'It feels like the right time': Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh opens up about her sexuality

It has taken 30-year-old Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh half her life to reach this point where, as an ambassador for this year's Pink Dot rally, she wants to be open about her sexuality - that she is gay.
It has taken 30-year-old Paralympic swimmer Theresa Goh half her life to reach this point where, as an ambassador for this year's Pink Dot rally, she wants to be open about her sexuality - that she is gay.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Peek under Theresa Goh's left arm and it is clear she quite literally wears her heart on her sleeve.

A tattoo of the human body's most essential organ, illustrated with a great horned owl - regarded as a father figure in the animal kingdom - and rose - her mother's name - pays tribute to Goh's parents.

The Paralympic swimmer makes public declarations like these about what she holds dear, because it is who she is.

Born with spina bifida and confined to a wheelchair, she has always readily embraced aspects of herself that most will find tough to navigate, among them her disability and role as a trailblazer for disability sport in Singapore.

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But even then, it has taken the 30-year-old half her life to reach this point where, as an ambassador for this year's Pink Dot rally, she wants to be open about her sexuality - that she is gay.

She said she had never contemplated going so public with something so private, but that it "feels like the right time". The Rio Games last year put her in the spotlight and nudged her to make this move.

"I felt like I had to use that attention for a bigger message. I didn't want to just make it about sports and me and disability," said Goh, who was approached by Pink Dot organisers last year to be an envoy for the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rally.

She grew up wrestling uncertainty about her sexuality. "When I looked in the papers, television or movies, I never saw anyone on a wheelchair, let alone someone on a wheelchair who is gay," she said.

 
 
 

The potential stigma and repercussions have meant that even in the West, few athletes have come out. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, for instance, avoided talking about her sexuality for years as it would have disqualified her from applying for American citizenship. She also reportedly lost millions in endorsement deals thereafter.

In recent years, Australian swimming star Ian Thorpe, British diver Tom Daley and National Basketball Association player Jason Collins are among the few who have come out.

Ultimately, however, it is the safe haven of Singapore and the backing she knows she has - none more than that from her parents - that has made her take this step.

She joked that it was her parents who "came out" to her when she was about 15 and still confused.

They were at a petrol kiosk when out of the blue, her mother Rose told her that as parents, all they want is for her to be happy and taken care of - whether that meant being with someone of the opposite sex or otherwise.

"My parents are amazing. From then on, I knew that I was safe, that I'm okay. It helped a lot once I had their backing. That's something that a lot of people may not be lucky enough to have," she said.

Goh, who is not in a relationship, is aware that she could be subjecting herself and loved ones to potential criticism, but she needs to be authentic, she said.

She also stressed that she is not out to stoke a flame, provoke or offend anyone.

Even with her best friend and fellow Paralympic swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, she had to muster the courage to be frank. "I just felt that I couldn't hide it from her any more. It helped to make our friendship stronger because then I wasn't hiding anything from her any more," she said.

Of that conversation about 10 years ago, Yip, 25, said: "A person's sexual orientation doesn't change what kind of a person she is inside... Theresa is still Theresa. She's done amazing things and she's an amazing person."

It is friends like that, as well as family who accept her as she is, that Goh knows will be her safe harbour.

She said: "In the end, I know no matter what happens, I have the important people in my life who care, are supportive, and who will be there if I need them, so no matter what happens, I feel I will be okay."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline ''It feels like the right time''. Print Edition | Subscribe