Tag Archives: Southampton

Why We Still Need Gay Pride

Way back in the summer of 1985 I received a death threat. It was a Sunday evening, I was about to enter my final year at university and I happened to be alone in the house I was sharing with three other women.

There were two phone calls. The first time round, the caller was too chicken to speak. Minutes later, the phone rang again. This time we exchanged sentences. The voice on the other end was genderless: I really could not tell if it was a man or a woman.

But I do know the person was on a payphone. In those days British payphones were coin-operated and when you ran out of money, they would beep. I definitely remember the beeps. Our conversation went like this.

Me: ‘Hello.’

Caller: ‘Is this 39?’ (Referring to our house number)

Me: ‘Who’s this?’

Caller: ‘We know your type.’

Me (heart thumping): ‘Who is this? What do you want?’

Caller: ‘We don’t like your type. We’re going to bomb you out.’ Click.

That was the grand finale.

Was I terrified? You bet. There being no cell phones at the time, I dialled the number of every house I could think of in an attempt to locate my housemates. Half an hour later, we held a house meeting. We rallied others. Friends came round and stayed. Many more women of ‘our type’ passed through the doors of that house in solidarity.

The caller(s) never carried out the threat. It didn’t matter, though. Threats like these play on your mind.

While pretty much any of the women in our house could have been described as a ‘deplorable’ (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase), I have little doubt that the caller was targeting me. I was out of the closet even then; in fact, the previous academic year, I had served as Southampton University‘s Lesbian & Gay Officer. The threat was made because we were a household of women, one of whom – me – had dared to declare my sexual orientation in an age when most people turned pink at the mention of lesbians.

For weeks afterwards, I was wary whenever I went running. Not many people were road running in Britain then, either, which made me a well-known sight. I was living in leafy Southampton and whenever I pounded the pavements, I imagined someone jumping out from behind a tree along The Avenue and throwing a grenade in my face. I thought about all this, but I never allowed fear to stop me. If you let terrorists stop you, they win. And I was not prepared to let them win.

Last year someone said to me that sexual orientation should not be a matter of ‘pride’: it should simply be. In an ideal world that’s true. Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world. We didn’t live in one in the mid-1980s and we still don’t live in one today.

What’s been happening in Britain lately?

Two lesbians in London were brutally beaten on a bus after they refused to kiss for a gang of men. A homophobic attack, obviously, but there’s another side to this assault. For bizarre reasons, many heterosexual men get off on the idea of two women together. If you’re a man, next time you watch porn involving two women, please think about the ramifications of your consumption.

The other awful sight has been of Muslims harassing children and teachers outside a school in Birmingham. On the one hand the protesters declare that they’re not homophobic, on the other hand they don’t want their kids learning that there are – surprise surprise – children in this world who grow up with two mummies and two daddies.

There are several troubling aspects here. First, the matter should not even be up for discussion. To paraphrase Labour MP Jess Phillips, ‘You can’t cherry-pick your equality.’ Secondly, a deliberately intimidating atmosphere has been created outside a school in the guise of ‘protest’. Thirdly, the protesters don’t even have children at the school. Fourthly, the protesters freely admit they haven’t read the textbook they’re objecting to. Add a final troubling factor – how they’re being supported by some woolly-headed liberals – and you’ll understand why I chose to attend London’s Gay Pride this year.

Two Muslim Guys I Bumped Into

I’m so glad I did. The march was the biggest we’ve ever seen. There was, as always, a fantastic atmosphere. It lifted my spirits. And it helped me appreciate why Gay Pride is still needed.

For as long as our sexual orientation is an issue for someone else, Gay Pride is needed.

For as long as there are people too afraid to come out or too embarrassed to say the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, Gay Pride is needed.

For as long as we’re beaten up and called names, Gay Pride is needed.

And it is especially needed for the sake of the children whose parents would rather we kept silent.

On Gay Pride Day we are obviously visible, we’re loud and we celebrate. People can see that we’re ordinary folk from all walks of life. (If you doubt me, click on this link for an array of dazzling Instagram pictures.) It’s sad that we still need to reinforce the message in 2019, but we do.

I went to Pride on 6 July, 2019, to stand up and be counted. For the first time in years I felt it was important to proclaim loudly and clearly: I’m gay. I’m here. I am. Amen.

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Filed under Identity, Politics

My First Book Reading

It is a wonderful time to be in the New Forest (the brown blob at the bottom of the map). The New Forest lies in Hampshire, and is now one of England’s national parks. In early October the trees are still green, but the oranges and gold of autumn have crept in.

Ponies meander in open fields; along the streets of Beaulieu village, famous for its National Motor Museum, wild donkeys poke their curious nozzles into the doorways of shops.

