An Ode to the Queer, Very Queer, and Not-So-Queer Films That Have Shaped Young LGBTQ+ Singaporeans
Films are one of life’s simplest pleasures. We obviously choose to spend our time watching them for a plethora of reasons—inspiration, escapism, and at the very least, entertainment. But even the most straightforward of narratives come with all the memories and emotions we’ve come to associate with them seeping between the lines.
Films are also more importantly an urgent vessel for social discourse and cultural translation, an instrument in understanding the complexities of art, sex, society, and everything in between.
Being queer in Singapore is tricky. The state toes the line of neither supporting nor fully condemning the queer community (for the purpose of this feature, queer and LGBTQ+ will be used interchangeably), providing no sex education to encourage such exploration in public schools. Public opinion over same-sex relationships is also deeply divided here, where gay sex is still technically illegal under a colonial-era law and government policies promote the formation of heterosexual nuclear families.
So for many young queer Singaporeans who, like most of us, have grown up glued to all sorts of screens, seeing aspects themselves depicted on the big screen can be a mixture of extreme emotions. Exhilaration, confusion, catharsis are words that were tossed around when talking about witnessing their unfamiliar desires portrayed in popular media before they could even find a word to describe them.
As the rainbow makes it last rounds this June, I made an attempt at deciphering the intersection of queer identity and film. Speaking to an array of young, queer Singaporeans from across the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality, I try to shift the focus and take them back to that “Eureka!” moment—when everything finally fell into place in their heads (or maybe just ignited a fire); when these films stood out like a neon light in a dark alleyway. And in return, they’ve offered me, and by extension all of you, what feels like intimate glimpses into the back pages of their diaries—doodles, magazine clippings, frantic scribblings and all.
From arthouse to teen comedy, these young queer folks have, in their own unique way, found a means to affirm their multifaceted identities, no matter how small the impact. Because navigating the labyrinth of queer sexuality and gender, just like the distinct narratives of the following films, has never, and will never be straightforward.
The rainbow is a prism, after all.
Sinema: Hi Gerald! What do you identify as?
Gerald: Gay male, he/him.
Off the top of your head, is there a particular film that has resonated with you or helped you in shaping your sexuality as a gay man?
Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. It’s at heart a playful, irreverent comedy-drama, but it’s also incredibly nuanced. I feel like Ang Lee’s approach in straddling both Western and Eastern values in terms of coming to terms with being gay reflects Singapore’s LGBTQ+ advocacy, especially since we’re frequently the rope in a tug-of-war between “Western liberalism” and “Eastern conservativeness”. But The Wedding Banquet deconstructs that dichotomy and forces a view of Asian sexuality so matter-of-fact that it’s hilarious.
Protagonist Wai-Tung’s blunders in being queer, his insecurities and his secrecy, [are not] foreign to us, nor [are] his parents’ desperate attempts at matchmaking him. I won’t spoil the film, but in the end, there’s this gorgeous scene where Wai-Tung’s parents silently accept his sexuality. Coming out in Asia isn’t this dramatic affair where everyone ends up weeping and hugging, it’s more often than not punctuated with long silences. It’s a film about serious issues that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Could you take me through how you felt when you first watched it?
I watched The Wedding Banquet almost five years ago, not long after watching Brokeback Mountain—which didn’t really have any impact on me except making me fall in love with Jake Gyllenhaal permanently. I mean, how much can young Singaporeans relate to two country white guys in rural America? I appreciated The Wedding Banquet because it was hilarious. A friend of mine couldn’t take how serious and depressing queer cinema can be, and reality as a queer person isn’t always doom-and-gloom. There are funny faux-pas, awkward moments, and misunderstandings that are bound to happen as you’re slowly coming to feel more comfortable in your own skin.
How do you think film, especially queer films, are able to affect societal mindset change or impact young queer people, especially in Singapore?
Queer films are depictions of queer community both for the general public and the queer community itself. They serve an almost ethnographical purpose. They’re are also a cathartic outlet, because the queer community needs this art as a pressure valve. It’s the reason why Xavier Dolan’s films get standing ovations at Cannes—films are canvases for the gamut of complicated queer emotions.
