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Paralympian Goh shows the way for queer athletes to be themselves

Governments, like citizens, need to be brave. If one woman in a wheelchair can speak up then surely countries must step up. A nation’s progress is not merely measured in terms of GDP but also in terms of inclusion and acceptance

columns Updated: Jul 04, 2017 12:45 IST
Namita Bhandare
Bronze medallist Rui Si Theresa Goh of Singapore poses for the photographs on the podium at the medal ceremony for Women's 100m Breaststroke  in Rio de Janeiro. Goh is one of three brand ambassadors at Singapore’s annual LGBTQ rally, Pink Dot, now in its ninth year. The event, being held today, is a reminder that Singapore, like India, criminalises same sex relationships.
Bronze medallist Rui Si Theresa Goh of Singapore poses for the photographs on the podium at the medal ceremony for Women's 100m Breaststroke in Rio de Janeiro. Goh is one of three brand ambassadors at Singapore’s annual LGBTQ rally, Pink Dot, now in its ninth year. The event, being held today, is a reminder that Singapore, like India, criminalises same sex relationships.(Getty Images)

She has five tattoos and, under her baseball cap, hair coloured ash blue. Born with spina bifida, she often travels alone in her wheelchair. In the Rio Paralympics she took a bronze in the 100m breaststroke but was a Singaporean icon well before that. Yet, the one reason to listen to Theresa Goh is this: Her bravery.

Goh laughs – she does this a lot – when you talk of her courage in recently coming out as gay to Singapore’s largest daily, The Straits Times. “It was easier for me,” she shrugs. “I don’t have to worry about food on the table or losing my job or the support of my family, friends and sponsors. It’s not that easy for so many others.”

So, why come out?

“This is the role I am in -- a queer, disabled, paralympic medalist athlete,” laughs the 30-year-old. “I did not choose it, but I am in service of a greater good, of a more inclusive society.”

Goh is one of three brand ambassadors at Singapore’s annual LGBTQ rally, Pink Dot, now in its ninth year. The event, being held today, is a reminder that Singapore, like India, criminalises same sex relationships.

Singapore’s Penal Code absorbed India’s section 377, word for word. In 2007, Singapore scrapped 377, but continued to criminalise sexual acts between men under a new section, 377A.

As a woman, Goh is not violating any law, but finds it galling that, “We pay taxes same as everyone else, so why don’t we have the same rights?” Included in those rights is the right to marry.

Singapore’s argument for retaining 377A is that the majority of its citizens are in favour of it. Certainly some Christian and Muslim religious groups remain loud opponents to the idea of same sex relationships.

But proof of a new climate can be seen in the growing support for Pink Dot. This year, when foreign sponsors were banned, 120 local sponsors stepped in (there were just five last year), raising over $240,000. “We believe a society will thrive with tolerance and diversity,” one of the sponsors, Jane Goh, was quoted in The Straits Times.

Speaking to Theresa Goh at a coffee shop in a Singapore mall, it strikes me that governments, like citizens, need to be brave. If one woman in a wheelchair can speak up then surely countries must step up. A nation’s progress is not merely measured in terms of GDP but also in terms of inclusion and acceptance. A nation’s courage lies in being unafraid of doing what is morally right. A country’s greatness lies in leading a more just world.

“Be kind. Be brave. Be yourself,” says Goh. It would be good if governments all over the world heard her.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and genderThe views expressed are personal