How They Love

Charmaine Poh

2018 - 2020

Singapore, Singapore

A photography studio. Contemporary love songs play softly in the background. The set is lit by LED panels tinted orange and pink. The floor is covered in white fabric and pink petals. Projected on to the backdrop is an 80s wedding portrait of a man and woman. Other photography equipment – C-stands, light stands, apple boxes, etc. – is placed around the set. In the foreground, two people sit cross-legged on the floor, holding hands, looking at each other. Both have bow ties on. Tears well up, and they embrace. A prolonged pause, then the click of a camera shutter.

How They Love explores the complexities of performing queer feminine identity in Singapore.

Through practice-led ethnography which employs photography and performance as main modes of research, engagement, and representation, the series examines the ways in which romantic partners express desire, as well as the manifestations of their individual identity formation project in the contemporary queer experience.

Central to the research is the notion of performativity, both relating to the tension with the camera as well as the everyday self-actualisation process. Brought into a studio and given an array of wedding props and costumes to choose from, the participants interact with matrimonial tropes and constructed gender roles, resulting in images which align with their vision of self-representation. Projected onto the backdrop are their parents’ wedding portraits, a visual reminder of the heteronormative histories that have shaped many LGBTQ people’s lives, and a juxtaposition to the possibilities they are in the midst of creating. Through the use of the set, as well as the use of dramaturgy in the direction of their portraits, participants confront the way they perform their gendered identities in the everyday.

In creating new imagery of queerness that echoes Jose Esteban Muñoz' idea of queer futurity, the series is an attempt to visibilise and validate narratives that have long been relegated to the margins. The process of engagement is in itself a form of world-making and resistance-forming, blurring the lines between performance and the everyday. The series situates itself not merely as a conceptual exercise, but in, as Judith Butler write, "a desire to live, to make life possible, and to rethink the possible as such."

Homosexual relations remain illegal in Singapore due to a colonial-era penal code, 377(a), which dictates that a man cannot have sex with another man. Couples who identify as non-heterosexual do not possess any legal or administrative rights, affecting marriage, their ability to obtain public housing, and hospital visitations, among other issues. Women are not mentioned in the penal code.

Coming up against existing state and social oppression, as well as a slowly evolving supportive discourse, it appears that queer identity is at a turning point in history. It has arguably never been more accepted to be queer, and yet the tide has not yet turned: the state continues to monitor and marginalise this identity to various degrees, giving rise to a community that has formed, and continues to form, its identity through self-determination.

This series was first initiated through a residency at the Exactly Foundation in 2018, before turning into a thesis project as part of the M.A. in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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  • Ele and Lee lie facing each other. The two don't prioritise official marriage, although they do see themselves in a long-term partnership, and imagine a life together outside of Singapore. Lee sees marriage as “an institution that straight people created.” Both see themselves in an egalitarian relationship, free of gender roles. Singapore, Singapore. 6 February 2018.

  • Celeste stands in front of a wedding portrait of her parents. She discovered her sexuality as a gay woman when she was a teenager, when she found that she couldn't be attracted to men and was only attracted to women. When she was 19, she left home and moved in with her then girlfriend. After years of not speaking and being in an abusive relationship, she finally returned home. She attributes this extreme experience to her parents' acceptance of her sexuality. She also says that "after all this, I was not afraid of being out anymore." She used to long for a grand wedding, with “eight dress changes.” but is now resigned to a small ceremony. “At the end of the day that’s the reality. I’m not gonna have a super big wedding. I don’t ever see any lesbian couple here who has a huge proper wedding. I’ve never seen it. I don’t know if it’s legal. I don’t think it’s legal.” Singapore, Singapore. 15 March 2018.

  • Jean and Xener sit in front of a wedding portrait of Xener's parents. She said she was attracted to Jean first, and began flirting with her in the frozen yogurt shop she was working in. Even though it is Xener's first relationship with a woman, she said it was her secondary school experience in a girls’ school that paved the way for her to be confident about her sexuality. Singapore, Singapore. 8 May 2018.