What, to you, constitutes a “queer film”?
Anything that resonates with a queer person. It doesn’t take two lesbians or gays to get hot and heavy for it to be a queer film. I think Glen Goei’s Forever Fever is a queer film, for example, because of the camp sensibilities that informed it. It’s fun, irreverent, and about disco. I’ve had a friend told me how they think that Transformers is a queer film, and it wasn’t even a play on “trans”. They just think that how over-the-top it is makes it queer.
“A friend of mine couldn’t take how serious and depressing queer cinema can be, and reality as a queer person isn’t always doom-and-gloom. There are funny faux-pas, awkward moments, and misunderstandings that are bound to happen as you’re slowly coming to feel more comfortable in your own skin.”
In that realm, Western films often dominate Singapore cinema—do you think local audiences tend to gravitate towards Western queer films?
Yes, they do. But it’s not the audience’s fault. Western films tend to be able to articulate their queerness more directly because they have a long history of queer activism and struggle. There’s this clear “battle” fought, whereas in Asia queer “activism” is a recent phenomenon. I won’t go into it, but a quick Google search will yield articles about how queerness was accepted in Asia until colonialism came and Victorian morality was imposed unto us.
I’m thinking that’s the subconscious reason behind why Asian queer cinema tends to be more “arthouse”. Think Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-Liang, whose slow cinema films tend to eschew chronological coherence. They are difficult to watch, because it’s difficult to convey such complicated, repressed feelings of queerness on screen…There are many Western queer films which are easier to digest, like Call Me By Your Name or Blue Is The Warmest Colour.
Distribution of Asian queer films is also a huge issue. Lucky Kuswandi’s excellent short, The Fox Exploits The Tiger’s Might, won at Citra, Singapore International Film Festival, and was even an official selection at Cannes, but it’s virtually impossible to find it screened anywhere today. On the other hand, censorship is still an issue, both from authorities and a conservative audience’s backlash. Garin Nugroho’s Memories of my Body was only screened in cinemas for a paltry few weeks in select cinemas in “liberal” parts of Jakarta. Even then audiences were laughing and jeering in the cinema at the homoerotic scenes.
The cinematic landscape of Asian queer cinema is changing. Dear Ex on Netflix must be commended for bringing Asian queer cinema down from its lofty, obscure pedestal, even though I am personally not a fan. But even then, the sparse landscape of Asian queer cinema is still dominated by East Asian narratives. The last mainstream, non-derogatory depiction of queerness in Southeast Asian cinema was Nia Dinata’s Arisan. I’m hoping that will change soon.
Angela, 20 years old, Art Student
Hi Angela, what do you identify as?
Angela: I identify as a gay woman, not so proud… maybe a shy gay woman.
What’s a piece of film that helped you come into your sexuality as a gay woman?
High School Musical, probably. I think I was 8, or 7 years old. It was my first introduction to musical theatre, and we all know that’s a very gay-dominant industry. I just remember feeling very empowered. I didn’t really form crushes on girls in movies, and neither was I aware of queer films even existing, so I just of kind of used leading men as the ideal.
So you saw Troy Bolton as your ideal self?
Yeah! He’s musical, sporty, and gets all the girls. When I was a kid, I identified more with the other little boys, I felt very boyish because of the gender roles we were taught. My activities were very sports-focused, and I rejected all sorts of girly things that my mom projected onto me. Wearing dresses, all that—I rejected that very early on in my life. So when I looked at these leading men, I thought to myself: “That’s the kind of boy I want to be, that’s the kind of man I want to be.”
Did identifying with a male character make things more confusing for you regarding your gender?
It was never about gender; no one stopped me from showing my masculine side, from being a sporty little girl. When you’re a girl, you just get labeled as a tomboy. Even now, no ones giving me shit for it. The only part that complicated things for me was the whole liking girls aspect; I didn’t know the negative connotations it had along with it. I didn’t know it was viewed as bad. I wasn’t even familiar with the concept of homosexuality, I just knew I liked girls, that’s all. I was brought up religiously, I grew up in a Catholic family where we did not talk about our feelings much. I never had proper sex education, I was never told that people could like people from the same sex. As I grew up, I slowly found out that being gay was not really socially acceptable and that I had to tone it down. I don’t think I necessarily got more gay as time went on, just that I knew when it was okay to show it…. like not in front of my family.
