Immigrant realized at 15 he was gay, but didn’t live openly as a gay man until he came to the U.S.
RafiQ Salleh realized at age 15 that he was gay, but he found few role models and little “gay life” in his homeland of Singapore, even though he had an older brother who had already come out. Moving to America gave Salleh a chance to be part of a larger, more open community, and to feel empowered by being more open about his own relationship.
If you ever realized you were gay before coming to America, how old were you?
I was 15. I had an older brother who came out when he was seventeen. My parents were devastated and they sent him to some sort of camp to make him a man.
How did you perceive gay people in Singapore?
What I perceived at a young age was that almost all gay people were in denial. You didn’t really know who was gay, because no one was really open about it. The mentality was, “I’m gay, but I have to marry a woman,” and that to me wasn’t right.
As a teenager, how intense was the pressure to live a “‘straight life’?
I was confused. I joined different groups to fit in. I joined punk groups, hard-core people, and skaters. But eventually after I came out to my brother, he introduced me to some of his friends who were gay. And I finally found people that I could express myself with and not worry.
Did you experiment with men as a teenager in your native country? Did anyone find out?
I was dating a guy when I was 17. We would write letters to each other, and one time, one of my aunts found a letter and read it. She simply told me, “This is really a hard road. Are you sure you want to lead this life?” I said yes. She didn’t tell anyone about it.
What were the primary and secondary reasons for you to come to America?
The primary reason was to be with my partner. He offered that I should come to Dallas with him, but I took the initiative of finding the best way possible to get here.
The second reason was for education. I was recruited through a friend at the Art Institute of Dallas.
A little while later I obtained a student visa, completed my studies and got offered a job with a leading advertising agency in Dallas.
What age were you when you came to America, and what year was it?
I was 23 and it was in 1998.
Describe gay life in Singapore.
At the time when I was there, there were a few gay bars. You could dance in the clubs with people of the same sex, but you could not hold hands, kiss or even hug because sometimes the police would raid gay bars and arrest anyone caught doing those acts. So we depended on women, usually lesbians, to go with us to the bars just in case there were raids.
The lesbians back then were very feminine, but now because of Western influence, they are a little butch. Same thing with men at first they were straight-acting gays, but now some feel more liberated and act more flamboyant.”
Did you ever come out to your parents?
I didn’t want to have a double life anymore. My boyfriend encouraged me to come out. I decided to write a letter to my parents. It didn’t go well with them, but to me it was a huge relief. It brought some shame to the family because now, two of their sons were gay. After four years, my mom approved of us being together.”
How did you perceive the lifestyle in America? How much more similar or different was it from Singapore?
It was drastically different. It was more open here. Here, gay life was divided into individual groups as opposed to the collective group in Singapore. Here, lesbians were one group; bears were another. There were too many groups.
In Singapore all these kinds of people were one group and it was common to see them all together in one place. Although here, I felt empowered holding my partner’s hand walking down Cedar Springs. It took a while for me to get used to showing affection in public because I wasn’t exposed to that in Singapore.
Did you feel threatened in America for being gay?
Not really. When I moved here I had major culture shock. I actually had fear of racial discrimination.
How out are you in America?
Are you involved in the gay culture and community in general here in Dallas?
My partner and I are involved in political events. He even ran for Dallas City Council once. I am an officer for Immigration Equality of Dallas and president of the Alumni Association of the Art Institute of Dallas. I’m also on the advisory board for the ad department at the Art Institute.
Sometimes I hold silent auctions for my artwork, along with other artists’ work, to fundraise for non-profit organizations, I’ve been doing that since 2001. The last organization we raised money for was for Human Rights Initiative.
Did you meet your partner in America?
Actually we found each other in Singapore. I met Cannon when I was 21, and after 6 months we lived together.
Unfortunately in most of the United States, you cannot marry a person of the same sex. What other options would you consider?
To move, basically, any country that allows domestic partnerships. If the U.S. doesn’t recognize our relationship we would also probably move back to Singapore.
Do you regret leaving Singapore?
I don’t think it’s regret. It’s more of a metamorphosis that I had to get used to. I left my baggage over there, but I didn’t leave my heritage and my culture. Yes, I do miss my family but with Internet and phone, the line of communication is still there.
Based on what you’ve seen in the news, have there been any changes in the gay lifestyle in Singapore since you left?
Actually when I went this past June to a wedding with my partner I noticed that (gay) people were moving out of the city because the gay culture is dying there. Slowly people started moving to neighboring countries like Thailand, where there’s more of a gay culture. Most gay clubs and bars in Singapore have been closed. The only outlet is through the Internet.
What do you look forward to?
To balancing my life better because my partner and I both work really hard. I also want to take the time to understand political parties in Singapore and in the U.S.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.