Nathan: Welcome to this week’s Story Update. Today we’re going to talk to Nicholas Deroose, who now lives in Singapore. We filmed his story, 11 years ago this month. But before we talk to Nick, let’s take a look at his story.
Nicholas: So my name is Nicholas and I’m from Singapore. My story is sort of how I came out in the military. And when I mean the military, it is the military in Singapore where I was born.
So when every sort of male hits the age of 18, you usually have to enlist in the military for national service. What happens, when it comes to being gay in the military is sort of… sort of not like America where they have “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell”. In Singapore, they will ask you. Again, they have this list they run true. Do you have any history of lung diseases? Do you have heart diseases, blah, blah, blah. So on and so forth. And then they ask you, do you have any mental disorders, i.e., homosexuality. So that is sort of the tipping point, whether you tell them you’re a homosexual or you don’t. People usually don’t declare.
So I didn’t declare as well and I went through sort of like… like they start off in basic military training school. I was called in to see my commanding officer and stuff like that. And he sat me down and he says, like, “Do you know why you’re here?”
And I said, “I don’t know. Why… why am I here?”
And he said, “Well, you know, I’ve heard some rumors about you and I want to find out if they’re true or not.”
I ask him what are those rumors and he says, “Well, I heard that you’re gay, you know, is it… is this true?”
And I asked him, you know, why is this an issue? You know, is this… honestly at that point, I was like prepared for anything. I was like, I was going to get court martialed. I was, like, so sure of it.
But really, I mean, his answer really surprised me because he said that, “Well, I was wondering, you know, in case, you know, you were uncomfortable staying in the bunk with the boys.” I’m thinking to myself, You have no idea how far are you from the truth. You have no idea. So, I mean, his answer was really surprising because you think it was going to be like really negative and stuff like that. But it was actually coming from a place that was really supportive.
We fear that… we have to use the worst, worst place scenario out in our minds. But sometimes I think that we need to learn to trust people. And, you know, we make get hurt along the way, but that makes us stronger. And if we take that risk, we also reap the re- a greater reward.
Nathan: All right. Welcome Nicholas, how are you? How’s it going?
Nicholas: Yeah, it’s… it’s good. It’s sunny here in Singapore and that video was quite the throwback. Really. I can hardly recognize myself.
Nathan: How many hours ahead are you?
Nicholas: It’s morning here in Singapore. And I think we are about 12 or 13 hours ahead of you guys if I’m not mistaken. Yeah.
Nathan: Okay. Well, thanks for finding the time to do this. I’m glad it worked out.
So can you give us just a very general update on your life right now? What’s going on? You know, how’s… how’s life? You moved from Philadelphia to Singapore. Just kind of give us an overview of what’s new with you.
Nicholas: So after I graduated, I came back and like any fresh grad, managed to get a job pretty easily. So I think I was pretty fortunate because at a time when I was graduating, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a job. And after my career kind of like stabilized, I then kind of threw myself back into queer activism again. You know what I mean? Because I was involved in Philadelphia.
After I returned to Singapore, that work continued. I started up a podcast with a friend of mine. Well, continued to revive this podcast, basically, called “Queer Cast.” And the idea around Queer Cast was to focus on the Asia region and the kind of queer advancements or queer challenges that were sort of happening in Asia.
So some examples would be, sort of, you know, what… what is it like for gay life in Japan? If you are a foreigner coming to Japan, how do you fit into gay life in Japan?
The others would be talking to the people behind the civil rights movement in Hong Kong. Hong Kong again recently has been very much in the news because of that, you know, this new national security law. And a lot of the civil rights groups there are very worried about how this law will impact them and what it means to continue to be an activist in Hong Kong.
And last, but certainly not least, that sort of road to marriage equality in Taiwan. And Taiwan really has been kind of leading the way in terms of LGBT rights here in Asia. They just legalized, you know, they just had marriage equality not too long ago and the fight continues in Taiwan.
Closer to home, here in Singapore, we just in March of this year, the courts rejected three separate legal challenges to the Section 377a, and Section 377a, basically, is the penal code that criminalizes sex between men. So effectively, homosexuality is illegal in Singapore and that law basically trickles down to all sorts of other effects here in the queer community, whether that be discrimination, violence, exclusion. You know, and so that has a lot of trickle down effects.
Having said that, even though the legal environment is not ideal, the community here in Singapore continues to be very resilient and continues to be focused on really creating internal resources in order to help the community. So one of the things that I’m most proud of my time here in getting involved in the queer community is sort of helping to fundraise and publish Singapore’s first LGBT legal guide for families and couples.
And so how that started on was that, I was approached by a friend, I think it was 2016 and she came to me and she said that even though the law has not moved on, people’s lives, don’t stay still. You know, queer people in Singapore want to have families want to have longterm relationships, watch that legal protections, you know? So how can we do that in this climate, whereby the law is still very much has not been in favor of queer people.
