“In the end it actually matters very little what she decides to write in her application, but it matters a lot if she starts to think that her parents want her to hide who she is from the world.”
This line from the NYT piece got me and it got me good.
Whenever I have to think about the idea of outing myself in applications, my main considerations have never been about what I want to do for myself — instead, they’ve been entirely about my mom. I don’t think I ever really realized the weight of that until I wrote it out just now.
My mother is of course trying to balance the feeling that she’s okay with me being gay while she’s scared that people in positions to discriminate against me won’t be. I am of course trying to balance the feeling of being happy that she wants to protect me while feeling terrible that she only sees one surefire way to do so – by insisting that I should never out myself when I’m applying to get something I want. This is something she has been persistent about when I was applying to colleges and jobs alike: “Why would you tell? Why do you need to tell?”
Which is unfortunate because it’s near impossible for me to not tell, considering that pretty much all of my experience that makes me hireable has come from queer projects and ideally I want a work environment that’s committed to not being a jerk about that.
This is usually the part of the conversation with my mother where she says, “Never mind if the program has a nondiscrimination policy that protects gay people, what if your fate comes down to the one HR guy who’s personally uncomfortable. And he’ll never say outright that it’s because you’re gay that they don’t want you, but you’ll have to move on knowing that it could have been because you’re gay. Of course, you’re going to have to conform to a point. Of course.”
I want to be mad when she says this. I am mad when she says this. But I know that she’s on my side and even worse, I know she’s potentially being more logical about the situation than I am.
What complicates things the most is the guilt that I might not just be making things harder for myself, but for her too. Would it have felt like I had blown all the time and money she put into my education by outing myself in a college application and getting rejected because of it? Is it selfish to ignore her wishes about me outing myself when she’s the one I’ll need to help me if i don’t get the job? As unfair as it is, it is heartbreaking to imagine that it’s a possibility that I was denied a job I applied for because I’m queer – and that by being there to support me monetarily, my mom has paid the price alongside me. I know I’m drawing some pretty heavy connections where they might not need to be, but I have to wonder about that. I’m not sure how I feel about it overall. I know that I’ll probably keep outing myself all the time and she’ll probably always worry — and I’ll always worry that she worries.
I didn’t come out in my college admissions essay because I didn’t come out ’til I got in. But I did come out in all of my cover letters when I graduated, and I stayed unemployed for 14 months.
When people tack on “equal opportunity,” “we encourage minorities to apply,” and “we appreciate diverse candidates,” I hear WE’RE LOOKING FOR YOU, GIRL! After all, I’m just a girl livin’ in the non-profit sector, and when I tell people I want diverse perspectives I mean it. But that sentence: “I’m a queer woman of color who values intersectionality in my work” – it was powerful. It may even be the reason I didn’t get work. But it’s hard to tell why, mostly out of the virtue of intersectionality and the overlapping element of human nature. My friends told me they wouldn’t hire me if they were homophobic or racist, and others told me it seemed weird to “overshare” that kind of information in my application. Nobody supported my affirmative action statement, and everyone told me to take it out. But I can’t. It’s like my name, or my college classes, or my work experience. It’s who I am at work.
I put my statement there because I didn’t want anyone to hire me under false pretenses. I’m here, I’m queer, I’m gonna call you out on your neo-colonialist, racist values. And don’t fucking say sexist shit to me, dickholes. That was a disclaimer I needed leaving college, which was a bubble of homo euphoria wherein everyone knew better than to fuck with me. I put my statement in my application because my work has never looked like anyone else’s work; my work hasn’t ever advocated for anyone else. I constantly think about intersections and about the folks at the most vulnerable margins of inequality in my work, and I wanted the folks who eventually hired me to be down for my hell-raising when we were planning, coordinating, and discussing. I wanted to know the workplace I was entering was one that would allow me to challenge work that was too easy, work that didn’t dig deep enough, work that didn’t reach enough people.
It took 14 months. I’d do it again.
I signed a contract with the Overlords when I was 19, having been promised a free ride to university (overseas!) and an exciting, fulfilling career upon graduation. That’s how it’s sold, at least, and depending on the day how I feel about it ranges from “wow, I really lucked out here” to “how is it legal for someone to sign away a decade of their lives before they’ve even lived two?!” Now my university tuition and living expenses are fully paid for, and in a year or so I’ll be beginning six years of work with this organisation.
To call the Overlords “conservative” would be both understating and oversimplifying it. It has strict codes as to how employees – particularly those like me whom they’ve invested a lot of money in – should act, yes, but at the same time it is a pretty large organisation and so what one person does can go overlooked. They knew about my activism before I signed on. (They knew a lot of things about me before I signed on, not all of which I’d personally disclosed.) They wanted me to be aware that signing this contract came with Responsibilities and Expectations, which came across as both intimidating and genuinely nice, because it reminded my teenage self to really think about whether this was a good fit for me.
