ST Insight: A teacher's disclosure and the issue is out in the open (Sept 15)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A teacher's disclosure and the issue is out in the open
by Paul Jacob
The Straits Times - Insight, Sep 15, 2007

We are supposed to be a society that is evolving and becoming more accepting of changing social norms.

But Mr Otto Fong should know that we remain largely and deeply conservative.

Despite what blog- and Net-savvy Internet users are calling a brave outing online last week by the teacher at a top all-boys school about his being gay, there is a larger and quieter majority more apt to regard the recent actions of Mr Fong as some kind of misguided honesty or stunt, one that they worry could cause more harm to those students that the disclosure purports to help.

By all the accounts that I have seen online and in The New Paper, Mr Fong, 38, is an A-one teacher; one who has continued to receive the support of those students who blog, or who have responded to discussion threads on the numerous sites that picked up on his outing.

While he has removed his posting from his blog, reportedly after discussions with his superiors, many others have posted copies, so it continues to generate debate.

There are those who salute his decision and the honesty with which he has put his case across.

It must be a difficult decision to go public about being gay.

But it is one thing to do so to those nearest and dearest - family, relatives, friends - and another to do so on an openly accessible platform like the Internet.

It is apt to spark all manner of responses and consequences, as Mr Fong has now found out - most immediately, of course, in the reaction from his employers.

It is not just in the nature of Singapore society and the variegated opinions that exist here about how we feel towards those who are gay.

The outcome of that debate continues to be moulded, with the loudest voices not surprisingly coming from those at both ends of the spectrum of tolerance.

But in the issue at hand, it is also being shaped by the nature of the job that Mr Fong holds and, with that, the kind of interactions and influence he can have over his classes.

No one has made any accusations and nothing untoward exists about his conduct, it must be emphasised here.

But it is in the perceptions, the fertile imaginations, the what-ifs - all of which colour the discussions.

Let me illustrate with the case of Senator Larry Craig of Idaho in that most often-cited bastion of tolerance and openness, the United States.

He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a Minnesota airport men's room after being arrested for lewd conduct. He then withdrew his confession, strenuously denied he was gay, and said he did nothing inappropriate.

But under pressure from a Republican Party concerned about the damage to its image and that of the legislature he represents, he resigned.

Clearly, over there, the private conduct of a public individual matters.

What about here in Singapore?

Mr Fong recognises and has acknowledged that he is part of a profession and an institution that 'moulds the future generation of Singapore leaders'.

What puzzles me is what he hoped to achieve in making his announcement. Was it to demonstrate that there is no shame in being of a different sexual orientation? Or was it to show that there is no bar on what profession you can be in?

Or that he believes that if senior politicians have become more accommodating with the presence and contributions that gays are making to society, then it is fine to out oneself?

Or maybe, as he appears to indicate, he was prompted by a point made by a young adult at a forum about the lack of guidance he had growing up as a gay teenager.

Was that the trigger? That in outing himself, he would be in a position to be of help to those youths in school who may be uncertain about their orientation at this stage of their lives?

If so, what then would he tell those who seek his advice?

One has to question the ability and the appropriateness of someone who has outed himself being able to provide neutral, unbiased advice - and the wisdom of whichever direction it is that the puzzled student has been pointed towards.

His supporters, admirers and students provide strong backing for his continued value as an educator. Some would argue that he is, after all, the same person he was before.

Perhaps Mr Fong's decision to out himself has a simpler and more fundamental basis. It springs from a natural desire to be part of a society which accepts someone for what he or she is. It was a difficult decision that he made.

But this does not obscure the fact that he is the only full-time teacher, as far as I am aware, who has gone public about his sexual orientation.

Like it or not, fair or unfair, that has now changed the dynamics of how he will be viewed by those with whom he interacts, colleagues and parents included.

Ditto, I think, for others in the profession. Because let's be honest about this: Mr Fong is not the only gay teacher in the system.

His decision may not have the well-meaning effect he intended. He should have thought about how it could affect colleagues elsewhere before making his arbitrary decision.

Many here remember the position espoused by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong in 2003 about the Government employing openly homosexual people, even in sensitive jobs.

But in the light of Mr Fong's disclosure, it falls on his employers and, more broadly, the Education Ministry, to manage what fallout there is to come from the episode, including telling the public its stand on gay teachers in its ranks.

Much as I was initially inclined to suggest to Mr Fong that it was best to have let sleeping dogs lie, his decision is generating pertinent discussion on an issue that the ministry now has little choice but to deal with.