This time last year, Singapore was embroiled in a heated national debate over Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises same-sex intimacy between men. Despite the amazing community mobilisation by the #Ready4Repeal campaign, the Government reiterated that it had “no plans” to repeal the law.
There have since been three constitutional challenges to the law, brought respectively by DJ Big Kid, Bryan Choong (former Executive Director of Oogachaga) and most recently, Roy Tan (whose brainchild is Pink Dot). While this might seem as if the fate of the LGBTQ community in Singapore now lies with lawyers and judges, it definitely is not.
Source: Pink Dot SG’s Facebook
Whether or not S377A is repealed, there is much that we can do as a community for ourselves. My inspiration behind writing this article is the recent news that Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam had visited The T Project’s shelter for homeless transgender women. Some had commented on his Facebook asking when the Government was going to repeal S377A since it was the key roadblock to LGBTQ equality.
Indeed, the violence and discrimination that LGBTQ people face is unquestionably because of S377A, which reinforces our stigmatised identities as illicit, immoral and unwelcome in Singapore.
At the same time, there is much that we can do to eliminate such violence and discrimination despite S377A. The T Project’s work in advocating for and serving the transgender community is just one of many examples of the ways by which we can make things better for ourselves. It gets better, but only if we put in the effort to make it better.
Building our own community is important. While S377A is a law that we must continue to advocate against, it is not our only or final fight. More troublingly, in a recent Guardian article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, best-selling author and gay Israeli Yuval Noah Harari observed that things are likely to get worse for the LGBTQ community around the world in the coming decades despite recent advances:
“There are alarming signs that the era of LGBT liberation might also be followed by an era of unprecedented persecution. In particular, LGBT people might become the preferred targets for ultra-nationalist witch-hunts. In eastern Europe, for example, nationalist leaders who refrain from antisemitism due to the terrible memories of the Holocaust instead frighten the population with tales of a global gay conspiracy.”
The most effective antidote, in his view, is cooperation: “Cooperation is what makes humans powerful. Cooperation is what the Stonewall riots were all about. They were the moment when a lot of individual suffering crystallised into a collective movement.”
Heeding his call for us to organise and join groups in our communities, here are 8 things that we can do while S377A remains on the books.
1. Support the transgender community
As Minister Shanmugam observed in his Facebook post after visiting the T Project’s shelter, the transgender community faces enormous challenges. From bullying in school to discrimination at work, trans people, particularly trans women, often cannot hide who they are the same way that LGB people can.
Some of the challenges that the trans community faces stem from discriminatory laws and policies. For instance, a trans people must have “completely” undergone gender reassignment surgery before they can legally change their sex marker. This not only takes a lot of time and money but is also premised on an out-dated understanding of gender identity.
Another challenge is the lack of an anti-discriminatory law that allows transgender people (or most marginalised communities for that matter, be they racial minorities, the disabled or the LGBTQ community) to seek recourse from if they are discriminated against at work or in school.
How you can help
The T Project not only runs a homeless shelter but also the Alicia Community Centre, which offers various social support services to the transgender community such as counselling and legal workshops. To support the group, you can either donate money or items that they need at the shelter, such as food and home appliances. You can also sign up to volunteer with them!
Source: The T Project’s Facebook
Another group that works closely with the trans community is Project X, which advocates for the rights of sex workers. Because of the challenges they face in school and at work, some trans people take up sex work to survive. You can volunteer with the group in a variety of ways.
Apart from these groups, you can also start by learning to be an ally to trans people. This includes respecting their pronouns and speaking up if you see a trans friend, classmate or colleague being harassed, bullied or discriminated against.
2. Help to end HIV/AIDS by 2030
Over the past year, the number of new cases of HIV infection dropped to the lowest since 2005. At the same time, men who have sex with men (MSM) — the technical term used to refer to gay and bisexual men in HIV/AIDS lingo— remains the largest group affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Because of its deadliness historically and complex relationship with sex and homosexuality, there is a lot of stigma around HIV/AIDS where many think that those who contract HIV are promiscuous or irresponsible. This has also manifested itself in our laws, where stiff criminal penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment face PLHIV and those in high-risk communities if they do not disclose to their sexual partners the risk of contracting HIV from them.
How you can help
Action for AIDS (AfA) launched gayhealth.sg a few years ago to reach out to the MSM community and runs regular outreach programmes along Neil Road, where most gay bars and clubs are. The group focuses on raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and safer sex practices, and provides mobile HIV testing to encourage people to know their status. They have a structured volunteering programme that you can get involved in to help in the fight to end HIV/AIDS by 2030 in Singapore.
