To LGBTQ+ people in Malaysia (and honestly, Southeast Asia as a whole), “coming out” is a foreign phenomenon. Literally. In more accepting countries, predominantly in the West, coming out is a celebration of one’s identity. Here, such a celebration could cost someone everything: career opportunities, social standing, and even a life. In a country where only recently women were caned for lesbian sex, a gay press officer was outed and harassed online, and the bodies of transgender women are found daily, violence against the “other” is so normalized that it can be easy for these “others” themselves to forget how to be anything but violent towards themselves. How can we celebrate our identity if everything around us serves as a reminder that we are not welcome here, the place we call home? How can we feel secure in our own skin in a state which does not recognize it and by extension, us, as legitimate?
In the early days of my adolescence, I remember that there are two things I told myself most. The first: “It could be worse.” And it could. I spoke openly about my experiences with lesbianism around close friends, but I wasn’t visibly queer. This didn’t mean I didn’t have friends who empathized. I’ll admit that I’m lucky enough to grow up a digital native, where the community is only ever a few clicks–and several bad experiences–away.
The first fellow LGBTQ+ people I found, I found online, in forums and tweet threads, Tumblr reblogs, and recycled textposts on Instagram. I had unfettered access to the web, and my parents trusted me enough to be discerning about the kind of media I consumed, so I never monitored it. (If they’d just looked a little closer, they might have suspected, but even if they had, I was good at choosing films which didn’t exactly leap out of the screen screaming Gay, Gay, Gay.) I was lonely. Sure, I was miserable. I didn’t know anybody in real life who really understood me.
Whenever we played Truth or Dare in school, I always tried to sit out. “Who was your first kiss? Which boy do you find most attractive in this room?” I wanted to tell them I’d never had my first kiss, that I probably never would till I was in college, overseas and far away enough that the residual religious-cultural-filial guilt couldn’t chase me. I wanted to tell them I couldn’t find boys attractive at all; I’d tried my whole life, I really had. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t. It could be worse. I was alive, wasn’t I? I was alright. Mostly.
The other thing I told myself was something I still tell myself, every day. “It will get better.” Just a few more years, I’d think. A few more years of hiding and swallowing my anger and not looking at my parents in the eye when they asked me about school or friends or when they said, “you’ll be a mother someday, too.” A few more years of school, and then I would be on a plane to someplace else, someplace safe. “Safe” was the keyword here. When you grow up as an “other,” you learn to lean on yourself for comfort. You learn self-sufficiency, often to a fault. You learn to whittle your closet down into a makeshift shelter, take comfort in its four walls. You learn to savor moments of joy like rare fruit: sweet, sure, but hardly ever in season.
I used to think it was either-or. Safety, or visibility. Responsibility or recognition. If I played my part just right, I was sure it would pay off. Just a few more years, and then the door would swing open on its own. I convinced myself that shutting myself away was only a temporary trade-off for a future where I could be whatever I wanted to be with whoever I wanted to be with. It will get better. Like a mantra, over and over, every night, for nights on end. It will get better. It will get better.
If that was all I had, the vague promise of future safety, I’m pretty sure I still would have made it this far. As I said, a lot of us grow up leaning on ourselves for comfort. We don’t need anything else, not strictly. But I did have something else, something which brought me even more comfort than my own meager ambitions and consolations. I had friends. I had a family, not of the flesh, but shared experience.
Because the thing is that once you’re used to living in a closet, you start recognizing other people who are, too. LGBTQ+ people are good at finding each other, for very much the same reasons I imagine animals flock: because there is safety, however transient, in numbers. (Not too many, though, or the police will come calling and look, there goes another gay bar. Another haven for us “others” disappearing into the mouth of an institution which does not see us as human.) Speaking from experience, we also have an alarmingly high rate of natural propinquity, which is to say we often come together even before we understand how or why. About half of the friends I have now who identify as part of the community, I knew from well before we respectively realized who we were. It used to be that I was the only openly gay person in most of my friend groups. Now, I’ve had to stop joking that X friend is the token cishet because almost everybody I’ve made that quip about has come out months later!
Dear closeted comrades: over this quarantine, I hope you’re safe. Living inside your own head can be an intensely solitary experience, and my heart goes out to every queer person who does not have somebody to turn to at this already deeply isolating time. Know this–there are more people like you than you think, and we will always find each other.
There’s a Malay proverb well-loved by students of all ages here, because of how easy it is to memorize for essays: “Berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing.” In essence, it says that all burdens are easier to bear when they are shared. The road ahead may be bleak, and the end might not be what we were promised when we first set out, but I’d like your company all the same till we get there.