avatarNatasha MH

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LIFE + LITERATURE

Excuse Me, I’m Heterosexual

Just because I’m unmarried by choice doesn’t mean I’m hiding skeletons

A woman and her mystery is the eighth wonder of the ancient world. Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,’ I said, sighing. ‘Is it?’ said Veronica, looking surprised. ‘Universally acknowledged? Surely that presupposes life similar to human societies beyond this planet, and besides — ‘ ‘No, no, it’s a quote from … Never mind,’ I said.” ― Michelle Cooper, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’

I hate to admit, but it seems a modern woman can’t escape the framework of a Jane Austen novel.

To think that I’m Asian, living far away from the English countryside, and Austen’s early 19th-century country house novels. Yet, I’ve been stuck in a Pride and Prejudice plot since the day I was born in a paddy field state called Kedah.

I was born female, I proudly identify myself as a woman, but little did I realize that I was born into a template that was pre-designed by society. It’s a template that defines what being female and a woman is, and it began right there at the hospital itself — my pink blanket, pink hat and pink pair of socks. Strangely to this day I dislike pink.

Everyone called me Princess. They held me gently and carefully. I was tucked in pink frills and ruffles. My grandmother already had jewelry on me (a Southeast Asian custom). My gold anklet had a tiny bell so even the slightest move, someone would turn up and check on the Princess.

Eventually as I grew up, everyone stopped calling me Princess. Reality knocked on my door and unceremoniously barged in. Things started to click.

The world we live in is a planet of shambles and hypocrites. They say be yourself, but when folks say they’re gay, lesbian, trans, queer, the room turns gray and gloomy about acceptance. Hospitality turns rancid, people’s facial masks unpeel themselves. So what do communities really mean when they go around gallantly and trumpet the song Be yourself?

I’m genuinely asking this because for the life of me, I see everyone being hit below the belt for being themselves most of the time.

I’ve been straight (heterosexual) all my life but I still have to fight gargoyles, asshats and salty aunties and cheese biscuits (officious intermeddlers) who think I’m not, because they can’t believe a woman can be single, successful and … wait for it… content.

I’m not talking about high on happiness from substance abuse. I’m talking about genuine contentment that stems from doing the work — knowing what you want, creating a healthy supportive ecosystem, and finding meaning and purpose in the work that you do.

Sure, it’s what many strive to achieve. That explains the ocean of books written about this obsession. And sure, some struggle to find that yellow brick road. It’s literally a lot of work, through and through. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible and unattainable. You just need to get kicked to the curb and be hit by a truck, metaphorically speaking, before you can see how that’s possible. No pain, no gain.

For perspective, I have friends who live inside the closet. They fear coming out because peers and family aren’t ready to accept them for who they are. I see them suffer. I see them longing for love, to be with people who can accept them for who they are. They often tell me how they wish they could openly display affection with their loved ones. In Southeast Asia that’s afforded by, you know, heterosexuals.

I can totally understand all that. Everyone is born equal, deserving of love and affection, although some parts of the world have social barriers in the form of religion, law and traditions that force you to have to fight for those rights. Southeast Asia is one of them, and that’s where I am writing this.

One of my best mates moved from Malaysia to New Zealand so she can live her life openly as a lesbian. To this day, her folks and family think her partner is just a housemate. It’s been 15 years. Here’s the black fly in her Chardonnay: If my friend lived alone, they’d start to worry. Having a housemate is better than no mate. It’s safer too. Why is she living alone? Is she, you know, a lesbian?

Sometimes I don’t know if Asian families can be that tone deaf or if they simply choose to live in denial. Perhaps, her parents are really that innocent, still holding on to high hopes that my friend will someday marry a decent, hardworking and very rich man (the dream of every Southeast Asian parent). Meanwhile I wait with bated breath for the day the other shoe will drop, and my bestie will call me crying from having to confess the truth to her family.

To say the LGBTQ community suffers from marginalization and stigma is true, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture correctly.

I am a heterosexual, living out of a proverbial closet, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve had to assert to people that I am one.

It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, no different to how my gay and lesbian friends have to protect their hiding space in their closet from their Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu community. I won’t even get started on those who are bisexual trapped in a traditional marriage.

One reason I often get accused of being non-heterosexual is simple — because I have many friends who are.

My social pool is a glass menagerie of gays, lesbians and trans. I know them through work, a few since childhood, having witnessed their transition from A to B. To me we’re all the same. Their sexual orientation is their business. Put that aside, we all sing identical songs of despair, disappointments and dreams. We just sing them in different chords, with a tweak in the lyrics for pronouns. To put it bluntly like Rhett Butler in the 1939 film ‘Gone With The Wind’: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

To shallow-minded onlookers, just because you’re chums with the queers and enjoy watching ‘Drag Race’, they think that makes you potentially one. If not now, perhaps in the future? Pffftt.

