Sex with Shakespeare: Kink and Secrecy in Singapore

A memoir excerpt

Most nights, after work, I went out for drinks with Nikolai, the director of Macbeth. “You look distracted,” he said one evening. “What’s on your mind?”

I winced. I knew exactly what was on my mind. Ever since Oman, where some women in the Shakespeare class had introduced me to bootlegged DVDs of The O.C., I’d been a huge fan of the pulpy teen drama. By the time I moved to Singapore, however, the show had been canceled and the Internet had given me something even better: The O.C. spanking fan fiction. It exists, it is awesome, and it, as usual, was on my mind that evening. Nikolai was innovative, artistic, and nonjudgmental. If I had been fantasizing about Angelina Jolie in a black leather catsuit — in other words, the “sexy” stereotype of BDSM — I probably would have shared the fantasy. Nikolai would have laughed. But it’s one thing to be edgy; it’s quite another to fantasize about Sandy Cohen, with the epic eyebrows, spanking Ryan Atwood. So, no, my boss didn’t need to know what was on my mind.

But it’s one thing to be edgy; it’s quite another to fantasize about Sandy Cohen, with the epic eyebrows, spanking Ryan Atwood.

“I’m not thinking anything,” I said, too loudly. “Let’s drink.”

We did. We drank so much that, before long, we were drunk. Nikolai and I stumbled out of the wine bar and danced down a brick path near Robertson Quay, a posh stretch of restaurants, bars, and clubs along the river. A loose brick jutted out from the path.

“Get it!” Nikolai urged. “Pull it out!”

Giggling with the rush of being bad, I pulled the brick out of the path and threw it in the river. (I regret this. As a guest in Singapore, I had a responsibility to behave better.)

Then we ran.

“We’re in trouble now,” Nikolai joked. “They’re going to cane us!” (As the world was reminded during the 1994 Michael Fay controversy, when an American eighteen-year-old was sentenced to receive four cane strokes on his bare buttocks, the Singaporean judicial system employs corporal punishment.)

“Not me,” I teased. “Singaporean courts don’t cane women. Only men.”

“Really?” Nikolai said. I nodded.

“Trust me,” I slurred. “I know everything there is to know about judicial caning.” (Remember all those middle-school book reports on corporal punishment?)

Nikolai grinned.

“Since we’re being naughty tonight, shall we be really naughty?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Always,” I replied.

Section 377A of the Singaporean Penal Code states: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.” In other words, the Singaporean penal code criminalizes homosexuality.

Nikolai is gay.

“Let’s go to a gay bar,” he suggested.

“Do you know where to find one?” I asked.

“Of course,” he replied.

Nikolai didn’t just know where to find one — he knew them all. So we went on a pub crawl that night, walking from nondescript bar to nondescript bar. The more I drank, the less it felt like we were breaking a law. What at first had felt naughty felt, in no time, normal.

“Are you scared the government will come after you?” I asked the owner of one club.

He shrugged.

“Not really,” he said. “They leave us alone.”

I imagine that with regard to unenforced prohibitions, Singapore is a bit like Shakespeare’s England. During his life, homosexuality was technically punishable with harsh laws. But those laws were rarely enforced. As Bruce Smith pointed out, during the combined forty-five years of Elizabeth I’s reign and the twenty-three years of James I’s reign, there was only one sodomy conviction — and that was for sex with a five-year-old boy, so it would be more accurate to call it a rape conviction.

I imagine that with regard to unenforced prohibitions, Singapore is a bit like Shakespeare’s England. During his life, homosexuality was technically punishable with harsh laws.

King James — yes, the same one who sponsored the King James Bible, and the patron for whom Shakespeare wrote Macbeth — may have even been gay or bisexual himself. (But it’s important to remember that, at that period, those terms didn’t exist. It’s possible that people then understood sexuality as something more fluid. A lot of how we understand our identities is culturally and historically specific.) James had a wife and three children, but he also spoke quite candidly about his passionate love for men, especially George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham. “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else,” said James to his Privy Council in 1617, in what some scholars believe was an early defense of same-sex love. “I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.” And in 1624, during his last illness, James sent Buckingham a telling letter, begging him to come to his bedside:

I cannot content myself without sending you this billet,

praying God that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting

with you, and that we may make at this Christenmass a

new marriage, ever to be kept hereafter; for God so love

me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and

that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with

you, than live a sorrowful widow-life without you. And so

God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye

may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.

Although most surviving literary references to homosexuality from this period refer to same-sex attraction between men, writers were also aware of lesbian attraction. In one remarkable poem, John Donne — a poet and cleric in the Church of England — imagined sexual desire between women:

My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two,

But so as thine from one another do,

And, O, no more: the likeness being such,

Why should they not alike in all parts touch?

