April 1999

Power 98FM - radio tofu




This is a commentary on a call-in radio program, aired 30 March 1999. I suggest you read the transcript Power 98FM - the transcript before coming here.

Families aren't always negative to a gay son or daughter

A brief word for my gay readers: Many people think that it is impossible to come out to one's family; that the response of parents particularly, is uniformly negative. It would be a disaster of irreparable proportions should the truth leak out.

What the radio program hosted by Suzanne Walker showed is similar to what I have observed among my friends who have come out, which is that, in the main, attitudes are not as rigid as our government propaganda or our own fears lead us to believe. Families come in various flavours, some more rational, others more emotional, but almost always, from what I have seen, they eventually adapt to the new situation.

I personally feel that in the case of most gay persons and their families, the discomfort of confronting the truth -- like your mother crying and not speaking to you for a month -- is a small price to pay for a lifetime of honesty and personal liberty. It's a hurdle that would yield greater benefits to all when crossed.

I know of someone in his late 30's, with a PhD, and doing relatively well in life. He even has a lover of some years' standing. Many gay people would envy him for the way things have worked out. Yet his time with his lover is furtive, and whole edifices of lies are constructed to excuse why he is away from home. He asks his friends to participate in those lies, to keep up the game with his mother. Every moment of interaction with his family holds a little bit of terror. The mother nags him about getting married, and has lately become shrill enough to issue ultimatums, that unless he finds a girl of his own, she is going to "arrange" for a bride from China. From what I've heard, he is succumbing. I can imagine that every moment of his married life is going to hold even greater terror, and the relationship with his lover may come under strain. Should the wife one day find out, half his life's earnings conceivably would go to her in a divorce settlement. And the truth would be out anyway.

Would that be what you'd call living life to the fullest?

By the way, in this case, I suspect the mother is in denial. I think she is trying, nearly hysterically now, to obtain the assurance (to herself) that her son is not gay, by getting him married. By prolonging this pain, it's just going to gnaw away at both mother and son. I would say better to out the truth, deal with the grief openly, and eventually leave it behind.

Some parents can guess

This is related to another thing which this call-in program showed. It is that sometimes we think our parents don't know, and we may go through all the hell of living in disguise. But as Caller #6 discovered when he sat down with his father at dinner to tell him, the father said, "oh yes, I've known about you for quite some time". Not only did the father know, he seemed to have adapted to the knowledge all by himself. In such an instance, lying would have been completely counter-productive.

Suzanne Walker closed her program in the same vein by saying, "honesty is always the best policy and perhaps honesty and facing everything head on is the best way to actually find happiness be it in the family or even within yourself."

Fine sentiments, but her program also demonstrated that there are oceans of ignorance, and worse, certain currents of hate. What are the responsibilities of a journalist who preaches honesty, when that honesty is sometimes rewarded with hate? This I will discuss in Part III of this essay. Meanwhile, about the oceans of ignorance

What worth is a discussion without first getting your facts right?

Every statement made about homosexuality by all the straight callers was baseless. No one made a single well-informed statement. Even Suzanne herself added two very wobbly concepts. In other words, the entire discussion in that program was founded on falsehoods. It was precious airtime sighing and blowing to stereotype and myth.

It's as if we had a program about racial diversity and tolerance, and every caller spoke with the unstated assumption that (a) "niggers" are less intelligent than whites, (b) all Malays are lazy and (c) all Chinese spit all the time. A discussion like that can't get very far with such shackles.

It may be argued that the main focus of Suzanne's program was how parents would react if they found out that their son was gay; it was not about homosexuality per se. Yet the nature of parents' reactions depend on perceptions about homosexuality. If the perceptions are unfounded, the responses can hardly be meaningful or helpful.

If parents want families to be whole, loving and at peace, the resolution of gay issues within the family must spring from a recognition of certain basic facts about homosexuality, not from the repetition of misguided notions. The latter generate tensions, false hopes and a high degree of distress, that do not help in coming to terms with the fact that a son is gay. Alas, a program like this one gave too much play to the misguided notions, and no real information about sexuality.

Specifically, what were the misguided notions that were aired? 

Misconception: homosexuality is choice

The root error, as always, was to conceive of homosexuality as some kind of choice, and to locate that choice within the child's late adolescence or adulthood. Some statements from callers which indicated this underlying thread include,


Caller #3: "there is so much that the opposite sex can offer why be a gay?"

Caller #3: "why he has lost interest in girls" (implying he once had interest)

Caller #4: "Has he been jilted before?"

Caller #4: "If he tells me firmly that I want to be like that I'm happy like that OK fine."

There was the assumption that homosexuality is due to upbringing and that sexual orientation is reversible.


Caller #3: "where did I go wrong in my education and my teachings"

Caller #5: "they should go for more counselling"

Caller #6: (speaking of his mother's thoughts) "just a passing phase"

Even Suzanne herself mentioned "I don't think it's the parents' fault and they shouldn't take blame for what sort of lifestyle their sons decide to choose at the end of the day."

