June 1999

Yagga Yagga




This article is in appreciation of Yagga Yagga, a support group which held its concluding session in June 1999.

A year earlier, they came together for the first time, no one knowing anyone else. It was quite difficult for each one of them to walk into the meeting. They had never met me before, they had never signed on with anything "gay" before. To cross the threshold coming in was like crossing a private Rubicon, entering a new self they had never quite lived in previously. Not all who said they would come could surmount the hurdle of that unknown. 4 out of the 15 whom I was expecting never showed up, and I never heard from them again.

Those who did, sat around a large dining table and we had a simple meal together. One runs support groups within the cultural context of one's society. In the Asian context, eating together is very important; it is the lubricant to socialisation. It's somehow easier to make small talk and get to know each other between passing the chilli and sharing the soya sauce. Even so, everyone was on guard, as I expected, and I was truly stretched trying to keep the small talk going.

Over coffee and dessert, I opened the topic for the first session: Why do we think we are gay? At least half the guys weren't terribly sure that they were. "Perhaps bisexual", a few said. "I don't know", another said. In my mind, I looked beyond those answers. In time, these uncertainties and defences would resolve themselves. For now, that they came, when I had clearly advertised this as a <U>gay</U> support group, spoke more clearly than the veil of words. Instead, what the topic served was to elicit some clues to their own attitudes to homosexuality, for me to have a baseline to work with in the months ahead. At the same time, it was meant to get everyone used to speaking about the subject with openness and a little levity.

That was when one of my associate leaders really helped. We asked him, as we asked each one in turn, "How do you know you are gay?"

"How do I know I'm gay? When I had sex the first time, it was, oh my God, FANTASTIC! After that, hallelujah! I am GAY!"

It was great that they all laughed at that. The boulder was beginning to float.

Neither myself nor the associate leaders were professional counsellors. Homosexuality is too pariah a subject in Singapore to expect the professions or established social service organisations to want to have anything to do with it. In our own bumbling way of brother helping brother, we just do what we can for our own.

Yagga Yagga's program was to meet the first Saturday evening of every month, for 12 months. We would have dinner somewhere, and then over coffee, talk about a prearranged topic for 2 hours. Although dinner was always purely social, it filled an important role by allowing them to get to know each other as friends. Unlike other support groups I have been involved in, which tended to have potluck at a home, for Yagga Yagga, dinner was usually at a food court. (It was partly because the Yagga Yagga guys were mostly in their twenties, too young to cook and contribute to a potluck). I didn't know, at the beginning, whether it would be a good idea for them to have dinner in a public (and often, crowded) place; they could well have been scared of being seen in gay company. Fortunately, none of the guys were flamboyant, and by the second or third month, they had come to enjoy each other's company enough to give no further thought to outsiders around them.

By sheer luck, eating out was to prove a benefit, because when, within a few months, the group could talk openly about gay stuff and make gay jokes, within earshot of the adjacent tables, they could see for themselves how unrisky that was. Watching them, I said to myself, they were galloping ahead in self confidence.

We would move to a quieter place for coffee and discussions. Sometimes we came to my home, and on one occasion, Kelvin, an associate leader, got a hotel room.

Despite what you might think, the after-dinner discussions were not very serious. There was a given topic each month, such as coming out, cruising, safer sex, morality, dating and relationships, but every few minutes, we would stray from the topic, to humor, sex and more sex. Sticking to the topic was not important. Enjoying the time together, sharing, making light of our own insecurities, asking whatever questions anyone wanted to ask, was more the point.

(In the feedback at the end of the program, I discovered that they were pleasantly surprised the support group turned out to be less intellectual and serious than they had first thought. My Yawning Bread reputation -- which they considered too intellectual -- had apparently preceded me.)