If reading that sounds absurd, that’s because it is. Sadly it doesn’t erase the fact that there are insipid folks that view life through a thin straw.

The other reason I get asked whether or not I’m a lesbian is because I’m happily unmarried.

Like clapping, you can’t do the “heart” with one hand. Pffftt. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Since my divorce more than a decade ago, unlike most people in Southeast Asia, I choose to remain unmarried. No, I don’t hate men from marital failure. No, I haven’t lost faith in the institution of marriage just because mine crashed. In sooth, I have more respect today for what a marriage vow represents compared to a decade ago when I was still married. We bleed, we learn.

No, I’ve neither lost interest in dating, nor find it soul-crushing or disappointing. As a matter of fact I enjoy a bit of flirting now and then because I’m not a robot. But deciding not to be united in wedlock to a man seems to sit uncomfortably with people around me. That’s because in Southeast Asian communities, being divorced is a firestarter.

“The failure of marriage reveals your failures.”― Tamerlan Kuzgov

To gossip mongers, the fact that you couldn’t hold a husband down speaks a lot more about you as a wife than the man as a husband.

If you read that as unfair, that’s because it is. It’s also hurtful.

A woman is held more accountable for the demise of her marriage than a man. He is the provider, she is the homemaker. If a woman makes a good home, a man will stay. If there is evidence the husband failed, the question goes back to the woman: How on earth did you marry him in the first place?

It’s a wrestling match rigged from the start so you can’t win.

It imposes a stigma on confident, independent and capable women. It seems to suggest you’re not supposed to be content, confident and capable without a husband because throughout history, literature describes women as the fairer and gentler sex. In some traditional cultures, women are seen not heard. Your husband speaks for you.

This is partly attributed to the fact that romantic genres often portray a woman with a single pursuit in life — to seek a partner. Out of jest, I blame it on the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen. Women of age in their stories were invisible and socially crippled without economic support in the shadowy form of a husband.

In an Austen novel, mothers would have their daughters stand in line hoping to catch the attention of a pale, debonair suitor with inheritance. He’ll come trotting on his horse. He’ll have a job where once too often, he’ll be away. Who cares what he did or what he conspired in the divan reeking of brandy and cigars with the other industrial or land owners. At least you’re wearing his surname on your bosom. For that, you won’t be suspected of, or be called, you know, a lesbian.

Of course, the gossip mill works overtime. It’s a 24-hour 7-Eleven. The salty aunties and gossip cheese biscuits would go: If she is pretty and alright in the head, then why has she not landed herself a man? No doubt, that’s a valid question. It’s also an unfeeling question typically asked by people who are thoughtless with a penchant for other people’s laundry.

“In marriage, you get the qualification certificate at the very beginning of the course, instead of getting it at the end of the lesson.” ― Mwanandeke Kindembo

It was only when I got divorced that I discovered the impact of how a man in Southeast Asia is a social and status symbol for a woman. Even with my own career, a husband meant economic, mental and social alignment. That spells stability and social position. When you attend functions, seats are set for a couple.

It was then, much to my unfortunate malaise, I discovered that I myself was trapped in an Austen novel I hold in disfavor.

You’re either the mad woman in the attic of Thornfield Hall or the simple plain Jane. Photo by Hannah Smith on Unsplash

A husband is a woman’s badge of honor. With a husband, a woman’s life seems more wholesome. When she has children, only then her life and earthly role will be complete. She then has to devote herself to her brood, raise them selflessly, and then die. Circle of Life. It’s about adhering to society’s protocol.

Based on that standard operating procedure, likewise if you’re single, you’re not supposed to be content. You’re supposed to be in therapy. You’re incomplete, remember? That’s why if you dilly-dally to get hitched, the elders will take matters into their own hands and marry you off with a Darcy or Rochester that’s available.

You’re supposed to be longing, wanting, desiring to be part of a nuclear family package. If you’re not in, you’re out. Salty aunties and cheese biscuits crackers will think you must belong to this protest club called LGBTQ. Dollars to doughnuts, they don’t even know what that means save for a bunch of scrambled alphabets.

Since I’m a woman, if I don’t adhere to the prescribed rules of engagement, then well, I must be, you know, a lesbian. I must be in protest of something. Here’s a typical conversation that I’ve had the displeasure of having for decades suited for a modern day Austen novel:

Me: I don’t mind a man, but I don’t need a man, salty aunties and cheese biscuit nosy parkers.

Others: How can you say that? You need a man to look after you.

Me: Okay.

Others: Okay what? That’s it?

Me: What else do you want me to say?

Others: So how come you’re not married after all this time?