  • Growing up, Joy resisted codes of femininity, hating any clothes, colours, and behaviour associated with girliness. “I got my first pay and I went to buy khaki pants for myself. I felt so free, shopping myself with my own money. Then I started to do that. I got too uncontrollable with my spendings on clothes. I had to re-do my entire wardrobe. That time my mom also released my bank to me and a card and I was uncontrollable. I was spending so much money, To the point I when my parents told me, you have to stop. But I couldn’t stop.” They had struggled with gender dysphoria since they were a young teenager, but it was only in the last year that they began to come to terms with their transmasculine identity. Singapore, Singapore. 25 July 2019.

  • Alina plays with the veil as she sits for a portrait. Since she was young, Alina has dated both men and women, never staying single for too long. Her relationship with Tammy has been her most serious, with the two making long-term plans together. Singapore, Singapore. 26 July 2019.

  • Sy and Jonit sit in front of a portrait of Sy's parents. They had met while in dance school. It's Jonit's first relationship, and she doesn't identify with any particular sexual identity. Sy had known she was attracted to girls since she was a teenager. Singapore, Singapore. 24 March 2018.

  • Jean met her first few partners through church. While she still believes in God, she decided to step back from serving in the church she attended, partially because the institution disapproved of homosexuality. In one of the couselling sessions, she recalls, “I got counselled by the pastor, she was beating around the bush, and I was like what are you trying to say, she was like, parents are concerned, like for example if you’re someone who is a pedophile in a children’s ministry, it’s my job to… yeah that was what she said. It was quite traumatising.” Jean identifies as gender queer. Singapore, Singapore. 8 May 2018.

  • Joy considers their silhouette. It was through coming across Chellaman, a social media influencer, that Joy felt confident about the possibilities of being transmasculine. They still suffer bouts of illness, which they attribute to the mental strain of gender dysphoria, and see a therapist to help them through this process. Singapore, Singapore. 25 July 2019.

  • Charm and Joy stand together. Joy often holds on to Charm’s waist, while Charm’s favourite part of Joy’s body is their chest. They state clearly that their relationship is not a lesbian one, but a queer one. Joy identifies as a transmasculine genderqueer person, and it is Charm’s first non-heteronormative relationship. Since being with Joy, Charm has become more comfortable identifying as a queer woman, even starting an LGBTQ support group in her university. Her parents have largely accepted her sexuality; her brother is queer as well, and identifies as bisexual. Singapore, Singapore. 25 July 2019.

  • Liting stands in front of a wedding portrait of her parents. She identifies as a butch woman, and has written a play, Pretty Butch, about her experience, using it to come out to her mother. Singapore, Singapore. 11 March 2018.

  • Pearly and Addy hold each other. While Pearly says she is not a lesbian and identifies as queer, she mantains that Addy, who is trans, is probably the only man she would date. Her attraction to men is a source of discomfort to her, especially as she considers the problematic masculinity associated with it. Singapore, Singapore. 12 March 2019.

  • Faiz considers herself a man in a woman's body. While she does use female pronouns and does not want to operate on her body for religious reasons, she has always felt more comfortable in a masculine role. Growing up was difficult for Faiz, whose family members are pious Muslims, and could not accept her identity. However, before her father passed away, he told her that he loved her as she was. Singapore, Singapore. 19 May 2018.

  • The shadows of Sy and Jonit loom over a figurine of a male-female pair in wedding attire. When Sy decided to cut her hair off in a bid to challenge authority, she had to stop being part of her Malay dancer troupe. Asked what they desired in their future, Sy answered, “What do I want for my future with her? I want to marry her. I mean not that it’s possible in Singapore, but…  It’d be really nice to have a lifetime together. To stay with each other. Get a place, get doggos. Cats, I love cats. Yeah. That’d be nice. And be really good at what we do, career-wise…” Singapore, Singapore. 24 March 2018.

  • Tammy and Alina stand facing each other, playing with the veil. They agree that Alina has more traditional views on gender roles, and attribute this to potentially her becoming accustomed to these roles when she was in relationships with men. Both families accept their sexualities, and have met each other. Singapore, Singapore. 26 July 2019.

  • Claire and Amanda have been together for two years, and found each other on Tinder. Amanda stays at Claire's apartment most days, and is close to Claire's family, who accepts her sexuality. Amanda’s family does not. Claire is wheelchair-bound and competes professionally in table tennis. When they first started dating, Claire was concerned that she would inconvenience Amanda. Amanda said in reply that there was nothing inconvenient about their relationship. Singapore, Singapore. 20 May 2018.