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Older Gay Couples on Their Fight for Equality

Older Gay Couples on Their Fight for Equality

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Top Image Credit: Pink Dot SG’s 2013 campaign video

Wong Yung Onn is gay. He is also 53 and a father of two.

“When I was young, I liked to look at guys. Somehow over the years, I subconsciously blocked it out, which made me unhappy and tired. It wasn’t until I was studying for a degree in psychology that I realised I had been suppressing my true self all along,” the former divorcee shares.

Coming out at 40 tore apart his marriage and resulted in his ex-wife forbidding him from seeing his children, an ugly consequence he only recently made peace with. It has been a decade since Onn has seen or spoken to them.

“People ask me why I don’t look for them or fight my wife. But they are doing so well, why should I disrupt their lives? The impact may be horrendous. They may totally break down.”

Today, he is married to entertainer Desmond Charles Perry, who lovingly calls him Onn. Recounting the nightmare that engulfed his life for a good period of time, Onn is cautiously optimistic. Not just about his future, but that closeted men his age may eventually find the courage to be comfortable in their own skin.

Desmond and Onn (in specs) have been married for four years. (Image credit: Wong Yung Onn)
Over our two hour conversation, I realise that Onn’s story may be heartbreaking, but it’s not unexpected. The couple is steeped in a generational culture that didn’t provide its men the community support they need to come out. This is something Desmond feels strongly about, seeing his husband cope with the pain of having lived a lie.

“We know many people around Onn’s age who are still closeted, and encourage them to ask questions before making any drastic decisions. Maybe being their listening ear will stop them from committing suicide. Pink Dot helps older folk, who were not taught about sexuality, start to read up and educate themselves.”

For the couple, the annual event enables necessary and open conversations about one’s sexuality, although Desmond believes more change can be done if non-celebrities were also ambassadors.

“With regular gay people as spokesmen, Pink Dot can show the danger of not accepting one’s sexuality. Back then, due to ignorance, society thought being gay was a perverse sickness. People like Onn could speak up for men who go through the same thing,” Desmond says.

Onn's Instagram is full of the couple's food adventures. (Image credit: Wong Yung Onn)
I soon learn that these men form a sizeable group in the gay community.

One of them is Han, who only wants to be known as such. Despite living with his long term partner Otto Fong in their own place, the 47-year old is still closeted to his family. Later I discover that Han also wants to keep his identity private because he works for the government.

“My parents don’t know and I hardly have straight friends. My mom has stopped pressuring me to get married. She also invites Otto along for reunion dinner. We have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy I guess,” he says.

Where living conditions are concerned, many gay couples are not as lucky. Han explains that these couples don’t dare to bring their boyfriends or girlfriends home because they’re not out to their family.

“Even long term friends don’t invite us to their family house. After awhile you start to live a compartmentalised existence, which requires a lot of upkeep.”

While Otto (pictured) isn't media shy, Han values his privacy.
Paradoxically, Otto is one of the LGBTQ community’s most well-known advocates and no stranger to judgement. His parents are more accepting now, but he recalls that they used to treat Han like an outsider, even though Han helped with errands and was good to them.

In 2007, while teaching at Raffles Institution, Otto decided to come out publicly after attending a sharing session where a gay alumnus from his school asked, “Why didn’t any gay teacher speak up for us when I was a student?”

This lack of representation and visibility is why, throughout our conversation, he constantly reiterates his support for Pink Dot. To him, even critics can only be a good thing: “When you have objections, you will also have those who are willing to look at the other side of things. Every time Pink Dot happens, there will be conversations, especially among the young.

Like Desmond and Onn, majority of Otto and Han’s older male friends, who were not exposed to role models from the LGBTQ community growing up, are still closeted. Today, they don’t feel any urgent need to come out anymore.

“The older they get, the less they feel like it’ll make a big difference to their lives, because their habits are already formed. Pink Dot will help younger people be different from us,” Han shares. Concurrently, he recalls a Malay boy whose coming out empowered gay men in the Muslim community.

