~ By Lim Say Liang ~
Growing up as a gay person was not particularly difficult for 60-year old Au. Back then, there was some “internal anguish” and apprehension but no one even thought to ask whether he was homosexual. Moreover his family was liberal and he always had like-minded friends. He didn’t even have to lie.
In the mid-90’s, he approached MITA, a regulatory body, with his friends at People Like Us, a gay-rights lobby group, for a licence to publish a gay magazine. They were turned down. They thought about Internet publishing next but the project never took off because of their unfamiliarity with the medium. On November 20, 1996, he went at it alone with the Yawning Bread blog, meant as a platform for the gay community, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Being gay even had its advantages. Being a gay man, and therefore an outsider, Au empathised with the disenfranchised on the outskirts of the “comfortable middle”. He was sensitive to how the system perpetuated social injustices and felt other causes besides gay-rights also deserved to be championed. “Anyone who lives under the authority and control of someone else—a slave-master, bullying employer, controlling spouse, or even societal expectations—can never be truly happy. You can exist. You can survive. But you cannot be happy,” he said.
These days—some 2000 articles later—Yawning Bread gets 3,000 to 5,000 hits a day, with the occasional peak in the 20,000 to 100,000 range, and many readers aren’t gay. Not all of them appreciate the parallels between Au’s take on gay-rights (only 10 per cent of his current writings) and other social injustices. “Those who agree with my socio-political views on the marginalised but part ways when I speak of gay-rights need to have their consciousness raised further,” he said. “I am not saying I am conscious of all the flaws in society. In some ways I am part of the normative. For example, I am a Chinese male. This may blind me to the injustices inflicted on females and non-Chinese. Similarly, there may be heterosexuals who sympathise with the plight of, say, the handicapped, but because of their sexual orientation they don’t see that sexuality can be grounds for discrimination.”
Au was eloquent. At times, he paused midsentence and reworded his responses with nimble turns of phrase to drive the point home. He was frank about his convictions but they did not cloud his appeals to the middle-grounds of rationality and compassion. One would have felt a little uncivilised just by disagreeing with him. Perhaps that’s why he had never received hate mail. Gamely, he also fielded inane questions.
“Why don’t you just fake it? Certainly there are cases of homosexual men who married and have kids.”
“How can you fake it? Impossible. You will kill yourself doing that. You will never be happy. You can never pretend to be something you are not. Imagine asking all heterosexual men to live the rest of their lives as heterosexual women. You can’t fake that. You’d die!”
“Have you ever come across a somewhat reasonable objection to your gay-rights activism?”
“No. There is nothing ‘somewhat reasonable’. Personally, I stand strongly against the mandatory death penalty because of my definition of morality but I can accept there might be reasonable arguments for it because there are evil people out there whose very existence threatens the existence of others. You can’t say the same for homosexuality. Gay people don’t put others at risk.”
“But people do say that about gay people.”
“Then they are wrong!”
“Haven’t you heard? If marriage is redefined for homosexuals, society will fracture and everything will go to hell.”
“That’s rubbish. These people don’t seem to realise marriage has been constantly redefined over the ages. It used to be that marriage was the celebration that topped off the purchase of a woman by a man.”
“What about the children? Won’t gays turn them homosexual?”
“For goodness’ sake—I wish I had that power. Most parents have other things on their minds. I think they would rather their children be homosexual and filial than heterosexual and unfilial.”
“What is your big gay agenda?”
“I hope labels like gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender become as meaningless as the labels Teochew, Hainanese, or Hakka are today. There are occasions to celebrate your identity but for all practical purposes, it makes no difference to your life.”
“Just like 377A?”
“No! That’s like a law that says, being Teochew is illegal but let’s not enforce it. It changes the dynamics tremendously. It institutionalises discrimination. We have teachers in school who can’t deal with homosexual inclinations in students, because to deal with it is to encourage ‘crime’. It’s like saying, a history teacher can teach the history of India, of China, of any country but Indonesia because Indonesians are criminals. How do you think it affects an Indonesian child? How about all the censorship 377A legitimised….”
Although gay-rights activists around the world are advocating the legalisation of gay marriage, Au considered it secondary to 377A’s repeal and the enactment of anti-discrimination laws. And for him, the presence of legislation which “criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men” spoke to a broader, grander, socio-political predicament, one he was more compelled to write about nowadays than gay-rights. It represented Singapore’s ability to adapt and evolve. The longer it took to get rid of something “so obviously stupid and irrelevant”, the more it indicated Singapore was being left behind while the world forged ahead. As things stood, he speculated, we would lose our competitive edge in two generations.
“It stands to reason that the nature of economic vibrancy and growth is one that is accommodative of invention, one that is constantly challenging its presumptions and prejudices. A society willing to challenge its own preconceived notions about social values and institutional structures is a society that is adaptive and open to economic rejuvenation. I am very concerned about Singapore. There is a certain institutionalised attempt to ossify, to preserve. Don’t forget, there’s no better preservative than formaldehyde.”
Au blogged to remain “sane”. He had never thought of quitting and he doubted he ever will. He did not mind disagreement; it’s par for the course. And if it was vociferous, all the better: “Backlash is good, because sometimes, it’s the only way you can show a position to be vapid and unreasonable. The greatest enemy of progress is silence. It’s hard to grapple with. We need to provoke people.”
Au Wai Pang, aka Yawning Bread, has blogged about gay-rights for over 16 years because he “can’t help it”, and he has no plans to stop.
In celebration of World Humanist Day, the Humanist Society (Singapore) is proud to present Alex Au with the Humanist of the Year Award this Saturday, June 23.