I have said in so many essays here that no one ever chose to be gay. No one 'turned gay'. Sexual orientation is a given, not something that parents or counsellors can do much about.

You get a glimpse of a gay person's view of the futility of this, from the somewhat derisive phrasing of Caller #6 (the gay one) when he said of his mother, "after that she did the whole counselling thing." Gay people know there is nothing wrong with them. Straight parents often just can't or won't believe it.

Misconception: homosexuality is effeminacy

Another thread underlying the entire discussion was the association of homosexuality with effeminacy. There was the Marilyn Monroe mention from Caller #2, which interestingly seemed to suggest that simply by suppressing mimicry of feminine gestures, one could avoid homosexuality later on!

It's a thin line between the fear of effeminacy and the spectre of transsexualism.


Caller #3: "it could be hormonal problem"

Caller #5: "I definitely won't support him to go for operation or stuff like that"

One other association was between homosexuality and drug addiction. This suggests that people see it as a kind of behavioural choice that is self-abusive to boot.

Expectations, love and violence

It was at least noteworthy to me to see how Suzanne made the point that parents' reactions had a lot to do with their own pride and expectations. She prompted Caller #2 to say, of fathers, "I think they're embarrassed", and Caller #3, talking about grandchildren, "all this dream go down the drain".

Other than that, the main point she made was how love overcomes all, which is true. In many instances, love wins out. Even though parents may not understand what the hell happened, and how it happened, and despite disappointment and trauma, their hearts tell them, "I love him since the time he was born and I'll love him till the time he leaves."

But can all this trauma be avoided, or at least reduced? It's not a minor matter. In the case of Caller #5, he expressed outright hostility. "Because it's gay my god!" and "I can't imagine 2 guys having sex, that's a horrible thing oh my god." Like it's so bad, by definition, there is no need to apply thought.

He readily admitted he would resort to violence. "First of all I would give him one tight slap on the left and one tight slap on the right."

Even when parents do not resort to violence, things can get rough. As the gay Caller #6 said, "I know when I came out to my parents, it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy on my mom, it wasn't easy on my dad and it certainly wasn't easy on me at all. There was a lot of emotional drama and all of that."

What is the media's responsibility with regard to facts?

This is where I think journalists who do this issue have a responsibility to educate. Sharing opinions is not enough when so many opinions are wrongly-founded, and when hate-mongers get their share of airtime. By giving so much play to misconceptions, including a few rabid and cataclysmic ones (e.g." what will happen to the world"?), and so little attention to setting the record straight, the public service benefit is lost.

Granted, Suzanne tried to pursue a more informed line. To the cataclysmic argument, she pointed out that homosexuality has been with us for a long, long time. She even went on to suggest that he was "being a bit closed-minded here".

She also probed the weaknesses in many opinions, such as when Caller #4 said "if it's not hormonal and then the fault could be just on the parents", but later on, the same caller backtracked. "We can't blame ourselves" if the doctor found nothing wrong. Suzanne would have been aware that inconsistency in logic is a sign that an issue has not been well thought through, or that the speaker is mired in erroneous assumptions.

So all the more, I wished Suzanne had been more forceful about cutting through the crap. As a result of these misbeliefs about the origin and convertibility of sexual orientation, families drag themselves through guilt, shame and mutual torment, and throw good money to see doctors, counsellors and shrinks. There is a lot of pain, weeping, and beating of breasts. If not the beating of sons. And it should be no surprise that the fear of such a reaction is so real that the majority of gay men prefer to lead double lives, trapped in ever more elaborate deceit.

If one believes that lives should be as honest as practicable, as I do, and as Suzanne herself avowed, then one also has a responsibility to be honest to the facts. One cannot urge gay men to be honest without urging, equally strongly, their families and friends to be honest about their own ignorance and prejudice. Journalists have to do their bit to put the facts on the table.

It would have been better had Suzanne opened the program with an expert opinion about the roots of homosexuality, and the fallacies that surround it. Give people some reference points why it is wrong to be homophobic, and unnecessary to be fearful. As it stood, the program showed lots of people threshing about in a huge vat of tofu. Everything around them was soft opinions, all opaque, and supporting no weight of logic. There were no facts to anchor one to. There were no reference points except the subjective one of the loving heart.

We shouldn't be loving our sons despite his being gay and the "lifestyle" that he has "chosen". The word "despite" and all the rest that follow should not be there. We should love them pure and simple. There is no shame, no choice, no fault of anyone's, in their being what they are. To be gay is just another kind of normal. Parents should confidently know that, for it saves the heartbreak and makes the loving easier. And it is partly the job of journalists to spread the confidence of knowledge.

Yawning Bread 



  1. The gay person who called in to this radio program was not the same person who called to the CNN program to ask Mr Lee Kuan Yew the gay question [see the article CNN: Lee Kuan Yew and the gay question].