I was never active in the glbt club scene of Singapore, having left while still a baby dyke. Yet, strangely, my early teenage world seemed to be full of dykes. When I left Singapore with a happy lesbian heart, I thought there was a gay, pink and rosy world out there. I came to in America only to have my face ground in the dirt over and over for merely speaking up for gay people, not to mention being queer myself.
OK, I didn't have any lesbian friends in Singapore. But a large number of my friends and acquaintances were bisexual girls/women who dated lesbians. And almost all non-queer female acquaintances knew at least one other lesbian.
I knew some other lesbians by sight. There was a young, gorgeous butch alum from my middle school whom I had a major crush on. There were plenty of girls (even straight ones) swooning over her already. My entire high school class knew about it. So did she. She had the smuggest smile I'd ever seen, so confident she was that any girl, queer or not, would adore her.
Lesbian visibility rose in the late 80s/early 90s. A child publication of the nation's main English language newspaper ran a front page article on young women who date other young women. The article had an anxious tone, but conspicuously absent was the kind of rabid ranting and raving which characterizes some of the editorials on gay issues we see in U.S. newspapers today.
My male classmates enthusiastically tried to "chase" girls for me. Unfortunately, they were not very good at it. I was often embarrassed beyond belief by school boys "whispering" in public, "THERE SHE IS!!! I KNOW SHE'S YOUR TYPE!!! GOOD FOR YOU! THE GIRL'S LOOKING AT YOU!" (Is it surprising she's looking at me when boys are tugging at my sleeve, pointing excitedly in her direction and yelling?)
There were 3 "out" kids in my senior high in Singapore -- one lesbian, one bisexual girl, and one gay. No one bothered us. People had many ways of being cruel to their peers, but gay-bashing was just not one of them.
My gay schoolmate, a flamboyant queen, publicly declared his plan to run for prom queen. He would attend the prom dressed in drag as Madonna. The school principal simply said, "No, you are a boy, you can't run for prom queen." No punishment from authority figures, no attack from peers, no nothing. The worst feedback I've heard about his idea was, "Why Madonna? What bad taste! Pick somebody else!"
In my Singaporean high school years, nobody ever shunned me because of my orientation. Even people who rejected homosexuality on religious grounds didn't see the need to take me off their list of friends. After I came to America, Asian and non-Asian Americans alike, people who claimed to be my friends, cut off contact with me once they found out I was queer. It was culture shock for me -- "Hello! There are people who will walk away from you because you are not heterosexual!" I learnt the word "homosexual" in Singapore. I learnt a new word "homophobia" in the USA.
GLBT life in Singapore might sound worse than GLBT life in the US, or better, depending on who you talk to. The key to understanding this is knowing that there is a gap between youth culture and adult culture and a difference between the social climate and the legal climate.
While many young Singaporeans do not mind glbts, most older folk I spoke to disapproved of queers and branded homosexuality as a Western import. I told them, "You don't know these people. You have no idea how many of the queer women I met are 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation Chinese immigrants with traditional Chinese values."
In Singapore, I knew many young people of high school age who were openly queer, but once they reached college age, most of them seemed to go back into the closet. I was surprised when I came to the US and found that the reverse was true. Many of the openly gay/lesbian college students I met had no idea they were queer while they were in high school. For young queer Singaporeans, attaining adulthood means entry into a society which does not tolerate non-conformists of any sort. For their Americans counterparts, attaining adulthood symbolizes independence -- the freedom to be gay/lesbian, finally.
While anti-glbt violence is almost unheard of in Singapore, marriage between persons of the same sex is already written out of the legal definition of marriage. There are no legally-recognized queer organizations. Certainly no groups like PFLAG, and no groups lobbying for same-sex marriage. A group of queers and their straight allies tried to organize a social group, but the Registrar of Societies denied their application, no reasons given. Since all unregistered societies are illegal, the group was basically outlawed.
A Singaporean gay man noted: "There is a lively gay scene in Singapore. But gay men can get into trouble with the sodomy law. (which applies to homosexual and heterosexual acts alike) Lesbians are actually tolerated since they do not break any law."
Another gay Singaporean complained, "Socially, being gay in Singapore isn't bad. The majority of people don't mind gays, and some even delight in the fact that someone is gay. But the legal and political climate is hostile."
[Descriptions of queer life in Singapore are from the writer's own experiences, and are by no means the only views of the glbt experience in Singapore]