And the Regardless of Sexuality documentary marked the first time the Catholic Church has spoken on national television about this ministry.
“For the longest time, we’ve been very careful to keep it cloistered and safe,” said Fr Danker, the priest-in-residence in the Church of the Sacred Heart. “But it’s always been part of the life of this church.”
And its role is not to “repair” LGBT Catholics, he stressed.
“Our role is to welcome you home, accept you as you are, allow you to say, ‘this is me’ … (and) allow you to find what matters to you to live a fuller faith,” he said.
“It’s that long process of coming to a reconciliation — so it’s not about choosing one over the other.”
The Catholic Church still sees homosexual sex as wrong because “sex is for the purpose of procreation in a loving relationship between men and women”, he said.
“But there’s a bigger understanding of the person that goes beyond just a reduction to the sexual act. And the conversation really has to be shifted.”
He has encountered people who “don’t quite try to understand” or who question the need to attend to the LGBT community.
“Some people say: ‘It’ll never happen in my family — we’re a good Catholic family. We’ll never have an LGBT child or cousin,’” he said.
“We try to … educate the larger Catholic population (about) the reality that amongst us there are LGBTQ Catholics.”
He ministers to about 60 LGBT Catholics for now. There is also a ministry for their loved ones, serving as a spiritual support network. Both groups have been growing.
In a similar way, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) is committed to helping LGBT Muslims.
At the Masjid Haji Mohd Salleh, for example, a group meets an ustaz (religious teacher) every alternate Sunday to reflect on verses in the Quran.
It all started when MUIS initiated an aftercare programme for former inmates who are transgender, and this mosque agreed to host them. The group has grown to include other LGBT Muslims, through word of mouth and by invitation only.
There is the possibility, however, that other mosque-goers might feel uncomfortable. There are also Muslims who see the issue of homosexuality in black and white.
The Mufti, Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, who oversees religious rulings for Muslims in Singapore, said he has been “accused of not fulfilling (his) duty” when he seemingly did not object “in very strong terms” to the repeal of 377A.
“People considered that we’d taken a very liberal, open view on homosexuality,” he said. “I think they’d be angry and terrified at a position that’s deemed to be very inclusive … and tolerant.”
MUIS took a few months to put together its statement responding to the proposed repeal of 377A when it was announced by the prime minister. And its response did not stop at the religious position on the practice of homosexuality.
“The issue that we’re dealing with is what’s happening in society,” Dr Nazirudin told CNA. “We don’t want the community and the society to break up because of these different attitudes towards the LGBT issue.”
WATCH: LGBT issues — the Mufti of Singapore speaks (28:05)
MUIS’ statement, he described, was a “first attempt … to really grapple” with the complexities involved as well as the “beliefs, aspirations and struggles” of people.
“There’s the legal aspect to it. There’s also, for Muslims, the theological aspect to it. There’s also the very important social aspect. It’s multi-dimensional (and) highly emotional. It’s dealing with people’s lives,” he said.
He acknowledged that people may have visceral feelings about LGBT issues, and they tend to take strong positions on either side, which is why “responsible religious guidance” must consider “all these nuances”.
“So it’s not black and white,” said the Mufti, who was appointed in 2020.
For Dr Puthucheary’s part, he is “even more certain” — after listening to the views and stories shared on the documentary he presented — that there are “no easy answers when it comes to LGBT issues”.
“But I really hope this show can help those in a similar situation navigate the fault line,” he said.
Watch the documentary Regardless of Sexuality here, and find out how Cheryl Tay and Sean Foo dealt with their dilemmas.