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Queer swimmer Theresa Goh advocates for Singapore’s LGBTQ community

Theresa Goh became a legend in Singapore by winning gold at the 2006 IPC World Championships. Now she’s pushing for LGBTQ visibility in her home country.

2016 Rio Paralympics - Day 4, Theresa Goh, Singapore, lesbian, swimmer, retiring, retires, disabled, disabilities, wheelchair
Theresa Goh proudly displays the Singapore flag after winning the a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Photo by Getty Images

A new profile in Lifestyle Asia spells it out: “As far as sporting legends in Singapore go, few make our hearts swell with pride like Theresa Goh does.”

Goh, who was born with spina bifida, won gold at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee World Swimming Championships, thus becoming the first swimming world champion in her country’s history.

The fact that she was able to do so while paralyzed from the waist down remains a jaw-dropping feat and a testament to her courage and perseverance.

Yet that triumph is only part of what makes Goh such an inspiring and unique figure in Singapore. After winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games, Goh came out publicly as queer, despite living in a country that does not recognize LGBTQ marriages and even criminalizes sex between two men.

2016 Rio Paralympics - Day 4
Theresa Goh shows off her bronze medal from the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

She told Lifestyle Asia’s Shatricia Nair that Singapore still has a ways to go in accepting its LGBTQ population for who they are. But there has been some occasional signs of progress. Goh told Outsports the nations LGBTQ athletes are beginning to be more open about themselves. “The sport [sponsors] or brands in Singapore tend to have more freedom in the messaging they put out or the athletes they pick because they’re not tied to the government,” she said. “I’ve definitely seen a lot more athletes and companies being more open with showing their support during Pride Month. And just generally, athletes being more open with their sexuality. I think that’s the result of years and years of people gradually being braver and other people seeing that bravery and following suit.”

As her swimming career and advocacy demonstrates, Goh has been one of her country’s biggest role models when it comes to bravery. In Singapore, Goh is an Ambassador for Pink Dot, an annual event dedicated to LGBTQ representation where attendees form a literal pink dot as a symbol for visibility and inclusion.

SINGAPORE-BRITAIN-ROYAL
Goh shakes hands with Prince William following the 2012 Paralympics.
Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/GettyImages

She also hasn’t been shy about telling her country what needs to be done in order to achieve true equality, telling Lifestyle Asia she would “like to see more empathy, less sympathy. Sometimes it’s not just about putting yourselves in other people’s shoes. It’s also about just listening to the people who are already in those shoes.”

Goh expounded on this concept to Outsports. “I get annoyed and a little resigned just because of how long I’ve seen this side of people,” she said. “They’re very comfortable in their idea of their version of good and unwilling to accept their version of being kind could be doing more harm than good.”

Being a Paralympic and swimming legend in her country helps amplify Goh’s voice. She’s now using her fame to advocate for that sense of empathy and try to get others in her country to listen to Singapore’s LGBTQ voices.

Her prescription for change is simple: “Be aware in your desire to be a better human being on this earth, this mortal plane, while we are all here. Be aware and be better.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this story referred to the IPC World Championships as the “Paralympic Championships.” Outsports regrets the error.