While age may be catching up, Otto still believes in taking matters into one’s own hands. He says, “If you think Pink Dot is too commercialised, start something of your own. It’s always good to have another path that people can identify with and follow. All roads lead to Rome; if we only have one road, it’s very easy to block that road.”

Similarly, Desmond is reluctant to let the younger generation fight for his rights, even though he and Onn may joke that they are too tired to attend Pink Dot again this year. Ultimately, the couple see the value of fighting the best they can with what they have.

That said, none of these men have taken any progress, no matter how minute, for granted.

Otto and Han tell me it is "not their style" to be affectionate in public.
Today, this fight for equality is far from over. Even for couples who have moved abroad.

Over a Skype call with Olivia Chiong who lives in Seattle, Washington, with her wife and two daughters, I feel her passion for this struggle.

Her family moved to the states in October last year after her wife, Irene, found a job as a software engineer. This will be the first year that the 37-year old and founder of the Rainbow Parents group in Singapore won’t be at Pink Dot.

She shares that events for the LGBTQ community are not new, but they tend to be insular and marketed only to LGBTQs.

“If you talk about engagement with Singapore as a whole, Pink Dot is the only platform that does that. Its mere existence helps me begin conversations with people who have questions about the LGBTQ community but don’t know how to go about it. Over the years, we’ve seen people come out because of Pink Dot, as well as support from families and straight people. ”

Olivia counts herself lucky that her own parents and friends are “fairly liberal,” and takes it upon herself to fight the good fight for those who can’t afford to do so.

“Part of the reason we’re ‘out there’ as the poster child for LGBTQ families is because our family, friends and employers are supportive. So we help others see that such families exist. In the past, when older gay couples had children, it was more hush-hush. These days, families are out, loud and proud.”

Olivia (left) and Irene are the community's prominent advocates for LGBT families. (Image credit: Olivia Chiong)
That said, she feels that Singapore still holds onto its institutional biases – Irene is Singaporean, Olivia is a PR, but because same-sex marriage isn’t recognised in Singapore, their daughters are not Singaporean.

“For the longest time, we’ve used the whole Asian values argument to say that same-sex marriage is an idea from the West and is not acceptable. Then the Taiwanese court ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, and completely highlighted our poor track record with human rights,” Olivia says.

To a straight person like myself, marriage may be a fundamental right, but I also often dismiss it as ‘just a piece of paper’. Olivia reminds me that this ‘piece of paper’ becomes a necessity when you want to move overseas with your partner and are asked to provide legal documentation that you are a family.

This comes as a rude awakening. I may be happy being single, but my refusal or lack of desire to marry is a privilege I get to enjoy as a heterosexual woman.

Her relentless fight for marriage equality is exactly what many from the LGBTQ community, including Desmond and Onn, and Otto and Han, want too. Ironically, it is these older gay couples, denied recognition of their love, who have made me realise what I take for granted.

Eventually, when our conversation shifts to the notion of home, she tells me she still hopes to return to Singapore one day when it’s no longer “excruciating to love.” I tell her honestly that I don’t know how long she may have to wait.

The Chiongs, as they are known online, enjoy spending time with their daughters. (Image credit: Olivia Chiong)
Still, there is hope — hope that isn’t naive or flimsy, but built on evidence that things do get better.

After Onn’s first marriage, his “typical Chinese” parents took some time to warm up to Desmond. Then one day, his mom told his sister, “You know, I have never seen kor kor so happy.”

These are simple words. But I hear the happiness and relief in Desmond’s voice as he recounts the story, and I know this is exactly what he was looking for, and all he has ever needed. It is the same acceptance that underscores the fight for the freedom to love.

Yet Onn has shown that this freedom truly starts from within – as the courage to love and accept oneself before others can do the same. Because of what he has been through, he can only wish that those with similar struggles realise this too.

After all, this courage is also why he still dares to hope that one day, he will hear from his children.


Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer