In memoriam: Anthony Yeo (1949-2009)

Source

22 Jul 2009

by C. S. Zhou

A memorial service will be held this Friday, Jul 24, to celebrate the life of Anthony Yeo, and to honour his contributions and support of the GLBTQ community. C. S. Zhou of the Free Community Church recalls his first meeting with the counsellor at a symposium to address homosexuality and the church a decade ago.

Widely regarded as Singapore’s “Father of Counselling”, Anthony Yeo, 60, passed away on Jun 20 from complications as a result of his leukaemia, leaving behind his brother, wife and two children. He was the founder and clinical director of Counselling and Care Centre. He had numerous letters published in the press on social issues including calling for more understanding and acceptance of lesbians and gays in society. The following tribute is contributed by C. S. Zhou of the Free Community Church.

It was a humid afternoon that Oct 17 when I stepped into the large Methodist church. There seemed to be many middle aged to older people present, all looking very heterosexually married in contrast to the younger ones many of whom looked obviously gay to me – I am not sure if it was my nascent gaydar or a mark of my desperate longing to connect with other gay people that impacted my perceptions of the crowd that afternoon.

I had got wind that a symposium titled Homosexuality and the Church was being organised by Trinity Theological College. The date was five days after Matthew Shepard, a young gay man died. Shepard had been offered a ride by two strangers who lured him by masquerading as gay men on the night of Oct 7, 1998. They then robbed, pistol whipped and tortured him before stringing him up on a fence in a remote area. He was discovered eighteen hours later and died soon after.

The tragic events of Shepard’s death occupied my mind as the panelist – almost all Chinese and all heterosexual males – came up to the stage. One after another they shared their perspectives. All the speakers spoke of gay women and men as sinners or subjects in short, we were all just objects to each one of them, except for one speaker – Anthony Yeo.

Anthony approached his talk on the basis of not knowing. He did not give any answers and did not take any stands. But with a reflective voice that refused to put the subject into a neat box, he asked question after question. He wanted the audience to think, to explore, to wonder – to go beyond simplistic categories, to transcend naïve one-dimensional perspectives that were ultimately destructive of the gay women and men he knew would be present there that day.

His talk must have left the mainly fundamentalist Christians present there that day frustrated at worst or dismissive at best. But for me, sitting there listening intently, Anthony spoke to my heart and reminded me that life is not simple. That it refuses to be arranged into neat stacks of psychological, sociological and theological lego blocks. That its colours are not always primary and its boundaries rarely if ever, clearly delineated.

Watching a man who was considered one of Singapore’s pre-eminent psychotherapists speak in almost pained terms of his unwillingness to assume he understood gay people or had the right to pontificate about them and the issues at stake comforted me even as I struggled to accept my own sexuality after decades of false self denial. I do not exaggerate when I say that that afternoon Anthony helped me re-connect with myself and get in touch with my own humanity. And as the cheekiness of Providence would have it, it was in that church that afternoon, where a one sided view of gay people was presented with no attempt to hear a gay voice except through what Anthony shared that I met an earnest quiet and determined gentleman who would eventually become my better half.

I subsequently got to know Anthony after the then Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong came out to say that gay people are “like you and me” in Time magazine in 2003. Mr Goh’s openness drew a lot of flak from fundamentalist segments of the Christian church and this triggered Anthony together with Reverend Yap Kim Hao to independently come out in the press to speak up for the need to treat gay people with dignity and non-discrimination.

By then I had moved from my years of self rejection, completed my Masters in Counseling Psychology and was actively involved in setting up support groups for gay people. I made it point to contact Anthony and requested him to help mentor the emerging facilitators from the gay groups and also to speak at some of their gatherings. He accepted without batting an eyelid.

I have, in the years that followed, requested more than a few straight people to speak to or be involved with the gay community. In almost every case, the people I approached have asked many questions – often afraid that somehow their public profile could be maligned and distorted by the fundamentalist Christian lobby who would seek to defame them as they did to Constance Singam of AWARE recently.

But Anthony was different. He just said yes and joined in the fray with such measured and steady enthusiasm. I don’t think I have seen someone engage so wholeheartedly and yet with so much peace and calm. And I will always be amazed at how trusting he was of us even though he hardly knew us. Anthony was of course not naïve and those who know him know he always had a healthy skepticism. But he never let that block him from standing on the side of the marginalised. And we made it a point, to ensure that those of us who worked with him would not to abuse that trust which he had so graciously given.

