Sex and the Circuit Broken City

By Ng Yi-Sheng

In his final piece for GRC, Ng Yi-Sheng talks Covid and community. Writing from the midst of the circuit breaker, he examines the unraveling of this pandemic, and how it has seen once-familar social institutions shatterin particular, those of the queer community, and the impact of isolation and distancing on a “culture of desire”. In a strange circling back to digital queer communities of the 90s, Yi-Sheng offers suggestions of cultured company, vigorous self-care, solidarity, and hope, in spaces of community online.

Facebook post by Malaysian gay artist and activist Pang Khee Teik, 21 March 2020. Image courtesy of the author.

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Originally, I’d wanted to devote this last of my essays to a rereading of American sci-fi author Samuel Delany’s 1999 landmark nonfiction work Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It consists of two essays: one a memoir of his sexual and amicable relationships with men in the old porn cinemas of New York’s Times Square (once as famous for peepshows as for musical theatre); the second a proposal for a system of urban organisation (very influenced by Jane Jacobs’ theories) that fully accommodates each person’s desire for casual carnal intimacy—where any people of any gender can lock eyes in the street and agree to safely and immediately bang. Not the squeaky clean gentrified city of post-Rudy Giuliani midtown Manhattan or post-LKY Singapore, but a cosmopolis replete with manifold opportunities for sexual fulfilment.

I’d wanted to map these ideas onto Singapore, exploring the different ways in which LGBT+ folks have carved out spaces for sexuality and gender expression over the decades—red light districts like Bugis Street, Desker Road, and Changi Village; nightlife centres like Tanjong Pagar; cruising spots like Ann Siang Hill and Tanjong Rhu, and the various shopping malls and libraries of the nation. I’d wanted to explore the vital role that the Internet has played since the 90s as a safe haven for queer folks to come out, moving from closed email groups like SiGneL to dating and news sites like Fridae to the massive online & offline campaigns of Repeal 377A and Pink Dot. How there’s a whole history of these secret, private spaces creating communities and confidence, leading to a reclamation of public space and visibility. How our own public square was never the Padang, but Hong Lim Park—once a cruising ground, now the site for corporate-sponsored, media-saturated rallies.

I would’ve put in a few words about cisgender straight culture too—the paradoxical status of sex work, officially decriminalised but still subject to vice raids; the difficulty that virtually all unmarried couples face in finding a place to have sex (the surprisingly clean Hotel 81 and Fragrance chains, and if needs must, the staircase); the way it’s been strangely forgotten that mainstream hookup apps like Tinder specifically evolved from gay apps like Grindr and Scruff—tools which, as Delany envisioned, have the potential for rendering the entire city into a sexual playground, as long as you’ve got the right profile pic.

But alas, all that’s gone out of the window. Covid-19 is upon us, raging faster and more furiously than any of us expected—my initial post about its effects on public living now feels like an artefact of ancient history, a time capsule reminding us of an epoch when the disease could be racially typecast, when we could justifiably dismiss some precautions as paranoia.

Facebook post by Bangkok-based Singaporean gay cartoonist Otto Fong, 23 March 2020. Image courtesy of the author.

I’m writing this on Day 2 of the month-long Circuit Breaker, Singapore’s own brand of lockdown lite. Our familiar communal institutions have been shuttered—schools, office blocks, houses of worship and shopping malls—with only hawker centres, supermarkets, and wet markets left open to supply material sustenance. It remains legal to venture into most public spaces, such as parks, pedestrian streets, and void decks, but strictly only for exercise, not socialisation. All gatherings of persons of different households­, public and private, are now forbidden.

As a gay literary artist, I’ve been watching the pandemic unfold from a pretty specific perspective. Early on, I learned that two friends (one of them a former lover) were HIV-positive, when they used Facebook to highlight the threat the virus poses to the immunosuppressed. Other friends overseas revealed that they could not return to Singapore as the government urged—they may be safe, but there is no legal provision to protect their same-sex spouses.

Then there were the government’s much-lauded successes with contact tracing. This got some of us worried. Would the surveillance state end up exposing clandestine gay liaisons? If they were infected, would the official press release misgender them? And most worryingly, would a cluster be announced in a queer or arts-related field—the Epiphyte Cluster, the W!ld Rice Cluster, the BooksActually Cluster—thus provoking a backlash against us?

As it turned out, religious congregations and SAFRA Chinese New Year parties were more dangerous viral breeding grounds than anything we could create. Who knew? Alas, up in Malaysia they’re still trying to scapegoat LGBT+ folks. And even this moment of national crisis couldn’t stop the High Court from reaffirming Section 377A.

YouTube comment on “Same Love: Openly Gay Malay Couple Accepted By Their Family I Ep 1” by Dear Straight People, March 2020.

But as the countries around us went into lockdown mode, it became clear to me that something more crucial than that was at stake. Gay activist friends admitted how sexual deprivation was driving them crazy; my colleagues at the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus even proposed a campaign for queer folks to share how they were coping amidst the restrictions.