And so she gathered a group of 18 other lawyers and basically sort of coordinated community law in Singapore. So the existing law in Singapore and then applied that to situations that couples or families might face. So this is in relation to things like immigration, visitation rights, adoption. You know, the difference between how to negotiate, how to sort of navigate Syariah law here in Singapore and all that, you know? So it’s… it was, I think on the team’s part, a really sort of tremendous effort to get his guide pushed out
And I still remember that during the fundraising process, the moment we launched our fundraising campaign, within 48 hours, the entire thing was funded.
Nicholas: And I think that our goal was $10,000. And I think that our final amount was close to just over $20,000. And so there’s this outpouring of support for these resources, this kind of resource, because I believe that queer people are ready to sort of want to move their lives or, and wants to have a more kind of legalized relationship in Singapore. Unfortunately, the ruling party in Singapore is maintaining that status pool and that’s what’s really sort of preventing sort of the advancement of gay rights here in Singapore.
So, that was in 2017. And then as a sort of very sort of prominent point to note in sort of the queer history here in Singapore is the sort of.. the continued, sort of, attendance or continued… the continuing… the continuing parade basically of Pink Dot.
And basically, for people that do not know what Pink Dot is, it’s kind of like Singapore’s version of a pride parade. And I think it’s kind of like a pride parade because it is not really a pride parade in a sort of a US kind of Western kind of context, where you have sort of these large floats going down the street and all these dancers and stuff like that. In Singapore, that does not happen. You know what I mean? And one of the main reasons being is, is that because we have a kind of constricted freedom of assembly. So if you want to protest, there’s only one place in Singapore where you can do so and it’s a park. So you apply for a police permit and then you’re allowed to protest at this park in in the center of the city. And so for gay people, this is the only available space as well to hold such… such a protest. So Pink Dot continues to, start a raise the level of awareness and visibility for the queer community here in Singapore. And I think that that’s also very encouraging.
But this year, obviously, it’s very different, you know what I mean? Pink Dot typically happens in June, along with the rest of pride season, but because of the COVID-19 situation, you can’t have large gatherings and Pink Dot typically attracts about 30,000 people at the park. So, I mean, so they decided – the organizers then decided to have basically, an online show. But I thought what was really great about this year’s show was the sort of the diversity of issues that were represented.
What I was most impressed about was sort of the visibility of trans or nonbinary… trans or non… trans or nonbinary teenagers in Singapore, you know what I mean? So you have this, the trans community here as well that you don’t often see, because like I said, sometimes, that image is very so often dominated by gay men. But the trans community here exists as well because we all know that trans people may not necessarily be able to pass in society. So they are subjected to the most amounts of violence or discrimination, wherever they go. You know what I mean?
So, I think increasingly the community here in Singapore is also focusing a lot of attention to the trans community. We have… I think that in Singapore, even though we still have Section 377a on the books, what I’m most proud of is that we actually have a trans shelter.
So the T Project really was started out by these trangender – by this transgender activists and the community really rallied around them to build this shelter because they realize that this is a very much-needed resource. Because I think increasingly the community is waking up to understanding that the trans community is very much at threat of violence, at threat of discrimination and the legal system, or the government as a whole will not be supporting this community.
So I think what I’m most proud of is really sort of, you know, the resilience of the community, how they continue to operate in an environment that isn’t welcoming of them and how that creativity really shines through. And also how the community has also rallied around the trans community here in Singapore.
Nathan: It kind of seems like society and the queer community and even the straight community is kind of moving along and moving forward to a better place. And the government is lagging behind a little bit. Is that sort of an accurate take away from that?
Nicholas: So it kind of is and is not. So, I think that we need as a community – what we’re lacking really is statistics. Right? We need to be able to sort of poll people out there to say that, okay, what are their shifting attitudes towards, you know, LGBT issues. And I don’t know the figures on this top of my head, but I think that was a survey commissioned by a team here in Singapore and increasingly younger people are more… more accepting. You know, they understand, what LGBT issues are, they understand what it means to be queer in Singapore, but we have still a very conservative population here in Singapore, very much backed by religion.
The kind of, I would say, Christian presence in Singapore is very large and also very rich, you know what I mean? And that gives them a lot of lobbying power and allows them to be able to use those funds to basically further their message. Yeah.
Nathan: So if you are a – you talked about so many different queer causes and activists, and if you are a queer person in Singapore – I guess it’s two questions. One in Singapore, specifically, the other one, a queer person in Asia, since you’ve touched them on upon the other, countries in Asia, what… where should they go? What if they’re looking for a community, what if they’re looking for resources, do you know specific places or organizations that you can refer people to?
Nicholas: Oh, absolutely. So in Singapore when we set up the, when we… when we, sort of, we published the legal guide, basically, we had a website, So you can go to www.SingaporeLGBTQLaw.com, you will find a resource page. The guide is also available for free to download, so you can ask that as well.
