Coming out of the closet is always a daunting experience. The risk of backlash in one’s personal and professional lives means that many members of the LGBTQ community never reveal the truth about their sexual identities. It is a struggle familiar to 32-year-old singer Willie Tay, who had known he was gay since he was an adolescent, but had hidden his sexuality from his old record label for fear of the consequences.
Works produced under his Wiltay imprimatur were often heteronormative in nature. Music videos for his songs, like “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “Hola”, featured female love interests who Tay serenaded, romanced, and pined over.
“I remember being in this dark moment where I just couldn’t write anything because I felt like I was living a lie being in the closet,” said Tay of his past works. “I felt like I was singing about things that didn’t relate to my heart — like having a canvas that was painted for me.”
When Tay came out to his label, his earlier fears were not unfounded — his managers swiftly dropped him from their roster, but not before deleting all of his painstakingly cultivated social media accounts.
“They were concerned for the image of the label, the image of me as an artist — I think they reacted out of fear,” says Tay ruefully. “They said: ‘You shouldn’t let people know about your sexuality — it’s just not going to work in Asia’.”
Tay says he spent a long time grappling with the fallout. He says that he was “very hurt” for a time: “I wondered, does that mean that you cannot be yourself in order to be successful?” he says. “But I don’t think that’s artistry at all. It takes away the freedom of who you are.”
On April 23, 2019 (Tay quotes the exact date from memory), Tay made his official debut as Wils, an openly gay musician, with his single “Open Up Babe”. By that time, Tay had already relocated to Los Angeles to further his music career. He enjoyed being in the city because he felt like he could “express himself” more freely. Tay has since produced numerous works, most recently the 12-track album “Don’t Leave Too Soon”.
As Wils, Tay speaks freely about his experiences as a gay man — on “Empty”, he bemoans the transient nature of hook-up culture in the gay community, while “Be with You” affirms his unwavering commitment to his partner, even in the face of prejudice.
But coming out was not the end of Tay’s journey as a gay man. He says that for most of his life in the closet, he felt like he was being put in a box — where he felt stifled and limited — something he had hoped coming out would liberate him from.
“When I came out, I thought: ‘Yay, I’m now a gay man, now I’m free!’,” says Tay, laughing. “But then I realised I was [still] being put into a box because I’m an Asian man. And being an Asian man, that comes with stereotypes — they think Asian men are more feminine, that they should be [in] a certain sexual position. And there are also gay people who don’t like Asian men just because.”
“It can be hard to feel a sense of belonging, even within the gay community,” Tay adds. “There are all these different types of gay men. You have categories like otters, bears, femmes... For gay men, it’s already difficult enough to find your place in life. And when they enter the gay community, people think: ‘There are all these groups, can I even be myself?’ So there’s sometimes this internal conflict.”
While Tay says that he now feels comfortable as a fully out gay man, he acknowledges that not every person has the same privilege of doing so.
“I get a lot of people DM-ing me, especially Singaporeans, and I’ve discovered that there are many people who don’t have a voice to express who they are,” says Tay. “Some of them say they can’t come out because they already have a family, or for other reasons — so they live vicariously through me and my journey, to feel like they are being celebrated and accepted. It’s so sad.”
It is why, in part, he is hesitant about returning to Singapore as an artist. “As a Singaporean, growing up in Singapore, I’ve always loved my country. I still do,” he enthuses. “But when there’s a law that criminalises homosexuals, it makes you feel like you are wrong. And it allows people who are judgemental of LGBT communities to use that against us, to bully us.”
On top of laws that criminalise relations between men, preconceived notions of what a “real man” should be like has fed into a convoluted understanding of what masculinity is, adds Tay.
“A lot of gay men grow up with the shame that, as a man, you have to be a certain way,” says Tay. “There’s a lot of hurt in the gay community because almost everyone was from a background where they really had to figure out how to survive as a gay person in this world — so I feel like everyone brings that part of them into the community.”
Tay says that his upcoming projects focus on bridging that divide. “I realised that every group within the gay community has their own vulnerabilities,” he explains. “That they feel like they have to belong in a group to be accepted. But there’s a lot of common ground that gay people need to see in each other — and I think it starts with being nice to yourself.”
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