I’m Muslim, gay & still largely in the closet. But I hope you will read my story.
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
I Will Survive is a collection of real-life experiences of Singapore’s LGBTQ community.
It is published by Math Paper Press, a subsidiary of BooksActually.
The book examines the issues facing the local LGBTQ community and how they have overcome such difficulties.
Here, we reproduce an account, “Special in my own way”, by 25-year-old ‘Masood’ (not his real name), on his experience of growing up and coming to terms with his sexuality.
Masood, 25 years old, likes to draw and read. He lives with his family in a HDB flat in eastern Singapore and is looking for full-time employment.
I don’t consider myself a gay stereotype, as I’m not vocal or flamboyant. I see myself as an ordinary person, just like anyone else on the street.
I enjoy reading women’s magazines, as my interests lie in fashion and beauty, shopping and looking good.
I would describe myself as a down-to-earth and happy-go-lucky guy who can be a little shy at times, but friendly and very approachable. I like being in the company of good friends, and I love meeting people.
But things were not always like this when I was younger.
The struggle of being Muslim and gay
I enjoyed everything about my childhood. But in my teens I began to question my sexual orientation, wondering whether I was attracted to women or men.
I kept all my thoughts and feelings to myself, without discussing them with anyone else, as I did not feel comfortable sharing them with others.
One of the things I kept inside me at the time was self-hatred, or the feeling that being gay was a bad thing.
I understood homosexuality as something that was not accepted by other people. As a Muslim, I was also afraid I would be rejected if I were to reveal myself to others. This fear was a really big thing for me.
In school, I was also faced with bullying.
I was called names like “sissy”, not because they knew I was gay but because I was the shy, nerdy bookworm who was an easy target for them.
When I was 15, it got worse as I developed a medical condition called eczema, which would lead to itchy outbreaks on my skin.
I would get bullied by guys who pulled my hair and shirt in class, while others looked on and laughed. Not only was it embarrassing, it was also very difficult for me to feel so vulnerable. It got so bad that my studies were affected, and I had to repeat secondary three.
Planned to commit suicide
Sometimes it felt as if everything was building up inside me, like an inflating balloon close to bursting under all that pressure. At one point, I contemplated suicide to end it all. I told myself that it was best that I did not go on with my life, as I thought that being gay and lonely would not be an easy path for me.
I started planning weeks in advance, thinking about the different suicide methods I could use.
One day after school, I went to Changi beach where I had intended to slowly walk into the sea and drown myself. I did not wish for my body to be found.
Halfway through carrying out my plan, I stopped and asked myself if this was really the only solution, whether there were solutions better than this. I then realised that I did not need to do something as drastic as this to solve my problem. So I abandoned my suicide plan and went home instead.
Mum finding out I was gay was the darkest day in my life
I’m the second of four children in a moderate Muslim family. As a child, my mum had always known I was unique, as she could see that I didn’t like doing the same things other boys my age did.
Once, while cleaning my room, she found some gay literature that I was reading, and when I came home from school she confronted me with them, asking what I was doing with those books.
That was when I decided to tell her that I thought I might be gay. She got really upset and angry, saying that I should have known better, and that our religion did not accept homosexuality. She even wanted me to throw away my books.
For a mother to find out that her son is gay is probably one of the most difficult emotions in the world to deal with; for me, it also felt like the darkest day in my life.
I’m not even sure if my father or my siblings know I’m gay, as we don’t really talk about it. I have not told any of them, but maybe somehow they know too. Perhaps slowly, they too will begin to understand me.
Religion as a challenge but also a source of refuge
I’m ambivalent about religion. It’s not easy being gay and Muslim.
At Friday prayers in the mosque, especially around the time of the AWARE saga, I heard sermons about the so-called rise of homosexuality within the Muslim community, and others preaching against homosexuality in general and gay marriages in particular.
It would always affect me on a personal level, because as a gay man I somehow felt that those words were directed at me. I feared coming out and declaring my sexuality to others in my community. How would they react? What would happen to me then?
As a Muslim, I don’t pray as often as I should, but I still do believe in Allah, that He exists.
There have been times when I turned to Him and prayed for all the hurtful things inside me to go away. When I tried to drown myself as a teenager, I thought about Allah and decided to stop. I realised that by being who I am, by being different from others, I’m special in my own way.
My best friend was so shocked to know I was gay that he avoided me for a month
Thinking back, it was an extremely painful time for me as a 17- or 18-year-old teenager. I remember feeling lost, depressed and so lonely, even though I was not alone, and had family and friends around me.
It was during this period that I decided to come out and tell my best friend that I was gay. I did not see the need to wait any longer or hide the truth from him. So one day, I said to him,
“You might not like this, but I have something to tell you. I think I’m gay.”
He was very badly shocked by this personal revelation.
At the same time, I was feeling upset and disappointed by the fact that he did not show immediate support for me.
Instead, things got ugly after that, and we did not talk to each other for the next three to four weeks. He avoided my phone calls and would walk away whenever we saw each other in school. I even decided that if this continued, perhaps I should end our friendship.
Hence, I was pleasantly surprised when he called me up one day, and over some drinks, explained that it took him a while to accept what I had told him about myself. He needed time to get over the initial impact of discovering that his best friend is gay.