You see, for some of us, the crisis represents a genuinely existential attack on our identities. How can we be proudly homosexual, bisexual or pansexual, if we can’t even have sex?

Ah, but you counter, many straight couples are also unable to have sex right now. To which I answer: heterosexuals haven’t had to struggle to claim their identity in a bigoted society, since it’s assumed as the default. Ours is a “culture of desire”, as author Frank Browning once described it. Without sex, the traumatic process of coming out appears to have been for nothing.

Furthermore, there are indeed accommodations for unmarried opposite-sex lovebirds to cohabit: public interest lawyer Choo Zheng Xi has clarified with the Ministry of Health that a fiancé(e) may legally move in with their partner during this period. Same-sex couples who live together are in the clear, but they represent a vanishingly small percentage of our queer population. Most of us have to share our homes with the rest of our families, enduring their rather more conservative opinions 24/7.

So, how can we survive, even thrive during this Circuit Breaker period? I’ve a few suggestions, but basically, they boil down to this. Let’s not focus on our identities as a single letter of the LGBT+ spectrum. Let’s focus on being queer.

Facebook post of Singaporean artist Loo Zihan practicing flagging, a form of dance popularised during Pride parades, during his SHN quarantine. He was participating in a virtual flagging studio hosted in San Francisco on Zoom, 3 April 2020.

To identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual means placing a heavy emphasis on who we date and make love with. To be queer is to count one’s membership among a greater community that is diverse in its sexual practices and preferences (these days the umbrella even includes asexuals and aromantics, and it’s always included room for straight allies), but which has many elements of shared culture—and which has historically banded together to resist bigotry. And fortunately, one can participate in that community from the safety of one’s quarantined home.

One may, for instance, participate in high culture, reading the queer classics—I’ve written up a bibliography of queer Singaporean literature; also check out Eric Cervini’s ongoing queer book club, Quarantini—or simply developing one’s campy aesthetics by grooving to antique films, songs, and musical theatre. One may participate in popular culture, watching Netflix’s Tales of the City, Queer Eye, and RuPaul’s Drag Race; you’ll even find a whole site devoted to queer Asian TV and cinema at Gagaoolala. One may also seek to educate oneself about queer heritage and politics—there’s an abundance of queer podcasters, vloggers, and other online intellectuals out there, willing to fill under-explored gaps of knowledge—queer men, try and learn more about queer women’s perspectives; cis folks, try to learn more about trans issues.

But what if you’re not inclined towards the arts and media at all? Perhaps devote yourself to the simple aesthetic delight of embellishing the beauty of one’s body—as Oscar Wilde once said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Buy protein powder online and step up your home fitness routine (thank heavens we’re still allowed to exercise outdoors); learn how to step up your makeup game—choose either or both and flaunt the results on Instagram. This applies to people of all genders—a queer identity means you don’t have to conform to the expectations of butch, femme, and andro that a more specific identity might demand.

But what if you’re just plain horny? Then (and this may be controversial) I give thee the licence to go forth and consume porn. This is a time for self-care, not shame—and anyway, sex with yourself is both extremely safe and, by definition, homosexual. If you don’t like the videos you’re finding online, read erotic stories instead; if you can’t find any erotic stories you like, then write your own and publish them—you’ll find fertile grounds for this on fan fic sites.

And if you feel powerless… well, as I noted, a collective queer identity emerged because of united resistance. So try and find your way into activism, whether it’s through dialogue with the IndigNation social media account, prepping for Pink Dot (it hasn’t been cancelled; they’ve got plans for a livestream and stay-at-home light-up on 27 June), or else the wide world of non-queer issues. I’m proud to say that queer friends like Jolovan Wham and Kokila Annamalai and have been playing key parts in the struggle for migrant workers’ rights, before and after Covid-19 attracted the media to the cause.

I’m aware that this advice is of limited relevance—I’m writing from a very privileged gay cis male POV, and I don’t know how to help closeted kids who don’t have private access to the Internet, essential workers who don’t have time to devote to their own welfare, sex workers made penniless by the pandemic while the Straits Times applauds their loss.

But in this age of social distancing and sexlessness, I just want to celebrate the fact that it is still possible to build community. Our public squares have retreated online—rather like what happened in the 90s, when members of Singapore’s first queer organisation, People Like Us, realised that plainclothes police had infiltrated their meetings at The Substation. They regrouped and started afresh in a dial-up virtual world.

How will this end? When will this end? In what way will it shape the way we love and fight and create art and demand a better system? I don’t know, and at this stage when record-breaking numbers of infections are being announced each night, I can no longer say with confidence that we’ll all get through this.

I only know that everything will change. So this essay is going to serve as a little time capsule for our anxieties and hopes and dreams in the Year of the Coronavirus. When the very idea of assembling, of touching, of making love was dangerously taboo. When we knew that we were together nonetheless.

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Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York and London: New York University Press, 1999.
Frank Browning, The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today. New York: Crown Publishers, 1993.