It was in this pastoral setting that I gave a book reading on the evening of October 3. I had been invited by Monty’s Book Club, whose members meet once a month in the Montagu Arms, a pub and hotel located in the heart of Beaulieu. The club reads the whole range of literary fiction, from contemporary works through to classics. This book club has existed for three years and is thriving; it even has a waiting list. Membership is restricted to ten at any time, because the club borrows books from the local library and ten was felt to be a manageable number. A member told me the size is just right, as it allows for varied discussion without being intimidating.

I was only the second writer to read to Monty’s, the first being Natasha Solomons. To publicise her debut novel Mr Rosenblum’s List, Ms. Solomons went on a quest to visit as many British book clubs as she could. She duly arrived in Beaulieu. There, she paved the way for others, because her reading was such a success that Monty’s members welcomed me too.

My own invitation came about through personal links. During the six years I spent at SouthamptonUniversity as a theoretical physicist, I often sought refuge in the New Forest. I loved its peace, its trees and the colour of its skies. I still visit, to see a long-standing friend whenever I can. On one such visit in the summer, I heard about Monty’s Book Club, and wondered aloud whether the club would be interested in a reading of my novel.

The club said yes. Like Ms. Solomons’ reading, mine was also to be a special event, held not in the Montagu Arms but in a member’s house. I arrived with some trepidation. I had never given a book reading before and didn’t know what to expect. I knew the atmosphere would be genteel and its members polite, but I didn’t want people to say nice things just because they felt obliged to. If anyone became bored during the half hour or so while I read, it would have been obvious to me – and the rest of the audience.

So I practised, many times. I recorded my voice on a sleek, silver Olympus recording machine my partner had given me as a present. It’s a fabulous gadget: pocket-sized yet powerful. On it, you can hear everything, even the rustle of paper. I listened to my enunciation, making sure there was enough nuance in my voice to keep everyone’s attention. I learnt to pull my stomach muscles in when my voice fell, so that I could better project sound across a room. I imagine that this is what singers have to do.

I read from a Kindle reader with a special leather cover that has its own discreet lamp at the top. The light flicks in and out; it can be fully tucked in unless needed, a highly ergonomic design. Much as I love holding a physical book, I also love my Kindle and its cover. Its leather feels wonderful in my hands, and the fact that its light shines directly onto the page is a huge bonus. The Kindle proved incredibly useful during my reading. 

In the end, I read two sections, one short, the second longer. The first was the ancestral story of the Nyonyas, the people from whom my main protagonist, Chye Hoon, is descended. I looked at my audience as I read, watching for any sign of a yawn or of eyes glazing over. None came. I could see that the members of Monty’s Book Club were imagining the scene in their own minds, seeing the character in my story who is herself telling a story.

When I began the second, longer section, the eyes of my audience were still on me. The scene takes place on the island of Penang, which a few in the room had been to. But my Penang is the Penang of 1898, and I invoke a place covered in virgin jungle, where elephants are still a form of transport. In this scene, Chye Hoon is about to get married. It is a huge celebration, because Chye Hoon is an independent-minded girl with a fearsome temper and no one believes she will ever find a suitor. But get married she does, in the colourful Nyonya-Baba tradition of the day which left my modern British audience wide-eyed.

Afterwards, the members of Monty’s asked many questions. We talked about the Nyonyas and Babas, whom none had heard of previously. We talked also of Malaysia, the real Malaysia, not the one touted on Tourism Malaysia billboards. I was impressed that this group – educated women, some with careers, many who stayed at home, some now pursuing post-graduate studies, and all juggling a host of family commitments – remained late into the night to engage in a culture they had never heard of, in a country some had yet to visit. I took it as a good sign that there would be interest from a Western audience in my multi-cultural novel. Its themes are topical today: the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition, and the invisible cost of the cultural assimilation which some of us must face.

In my novel, the characters speak like real-life Malaysians. I mentioned this in a previous blog-post What Does it Cost to Write a Novel?, in which I had said I was unsure about this point of style. A member of Monty’s, a speech therapist, said she loved my dialogue. She especially liked the way I had changed the order of words. She put it very aptly: “Language isn’t just about communication; it also conveys a sense of place.” In a number of novels she had read, the characters had spoken in ordinary English even though the stories were set in foreign lands, and she had felt this sense of place to be missing. Others in the group agreed. I breathed a sigh of relief, because my audience had validated an intuition which I, as a Malaysian writer, have long had.

My grateful thanks to Monty’s Book Club; they made the evening what it was, and also helped clarify an ambiguity in my own mind. A few members asked when my novel would be published. Some worried it might not. But it will – because I write to be read, not so that my script remains as bits on a motherboard. When and in what form my novel will be published, I cannot say. But I will work to get it there, even if it means having to start a publishing company.

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Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya