This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Ivan Yeo: I'm Ivan, and I'm from Malaysia. I've been here in New Zealand about 10 years, and I am Chinese. So basically, I'm Chinese but I grew up in Malaysia.
And it was back in probably the early '80s when I found out that I'm gay, and it really had a huge impact on how I viewed myself growing up in a Muslim country, and also a very traditional Chinese family.
I think the biggest thing for me was finding out who I am. There were these really intense fears of letting people know who you are, because then, as a society, you wonder how it would be once you've been ostracized and are not being included as a part of the society.
And I think the biggest fear I had was not [being] sure what my future was going to be like when I grew up, and when there's time when I need to fulfill my family obligations such as getting married and having children, especially when I was in a family where I am the only son in the family, and I have three elder sisters. So that notion of fulfilling my obligation as a son was strongly held, not necessarily in my family but in how the society has portrayed male characters in the context of society from TV, from newspapers.
And I never asked my parents, was it their expectations that I would need to fill that kind of role? We never discussed it. So it was sort of my assumption that that is what my parents would want me to do, especially when I was a teenager and people start asking you, do you have a girlfriend?
And when you became an adult people ask you when you're going to get married. And when you say you don't have a girlfriend, people sort of look at you like oh, what is wrong with you? And they're sort of teasing you about it: oh, do you want me to introduce you to a girlfriend? So especially when you have all the extended family living in the similar area, you do catch all of them from time to time, and the eventual conversations that will come out, they ask you when you are going to find a girlfriend, really disturbed me because I keep reminding myself what sort odds I was against.
And also, to know who I can talk to. Even though I told my sisters about my sexual orientation when I was about 16 or 17, there seems to be belief that it is just a phase you will pass through after awhile, so it never got fully acknowledged that that would be my life. And when you only see what it is being offered in a society, you really don't know what else is out there, and that was the biggest challenge.
Gareth: At what age did you realize that you liked men?
Ivan: From a very early age, but I think that was more subconsciously. During the ages of six or seven, I knew I always liked to be closer to men than women. And I also know that when I was about eight or nine, I really liked watching TV that had very strong male characters, like the Magnum PI show and all that – I really liked that. Now when I look back I know why I liked it so much, but at the time I was also really attracted to the physical male body, the muscular masculinity and all that. So I knew I was different from a very early age.
Gareth: And when you were around that age, can you recall anything that was being said by people around you about gays and lesbians?
Ivan: No, not so much, but somehow in the society you still get that kind of teasing about either being too feminine, or those subtle remarks that make it seem to be unacceptable for any male to be too close to another man. For me, I was really tiny and skinny and growing up with three sisters; that probably made my behavior seem to be a little bit feminine, and I was getting teased about that from very early childhood.
And also the questions being asked about why I didn't behave like a normal man; I'm not too sure what a normal man is, but I'm also not very interested in what the society perceives men as good at, like sports. I hate sports. The reason I hate sports is because I was being teased by a schoolteacher and my peers about how lousy I was. And there are certain things that I'm good at such as drawing, dancing and singing, so people were sort of comparing me to how a guy should be and suddenly I did not live up to those expectations as a man in Malaysian society. So you get a feeling like you need to be tough, you need to be mature, and it is my job to protect a female.
From a very young age my father, because he's away, he always told me I needed to look after my mum and my sisters, even though I was the youngest. I don't know how that is possible, but it always seems to be my responsibility to ensure that they are okay.
Gareth: Can you recall at that age any other children or any other young adults that could have been gay or lesbian?
Ivan: Yes, I remember my uncle, which is my mother's older brother, he is a womaniser. And one time he brought this female to our place. I remember they wanted to use my mother's room – you know what they wanted to do. And so I remember my mum having a conversation with her friend and saying that that woman doesn't look like a woman.
And I also remember when I was about the same age, my mum has a lawn so she always has friends come over, and this woman who was very tomboyish dressing and all that, and every time they left they would say something behind her [back], and say, "Oh, she's bringing another woman again. Don’t know what they're up to," and making casual remarks like, "She's doing another woman again."
But in Malaysia we have these males dressing up as females, and also working on the backstreet, so again you hear all that conversation popping up now and then about so-and-so going to this street and visiting all the transgenders and paying them money just to feel them, and see whether it's free or not. Again those sorts of jokes or conversations came out when I got older. Because my mum knew a lot of people and has a lawn, it's always been like a small, social gathering that reflect on the wider society, and [from] the people that my mum hangs around you'd hear all these interesting conversations floating around.