It is Anthony’s willingness to plunge into something with a sense of unknowingness and yet trusting that things will somehow take care of themselves while we take one step at a time, is perhaps his most singular strength and quality worthy of emulation. I recall an occasion when Anthony had agreed to speak at a workshop organised by Oogachaga for counselors, with another therapist, Juliana Toh. I still vividly remember Juliana being a somewhat flustered and worried on the morning of the workshop as we did not seem to have a good enough game plan as we sat at the Yakun coffee shop while I berated myself for not preparing the ground better for them. Anthony picking up on our anxieties, said with his never say die attitude, “Let’s just see how things unfold. We don’t need to plan too much.” I thought he was a little mad or at best reckless and I don’t think Juliana was too convinced either but as the day’s proceedings unfolded, it was obvious that it unfolded well. This is one of the things I will miss much about Anthony – someone to help me jump into the deep end with a blusterless yet gung ho can do spirit.

While I believe that gay people have to stand up for their own right to live lives of dignity and wholeness if we are to ever be treated as equal human beings, the reality is that our straight friends bring another dimension to the issue of gay equality. And we in Singapore have been fortunate to have many straight people support our quest to just be allowed to be us.

But it is also a reality that it is easy to support while quietly hidden away from the public glare. It is easy to tell your gay friends and family that, “It is ok for you to be gay but don’t expect me to say it publicly. Don’t expect me to speak up for you because I don’t want to cause or experience any turbulence in my own life.” While the increasing silent support gay people get is important and precious, it is nevertheless insufficient.

The number of straight Singaporeans who are willing to stand up in the open to and echo the words of PM Lee that gay people “include people who are responsible, invaluable, highly respected contributing members of society. And (that)…among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children… (that) they too must have a place in this society and they too are entitled to their private lives,” are too few and far in between.

And this is often because the people who do have the temerity and gumption to come forward to speak this truth in the open have had to endure the relentless reputational lynchings launched by fundamentalist mobs who play on the guttural fears of other well meaning Singaporeans. It is for this reason that the gay community needs to realise our deep indebtedness to people like Rev Yap Kim Hao, Siew Kum Hong and Anthony Yeo.

We only see their names in the papers and the letters they write and are somewhat distanced from the drama of their lives. Sometimes we get to see a bit closer and watch the smearing and tarring that gets spread virally in the virtual world of the web but we rarely understand the personal cost and trauma they bear from the malice and vitriol they face. And all this for something that is not even essentially theirs – they are straight after all.

It was in the Singapore General Hospital when I went to visit Anthony on the day he passed on that the personal cost he experienced entered into my world. His wife Soo Lan, whom I had not met before, came up to me, held my hands and broke down. Through her heart rending weeping she said she wanted my friends and I to know how much Anthony loved gay people and how he often spoke about his work with the gay community fondly to her.

Throughout that eternity of a moment as she held on to my hands, I kept hearing two words again and again – “love” and “bashed.” Yes, “bashed” – as Anthony loved again and again, he was bashed again and again and tragically often by the very people he had considered friends. And yet Anthony never stopped loving and he just kept on speaking forth. My cheery friend Bryan Choong who was with me then seemed to have all his energy sapped away and just sat down and wept while I – the motor mouth who can usually ad lib non-stop stood there bereft of any speech, overwhelmed by the enormity of that moment when it finally hit home that the honor the gay community has from having people like Anthony stand up for us came at the cost of him being bashed, smashed, smeared and ripped apart again and again just simply because he believed in people like you and me and dared to stand up for us.

While many of us in the community may have never heard of Anthony, the reality is that he is one of those rare individuals who helped make life a little easier for you and me.

Every now and again Han, my partner, still reminds me playfully of the time we first met that October afternoon. Supposedly, I was clutching on to my black worn out haversack for dear life as if it was some Linus-ian security blanket in which I kept deeply hidden, the gay me who was too afraid to come out. Well I don’t clutch any bags anymore – not unless they are Prada. And I have Anthony to thank for that.

The late Anthony Yeo’s letters to the press on gay issues: 

Keep an open mind and respect differing views (The Straits Times, Jul 18, 2003)

Mr George Lim Heng Chye’s comment on hiring of gays raises some issues that warrant further dialogue.

