I push my laptop screen back slightly, looking at the black square next to my own broadcasted video in the Zoom call as it connects, the face of one of my oldest high-school friends, Lai Zoeyan (@zoeyan_lai), filling the screen.
Currently nineteen-years old, she is a student at UOW Malaysia KDU, pursuing a degree in communications and is openly omnisexual, an identity that is admittedly rare in a country where terms like: “gay”, “lesbian” and “transgender” are hushed up by older generations.
“Hi.” I say smiling somewhat awkwardly, still trying to reconcile the person I’m seeing on screen with the same girl that I’ve known since I was thirteen.
“Hi.” she replies and after a brief rundown of what this interview would entail, we get right into it.
Having known her for the past half a decade, watching her transformation, not just in terms of appearance, has been awe-inspiring and a nearly 180 degree change compared to the person that she used to be. Long silky hair now snipped into a longish sort of “overgrown mullet” as she deems it with face-framing bangs, her “Subang Jaya college girl” style thrown into the wind in favour of an amalgamation of fashion choices that range from layers of chains adorning her neck, multiple rings, crop tops, bright colours, actually everything but the kitchen sink.
In fact, when I start off the interview by asking her what aesthetic describes her the best, she laughs out loud while contemplating the question.
“Honestly, I don’t think I have an aesthetic that can be put into a box. It’s just sort of…. everywhere.” she muses.
“So, I’m just going to write down here CHAOS.” I joke, typing down the exact word in my interview notes.
“Yeah, actually.” She laughs along with me.
In fact, that is also her view when it comes to addressing her omnisexuality.
“What is being omnisexual, like what’s the textbook definition of it?” I start with a simple question because I ashamedly admit that I am not as aware of other types of sexuality as I should be.
“Well, being omnisexual basically means being attracted to all genders, so I’m attracted to anyone, it doesn’t matter if they’re trans, non-binary, queer, bi or whatever. I do have a preference for males, but I find that it’s always changing.” she explains.
“So when you talk about gender, I know you explained this to me a couple of weeks ago, but just for context sake, how do you explain gender to people who are so used to thinking about it as just men and women?”
“See, there’s a difference between between someone’s sex, which is obviously the biological organs they were born with, so physically speaking of course, we can categorise them as male or female. When it comes to gender, it’s more of how they identify themselves, how they see themselves fitting into the world. So a good example is non-binary individuals, they don’t identify with the gender that they are born with, neither do they feel exclusively “masculine” or “feminine.” And that really is the point of being part of this community, it’s more about acknowledging how you feel, what makes you feel the most comfortable and in the end ensuring that you feel the best in your own skin.”
“Speaking of being comfortable in your own skin, what was your experience going from run of the mill “straight girl” to discovering your sexual orientation? Was there a sort of trigger that made you realise that: ‘oh I might not be heterosexual’? ” I enquire.
“I feel grateful and privileged enough to say that my “coming out” experience was not as bad as the media often portrays it. I wasn’t kicked out of the house or shunned or anything. Instead it was more of a slow progression of questioning and a lot of self-discovery. There was no EUREKA moment for me, the media overplays that a bit. At first I just imagined being attracted to other genders, which was quickly met with a lot of self-denial. Despite that, my imagination still wandered to different places and it sort of grew to the point where I could no longer close off this portion of myself anymore eventually leading to acceptance. However-,” she suddenly says. “- I found that the biggest change was probably my self esteem. When I was still trying to fit in with most of my peers, I found myself plagued by insecurity-.”
We all know this story, because we’ve all gone through a similar experience. It’s the time in our lives where we compare ourselves to others’ Instagram’s posts and stories, criticising ourselves and desperately wanting to be “prettier” or “more stylish”.
“- but ever since I came out, I feel better. I really stopped trying to fit in according to what society wanted me to be, gave myself more options to be who I wanted to be and just stopped giving a damn.” she shrugs nonchalantly.