Gareth: In Malaysian culture are there specific words for gay, lesbian, transgender?
Ivan: Yeah, in Malay they call it bondan. Bondan means the equivalent to the word sissy, but it has this very negative connotation, like you are not a man but act like a woman, and you are the lowest of the society. So people used that word to tease me, as well, so it was a really hurtful word.
The word bondan in Chinese is called xiǎobáiliǎn. Xiǎobáiliǎn basically means "little white face." That means he's like a toy-boy, but again, it actually has much cynicism about the words. It means that you couldn't live as a man in society and fulfill your obligations to be the sole responsible male character in the family. It's talking about someone who asks for money from a female, so again it's a really hurtful word.
Gareth: So, in being teased, what happened? How did you cope with that?
Ivan: I wasn't happy. I mean, like I was scared to go to school because I knew how my day was going to end out. There was going to be a lot of teasing and being pushed around.
And also I didn't like to go out with friends.
Or even if I showed a little bit of anger or was having fights with my sisters, they would call me those words as well, so basically it taught me not to make people upset, because if people are upset they're going to call me those names and it was really hurtful.
So I became really cautious and tried to please everybody so that I wouldn't be teased. And I even tried to add a little bit more maturity, and tried to hide certain behavior that has been pointed out by other people, so that they wouldn't see that I am a so-called bondan or sissy. And so I was constantly modifying my behavior so that I could match what other people expected as a male character in the society, and that was really hard because you're constantly trying to please your father or your sisters or your mate, and you forget about who you truly are as a person.
Gareth: And did that work?
Ivan: No, of course not! [laughs]
I think coming to New Zealand, I was really able to embrace myself, because if people want to talk about a feminine side I do have my very sensitive and very feminine side, but I also have a very male orientated character, which now I'm able to recognize. I wouldn't want to put it in those contexts, because it's not about sexes, but what I'm saying is that I'm able to recognize that I have a so-called balance. I'm very sensitive; I'm very emotional and also very empathetic, as well, so I recognize that as a gift now instead of seeing it as something that made me a weak person.
But on the other hand, I also know that I'm very driven, I'm very goal orientated, and what I mean is that I'm also able to do a lot of handyman work. I like getting myself busy with technology or even some homemade cabinets, and all that. And so, I'm able to embrace both sides, and having both as a balance in my life.
Gareth: If you had stayed in Malaysia could you have come out as a gay person?
Ivan: No way. Really, I did not know what to do, but having said that, the society also grew and developed at the same time. I've heard from people saying that now there's more gay sauna in Malaysia, as well, and there's a bar that you can meet other gay people, and an Internet site, but it's still very hidden. So I might be able to go to those places, yet I would never be able to reveal who I am as Ivan to other people. I would always be the guy who's 30-something and haven't had a girlfriend and not married, and everybody would be talking behind my back.
Here everybody knows I'm gay and no one sees it as an issue, and they just see Ivan as Ivan. I'm also able to live the life that I want, which is having a partner, and I'm also able to recognize my own unique identity and am able to share it with friends and people who really care about me.
And I think the most important thing is now my family knows my sexual orientation and they also embrace it, and also they like my partner. I think the harder things for any hidden secret is you cannot be honest with people you love, and you cannot share the joy and the hardship you have in your life. When I broke up with my previous partner, I was able to call home and cry, and told my mum why life is so hard, and all that.
That was great, because when I first broke up with my first boyfriend I couldn't tell anyone. I had to hide my emotions because family will pick up on that, and [ask] why you look so sad, but you cannot say: I just broke up with my first boyfriend.
But at least at the time I had just broken up with my ex-partner, I was able to call my mum and tell my mum a relationship is hard. And I also asked my mum, really, questions like, "Am I really that ugly?" or "Am I really not worth any love?" And I was also able to talk to my sisters, so that was amazing.
Even now, every time I call my mum and my sisters they will always ask, "Oh, so how is Gerry?" They will be interested to find out what Gerry's doing, what I'm doing, what we both are doing. So it's a great feeling when you finally feel that you can really feel like being part of the family instead of always having a second thought that you can only share a certain part of your life, but not the whole of your life.