It took a while for them to get used to speaking up during the discussions. The first session, unsurprisingly, I found myself talking more than half the time. With every passing month, I could scale back, and soon they were interrupting each other and throwing in witty remarks at every opportunity. Some facilitators might prefer to keep better order in support group discussions, to ensure that each person could have his turn at talking, but I neither could, nor wanted to do that. I wanted it as natural as possible. It meant that some talked more than others, but then, some people are just happy to listen. To put pressure on them to speak up more would have been counterproductive.

One of the most wonderful things about his group, as I kept noting myself through those months, was that they never broke into arguments. Every one of them was considerate and respectful of differences. We had different races and different religions represented. Some believed strongly in a non-promiscuous life, others quite the opposite. And of course, some believed in being out, while others didn't think it would work for them.

One guy, "CH", was already out to a few straight friends before he joined the group, but soon after joining, he was called up for National Service. He then found himself with a whole new set of people around him, all strangers. Yet, within months, he was out to quite a few again, and enjoying the thought that more and more others in his army unit were coming to the conclusion that he was gay.

Me: "You're used to people guessing that you're gay, aren't you?"

CH: "I'm actually quite excited."

PT:  "Are they all gay?"

CH:  "Most of them straight."

Me: "You feel a small victory?"

CH: "Actually I'm quite excited. When they start to guess about it, I will sort of throw more hints!"

Me:  "That's interesting."

CH: "If you manage to come to a point where you ask me, 'are you gay?', I wouldn't make the effort to deny it because I feel it's such a hassle."

BG: "But you're trying to tell people … "

CH: "Ya, I'm trying to tell people, ya, I am GAY!"

BG himself came out to his mother and sister during the 12 months of Yagga Yagga, and was beginning to be out to a few colleagues at work.

Me:  "What do you think has been the biggest benefit from a year with Yagga Yagga?"

BG: "I don't really know whether is it something like throughout … [recording unclear] … just this year, I consider from a total closet stage until now it is kind of total open."

Me: "You're out to your family, aren't you, and that happened …. "

BG: "I don't know is it because of benefit from Yagga Yagga or what, can't say, maybe it was a catalyst."

Me:  "If you lived your life again, would you have preferred that all this didn't happen?"

BG: "I'll prefer this one to happen maybe ten years ago. That's what I always regret!"

I don't mean to imply that coming out was in any way an objective of Yagga Yagga. Not at all. We just hoped each person would figure out for himself, in the light of others' experiences, what would be the best arrangement for him. Unlike BG and CH, some other members of Yagga Yagga remained happy keeping a low profile. They had to take into account their own family and work circumstances, and the nature of their own personalities. If you're happy with the closet, stay there. No one's asking you to fix what is not broken.

So what then was Yagga Yagga supposed to achieve? I can only give a very general answer, because it was for each person, the leaders included, to draw from the group whatever they wanted to draw. The general answer is that we tried to reduce gayness from a being an issue bugging our lives into a non-issue, as close as possible to the way straight people treat their heterosexuality as a non-issue. We wanted our members to develop a circle of gay friends with whom gayness was, well, understood, and yet without, as so often happens with gay men and their connections with other gay men, the tension of whether or not things would lead to sex or emotional entanglements. Yagga Yagga had a simple rule for that: No Sex, No Cruising, No Propositioning. Hence, no sexual tension.

Discussing a different topic each month was meant to help fill in some blanks, by engendering an exchange of views and provoking thought. Too often, because gay men have so few references other than their own personal and necessarily skewed experiences -- skewed because it's a sample of one, after all -- it is difficult to get broader insight into some of the issues that impact our lives. We feel more guilty about cruising when it is a secretive behaviour; we feel less so when we can joke about it with our friends. We fear it would be an irreparable disaster if ever our mothers found out about our homosexuality, but when we heard what BG's mother told him, it's not so simple after all. After having come out to his mother, she said she would have preferred it if previously he had dropped some hints, and not pretended to lead a double life.

Role models are important. The two associate leaders provided them. They were both thirtyish (same age as some of the Yagga Yagga guys, 5-10 years older than the others), comfortable with their sexuality and out. They also participated fully in the discussions, suggested venues, became contact persons between meetings and stood in for me one month when I was away.

