Our sisters in Singapore
Gay Star News interviews leading lesbian rights activist in Singapore, Jean Chong
The LGBT rights movement in Singapore has been mainly dominated by gay men, but Gay Star News met Jean Chong of lesbian group Sayoni and discovered that sisters are doing it for themselves.
Did you have any role models when you were growing up as a lesbian in Singapore?
No, I always wished there were lesbian role models when I was growing up. There were so much confusion, silence and questions.
It was hard to even reach out to other LGBT persons because there was no internet in my teenage years until I was in tertiary education. It was only at that time with greater freedom to travel, with some help from the internet and books that I finally found the language for the many questions and distress i felt as a gay woman.
With the emergence of the internet [Singapore’s first LGBT rights group] People Like Us started organizing and I was there at their town hall meeting and reading their mailing list left a huge impact on me. For the first time I realized that we could do something and organize.
Did you find that the gay men in the LGBT rights movement in Singapore didn’t make space and listen to the lesbian voices?
I think the LGBT rights movement in Singapore still doesn’t make enough space to listen to lesbian voices, but it is slowly changing.
For a long time lesbians were treated as wallflowers often included to soften the image of an LGBT organization. There was a general ignorance and disinterest in hearing what lesbians are saying or to understand how sexism plays out within the community. Gay men don’t understand how gender discourse is an important factor in the discrimination we face daily.
A classic example in the past would be to describe prominent gay men cruising areas as LGBT history when in fact it clearly only applies to gay men or to suggest that lesbians have no discrimination since 377A [the law that criminalizes gay sex] does not apply to us and women already have a lot of rights in Singapore.
There’s a failure to understand the intersectional identities and discrimination gay women often faced. Since our work on CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women] in the United Nations last year the discourse is slowly changing when we were able to connect the dots on how 377A affects the entire LGBT community and showed how all our lives are intertwined and connected with each other.
How does Singapore’s public housing policy affect lesbian women?
Single women and men, including lesbian/gay couples since they’re considered single in the eyes of the law, are not eligible for public housing. They can however, by the age of 35, purchase a second hand public housing flat from the open market which will cost a lot more.
This severely affects our coming out curve, puts us at risk of discrimination/violence/pressure from families to marry. Since rental is sky high in Singapore many of us still stay with our families. Those that are unable to come out live dual lives which is extremely stressful. It hampers our efforts to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
Last year you went to Cambodia for an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) LGBT Caucus. How was that?
Sayoni is a part of the ASEAN LGBT Caucus. We were there to lobby various groups to make statements to include LGBT concerns which are often forgotten or deliberately left out in favor of political expediency.
We were there to ensure visibility and to ensure that the process includes LGBT rights even though ASEAN countries like Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia opposed including SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
I think we were very successful in our campaign for visibility and call to action for solidarity with the other NGOs.
How do you get along with politicians in Singapore?
I think we prefer not to have an adversary relationship with politicians. Perhaps the question is when will politicians see that discrimination is not okay and why are we not treated like Singaporeans?
Lesbian parenting, gay rights questions were raised by Sayoni women during the government-led dialogue platform called National Conversation but the answers are almost always about needing to consider the majority’s views and the government is only able to move when society moves.
The hypocrisy in this statement is the failure to address issues like censorship guidelines that disallow any positive or even neutral portrayal of LGBT persons. So I’m not sure what are they talking about, I would have prefer for them to come out straight and tell us our kids and families are not worth their efforts.
What other interactions have you had with the government?
In the early days they used to monitor us. There was a lot of surveillance.
And they would actively ban our events, but they were very sophisticated about it. They would make us apply for a license and then deny it to us. We have to go through a lot of bureaucratic processes – that’s a form of torture.
And we got so used to the secret police being at our events or sitting in cars outside our events. I mean how obvious is it? It’s a straight man coming to a lesbian event. Sometimes we’d make friends with them. They were just doing their job.
Survallience still happens. We had a meeting with the civil societies groups on Monday to talk about the recent bus drivers strike, and there was a guy outside monitoring us. He was sitting there for hours with the air conditioning on. It was obvious.
Are you involved in Singapore’s LGBT celebration Pink Dot?
We just join in on the day and have fun.
There are a few different opinions about Pink Dot. Some people say it’s a very closeted event. The closet has just got bigger!
Pink Dot is a microcosm of Singapore. The government is always talking about families first and you need a family structure – it’s a very Asian thing I think. And Pink Dot is very family-focused.
My friend from Cambodia came to Pink Dot and the first thing that struck her was that it was so wholesome. There’s no alcohol. People bring their kids. No S&M. Almost none of the guys were topless. The only topless guys were from advertisers. It’s the Singapore style I guess.
For three years they didn’t mention 377A. So that’s where the criticism comes from. They didn’t talk about rights they talked about ‘freedom to love’.
As a community I’m not sure if we’ve done much critical analysis of Pink Dot. We had 15,000 people there but the government is still not budging.
So you don’t think Pink Dot has had much effect?
It has on a social acceptance level. And I do think that Singapore is a lot more socially accepting of gay people than for example Malaysia.
I think Pink Dot is reaching younger people but it’s not reaching the heartlanders. The people who aren’t middle class, who live in public housing.