Feeling the fear but doing it anyway: Interview with Eileena Lee, gay activist in AWARENESS

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Feeling the fear, but doing it anyway

What does it take to start an internet-based group for lesbians and bisexual women, create a resource centre for the gay community, and "come out" to your family? Awareness catches up with lesbian activist and active AWARE volunteer Eileena Lee.

By Tan Hui Yee

Tell me about yourself.

I am a 35-year-old lesbian, born and bred in Singapore. I've lived most of my life here, apart from one year when I worked in Taipei, something I enjoyed tremendously. I think all of us should experience working and living outside of Singapore at some point of our lives. For me at least, I came back loving Singapore more. If I were ever to leave Singapore, it would be because of the weather - I can do without the heat! Like most Singaporeans, I live in an HDB flat, with my mum and my eight-year-old Shihtzu, Cheeky.

Every other week, my nine-month-old nephew, Taylor, stays over for a couple of days so that my brother and sister-in-law get a bit of time off from looking after him. Some years ago, just as I was "coming out" to myself and "coming out" to the world as a gay woman, I also developed an interest for Buddhism. I like how simple it is. Interestingly, it was Buddhism (and also my dear friend Charmaine) that taught me how to appreciate Christianity. Recently I've taken an interest in photography. I like how it makes simple and ordinary things pretty.

How did you come to be involved in AWARE?

In 2001, two women committed suicide and there was a bit of hoo-ha over their lives prior to their tragic demise. What we read in the press, mostly the tabloids, were very scandalous and sensationalised. At that time I had already started "RedQuEEn!" (http://www.geocitie s.com/red_ qn/) - an internet discussion group for lesbians and bisexual women and women who are
questioning their sexuality - for about two years, and the tragic deaths of the two women got us thinking about what we could have done to prevent their deaths. We contacted Vera Handojo, then coordinator of the AWARE helpline, to help us train our volunteer counsellors. On a personal level, I wanted to give back to AWARE the kindness that Vera had extended to us at a time when
not many people were openly gay-affirmative. And so I've been with AWARE since then.

Why did you start "RedQuEEn!"?

Back then, there was absolutely nothing for gay women to turn to for support. The internet was their best bet. For women who were not "out", the internet was a safe haven for them to connect with each other. By "out", I mean being ready to tell people that they are gay. You see, we live in a
very heterosexist society and there is this unconscious assumption that all of us are heterosexual. Put yourself in the shoes of a gay woman: You grow up with only heterosexual role models around you. Your school environment is heterosexual. Your work environment is heterosexual. Your gay identity is never acknowledged. How would you feel? That was my personal experience.
When I was "coming out" as a gay person, I felt very alone and I felt that there was a need for a group to empower and support women like myself. That's why "RedQuEEn!" was formed.

Have things changed since you started "RedQuEEn!"?

In 1998, when I started "RedQuEEn!", I never thought it would grow to what it is today. We started with 17 women who responded to my email in a mixed gay mailing list. Now, we have over 1,300 subscribers. Back then when I did a search for "Singapore Lesbians" on the internet, the only links that showed up were links for pornography, nothing on support or empowerment for sexual minorities. Now, we have so many groups out there catering to the various needs of the people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or transsexual. It is a vast improvement from what I came out to in the 1990s. Now we even have The Pelangi Pride Centre (http://www.pelangip ridecentre. org/) which incorporates a Resource Library for people to go to for information and support. Instead of just bars and discos, we now have regular places for gay people, or for people who are questioning their sexual orientation, to hang out in.

What sort of challenges have you faced along the way?

Setting up the group itself was a huge challenge. At that time, there were hardly any openly gay people around. I had a lot of fear when I started the group. I had no idea if I would be breaking the law because the internet laws were so broadly worded. I was mindful to be a law abiding citizen,

How did you deal with that fear?

I guess the need to go out to lend support to people who were isolated was greater than my own fear. I took a deep breath and did it.

What have you learnt from the work you do?

I think sometimes Singaporeans limit themselves by grumbling about this and that, instead of finding ways to solve the problem. I've learnt that anything can be done.

How do the people you encounter tend to respond when you tell them that you are gay?

Most of the time, people are supportive. I have "come out" to my heterosexual friends and all of them try to be supportive. We are still friends -- none of my heterosexual friends have cut me off after I've "come out" to them. I have to admit, though, that I was really afraid initially that my disclosure would end the friendships. Disclosing it to my family was a little more tricky, I took a few years before I told my parents that I was gay. It was challenging because I knew I had to deal with a lot of emotions and disappointments. Parents automatically assume that their children are heterosexual, so when you tell them otherwise, there is bound to be some disappointments - mainly because they have to readjust their expectations, but I am glad I "came out" to them. To me, honesty is essential to a good relationship. And because I love my family, I want to be honest with them.

Some people say that there is no need for gay people to "declare" their homosexuality, just like heterosexual people don't need to tell others that they are straight. What are your thoughts on this?

People need to know that just because we don't talk about gay people, it doesn't mean that they don't exist. And so to (those people who make this statement), I would say, why not? Often when people think about "coming out", they imagine gay people marching in parades and demanding rights. To me, "coming out" is simply sharing a part of myself which I don't have to be ashamed of. In my interactions with people, it is not uncommon for them to ask me "Are you married?" or "Do you have a boyfriend?" I don't really want to cook up some tale about a non-existent boyfriend or pretend that I am attracted to men. That would be when I tell them that I am gay. I feel that
once I start with a lie, I will have to come up with more lies to cover up that first lie, so why start in the first place? The bigger question is, will I be able to live with myself if I lie?

In a broader context, because we all grew up in an environment where gay people are laughed at and made fun of, "coming out" is necessary. It allows people, through their interactions with openly gay persons, to learn that these gay persons just as normal as them. When we keep quiet about our homosexuality, we help protect the environment which makes it okay for people to be unaware of gay people. It is this lack of awareness that keeps and limits us to an environment where people assume that being gay is wrong, when it is not.

What do you hope to see come out of the work you do?

I hope that one day no one will bat an eyelid when the words "gay", "lesbian," "bisexual", "transgender" , and "transsexual" are mentioned. I hope that one day no young person who identifies as a sexual minority will have to grow up feeling unsupported and alone.

How far are we from having that kind of environment now?

There's still a long way to go. We're just at the start of the journey now.My solution to get to there is very simple - but difficult to do. We just need every gay person to "come out" to his or her family. When that happens, there will be more people out there who know someone who is gay. When more people know someone who is gay, people will see that gay people are just normal people.

The current issue of AWARENESS "March 2007, Volume 13" is a collection of articles on topics like - HIV/AIDS, Teenage Sex Education and Homosexuality.

To Order AWARENESS ($15) or to make a donation to AWARE - Please call or write to:

Association of Women for Action and Research
Block 5, Dover Crescent, #01-22, Singapore 130005.
Tel: +65 67797137
Email: aware@aware. org.sg
Website: http://www.aware. org.sg