Gareth: Can we just go back a wee bit to when you were growing up in Malaysia? You were saying that you were being teased. How did that progress; how did you get through those feelings? And how did you meet your first boyfriend?
Ivan: I really have to say I hated school so much that my results drop really badly as I was growing older because I just don't like school. I tried to find excuses not to go to school. For me, I would try even to hide myself and make myself as invisible as possible so I'm not going to be picked on, I'm not going to be teased, and no one is going to look at me. It works, and I have to say that if I think back to my school years, I can only have some very vague memories. But a lot of things people say, like they had friends they grew up with together, I never had.
And how I met my very first boyfriend was when I went to the north part of Malaysia because of my father. I was able to meet a group of friends who really got along really well, and I had this friend, who is one of the closest, and altogether we had like six people as a group, and he always seemed very moody and he always seemed angry at me. Sometimes he was really close to me, but I have to say I had a crush on him and I did not know how to tell him. But I knew he always seemed to really care about me, and also sometimes could just flip around and totally ignore me, and I did not know what I had done.
After about a year-and-a-half, my father decided to move us back to my hometown, which is in south Malaysia, and during the holiday break, because I missed him so much, I said I wanted to go and visit him. I told people I wanted to visit the group of friends, but he was the main reason.
So I went over, and he really wanted me to stay with him and we both stayed together. And there was a late night and we started having this conversation, and I remember he sort of asked me, "If you have a really big secret and you want to share it with someone, what would you do?" I said I would just tell the person, just be really honest and tell the other person how you feel. And then I also started saying that I had a secret, as well, so we just started having this game, and somehow we were both able to acknowledge that we had feelings for each other for some time. That was my first love, and that was like the best day ever to be able to find someone and you both have a mutual feeling.
But at the same time it was really hard because we had to be really secretive, and when you have such mixed emotions and we were such a young age, I still didn't know how to cope with leaving the place and being unable to see him again or know when I'm going to see him again, and all that, so that was a really hard time, yeah. But I'm very grateful that I had that experience, because that just reaffirmed what I really wanted in my life, which is being true to myself and able to find someone who loved me and to be able to share that mutual love.
Gareth: What age were you then?
Ivan: I was only 16. Yeah, that was like 21 years ago. [laughs] So, you can figure out how old I am. But that was really amazing, and also able to find out that actually he had the same feelings towards me. But the hardest thing, as I mentioned before, is that you cannot share that with your friends.
I remember I told one of my very close schoolmates at school when I came back, and her first reaction is, eeww! And I was really sad because I thought she was my best friend, and she sort of told me that it would pass, it's just a phase, and I was really devastated. Again, all these little, small things just reaffirm what you already believe, which is you're not going to be able to live the life that you want.
Gareth: Were you having conflict within yourself in terms of not wanting to be gay, or were you quite happy being gay but it was just society that didn't particularly like that?
Ivan: Those are very good questions because the fact is, I know I am gay and I also know that I have no interest, at all, to a female. My friends now ask me: if I can have sex with a female or a very ugly elephant-man, who would I pick? I say the very ugly elephant-man.
And they also say that they haven't met any gay people, as in such an extreme.
I also tell people that if I was having sex with a female, I would see myself as a lesbian. What that means is that I really have never been able to see a female as the opposite sex. And I think for some people it might be really hard to understand, but sometimes when you have such a strong feeling about who you are, of course I wouldn't be able to make myself sleep with another female. So, I'm very sure, and very sure that I'm only interested in men and in male relationships.
Also, the only problem that I saw was that society wasn't able and not ready to accept that, and that taught me a lot, a great deal of humanity, because I think if it's not breaking the law of the society, any love is acceptable. And even just to go down to racial tension, as well, at the end of the day whether you're bisexual, homosexual or so-called straight, love is equal. When you love someone, you want to be with someone, everybody should have the right to do so.
So I was really lucky that I came to New Zealand and New Zealand has the law that recognizes same-sex relationships. And I'm really grateful, especially as someone coming from a Muslim country and able to have the same rights is amazing.
Gareth: In Malaysia at the time were there laws against homosexuality?
Ivan: Yes. Anyone found out as having a male relationship will be punished. That actually happened. At least 20 years ago when the Deputy of Prime Minister was being accused of having a same-sex relationship with someone, he was being sentenced to jail. And that's just one example. So, it is against the law of a Muslim country, and in Malaysia, as well.