We had some extra activities too. We had an excursion night, when some of us went to Little India and Singapore's seedy Desker Road area. It would have been too stressful to go to a heterosexual red light district with straight friends. It was a lot more fun to do so with gay friends. We came across dildos and porn VCDs on sale in the back alleys, and saw transvestite hookers negotiating with clients. It was not the seeing that mattered; it was the opportunity to talk about a shared experience encountering pornography, commercial sex and cross-dressing. Within that circle of Yagga Yagga at least, the younger ones could, for once in their lives, talk and joke about these things, without needing to be on guard.

Even more memorable was the pre-New Year party on Dec 26th. We invited some friends and Yagga Yagga played the role of host family. We spent an afternoon watching the film Beautiful Thing, then cooked dinner together and washed up together. It was all very simple, but simplicity in gay lives is a very rare and precious thing. One of the guests later said to me that he could sense that the Yagga Yagga guys were very at ease, very comfortable, with each other. One could hardly say anything more complimentary than that.

Through the 12 months, there was attrition, and by the end of the program, out the 11 who started with us, we were left with 7 regular members and 1 not-so-regular one, in addition to the two associate leaders and myself. For those who dropped out halfway, as a matter of policy, we didn't ask why. To have asked would have been to impose expectations. In a matter as sensitive as this, it was best to leave each one the privacy of one's own reasons. We were sorry that they didn't stay on, because those that did, felt that Yagga Yagga was one of the few really good things that happened at that stage of their lives.

Z:  "It's so difficult to find gay friends in any environment. The only way, as far as I can see, to meet friends, is a support group."

BG:  "[At the beginning] I was excited that I have a good chance to know more gay people."

Z: "For a beginner, I would encourage him to participate in this sort of support group, maybe not to 'accept' himself, but to expose himself to perhaps like-minded people. There are other people who are going through the same thing, the same problem, perhaps the same life, and maybe we can relate to each that. Doesn't necessarily mean that OK, you go into this support group, you're gay!"

CH: "An exposure to people like us. It's one thing about this support group. It's that, it's like giving one something to look forward to every month. It's very nice that we actually have people coming together for company, friendship and not for sex. That is what I like about the group."

Me: "We joke a lot about it [sex], but nothing really happens."

CH: "That is what is so magical about it. Actually something you look forward to. Yes! It's coming soon and you want to come. It's very strange. It's a time when you can actually be yourself, when you can talk what you want…."

All:  "Talk crock!"

CH:  "… I mean, say something to someone who actually understands, who won't like, give you that kind of strange-eye look. Or, I mean, after all, you can't really say the same stuff to a straight friend who knows that you're gay, after all, they can't really understand your angle or your perspective. Someone [who] actually feels the same way as you. It's very self-fulfilling, I would say. It completes the circle."

Me: "In what way does it complete the circle?"

CH:  "I mean it was, before this, it was like a missing part. You have your family, you have your friends who know you are gay. I do have gay friends, but it is a very small circle, and then you have a lot of one-night-stands…"

All:  [laughter]

CH:  "… but you are missing on the friendship, the intellectual part, the intellectual friends you actually want to mix around with, friends that actually can go out for movies, go for tea…."

Z: "I think the support group actually has a sense of permanence, maybe to forge a relationship that we hope to extend to our older lives…"

DT: "I think it's a good idea to join a support group, I mean, it's supposed to give you support. I think it's very difficult for somebody who is gay to go through that alone, so it's good to interact with people, you know, like-minded individuals and from there we learn, at the same time, we share our experiences, and I guess that is a good way to move towards acceptance of oneself."

What more is there for me to say, but a big 'thank you' to all the friends I have made at Yagga Yagga?

Thank you, all, for your help, your support, and just being there. It's been wonderful, it's been great.

© Yawning Bread