Do you often seek out queer films in theatres?
No, I actually do not. There’s always unnecessary sex scenes, or they’re super complicated. When movies are marketed as “coming out” films, it’s a turn off for me. I’ve already dealt with that part of my life, I already know I’m gay— let me watch something that celebrates it rather than something that’s still about figuring it out. They’re all so dramatic! I don’t want to watch that kind of pain, I already feel that every day of my life.
Moose, 24 years old.Moose is using a pseudonym to protect their identity.
Hi Moose, please introduce yourself!
Moose: I’m a non-binary, asexual and demisexual. I go by she/they, but I’m more comfortable with being referred to as they/them.
What’s the film that has helped you come into your sexuality?
Mean Girls was the first film that pretty much introduced me to the world of LGBTQ+. I was 10 years old when I first watched it. At first, I was instantly drawn to the lead character Cady Haron because she was an outcast. Then the moment I saw Janis Ian, I knew that I could relate to her more than any other character. She was so unapologetically masculine and bold; I didn’t know if I wanted to be her or be with someone like her. Everything finally clicked and fell into place for me when she acknowledged the lesbian rumour about her in the movie. But instead of flat out dismissing it, she didn’t treat being lesbian like a dirty word. That was when I started to learn more about the [LGBTQ+] community.
Did the environment you grew up in play a part in aiding or hindering your sexual and gender exploration?
Growing up in a religious household, it was really hard for me to come to terms with my gender and sexuality. Hateful comments and threats about going to hell or being disowned were often thrown around if I were to ever come out to them as queer. I first knew I wasn’t like the other people of my birth sex when I was about 3 years old, during my first week of nursery school. I wanted to dress like the opposite male sex and would feel so different and outcasted when I was told that I should dress like the other girls. In terms of my sexuality, it took a longer time for me to accept that aspect of myself. I was 17 years old when I first told someone that I might not be straight—and it was terrifying.
“[Janis Ian from Mean Girls] was so unapologetically masculine and bold; I didn’t know if I wanted to be her or be with someone like her.”
How does your gender and sexuality influence the kind of art you make?
My sexuality definitely influences the art I produce. Most, if not all, of the art I’ve produced have some sort of LGBTQ+ theme running through them. I often make sure that I focus more on representation rather than popularity. Most of the characters I paint in portraits are either part of the queer community or a strong ally to them.
It was only when I found a community online through our shared interests in film and television, was I able to learn more about myself. Creating my own “found family”, I realised that [my sexuality and gender] wasn’t something to be ashamed of or something that could be changed. Now I even have teenagers coming to me and opening up about their gender and sexual exploration because they trust me.
Akansha, 22 years old, Student
Hi Akansha! Tell us about your identity.
Akansha: I identify as non-binary/genderqueer or genderfluid queer. My pronouns are he/they/she.
Tell us about a particular film that has helped you in coming into your sexuality!
I watched a movie recently called Tomboy about a trans kid. It just made me think about my experiences I had to navigate through as a child and the experiences that I have now as well. It made me realise that even as kids, people like me have been aware that something is not quite right with us, without having “taught” to be trans or gender non-conforming. There are a lot of films about sexuality but not so much about gender identity and the dysphoria and social issues that come with it—walking on eggshells to protect our own safety, yet wanting to be validated and accepted as how we want to be seen.
Could you take me through how you felt when you first watched it?
I watched it when I was feeling extremely dysphoric and really needed to see some representation, or at least watch something that paralleled what I felt. I think I was 20 years old, which is quite recent. It made me realise that even though I was getting increasingly assured of my identity, it was still a constant struggle for me. Even after knowing who you are, dysphoria can come kick you in your gut out of nowhere, anyway.