Hand to strange hand, lip to lip none denies;

Why should they breast to breast, or thighs to thighs?

Shakespeare’s own possible homoerotic interests have also been the subject of debate. Although he married Anne Hathaway and fathered three children with her, some readers cite the sonnets as evidence of Shakespeare’s bisexuality. Twenty-six of the sonnets are addressed to a married woman, who has often been called the “Dark Lady.” But one hundred and twenty-six of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) seem to be addressed to a young man, often called the “Fair Lord” or “Fair Youth.” (Sonnet 20 explicitly bemoans the fact that this young man is not female.) Some scholars theorize that this young man might be the same

“Mr. W. H.” to whom the sonnets were addressed. Maybe Shakespeare was bisexual. Others reject that theory; after all, there’s no reason to assume the sonnets are autobiographical.

What the Singaporean bartender had told me that night seemed true. No one in the club acted worried about an imminent raid. Despite their clandestine nature, the bars we visited did not feel shrouded by fear. I glanced around the room, pausing to wave hello to Antonio from The Merchant of Venice. Patrons laughed and flirted. Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Maybe this wasn’t so bad.

Then I saw a familiar face.

One man wasn’t having fun.

I had met Edwin, a Singaporean friend, at a mutual friend’s beach party on Sentosa Island. We had bonded over our mutual long-distance relationships: my boyfriend was in New York; his girlfriend was in Kuala Lumpur. After that, Edwin and I ran into each other at parties or dinners every few months. He was smart and funny. I liked Edwin, though we didn’t share political views.

“It’s not biblical,” Edwin told me once when same-sex marriage came up. “It’s perverse.”

Tonight, in a secret gay bar with no sign on the door, Edwin sat alone. He gazed around the room, both hands on a glass of beer. His eyes were hungry and sad.

“It’s not biblical,” Edwin told me once when same-sex marriage came up. “It’s perverse.”

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” begins Macbeth’s most famous incantation. Everything in the play is double. Macbeth and Banquo are like “cannons overcharg’d with double cracks,” who “doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.” When King Duncan stays at the Macbeths’ castle, where he will be murdered, it is “in double trust,” and Lady Macbeth promises that their care of him will be “in every point twice done and then done double.” Later, Macbeth tries to kill Macduff in an attempt to “make assurance double sure,” only to discover that the witches have toyed with him in “a double sense.”

Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head by Johann Heinrich Füssli

Macbeth is a play about doubles. But there is a twist.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the hero (or antihero) often has a “double,” or voice — a secondary character who speaks for the central figure, linking him to the real world and to the audience. Marjorie Garber describes these sidekicks as “someone on the stage who encounters things and verifies [that what seems] impossible or unbearable [is], nonetheless, true.” In Hamlet, Horatio fills that role: at the end of the play, Horatio is the one who promises to tell Hamlet’s story. In King Lear, that voice is Edgar. (“I would not take this from report. It is, and my heart breaks at it,” he says at one impossibly sad moment.)

Macbeth’s obsession with equivocation speaks to this idea of double voices. The word equivocation itself comes from the Latin word æquivocus, which means “of equal voice.” In Macbeth, where even the fundamental premise of the play demands verification — are the witches “real,” or merely a product of Macbeth’s imagination? — that double voice is more important than ever. At first, Banquo fills that role. He links Macbeth (and Macbeth) to the audience. Indeed, Banquo seems to speak for us. “Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?” he asks, after the weyard sisters first appear. We know Banquo saw the sisters, too. Unlike the dagger that Macbeth sees (or imagines) before he kills King Duncan, Banquo’s voice verifies for the audience — and, indeed, for Macbeth himself — that these sisters do exist.

But Macbeth has a twist that sets it apart from every other Shakespearean tragedy: Macbeth murders his voice. Mad with fear that Banquo’s heirs will seize the throne, Macbeth has Banquo killed. After that, our antihero is on his own. There is no one left to verify what is real and what is not. Macbeth sees — or imagines — Banquo’s ghost at a feast, and from then on, there is nothing good left in his life. In fact, the night that Banquo dies is the very last time we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who previously had the strongest marriage in the Shakespearean canon, speak to each other. When Macbeth’s voice dies, everything else disappears, too. Macbeth is alone.

When Macbeth’s voice dies, everything else disappears, too. Macbeth is alone.

He can’t survive that way. No person can.

In the bar, I lowered my face and walked over to Nikolai.

“We have to leave,” I muttered. “My friend is here.” I had invaded a safe space. Edwin didn’t want to be seen.