While one would not dispute the need to uphold moral values, to regard the hiring of gays on the part of the Government as a signal of possible moral decadence is being rather simplistic.

The assertion that the gay lifestyle will erode moral values and expose the next generation to corrupting influences seems to suggest that the world we live in, that is predominantly heterosexual in orientation, is a perfect world, vulnerable to deadly influence if we permit the gay lifestyle to prevail.

If we were to survey the kind of problems we experience daily, we would be familiar with physically and sexually abused children, females being raped and molested, people growing up emotionally and mentally disturbed, as well as a variety of deviant behaviours.

Those in the mental-health profession would easily testify that the large majority of them come from homes where parents are heterosexual in orientation.

Mr Lim also seemed rather certain as to how homosexuals become the way they are. Views have always been divided on this issue.

However, there has been an increasing dominant observation that homosexuals do not necessarily come from a sexually abused background, homes without father figures, or being nurtured by dominant mothers, nor were they addicted to pornography. It has also been observed that many who had been sexually abused as children do not end up being homosexuals.

It is still rather unclear as to whether children raised by same-sex parents are necessarily more disturbed than children with heterosexual parents. There is evidence from longitudinal studies that children with same-sex parents may not necessarily exhibit psychological disturbances.

We cannot contend that should homosexuals ever be in key positions in government, there will be a definite corrupting influence filtering through society.

One needs merely to observe those countries that have permitted homosexual marriages to acknowledge that those countries are not falling apart.

Perhaps it might be wiser to adopt an open mind for dialogue and be respectful of differing views.

Anthony Yeo

Let’s debate without prejudice, judgment or condemnation (The Straits Times, Jul 13, 2007)

Mr Janadas Devan made a very bold attempt in exploring the issues pertaining to same-sex parents forming a family, ‘Can mum, mum and kids make a family?’ (ST, July 7).

His article serves a useful challenge to the majority view that homosexuals, if permitted to carry on their lifestyle, and/or become parents, will only bring disorder and disaster to family and society.

Of particular challenge are the questions: ‘Are the children of divorced heterosexual couples better off than the children of my lesbian friends?’ and ‘How about the children of single mothers or of constantly bickering heterosexual couples locked in loveless marriages?’

I believe there is a need for further consideration and discussion regarding these questions.

In my 35 years of professional practice of psychological counselling and work with families, this is what I have observed.

Of all the thousands of people who sought counselling for psychological disturbance, relationship problems and effects of stress of life, I observed that all of them had parents from heterosexual marriages.

Those children who have suffered from physical, emotional/psychological and sexual abuse did not have parents from same sex relationship.

In fact, practically every case of sexual abuse involved a parent, usually the father or step-father, uncle, brother and someone known to the family. They were mostly heterosexual encounters.

Of all those who sought counselling with marital problems involving one spouse having extra-marital affairs, practically all of them involved the spouse having a heterosexual relationship.

I have had experiences with men afflicted with sexual addiction, such as pornography and those who engage in paid sex. Most of these men were married heterosexuals.

As I ponder over Janadas’ questions, I am also wondering about the tendency to ascribe social and family problems to the threat of a homosexual lifestyle and relationship.

It is so easy to make proclamations that if homosexuals were to be accepted and homosexual acts decriminalised, then society and family life will inevitably deteriorate.

My observations, experiences coupled with research done do not bear this out in any way.

In fact, if my 35 years of professional experience were to be credited with any validity, I am more inclined to ask the following questions:

1. Is there an ideal form of family life?

2. Are parents from heterosexual marriages any safer for children?

3. Could it be possible that such parents are more likely to cause harm to children, leading to long-term psychological problems?

4. What evidence do we have that children of same-sex parents might not be better adjusted people?

5. How do we reckon with the fact that almost all known homosexuals have parents from heterosexual marriages?

In sharing my observations and questions, my intention is to appeal for a reasoned dialogue over this matter without prejudice, judgment or condemnation.

It serves no purpose to persecute any human being, most of all people with different sexual orientation from the majority in society.

Homosexuals are human beings deserving of dignity, respect and acceptance even if we have difficulties understanding them and/or accepting their sexual orientation and lifestyles.

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