The one thing I remember from that conversation was what he said about our friendship.
“Friendship is an important thing. I can’t end our friendship, as I can’t see you suffer alone. We may be different in the way we think, but as fellow human beings, we’re just like each other. I still see you as the same person, and you’re still my friend.”
With great relief, and with my best friend’s support, I was able to carry on through the rest of those difficult times.
Books on LGBTQ experiences helped me to come to terms with myself
Apart from him, I often had no one else to turn to, so I started searching for books to read, whether it was in the library or at bookstores. That was how I started understanding and learning about my sexuality and what I was going through. That began my long, slow journey to accepting myself.
I was at the gender studies section of the Kinokuniya bookstore along Orchard Road, when I came across a really interesting book called Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology edited by Amy Sonnie.
The stories were by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in their teens and early twenties, writing about things they were going through, such as self-esteem issues, coming out and relationships. Even though they were American, I felt I could identify with them as a young gay man.
Another book I enjoyed is Inside out: An Australian Collection of Coming Out Stories by Erin Shale. A friend also told me about SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century by Ng Yi-Sheng. I was curious and bought myself a copy from Borders, and after reading the stories, I decided it was really good that something like that had finally been published locally.
Reading those stories of other people’s experiences actually made me feel better, not worse. It gave me a sense that we were all in this together and that I was not alone, as there were others like me dealing with coming out, rejection by friends and family, and other issues I was familiar with.
In the process, I managed to understand what they were going through, and learnt about what helped them get through those difficult times.
It encouraged me to start putting my feelings and thoughts in writing too. It also opened up my eyes to diversity, which helped me realise that we didn’t have to conform to certain stereotypes about behaviour just because we are gay or lesbian.
I learnt that I could be gay, and still be myself.
Discovering the Singapore LGBTQ community
I remember one of the ways I met with other gay people was through the online chatrooms and forums on Trevvy.
It was a good thing for me to discover that there was a whole community out there and I was not alone. I was able to reach out to others who were also gay and different like me.
It was also through Trevvy that I got to know about Oogachaga Counselling & Support. This was back when I was attending post-secondary school, and busy as I was with projects and homework, I still managed to attend two of their support group sessions.
The sessions allowed me to start feeling a lot more comfortable with myself as a gay man. I had the chance to be in a room with other gay men of different ages, sharing our personal experiences of being different, our individual coming out stories, and everything else we had each been through.
Through the process of talking and sharing, I was able to release many of the feelings that I had been bottling up inside me. It felt empowering.
Diagnosed with depression & exempted from NS
After finishing post-secondary school I was called up for my pre-enlistment medical check-up for National Service.
Although I did not reveal my homosexuality, I disclosed my feelings of being very down, and occasional thoughts of suicide. The people-in-charge then went through a checklist with me, and asked me lots of questions about my suicidal thoughts and whether I had a history of mental illness.
I told them about the peer pressure I faced in school, and the problems I had blending in with the people around me. After going through all the necessary paperwork, they diagnosed me with depression.
I was then told that I was fully exempted from NS, encouraged to get on with my life, find a job and manage my depression, hopefully to avoid a relapse.
In a strange way, I was relieved with that diagnosis. I somehow knew this was coming, as I had been reading up on symptoms of depression.
A depression triggered by being in social settings
Later, in 2005 I went for six months of regular therapy sessions with a psychiatrist at the Changi General Hospital.
I learnt that there were different types of depression, and after several sessions with the doctor, it was assessed that my condition was triggered specifically by being in social settings.
When surrounded by people, I would often feel anxious, sweat a lot and get panic attacks. That explained why I did not go out much when I was younger. It was almost like having social phobia.
The doctor also taught me to do breathing exercises whenever I felt this way, in order to calm myself down. He also encouraged me to express my thoughts and feelings, instead of keeping them inside. I was also prescribed medication in the form of anti-depressants. I did all that, and it helped.
Fortunately, things are much better now
Compared to the past, I’ve become more confident of myself, going out to meet people and am now much better able to enjoy life.
These days, I also try not to be so hard on myself, and just try to live my life. The encouragement and support from my friends have helped me lift my moods; others have helped bring out my talents and abilities.
That has helped me realise that there are qualities about me that some people actually find unique. All that gives me meaning in my life.
Even though I’m still pretty much in the closet about my sexuality, I’d still like my story to be read by others. Perhaps this is my way of helping someone else.
Some people who read my story might now realise that there are Malay gay men in Singapore too. And perhaps, after reading my story, they might be reminded of a friend who might also need help, and they can start thinking of doing something about it.
This might also be read by a teenager who is struggling with depression as well as his sexuality, and when he comes across my story he might actually be able to relate to it, and realise that he is going through what I went through.
Hopefully, he will slowly recover and learn to accept himself. Just like I was inspired by reading the stories in SQ21, I hope that my story will let someone out there know that he is not suffering alone, that there are different ways of getting professional and informal help and support.
I would also like to remind him that he is special in his own, unique way.
‘Masood’ would like readers to know that he is doing fine, even as he continues to face ups and downs in life, while still encouraging himself to live life to the fullest. He has also since found a job.
SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association of Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children)
And here are some support groups for Muslim LGBTQ individuals:
Top image from Pink Dot SG Facebook page