At the age of 8, I used to take swimming lessons at the Clementi Swimming Complex. For merely twenty dollars a month, many students, or rather their parents, willingly signed up for the swimming courses programmed by the school. On Tuesdays after school, a lot of us would leave class excited as ever and make our way to the chartered buses. We would enter the buses completely sweaty with our neon-lined swimming suits hidden under our PE t-shirts. The bus trips were the most fun as girls would pass around their journals on the bus while we wrote testimonies for one another. Funniest testimony I ever read in a journal was the one meant for Atikah, a batchmate of mine. Someone had written “Ayam”, meaning chicken, in glittery pink ink under the line “First impressions:”
When we were in the swimming pool, my swimming instructor would repetitively say week after week “Children, I promise you all by the time we complete the course, you all can confirm plus chop survive any type of swimming pool, but first, you all better listen to me!” I was not much a listener. It was involuntary considering my command in English was not too great back then. I only knew when it was time to kick my legs like a frog when I saw everyone else doing it. I also learnt that it was time for us to do our own free swimming when everybody else had their hands free from the sides of the swimming pool. Even with the intensity of having to pay attention constantly to make sure that I would not end up drowning, I would end up looking at everywhere else instead of being fully present. I would end up daydreaming about being a mermaid and swimming in make-believe cities underwater.
There was a boy named Fit. His mother and my grandmother were friends and on the first day of school, my grandmother had told me to make friends with him. Except, he was not much of a friend. He was a bully. For weeks, I would give him 50 cents out of my 2 dollars pocket money and did not think it was a problem. It only became a problem when Nenek began wondering why I never had leftover money. I was told to stay away from Fit afterwards and I think both his mother and Nenek quarrelled over it.
After staying away from him, I was not quite sure if I had any friends from the age of 7-8. I was quite the introvert and never knew the right words to say in any conversations, be it in English or Malay. The only friend I recall having from Primary 1 till Primary 2 was a bespectacled Chinese boy named Ken. The friendship only lasted a week because he ate from the store with the green bowl and Nenek said I could only eat from the store with the red bowl, or else “Tuhan marah”. When I found out Ken ate from the store with the green bowl, I felt really sad because God would be angry with him and I could not be friends with him. When I asked him why did he eat from the store with the green bowl, he said “What bowl? Toilet bowl ah!”
Imagine the familiarity I felt when I found out Fit was in the same swimming course as I was! In fact, he would end up being a partner for a lot of things. Fit never apologized for bullying me. I doubt he ever realized it was bullying. In hindsight, he probably really needed the extra 50 cents from me. Fit was a great swimming partner though! He often introduced me to the other boys he hung out with and they seemed like a lot of fun.
Whenever I was in the swimming pool, I felt like I could be a lot of things. As much as I understood that I had a “beberd” in between my legs and according to both Atok and Nenek that meant that I was a boy, I felt like I was one of the girls whenever I swam. In my mind, my short hair in the water would grow down to my waist and my legs would become a mermaid’s tail. As I floated in and out of my mermaid fantasies, I would often watch the boys do their tricks in the swimming pool. They did flips, handstands and everything else I did not dare imagine to do with my 8-year-old body.
Fit had a neat little trick he called the “waterbomb”. Basically, all you had to do was to keep your arms folded on your chest like an Egyptian mummy and turn your body 360 underwater, over and over again to the point it looked like an underwater tornado. I wanted that type of power! I was so fascinated by the fact that our bodies could do that and I really wanted Fit to teach me the “waterbomb” so badly. Nevertheless, I was a slow learner and while the boys were moving quickly to do other things I could never get the “waterbomb” right.
After a while, I would just float off from the rest of the boys and went into my mermaid daze. During one of those occasions, Fit probably felt bad for me and asked that I joined the rest of the boys. In all of my stubbornness, I refused him. Out of kindness, Fit offered to teach me the “waterbomb” and if I could do it right, I was to join the boys.
This time his approach was different. Instead of doing it once and then watching me do it, Fit decided to literally hold my hands through this tutorial. He held my hands while we both stood up and he went through the motions of rotating our bodies above the water. Then, he would take me underwater and tried it.