In addition, you can also do your part to fight the key drivers of HIV/AIDS infection — stigma and discrimination. Unfortunately, many people are still quite uninformed about HIV/AIDS and think that HIV is a death sentence or that HIV can be transmitted through casual contact or sharing food. Learn about HIV/AIDS so that you can educate your friends and family to help reduce the stigma and discrimination that PLHIV still face everyday.
3. Help to end the drugs epidemic in the LGBTQ community
It is no secret that drug addiction is a serious problem that affects the LGBTQ community. Often because of the stigma and discrimination we face in our daily lives, some turn to drugs as a way of escaping or numbing their feelings. A recent study found that the punitive drug laws in Singapore coupled with the stigmatisation of same-sex sexuality have been key barriers to addressing this issue.
A recent piece by Alaric, the founder of The Greenhouse, a local substance addiction recovery centre, details the additional challenge that LGBTQ people who are recovering from drug addiction face from others in the community.
How you can help
You can help to support The Greenhouse by donating here. You can also help to reduce the ignorance about and stigma against drug addiction by learning more about this complex issue and sharing it with others. As Alaric said, it is ultimately the love, acceptance and support of others that help recovering addicts in their healing. Also, if you know anyone who is struggling with drug addiction, encourage them to reach out to The Greenhouse for help and support.
4. Foster dialogue and understanding about issues of faith and sexuality
Is it possible for a person to be gay and Christian? Muslim and transgender? Given the polarised climate both in Singapore and globally, it might seem impossible. But there are many who identify as both queer and religious, even though it is often a difficult path to take. On one hand, their religious community might reject them for choosing a “sinful lifestyle”. On the other, other queer people might shun them for being a part of a religion that has and continues to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Despite (and perhaps because of) these challenges, those who are both queer and religious are especially important because they can act as the bridge between both groups. Encouragingly, there have been some great initiatives to promote understanding about this issue from a variety of perspectives.
A group of Christians recently published a book, “Good News for Bruised Reeds — Walking with Same-Sex Attracted Friends”, which aims to highlight the difficult challenges that Christians struggling with same-sex attraction face from their religious community and the church. (While some might consider the use of the term “same-sex attraction” a euphemism for conversion therapy, I think it is a legitimate identity for those who relate differently to their sexual orientation. It is however a different issue when this is exploited to deny the right of others to affirm and live out their sexual orientation.) For those seeking to reconcile their Christian faith with their sexual identity, there is also Free Community Church which is perhaps the only LGBTQ-inclusive church in Singapore.
SGRainbow also runs Jejaka, a youth support group for GBQ Malay, Muslim & Malay-Muslim men that aims to create a safe and brave space for self-acceptance and peer support. The Healing Circle is another group that aims to help queer Muslims in their journey.
How you can help
If you are queer and religious, you can consider joining one of these groups to both seek and provide support to others who may be going through the same struggles. You can also consider initiating conversations on faith and sexuality with your friends to break the false dichotomy that they are necessarily in conflict or irreconcilable.
5. Promote mental health and wellness among LGBTQ folks
It is no secret that rates of mental illness and suicide among LGBTQ people are much higher than the cis-het population. As Leow Yangfa, Executive Director at Oogachaga, explained at a recent conference organised by Samaritans of Singapore, the stigma, discrimination, bullying, shame and pain that LGBTQ people experience elevates our risk of suicide. This also has a direct relationship with drug addiction and unsafe sexual practices which increases the risk of HIV infection.
How you can help
While Oogachaga is not currently recruiting volunteers, you can consider supporting the important work that they have been doing for the LGBTQ community by donating here. Alternatively, you can consider donating or volunteering with The T Project, which also provides counselling at the Alicia Community Centre to trans people, and Brave Spaces, which is in the midst of starting a counselling programme for queer women and other marginalised women as well.
Other ways you can help is to destigmatize mental illness and help-seeking behaviours; unfortunately, in Singapore, there remains much ignorance about mental illness and people often find it difficult to reach out for help out of fear of being judged or discriminated against. You can consider volunteering with Silver Ribbon, which aims to combat mental health stigma and encourage early help.
6. Build your own community and support networks
Another way you can help to foster mental wellness in the LGBTQ community is to build strong communities of support. Many have already done so, like the Inter-University LGBT Network and its constituent groups that aim to foster more inclusive campuses, and interest-based groups like Queer Zinefest, Queer Central, Pelangi Pride Centre. There is also SAFE Singapore, which is Singapore’s equivalent of a PFLAG, run by parents and families of LGBTQ people. Many more groups include Brave Spaces, Prout, Young Out Here and The Bear Project.
In addition to community-based groups, there are also employee networks which aim to foster diversity and inclusion at the workplace. Many MNCs already have such programmes and since the Red Dot for Pink Dot movement, many local companies have also paid more attention to LGBTQ inclusion too.