Me: I’m happy where I am right now. I’m busy with my life.

Others: But you need companionship.

Me: I have friends and family.

Others: But you need to think about having a family of your own.

Me: I’m good, really, thanks.

Others: So what’s the problem then? What’s wrong with you?

Me: Nothing’s wrong. Life is good, really.

Others: Are you a lesbian?

Me: No. I’m a heterosexual. Proud and loud.

Others: If you are, why don’t you want a man, then?

You can see how this conversation has no end.

The plot thickens. Now you’re Bertha, the beautiful but violently insane first wife of Charlotte Brontë’s Edward Rochester, locked in a room on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. Your only escape is death by fire. Make sure the mansion collapses on you on the way out, or throw yourself off the roof for a shortcut.

Even when I do have a partner, my heterosexuality isn’t spared. I’ve to assert I’m a heterosexual in public. That’s difficult for social digestion when I want to stay mum and keep my relationship private. Alas, we live in the era of social media where folks love to share every morsel pertaining to social affairs.

Even a fetus’ privacy isn’t spared. Gender reveal parties have become more than a trend with pink and blue balloons. It’s become a big expensive party, a cultural perversion, recorded, with reaction videos. Ultrasound images are blown up, some turned into coasters as party favors.

It seems that announcements are important these days to be shared with 8,045,311,447 strangers stretching seven continents (at mid-year of 2023, according to UN estimates). So if you’re in Asia, netizens in Antarctica, South America and Africa ought to know if you’re going to have a boy or a girl. Don’t forget to type “Congratulations” in the comment section like it’s a guestbook.

With reality shows like 90 Days Fiancé, even if you dislike your partner, make sure you showcase your epic meltdowns and toxic dynamics. To the unfamiliar, the show is an American reality television series that follows couples who have applied for a special visa, available uniquely to foreign fiancés of U.S. citizens, and therefore have 90 days to marry each other.

The show is as strange as it sounds, which is why it’s addictive. The proof in the pudding is reflected in nine strong seasons featuring odd and mismatched couples that are exemplary of social pairings gone wrong. It’s probably why Noah asked for animal pairs only on his ark.

Even then, as they unravel their bickering madness and contempt for each other, the world is watching. With a show like this, it signals that even the odds and ends on this planet has someone. Based on the show’s premise, a beauty still has a beast viable to parade. Operative word: parade.

What happens when you treasure your privacy while the rest of society opens its shower curtains to the world? Well then, you must be hiding something.

In today’s currency, privacy is a luxury in itself. Bought a designer handbag? Parade to the world. Got a nose job? Parade to the world. Getting divorced? TikTok to the world. Going on holiday? Gram it to the world. Got mugged? Report to the netizen police squad. Makeovers? There’s the fashion police. Hate someone, love someone, birthing a baby, seeing an accident, a homeless person or a carcass on the road, please people, share it with the world. The world needs to know your business, because privacy today is so yesterday. And from there we can proceed to shame you or cancel you. The world is now your jury.

That’s the very reason I treasure my privacy and love life to the hilt.

But no, salty aunties and cheese biscuit crackers won’t have any of it. Here’s a typical conversation that I’ve had the displeasure of having for quite some time. It would be the perfectly hand-kneaded French Bordier butter to Jane Austen’s scones:

Others: Why are you hiding him from us?

Me: I want my privacy.

Others: You must have things to hide.

Me: It’s called privacy. My personal business does not have to be everyone else’s laundry.

Others: You only shy away if you have something you’re embarrassed or worried about.

Me: Nope.

Others: Or he doesn’t exist.

Me: He does.

Others: So why the secrecy? It’s a girl, isn’t it. You’re a lesbian!

Me: Nope.

Others: Then?

Me: It’s because he is a billionaire. We don’t want to attract attention.

Others: A billionaire. How can that be? Is he with the mafia? You need to be careful. If a man is too rich he could be a drug dealer like Pablo Escobar, and look what happened to him.

As you can see, this conversation has no end.

As I gear towards aging like fine wine, God willing, I grow to bother less and less about being questioned about my orientation. I’ve better pursuits with my hunting dogs. I like giving the old crows something to talk about at weddings and dinner functions when I walk proudly alone beside my parents, siblings and their partners.

Nothing the old crows can conjure even through witchcraft can match my wit and eccentricities. They’re also terrified of my mother who can easily chew them for appetizers.

My current outlook for companionship is inspired by Agatha Christie’s words: “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”

The point, as I read that, is not to go searching for Indiana Jones. The point is to be an archaeological site.

Somewhere in the annex of English Literature, Austen and the Brontë sisters are having a laugh.

It’s more fun to be a woman of murder and mystery, like an Agatha Christie novel. The only thing exposed about my love life is my pores. Photo by Natasha MH.

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