I used to struggle with my sexuality & disability. Here's how I learnt to embrace who I am.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 21, 2019, 10:47 AM

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 54 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.

"Being an open book" is an essay contributed by Theresa Goh, the first female Singaporean swimmer to qualify for the Paralympics in 2004. 

A former world-record holder in the 50m and 200m breaststroke SB4 category, she clinched a bronze medal in the 100m breaststroke SB4 category at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

Goh's essay is reproduced in full here:

By Theresa Goh

I often think that we are quite like books: we start off pretty empty, except for maybe a rough content page depending on where we were born, whom we were born to, what race, gender and social status we start off with.

As we grow, our story changes, our narratives grow and we become more fully fleshed out.

In my case, two aspects of my story stand out so far.

A tiny baby, too anxious to greet the world, came out two months early 32 years ago—born with spina bifida to first-time parents who, luckily for me, were very proactive and such naturals.

At a time when Google didn’t exist, my parents turned to the Yellow Pages for information on my disability. The late 80s and early 90s weren’t times when disability was widely acknowledged, at least not the way it is now.

Kindergarten was a struggle with rejection and ignorance

I believe that ignorance and lack of knowledge cause fear, which ultimately leads to hate or unfavourable reactions.

When I was due to register for kindergarten in the early 90s, my parents had to get a little creative when kindergartens continuously rejected me after being told I had a disability.

They could have just succumbed to societal pressures to either homeschool me or search for a special institution that accepted children with disability, but they were set in what they wanted for me.

So, instead of disclosing that I had a disability at registration, they only revealed that piece of information after I was accepted; 10 points to my parents!

During my time at the kindergarten, there was one afternoon when I got sick and threw up my lunch. If I had been an able-bodied child, I believe the teachers would have helped clean me up before informing my parents.

But because I wasn’t, I was left alone and my mother was called to come down to clean me up.

The world has slowly but surely become more aware of disabilities

Recalling these events with my parents always makes me upset but also extremely grateful for them.

As a child with disability, the lack of representation of disabled people in the media and in society in general gave me deeply contradictory thoughts.

At first, I wasn’t that bothered with being disabled because I was ignorant and thought I didn’t want to identify with what seemed like an unnecessary label.

As my world opened up, I came to not only accept the label but embrace it. It gives me unique lived experiences that not many people go through. And everything I’ve gone through, good and bad, has led to my being the person I am today.

Today, more than 30 years later, the topic of disability is a much bigger part of mainstream discussions.

I see plenty of representation for people with disability everywhere. There are disabled characters in books, on television and in the movies (played by able-bodied actors and usually portrayed as stereotypes, but that is a story for another time).

The world today is more dialed in, more aware of disability in general. While the way society views disabled people isn’t perfect, it has come a long way, and I am keen to see it grow further while I am here.

Grew up thinking I was straight

Having a disability makes life interesting for me, but being gay makes life extra interesting. When heteronormativity is all that exists in your world, it’s hard to imagine you can be anything else.

I grew up assuming I was straight, as most people do, because I didn’t think there was another option.

In my family, homosexuality was not a topic we spoke about openly. It was usually just brought up in jokes or in passing.

During the peak of faux-lesbian Russian band t.A.T.u’s fame, my mom sat my sister and me down and told us not to listen to their (ridiculously catchy) songs.

While that made me afraid to embrace my true feelings at first, it also emboldened me to find out more about why I was having these feelings.

I turned to books for guidance

In secondary school, I remember having tiny crushes on my schoolmates and being very confused at feelings I thought were wrong—during a time when the word “gay” was still widely used as an insult, when there was little to no positive representation of LGBTQ+ people.

I remember one instance when I felt that my emotions must have been wrong: I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an American television show, and noticed that the lesbian couple, Tara and Willow, had suspiciously little screen time.

I later realised that many of their scenes had been cut because of their homosexual content.

Even though the world around me only ever spoke about heterosexual attraction, I knew that it didn’t feel right to me. As I started to get more curious about the feelings I was having, I turned to books for guidance.

I started exploring the world of LGBTQ+ fiction and later discovered Strangers in Paradise, a graphic novel involving a love triangle with two women and one man.

As I explored more queer literature, my worldview got bigger and things started getting a lot clearer.

Parent told me that they would accept my partner, regardless of gender

My coming-out story to my parents is a little bit different from most.

We had stopped at a petrol kiosk and when my dad went out to pay, my mom turned to the back seat where I was and told me that my mom and dad wanted me to find someone who would take care of me, and it didn’t matter if they were a boy or a girl.

I remember sitting there, a little stunned but happy. I think I managed to squeak out an “okay” and gave my mom a hug. That incident made me feel like I was safe and free to be who I am.

Worrying that parents of children would react badly to me coming out in ST

In 2017, I came out as a lesbian in the national paper, the Straits Times. Even though I was never really in the closet, I still remember feeling a huge weight leave my shoulders.

With that new lightness also came some fears.

I used to train at Farrer Park Swimming Pool, and because there were always a lot of children and their parents at the pool during training sessions, I was particularly afraid of being at the pool for the first time after my article came out.

I was afraid that parents would react badly, that I’d be given nasty looks. But my fears were unfounded.

In fact, two different parents came up to tell me that they had read my article and express how brave they thought I was. I felt touched and incredibly lucky at the amount of love that surrounded me.

Amidst all the love, my family members remain my biggest and strongest pillars of support and they could not have been more supportive of me.

The past just shows how much we can learn and change if we open our hearts and minds.

There's more to my story

I consider myself a half-written book.

As with all of us, my story will not simply be told to me—I will have a role in shaping it and I am eager to see how the rest of my narrative pans out.

My current hope is for Singapore to continue growing and advancing, and maybe one day, we’ll all be able to live in a world where we can be whomever we want to be and be part of a world where a queer, disabled, female person doesn’t feel so out of place.

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, "The Birthday Workbook", that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

Top photo collage from Theresa Goh Facebook