My body was not liking this “waterbomb” trick. Each time I tried rotating underwater, water would go into my nose. I would come out of the water with eyes red and gasping for air and Fit would end up laughing at me. Fit would say “Cute lah you” then laughed at me. At this point, I really just wanted to tell Fit to go play with the other boys and to leave me alone. But Fit persisted.
So we went down underwater once more. Hands in each other’s hands while our bodies rotated. I learnt to relax. Fit kissed my lips. When we went up underwater, instead of gasping for air like I did the previous times I said “Can we do that again?”. So we did. Fit, of course, kissed me again.
I did not think there was anything wrong with Fit kissing me. Or me wanting to kiss Fit again and again. I mean, it felt nice! I did not think of it as anything else. When Fit’s friends found out, the story suddenly became about me kissing him first! When the girls on the buses found out, they said “What’s wrong with you?”.
To be fair, it was not normal for kids at the age of 8 to be kissing. Especially underwater. Especially kissing your bully. This boy kissing boy story did not spread like wildfire thankfully, safe for the six to eight people who found out about it only because they were so curious why Fit and I was so far away from everyone in the pool. We all kept quiet about it. I wanted to be quiet about it too.
Learning to be quiet about what my body wanted was something that I had suddenly learnt at a young age. Being quiet was absolutely necessary to protect myself. If my friends at the age of 8 would have reacted badly towards two boys kissing each other, imagine if I had told my grandmother about what had happened between Fit and me.
Fit was not the only boy to kiss me. It happened again with a different boy when I was 15. Perhaps, my awakening story with Fit was far more interesting than the actual journey of me navigating through my own sexuality. By the time I was sixteen, most of my girl friends shared with me stories of what they had done with their boyfriends and when I turned 18, my gay friends were all sharing their adventures with me too. There was a lot of pressure to keep up with everyone when the only experience I ever had were kissing with two boys in my life.
The first time I had done “it” was absolutely terrible as well. Despite the sex positivity I had around me, no amount of storytelling done by my peers could have prepared me for the disappointment that would come afterwards. Sex for the first time was painful, lousy, weird, smelly and a lot of things that everyone seemed to leave out when sharing. I remember calling my friend and crying on the phone because my partner had continued with penetrative sex despite me asking him to stop. I had read online that sex positivity has become a double-edged sword despite its original intentions of liberating women and gender non-conforming folks. Eagerness to explore what your body could do suddenly became a measure as to how open-minded you are. The more kinks you have, the more progressive you are. Sometimes, I believe that we might have been pressurized into trying things we are actually deeply uncomfortable with just for the sake of not being accused as “vanilla”.
There were moments I really wished I could share about my sexual experiences with my family members but I understood that sex as a conversation in itself was taboo within a Malay-Muslim household, what more a conversation about sex between two male bodies. Despite making sure that I was adhering to safe sex practices, there were often times when I felt paranoid afterwards.
In 2014, Health Promotion Board released an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page with regards to sexuality. While this might have been an act of bare minimum that was a long time coming, it really brought immediate attention to the normalcy of sexualities beyond ‘straight’ and a nuanced look at sexuality, beyond just sexual intercourse. It also helped me unpack a lot of self-internalised stigma as a male person having sex with other male individuals.
Reclaiming my sexuality
Sexuality education that was very much centred on the cisgender-heterosexual experience of sex and ideas of abstinence resulted in a lot of my repression and later on, the pressure to “liberate” myself resulted in my eagerness being taken advantage of.
Over the years, I have learnt about what I like and what I wanted to avoid and as a friend once told me “Nobody can make you come like yourself”. It was also important that I eventually learnt to stop romanticizing sexual intercourse and to not necessarily conflate it with sensuality – because sensuality can be found in a lot of things beyond sexual intercourse. Having a partner that cares for and respect what works for you is just as important. I can count with my fingers the number of times I had pleasurable sex – three times, among many experiences in my life. All three times were a result of partners who were willing to understand how differently my body could work with theirs and learning. I have also learnt to laugh amidst sexual intercourse – it is okay to laugh when things don’t work out so long as nobody gets hurt.
To end off my story, it is also perhaps important to see how we view sex positivity – not as a mere competition to be more “liberated” and pushing our tolerance levels for the sake of being more progressive, but to learn more about what works for us, what is safe and having proper access to information.