“You have the unique experience of being an openly “out” person in Malaysia and you mentioned that your transition was much more well-received than the majority. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came out of the closet and what the reception was like, especially from your family and close friends?”
“As you know, I’m pretty vocal about my sexual orientation on social media, my Instagram and Twitter mainly. None of my family follow me on Twitter except one of my cousins, so I reposted something about being omnisexual and when she saw it on her feed, she assumed it was just a prank of sorts, and went to tell her mother, painting it as a“joke”,” her fingers curl into an air-quote, the story accompanied by a lot of passionate gesticulation.
“So her mother, my aunt, obviously goes to tell my mom who then calls me downstairs in the middle of the day, pulling me out of my online class, for a huge talk about my sexual orientation. It was a shock for me to say the least because I was not prepared in the slightest and if I’m being honest with myself I don’t think I would have had the courage to come out by myself, so it was a very blessing in disguise type of occurrence.”
I automatically wince at her story as I put myself in her shoes, wondering what it must have felt like to be thrown into such an unforeseen situation, especially being confronted by one of my own parents.
“And how did your family react?” I ask hesitantly, reassuring her that if she felt uncomfortable with telling that part of the story, it was completely fine.
She waves my concerns off casually, happy to be able to tell her side of the story.
“My siblings were absolutely fine with it, I mean it’s 2021. My mom, on the other hand, took it much better than I expected her to. She actually came into my room later that night for another talk, because she could sense that I had had a terrible day. She told me that ‘do you really think that because of whatever happened, we will treat you differently?’ and she just continued to tell me that nothing has changed and that she still loves me no matter what I identify myself by.”
My heart warms as I listen to this portion of her story, because after hearing terrifying tales of parents severing ties with their children because of who they love, this is definitely one that is more wholesome and has a happy ending, despite its rocky beginnings.
“The irony is, I do wish some stuff changed. Like, even now when she talks about future partners she always says ‘oh when you find the right guy’ or ‘when you finally have a husband’, so I can still see there’s a tiny part of her that sort of defaults to me being straight.” she sighs.
Nevertheless, her tone lifts slightly as she continues. “Then, there are times when she sits me down to talk about my sexual identity which makes me sort of relieved because hey, at least she’s acknowledging it and we can talk about it openly but the fact that she still thinks of me having a life partner who is male irks me at times.”
“I notice you don’t talk about your dad a lot in this scenario.” I point out to her.
“Oh he has no idea,” she fully admits. “And I don’t think he ever will. Not that I’m complaining, because all things considered, I’m one of the luckier ones and I’m always grateful that I’m getting so much support from my family .
As for friends, there wasn’t much for her to say except that her “coming out” was far smoother than with her family, most of them accepting her for who she is without a fuss.
“Really?” I exclaim, surprised. “None of your friends cut off ties with you or shunned you?”
“Well no, because if they were those types of people, I wouldn’t even be friends with them in the first place.”
After taking a short water break for both sides, and resting my furiously tapping fingers, I proceed to the next question which takes a step back, moving on from personal experiences to a broader understanding of the LGBTQ+ community she is a part of.
“What does being part of this group of people mean to you? Whether it’s the online or offline community?”
“Like many people are aware, our community especially in this country is still considered very ‘taboo’ therefore, we often suffer in silence so many members consider the community as a sort of “second family” where they are accepted for who they are and it gives them a sense of security because they know they aren’t alone in this fight. But like in other communities there are also different sub-groups with incidents of discrimination within those sectors as well. For example, we have transgenders which can then be broken down into being ‘black and transgender’ or ‘Asian and transgender’ so everyone sort of gravitates to the ones that they feel are the most similar to themselves, or have the same shared experience. ”
“And do you share this feeling or…?” I trail off, easing her into the question.
“The thing is being “out” in Malaysia is already rare. Combine that with the fact that I identify as “omni”, which is even rarer, makes it more difficult for me to totally integrate myself in the community. I can empathize with people and listen to their woes but that’s about it. It’s been pretty difficult for me to find someone that totally understands what I’m going through, in a way. So, when I meet someone online that also identifies as “omni” there is that sense of kinship and connection there.”