How you can help
You can join one of the existing groups to support their work or start your own community based on a common interest or experience. You can also help to start an LGBTQ employee support group at your workplace or school to foster a safer and more inclusive environment for yourself and others who are also LGBTQ too.
Not sure how to start? Reach out to the Inter-University LGBT Network to find out more about starting a group in your school, and Oogachaga to find out about corporate diversity initiatives. If you’re looking to start an interest-based group, sometimes all you need is a Facebook event and a Whatsapp group to get things going!
7. Fight discrimination from within our own community
Often, we speak of “the LGBTQ community” as one singular unit as if we were all the same and had the same experiences and struggles. The reality is that there is so much diversity that we sometimes fail to acknowledge and celebrate too. Worse, those who aren’t in the majority or fit the stereotypical norm face discrimination or erasure. For instance, within the gay community, it is not rare to see people putting disclaimers on their dating profiles that go “Chinese only” or “No fat, no femme”.
The debate over whether these are mere preferences or discrimination can go on forever, but the reality is that it perpetuates certain ideas of who is an insider and outsider. Given that most queer folks have experienced what it is like to be an outsider, perhaps we can all do our part to make sure that others do not have to feel that way.
On the racism within the queer community, Irie Aman put it best in their speech at this year’s Pink Dot,
“Often, it’s so hard to feel a sense of belonging when so many places - even queer spaces - are Chinese-dominated. If we aren’t careful, these spaces can feel exclusive, and even racist. Not every Chinese-dominated space is, of course, but the nature of power and privilege means that we aren’t in the room when decisions get made - decisions that sometimes hit the people in my community the hardest. This is a continuing trend that needs to end.”
Furthermore, these experiences of intra-community discrimination can lead to further mental health issues. And it is not only those who are discriminated against who are in trouble. For instance, we do not talk enough in Singapore about the serious problem of body dysmorphia among queer men, many whom try so hard to fit the stereotypical masculine norm to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
Just as we wish the cis-het population will accept and include us, perhaps we can model that acceptance and inclusion by addressing the problems of racism, fatphobia, femmephobia, biphobia, transphobia and discrimination against PLHIV within our own communities. The recent saga over Tosh Zhang’s legitimacy as a Pink Dot ambassador also revealed how many cis-gay Chinese men failed to appreciate how his comments were hurtful to queer women and trans people. Divisions and disagreements within our community is not uncommon but are unnecessary and damaging when they stem from a lack of empathy.
How you can help
We can start by initiating conversations about these issues, which remain under-discussed in our community. While there have been some initiatives focusing on minorities like The Purple Alliance’s former (Ind)ependent programme (for queer South Asian folks) and The Bear Project, for queer men whose bodies didn’t fit into the stereotypical gay norm. The Bi+ Collective also aims to create a space for bi and pan folks and promote visibility and acceptance of this often invisibilised community.
There is so much more that can be done to address all of these issues that we too often prefer to sweep under the carpet to avoid being accused of being as discriminatory as the cis-het community. But the reality is, we are and it is not a bad thing. In fact, it offers us the chance to figure out how to model inclusion and acceptance both for ourselves and society at large.
8. Come out, speak up and be counted
Finally, there is perhaps no better way to contribute to the LGBTQ community than to come out if and when you can. In fact, it is arguably a duty for those of us who enjoy the safety and privilege to come out to do so for others who find themselves in circumstances that make doing so dangerous or even deadly.
As Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in the US, said,
“Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. And once they realize that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”
The progress that we have made over the decades was possible only because many had come out despite the prejudice, disgust and violence that they faced in years prior. Pink Dot was a mass coming out for our community, as we came together with our families and friends to declare that we will no longer hide in the shadows and our closets.
How you can help
For those of us who can come out, the onus is also on us to speak up and be the voice of our community. We can do this on a personal level, when we see others making derogatory remarks about queer people (or any marginalised community for that matter).
We can also do this on a community level, by joining a group that advocates for the LGBTQ community. There is Indignation, Pink Dot and so many others that have been mentioned above, all of whom campaign tirelessly not only for the repeal of S377A but so many other laws and policies that affect our community.
Start living as if S377A has been repealed
Ultimately, there is so much that we can do in our power despite 377A’s existence. It undoubtedly makes our ability to improve our own lives and that of our community harder, but it is not impossible. Many queer folks have already been hard at work, advocating both for the repeal of 377A and much more.
As sociologist Paul Goodman remarked,
“Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!”
Perhaps the more we live as if 377A no longer existed, the faster it will indeed cease to exist. In the meantime, let us continue to do what we can to make life in an unwelcoming Singapore a little less painful and slightly more tolerable for ourselves and other queer folks!
Daryl Yang recently graduated with a double degree in law and liberal arts from Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law. While in college, he co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network and was also President of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’ Gender & Sexuality Alliance.