But okay, I said. That’s cool. I can do Responsibilities and Expectations.
Short of the instruction to not break the law, a lot of the wording in this contract about how I should or should not behave is vague. An application for constitutional protection against workplace discrimination against “homosexual males” was recently rejected by the High Court and while gay sex is illegal in Singapore, the law only applies to men and is rarely enforced. Nothing, really, provides any clear answers to the question of being out in the workplace or just in general.
So I took this all to mean to stay safe and stay in the closet. I attended LGBT Society events at my new school terrified that I would be recognised by people from home and panicked when I stepped out of Ku Bar for the first time only to run into two Singaporeans. (Soho is right next to Chinatown, because clearly London’s city planners were not thinking of closeted queer Asians.) I went to A-Camp 1.0 and kept my head down and out of photos, sitting all the way at the side when the (first ever!) massive group one was taken.
Yet I’ve only been in tacky gay bars and on Mount Feelings because the Overlords’ sponsorship has made all of this possible. The main thing that was keeping me in the closet, paradoxically, was also what was enabling me to explore my own queer identity and communities in relative safety and anonymity, in a big city very far away from the big city I’d grown up in.
Sometime this year, I did a complete about-turn on this. I can’t pinpoint what exactly changed but it had to do with grappling with increasingly feeling trapped re: this contract, the start of a new exciting relationship that was making everything feel possible again, and my general impulsiveness. I came out in a really, really big way. I ran for LGBT Officer at the LSE (I lost), posted an open letter on Facebook and started writing for Autostraddle. Somehow, somewhere, I went from “think of the worst that could happen!” to “what’s the worst that could happen?” (I do still know what the worst that could happen is. I just decided to trust that it wouldn’t.) It wasn’t easy – is coming out ever? – but it was empowering in ways that I hadn’t expected it to be: it turned something that was once my biggest fear into my biggest asset. It no longer scares me that someone might out me because I got myself there first, and I’m making the most of it. Take for instance:
Random Asshole: “What, are you gay?”
Me: “Yes, actually! Want to read all the things I’ve written about it?”
That’s not to say that the fear’s completely gone, though, or that I don’t sometimes regret this. I was back in Singapore over summer break for an internship, during which I met briefly with a Senior Overlord Employee (perhaps just a Senior Overlord?). After running through the usual mundane questions about career advancements, she concluded with this (heavily paraphrased from memory):
“A lot of young people like you come back from their overseas studies and when we ask them what the one thing they would change about Singapore is, they always say something like gay rights or no censorship. And I’ll tell you something: I always cringe when I hear this. I cringe, you know.
I know how it feels. I’m exactly like you. I studied overseas too, but we need to remember that things are different here. It’s easy to talk about gay rights in the West but try telling that to the auntie in the hawker centre. Things work differently here, and maybe 10 years down the road it’ll change but you can’t just bring these Western concepts home.”
I wanted to tell her no, gay rights aren’t a “Western concept.” I am not a Western concept. I wanted to point out to her that this hypothetical “auntie in the hawker centre” was at least as informed and probably far more benevolent than her on any of these things, even without a degree in economics from an Ivy League.
I wanted to say, no, I am nothing like you.
But I didn’t. I didn’t dare. The weight of the contract – those Responsibilities and Expectations – still bear down on me, so I just clenched my fists under the table and waited for the first chance to slide out of the room.
Now a lot of people know that I’m gay and a lot of people know that I work for the Overlords, but not a lot of people hold these two facts in their head together at the same time. I am quite comfortable existing in this liminal space. I am not and do not plan to be proactively out in the workplace. It already matters that someone like me – an ethnic and religious minority, woman and “HDB kid” all before you even factor in my queerness – has gotten to where I am now (being recruited by the Overlords is a Big Deal) and that is plenty enough. And while I may have signed this contract in part driven by fear of material vulnerability – I wanted to be financially independent of my parents in case they disowned me (they didn’t, thankfully, but this was a real fear in my life as it is for many) – it would still be unfair to characterise this as purely an issue of brute survival. I get a lot more than that: at the end of this I will have a degree or two from top universities and job security, both a really good end to my schooling days and a fantastic start to my working life. Partial closetedness, for most part, seems like a small price to pay for all this.
There are always days, of course, when I wonder why my younger self signed the contract. There are many times when I am angry that any 19-year-old could be put in the position that I was: to choose between signing away a considerable number of years to an organisation whose values she doesn’t completely support but that could support her, or to take her chances with a family she couldn’t be sure would.
But the fact that I had that choice already makes me far, far luckier than most. And so I’ll continue to be my fabulous homogay self, writing about it on the internet for you – all sponsored by the Overlords.