Let's keep the sex talk real

Sex education and understanding sexuality can be tough if the teachers are weird.

Staff members at the Health Promotion Board (HPB) are my Singapore heroes this week after addressing the sensitive issue of homosexuality by giving only sensible answers. They are good teachers.

Growing up, my queries about sexuality were answered by my family. They were not good teachers.

My family did for sex education what Anton Casey did for foreign workers.

In an East London, working class household, the ignorance was spell-binding. I vividly recall coming across the expression "gay" and asking my mother what it meant. She said a "gay" man was a "happy" man; a man always smiling.

I never looked at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way again.

But my father offered greater insight into the complex, nuanced world of sexuality. He proudly calls himself "old-school' (i.e. intolerant). Any mentions of "homosexuality" could leave him shaking and reaching for something alcoholic.

In truth, there were many words that made him reach for something alcoholic - usually any in the English language.

One day, I plucked up the coverage to ask my father what a homosexual was. I waited for the right moment (when he was drunk).

"That's easy to explain, boy," he slurred. "A homosexual is anyone who looks and behaves like Elton John."

Being young and impressionable, I had no idea how to process this information. So a homosexual was anyone who was plump and bespectacled?

That could include many men, including my uncle. And he certainly disagreed when I asked if he was a homosexual at a family wedding.

In my defence, my uncle's appearance does suggest that he's about to jump in front of a piano and belt out Candle in the Wind.

So I figured that my Dad must have meant that male pianists were homosexuals. This hypothesis did not go down well with my music teacher.

When synthesisers became all the rage in the late 1980s, I took piano lessons at secondary school so I could learn how to play Axel F (that's the theme from Beverly Hills Cop, younger readers. And I can still play the tune one-handed. I am available for bookings.)

As I became more proficient on the keyboards, progressing from the one-handed Axel F to the one-handed Bad intro from the Michael Jackson album, I assumed that I must be homosexual.

All I needed to do was learn the piano chords to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and my transformation would be complete.

Fortunately, my knowledge and understanding of sexuality didn't solely derive from my father. His mother was always around to add further insight.

Her problem wasn't ignorance, but one of pronunciation.

Sharing her suspicions of a woman's sexuality, she once said to me: "I think she's a 'lisbon'."

"Really? But she's standing over there," I replied, thoroughly confused.

"I know she's over there. I said she's a 'lisbon'."

"But she can't be in Lisbon, if she's standing near us in a supermarket."

"No, she's not in Lisbon. She is a 'lisbon'."

My grandmother went to her grave calling lesbians "lisbons".

She never had a malicious word or a jaundiced opinion of anyone. She once said to my sister: "And your best friend is a 'lisbon'? There's nothing wrong with being a 'lisbon.'

Used to have a drink with all the 'lisbons' in the pubs during the War, they were terrific singers." (I don't know what it is with gays and singing in my family.)

Interestingly, most of the family now agrees that my grandmother's brother was probably gay. Of course, his sister never had the first clue.

As she once pointed out: "He never got married, my brother, he much preferred the company of men. In those days, it was different. You didn't talk about those things. But I don't think he was a 'lisbon'."

No, it's safe to say my great uncle wasn't a "lisbon".

When it came to matters of sexuality, the ignorance was jaw-dropping in my family. But that was more than 30 years ago.

Thankfully, the world has moved on and so has the HPB. The statutory board's FAQ section on sexuality - posted on its website - went viral this week. The answers were fair, fact- based and mature. Pleasingly, most of the feedback has been positive.

I might send the link to my father. So could the HPB include a photo of Elton John?

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