Having said that, in my experience I knew there were a lot of hidden scenes, because I was at one of them, and how people were having unsafe sex and meeting in places that were unsafe as well. And I really feel for people who have to go through that, because I was in that kind of environment too. And you know sometimes when you do things just because of the physical needs, and after you fulfill your need you start thinking about what you're doing, it's quite scary, too, because quite often I might put myself in danger. I would not want to, but because I felt like I didn't have that kind of opportunity as being equal in what society was providing, so I had to do everything underground so that I would not get caught and so forth.
Gareth: So, how did that relationship with your first boyfriend go?
Ivan: [laughs] It went really bad, because I think we both felt the same. Having such a strong feeling at the age of 16, and the distance between me and him was almost like Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand, so we can only communicate through letters. And letters are not safe, especially what you're putting on the piece of paper. So his sister discovered his letters and in the end we had to call off the relationship because his sister told her mum. And we both were really devastated.
I know I was feeling very depressed. I missed him so much. I was still studying in school and my parents didn't want me to move back to Ipoh, which is in the northern part of Malaysia, and they still didn't understand why I wanted to move there.
And he cannot leave the family because he's the oldest of the three children, so he has the obligation to look after his father's business. So in the end we just had to break it off, and that also made me believe at the time, I really wondered, but I also knew that it wasn't going to happen.
So I really appreciate what I have now. What I have now is impossible! I never thought I could ever have the life that I dreamed of years ago, and I think I am truly blessed. Regardless of what kind of hardship I went through, in the end I still think it's worth it.
Gareth: So, around that age did you have any idea that there were different ways of living in different countries?
Ivan: Not really. I mean, we'd sort of get news in certain stages, like seeing how overseas or Europeans started recognizing same-sex relationships. For me, I was just like, this is impossible. How can that be? And of course, the news was also being announced from Malaysia and Singapore and all that, and again, even when people were talking about that it seemed to be something really disgusting and unbelievable: how can someone give those people those rights? So it just sounded impossible, or something that, because they would also talk about how opposition was really angry about the proposals or legislation or something, you thought that would never go ahead, as well. I can’t remember the very first country that actually had the legislation passed through, but I was just so amazed, and by the same token, I also knew that that was only happening in certain parts of the country.
And that was when I started thinking about leaving Malaysia, and also, probably, if I could find a way to go to the country, I might be able to do that. But I also did not know how to do it. I didn't know that you can get so-called permanent residence and become a citizen and all that, so again, all that was just like a dream.
And during that time there was no such a thing as the Internet, so it's not like now where you can just Google it and find out heaps of information, how to get to where you wanted. And I do have that circle of friends who have been overseas and were able to get permanency overseas as well, but for me it was still like a dream at the time.
Gareth: But there is a point where that dream becomes a reality, and you came to New Zealand. What were your thoughts? Suddenly you've got this whole kind of gay and lesbian culture just actually out in the open.
Ivan: Oh, I honestly think when you suddenly have so much freedom, the first thing you do is you really abuse your freedom [laughs], so I totally put myself out there. I mean, like, from nothing to suddenly you can have the sweets; you want to make sure you have all of them because you don't know when you're going to get hungry again or not going to have the opportunity to eat a sweet again. So that was really out of control. I basically just did anything that I could, and again, there was a real learning curve because then I learned to know that I had to have a balance. I did do a lot of stupid things or fun things at that time.
But I also very much wanted to stay in New Zealand, and what really helped me through was my study, because the paper I was doing included sociology and reading about the background of how New Zealand came to accept gay relationships and all of that. So I knew I found a place I can finally call home and finally feel like I could be equally given and provided the same rights as everybody else, and that was a relief and an amazing feeling that finally I didn't have to carry the weight of my life from now on. I could finally just let it go and put it down. And yeah, that was truly the most amazing feeling that anyone could have.
And that also made me really appreciate New Zealand, as well, and seeing how, by providing the same rights, people are able to grow and learn and equally contribute to the society instead of feeling like they have to constantly hide themselves. I mean, like, when I was in Malaysia, even as an adult I was still trying to minimize my behavior and still trying to just be able to coast by, and not thinking about what else I could do, what is my potential; whereas right now I would ask myself what else I want to do, where is my potential? I still want to grow; I still want to do more, whereas before I was just waiting for the time when finally everything would be finished.