Nikolai chugged the rest of his drink and hopped to his feet. “Let’s go,” he said. We slipped out of the club.

Whenever Singaporean friends tried to defend 377A, they always emphasized the fact that it is rarely enforced.

“Homosexuals can do whatever they want,” a colleague once told me. “They just have to keep it private.”

“Privacy” is one of the most potent and insidious weapons a sexual majority can use against people with nonnormative sexual identities.

But the look on Edwin’s face that night told me a different story. I recognized the expression. “Privacy” is one of the most potent and insidious weapons a sexual majority can use against people with nonnormative sexual identities. “Privacy” sounds good. It sounds responsible and mature. But “privacy” is tied up with isolation and shame. It drives people underground. It puts people in danger.

“Privacy” palters with us in a double sense.

Sexuality doesn’t just appear at age eighteen. Like everyone else, kinky kids grow up with questions about our emerging sexualities. The difference is that, unlike people who grow up with normative sexual orientations, we can’t turn to pop culture for answers. There are almost no books, TV shows, or movies that show people like us, or relationships like the ones I craved, in a healthy or positive light. Our fear and shame doesn’t just come from negative messages; it comes from the lack of positive ones. When culture insists that people keep their “private” lives “private,” those who fall outside the norm fall through the cracks. We have no way to learn how to explore our fantasies safely.

One thing we do have is the Internet. Sexual minorities feel “private” online.

Predators feel “private” online, too.

When my friend Beth was sixteen, she met a fifty-four- year-old sadist on an Internet message board. His name was Logan. Beth was exactly like me at that age: obsessed with spanking and desperate to connect. She talked to Logan because she had no one else. After a few months of emails, Logan drove to Beth’s boarding school. She was nervous, but felt obligated to meet him. She didn’t want to be rude. He had made hotel reservations. So Beth got permission to leave school grounds for the weekend.

Beth was exactly like me at that age: obsessed with spanking and desperate to connect.

Beth was a virgin. She had never even been kissed. (For obvious reasons, her story hits close to home with me.) She didn’t want to have sex with Logan; she just needed to explore her masochistic impulses. But Beth was a good girl. She knew that she was supposed to keep her private life private. So she didn’t tell any of her friends where she was going that weekend. She didn’t tell anyone whom she was going to meet. Her only safety precaution was to leave a sealed envelope on her desk, with all the information she knew about Logan, just in case.

It was Friday. No one expected her back at school until Sunday night. If Beth disappeared, her friends would not find the envelope until a few days later.

“I was a rational, levelheaded kid,” Beth told me. “But the desire for it was more important than not getting murdered.”

To respect Beth’s privacy, I’ll leave out the rest of her story. Rest assured: no one had to open that sealed envelope. Beth went on to graduate school, became a top professional in her field, and eventually found healthy, safe, loving ways to explore her fetish with wonderful partners. In the end, things worked out. But the point is that when a kink is lifelong, innate, and unchosen — as it is for people like me and Beth, and many others — it mixes with stigma and “privacy” into danger.

We take risks because the isolation and emptiness of the alternative is worse.

I was lucky. I met John. He and I made mistakes — big ones, in some cases — but I stayed, for the most part, safe. Stories like Beth’s are common, but I was the safe one.

Think about that: I dropped out of high school, moved to a foreign country, and let a drug dealer whip me bloody before I had even learned about safe words — and compared to dozens of other stories I’ve heard, mine was the “safe” path.

Without sexual privacy, discretion suffers. Without sexual transparency, people suffer.

My “privacy,” unlike Edwin’s, was, for the most part, not the product of institutionalized government oppression. (That being said, fetishists can and do lose jobs, security clearances, or child custody battles because of our consensual orientations; in some places, consensual kink is explicitly illegal.) The biggest thing choking me was me. I’d been force-fed stigma for so long, I had lost the gag reflex to resist. If the men and women of Pink Dot, a grassroots Singaporean movement for LGBT equality, could challenge their government, I had no excuse to cower behind my own shame.

The biggest thing choking me was me. I’d been force-fed stigma for so long, I had lost the gag reflex to resist.

Nikolai and I said good night and I walked home. I lived on the forty-fourth floor of a skyscraper on Cantonment Road, in an apartment I shared with three flatmates. One entire wall of my bedroom was a huge window. I sat on my bed and remembered the expression on Edwin’s face. The city skyline sparkled before me.

I thought I’d been so honest with David, but that wasn’t true. I had doubled myself up so many times that I was more tightly folded than any origami crane. It would be impossible for anyone to read what had been written on my page. I was so repressed I couldn’t breathe.

The façade of honesty is more dangerous than a lie. I was that equivocator. I was the fiend who lies like truth. The two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art both had my face.

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