I take a minute to absorb the deluge of information that I’ve just been given, realising the complexities of societal hierarchies and relationships. Even within a group as marginalised as the LGBTQ community, there seems to be a more complex network of politics and implications.
“Holding on to the topic of the LGBTQ community in Malaysia, I know that you’ve been heavily promoting an Instagram page called @lgbtglowing, curated by you and some other admins. Can you tell me a bit about how this came into fruition and what you guys aim to do with it ?”
“Actually there was an Instagram page previous to this but it kept getting hacked because of the number of admins we had, so we migrated to a WhatsApp group for us to share our experiences and keep in touch. From this group chat, me and five other individuals decided to try creating a whole new Instagram account but only allowing the six of us access for security purposes. So far what we’ve been trying to do is create an atmosphere of acceptance, a safe place online for people to just be themselves.” she explains.
She then regales several stories of people coming out to their friends and being shunned or rejected by their crushes, the kind of moments where the community truly bands together as one, and their page becomes a metaphorical “shoulder to cry on”.
A sense of admiration wells up within me, as I watch these teens, some even younger than myself, doing their best, wielding the Internet as a tool for advocacy and awareness, a sentiment that we desperately need more of in Asian countries.
“Obviously, we live in a society where acceptance is scarce and the marriage laws for same-sex couples are non-existant but if you had the power to do so, what is the first step you would take for a more positive change?”
“Practically speaking, I believe that it stems a lot from awareness. Even within my own community, the knowledge seems to be extremely limited, it’s quite surprising that most people don’t even know the difference between being “bi” or “pan” which are two totally separate things, just shoved under one umbrella term, although there are subtle differences. So, I truly believe that education and raising awareness is the only way we can start having open conversations and the beginnings of real acceptance. I’m not saying that it’s the solution because there will always be people that oppose our community, but it is at least a start.”
I then choose to pose a naively optimistic question to her, already able to guess the answer but still wanting to know her opinion regardless.
“Do you think events like Pride Parades or being openly “out” will be possible for Asia and our own country?”
She answers very simply, the first part shocking me.
“For Asia? I think that we have come a long way and there already are some pockets of parade and same-sex marriage so there’s definite improvement. But for Malaysia, I’m not as hopeful, because in my opinion if we continue to be blinded by the fact that religion tells us that only MEN CAN LOVE WOMEN, we won’t be able to get very far.”
I consult my notes and am surprised to find that the past hour has gone by in a flash, with only one heavy question left to answer.
“Finally, do you have any advice or a message for people who are currently closeted and given the way our society views the LGBTQ community, will most likely be closeted for a long time?”
There is a sense of determination and faith that fills her voice as she answers my question.
“I feel like a lot of people think they have to be “out” in order to be valid. This is so so not true. Whether you’re closeted, still figuring yourself out or just experimenting, whatever you identify yourself with at that time is completely valid. The harsh truth is that coming out is a difficult process, most people don’t even think of reaching that stage because of the stigma surrounding it. Even if you are never ready to come out, that doesn’t make your sexuality any less significant or that you don’t belong in the community, that isn’t what we stand for. I guess what I’m saying is that you might never be ready to let people know who you are and that’s fine as long as you stay true to yourself and accept who you are from the very start.”
With that empowering statement, we exchanged goodbyes, I thank her profusely for being willing enough to do this little interview close and end the meeting which served as an informative session and a much-needed catch up session between two old friends. As I sit down at my laptop, I smile because as always, it is an honour to be able to brings someone’s story out into the world and that in the times of darkness that we currently live in, it is heart-warming to see beacons of light that in the future may possibly catapult us into a more accepting society as a whole.
Because there are more worrisome things in the world than boys loving boys and girls loving girls.
Written by Ashley Lim
Featuring Zoeyan Lai
“love always wins. love has no gender. love is love. i am born this way. i am who i am”
Happy Pride Month