How do your gender and sexuality inform and influence the art you produce?
The art I produce that expresses my identity is through spoken word and also my work is through the events that I help organising, such as Singapore’s first Queer Zine Fest. Through spoken word, I am performing my thoughts. Most of my works have political undertones—be it about the intesectionality of being brown and Desi, my gender being non-binary, my sexuality being queer, and the general calling out of problematic behaviour and highlighting struggles of other minority groups. There is just so much to say, there’s so much we could work on and educate others on.
Recently I tried to do something new that I’ve never done before. It was to do a spoken word in mostly Hindi, referencing Bollywood and Desi culture but at the same time also calling out how problematic the culture can be. Talking about representation, I’ve realised I’ve never had much queer desi representation. Pushing myself to do so was extremely cathartic knowing this intersectionality was explored and expressed. I did it to show everyone around me that people like me exist and we are here. Claiming my identity felt powerful.
Evelyn, 20 years old, currently juggling an internship with a part-time job
Hey Evelyn. Tell us a bit about yourself!
Evelyn: I identify as she/her, queer/lesbian—doesn’t matter!
Is there a particular film that has helped you in coming into your sexuality as a lesbian?
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan—full disclosure, I have never bothered to watch the entire movie. Just the female sex scene, which was super iconic but also very male-gazey, come to think of it.
As cliché as it sounds, watching it made me aware of my own queerness for the very first time. Thinking back, I’ve had crushes on girls and had conversations with friends where I’ve said I couldn’t imagine myself marrying a man, but I’ve never actively connected the dots until Black Swan. It was quite confronting. Both figuratively, but also literally [as] you see a woman going down on another.
Could you describe the circumstance and emotions you felt when you first watched it?
I was 13 years old. Fascination, curiosity, and desire were some of the first words that came to mind. It was very much your typical ‘teenage sexual awakening’ kind of situation. Before, I was rather ignorant about LGBTQ+ people and issues. I remember an acquaintance uttering the word “lesbian” to insinuate something about another person and my gut reaction was to look away in shame. It was their tone that taught me, subconsciously, that being “lesbian” (or just LGBTQ+ in general) made one somewhat of a social pariah.
It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation, really. Was Black Swan the catalyst in helping me begin my journey in researching and educating myself about LGBTQ+ issues and broadly acknowledging that part of my identity, or was I drawn to it because my subconscious knew something that wasn’t apparent to my conscious self at that time? All I can say for sure is that it was a vital stepping stone in my path of self-discovery and acceptance.
Now as a 20-year-old who’s clearly comfortable in her own sexuality, does your sexual identity inform the work you produce?
It has guided me to create art that give voice to LGBTQ+ stories and uplifts other underrepresented communities. I have ideas that are broadly related to queer experiences I want to bring to life. Lately, I’ve been interested in learning how to organise in the context of activism, or however activism looks like in Singapore’s context.
Lastly, why do you think it’s important for queer stories to be told on film?
It goes a long way in humanising queer individuals and their narratives. You can’t ban all nuanced queer stories on the big screen, especially in mainstream theatres, and expect our society to have informed conversations about LGBTQ+ issues.
I guess I just want to see complex queer characters. Caricatures like the over-the-top effeminate men—which are so overused in Singapore’s mainstream media—just ain’t gonna cut it.
Do better, Singapore.
Picture credits: The respective partcipants, and edits by Angela Mae Macasinag
Glossary of terms used in this article
Non-binary/gender queer : Any gender identity that is not exclusively masculine or feminine. Those with non-binary genders can feel that they may also identify as transgender and/or transsexual.
Genderfluid: A person who is genderfluid prefers to remain flexible about their gender identity rather than committing to a single gender. They may fluctuate between genders or express multiple genders at the same time.
Asexual: An asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction to others, or low or absent interest in or desire for sexual activity. It is considered a sexual orientation or the lack thereof.
Demisexual: A demisexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction to another unless or until they have formed an emotional connection with that person. It’s more commonly seen in, but by no means confined, to romantic relationships. The term demisexual comes from the orientation being “halfway between” sexual and asexual.