In Singapore, like I said, even though we have an environment that is homophobic, we still have this sort of very thriving, gay community. So I think that one of the resources that or groups have been created recently, is Out in SG. And so Out in SG really is this Singapore-based social group. And it was born out of the need to interact basically outside of the bars. Right? So for a lot of the gay community, bars or bathhouses are really kind of the way in which we enter into gay culture or meeting people online to the apps, like Grindr and stuff like that.
And, there were people in the community that said that there has to be more. And so Out in SG was created to sort of have events that were in environments that were not sexualized. I took it upon myself to sort of, kind of to organize swimming in Singapore because I swam with the Philadelphia Fins and I wanted to really try to sort of recreate that kind of swimming community here in Singapore.
So Out in SG is is one. So it’s welcoming of everybody, but it’s predominantly gay men. For women,, the main organization here is Sayoni. And Sayoni has a whole course of services under them, counseling, support and stuff like that. In fact, I really wanna highlight Sayoni as an organization because just last year, Sayoni sort of researched and interviewed close to 40 women hearing Singapore to compile a report on violence and discrimination against queer women here in Singapore. And I think that having that physical book with all those interviews and statistics really is basically concrete evidence and I think that having this kind of concrete evidence is very important, especially when you are trying to sort of advocate for your case.
For the trans community in Singapore, the main organization here is the T Project. It’s also sort of the same, organization, that is – was behind the homeless shelter. You know what I mean? So the T Project continues to advocate for the trans community here in Singapore. They provide counseling services, the shelter, they provide, resources in terms of books and stuff like that.
Fun fact, Singapore actually was one of the first few – was actually the place where the gender reassignment surgery was pioneered. So in the beginning, you had, these doctors that were performing all these gender reassignment surgeries, you know what I mean? But because slowly after that you had sort of all these kind of like religious influences and then that sort of kind of shifted away and now a lot of the trans community that want to transition, they usually go out to Thailand.
Nathan: So I have one more question because we’re just about out of time and I wanted to take it back to the story that you shared with us 11 years ago, because at the very end, I think you said something really nice.
And I’m curious as to, if you still believe it, which I imagine you will, but kind of your thoughts on that. You talked about the importance of just being… being honest and thinking that it’s much safer to be quiet and to yourself, but to take risks because you had a… you had a lot to lose by taking that risk and, and you did. So what are your… what are your thoughts on that today? Do you still feel even more so now? Or do you feel, you know, how do you feel about that?
Nicholas: I mean in terms of being honest with yourself, I think when I was looking back and I was definitely a lot more fearless, when I was… when I was young, you know what I mean? Really kind of like balls to the wind or whatever the case is. And over time, when I was – and I speak to a lot of young people in my interactions with them, I always also advocate for safety. Yes. It’s very – it’s important to be honest in itself, but it’s also sort of you really have to also sort of negotiate that with safety.
You know, if a lot of the kids who are thinking of coming out here in Singapore, they’re still very much living with their parents, they still have a lot of financial ties to them, you know? So, I think that coming out continues to be a journey and you don’t just come out once. You know what I mean? You come out many, many times. You come out to yourself, come out to your friends, you come out to your family. I mean, I think for a lot of gay men, I think our continuing challenge is with loneliness. And for many, many reasons, we put up this defensive walls or we feel that we can’t be honest about the truth of who we are, whether it’s to ourselves or to the outside world, you know what I mean?
And so I think that the real prize that comes with honesty is to then be able to be vulnerable in front of someone else and then be able to then open yourself up to love. When I came back from the US, I’m also… I fell in love, basically. And, I count myself very fortunate to be able to find a partner that that loves me for who I am and you know that, and we’ve been able to build a stable and long lasting relationship in spite of the challenges, in spite of the climate. And I think a lot of tha has to do with being honest with each other and being honest with yourself.
So I’m happy to say that just last month we celebrated our ninth anniversary together. And we are looking to build a home together this year. And so I want to say that it’s… it will be tough to be queer in Singapore and it certainly is not ideal, but it also isn’t impossible. If you really want something, you really will have to fight for it, but I think that love keeps you going.
Nathan: That’s great. Well, congratulations on your relationship! Nine years. That’s shortly after we told your story. That’s great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I know there’s a big time difference and I really appreciate you being flexible with that. So thanks again for your time. And we’re gonna, if anyone has any questions for Nicholas or being a queer in Asia or Singapore, leave them in the comments. And Nicholas we’ll ask that you periodically check back. And if you want to watch Nicholas’s story, his full story is available on I’m From Driftwood as well as thousands more on our Facebook and Instagram. So, you can find them all there. Thanks for watching. And we’ll check back in with you next week for next week’s Story Update. Thanks.