Gareth: Can you talk a wee bit about the ideas of being gay and whether it's just gay sex or whether it's a gay lifestyle, living with partners. In Malaysia did you have any kind of concept that you could actually live a completely gay life, or was it very much just kind of sex acts?
Ivan: I think I've talked about this before when I was in school and the schoolteacher asked everybody what they wanted to be when they grew up. My answer was actually to become a housewife, but I knew I couldn't tell that, people were going to tease me about it, so I just made up something. I can't remember what I said. But that is the natural instinct of what I want, which is a life where I have a husband, and where I can have children, where I can be in love and equally share my love with someone.
At that age, of course, you didn't think about sex, but as you grow older, as you physically change and hormonally change and all that, I started having the craving of intimate relationships with men. And I think that's a very natural human instinct, as well. The only difference is that the person I'm thinking about is male instead of female. The curiosity that I have is how it felt being kissed by a man, how it felt being held by a man, and how it felt being in love in a relationship with a man.
I saw all three of my sisters go through relationships with their boyfriends, and I envied it so much! You know, you see them getting married, dressed-up, having that pre-imposed relationship, so of course, not just sex.
What I call the lifestyle is having a companionship where you know it will create a safe haven where you can go home and relax and be yourself with the person that you love and care the most for, and create the life that you want. And that really speaks about me and my partner. Sometimes I have a very bad day at work or something gets me down, but I know this person is waiting for me at home when I come home; that gave me the safe feeling that I needed. So that is how I would describe about everything. [laughs]
Gareth: So, do you think you'll ever go back and live in Malaysia?
Ivan: No way. I've thought about that, and I was very clear with my parents as well. I told my parents, "Look, if I'm here with Gerry, our relationship is recognized. If anything happens, we have the right to whatever that I need to be done, but if we go back to Malaysia our relationship will not be recognized. So, it doesn't mean a thing for our relationship, and if anything happened there would not be the same mechanism that we can sort out with each other whatever needed to happen during that time." So I was very clear with my family.
And one of my sister's sons just recently came out, as well, and said that he's gay. And my sister, the first thing she asked me was, "What do you reckon?" And I said, "First, I want you to know it's not a phase. It is what it is. Forget about whether he could change. Love him and treat him equally as your other son." And I also told my sister, "Look, the best is when we both will be able, financially, to get him overseas, and let him have the same opportunity." And I was really grateful that my sister was able to accept it immediately, and also able to recognize that it is all right.
Probably it will be a little bit difficult if he is still in Malaysia, so we will try and find a way to let him be educated in an overseas country, and able to do what I'm doing now.
So again, even my sister also recognized that being gay in Malaysia will be really hard for him, and her heart was aching, those were her words, knowing what I'd had to go through and now seeing her son have to go through the same thing. But at the same time she felt some comfort knowing first-hand that you can still be who you are at the end of the day, you just need to have some plan of what you're going to do in order to enable and facilitate that human's growing process that is not going to damage the individual.
Gareth: That must be very hard to have to leave your home country, knowing that there's probably not going to be a way of your getting back with your partner.
Ivan: Yes, it is. And it was really hard, as well, when you think about it, because you know you're not going to have the same opportunity as other people. Let's say my partner is a female; at least we can look at a way, if there is going to be a better opportunity in Korea, or whatever, that we can go there and do it.
Of course we can still do it, but that means a lot of things would need to be changed, like when we go out, besides our family I cannot introduce Gerry as my partner. He would suddenly become just a friend who is flatting with you. And then he would become this funny old friend that goes to whatever places you go to, together with you. So, that's not going to be healthy when you have to hide something – especially something so important in your life.
In New Zealand at least we both are being recognized as a couple, and are able to do things together and we do not fear how that's going to have repercussions in our life.
But also, feeling sad knowing that I will have to leave my mum, my father and my sisters behind, and missing a lot of big occasions such as the Chinese New Year, or seeing my nephew and nieces growing up. And sometime a few years ago I was finally able to put that aside, because I always felt quite sad when I'd think that I wouldn't be able to be a part of their lives, because I love my sister's sons and daughters and am certainly missing out on a lot of that kind of joy. But again, I just have to accept the fact that sometimes you gain something, sometimes you lose something. Yeah, there's always some sacrifice that I will have to make from time to time.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com