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Surviving institutional homophobia: stories of LGBT people in Singapore

Surviving institutional homophobia: stories of LGBT people in Singapore

Singapore often makes Gay Star News headlines – about a judge ruling against repealing a colonial-era law that criminalizes gay sex or a pastor preaching against homosexuality at an evangelical ‘mega church’ conference – but how does that feel for the LGBT people who live there?

Leow Yangfa, editor of I Will Survive, a new anthology of personal stories, talks about how the headlines affect the day-to-day lives of LGBT people in Singapore.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

In 2009 I was on Facebook and a friend started talking about suicide. I asked him if he was feeling suicidal and he didn’t answer. The conversation ended and the following day or the day after I heard from other friends that he had killed himself.

This was a gay young man in his 20s, and I just felt awful because I thought, here I am, a social worker, I’m supposed to be trained in suicide intervention and I’ve just lost someone I know personally. We found out later he was struggling with bi-polar depression and he had some relationship problems.

I thought, what can we do? We need to start talking about this, and allow people to share their stories.

Are LGBT voices invisible in Singapore?

Yes and no. A lot of gay people in Singapore are out to some people but they’re not quite ready to come out to everyone. That’s why the stories in the book are anonymous.

And there’s a big issue of very negative media portrayal, on TV or in the news. When we see gay people in the media they are always caricatured as drag queens or criminals.

Are there high levels of mental illness among LGBT people in Singapore?

In Singapore we haven’t done enough research into the link between homophobia and mental illness. We haven’t even begun to talk about it. There’s still a certain level of stigma associated with mental illness.

Why did you decide a book was the best way of tackling this issue?

I’m a social worker and a big part of my day job is talking to people and listening to their stories. I’ve learned that the process of sharing is also very empowering.

For this book, even though it was done anonymously, I’d meet every person face-to-face to hear their story and to get to know them as a real person.

Quite a few of them told me that it was a relief to be able to share their story with somebody, without the fear of being exposed.

What kind of feedback have you got about the stories?

Most people gave me very positive feedback, but I remember one person told me he was worried about the tone of the stories. He was concerned about how the stories sounded gloomy and we were running a risk of portraying a negative image of the LGBT community in Singapore. He said we were playing into the hands of the homophobes and that we could frighten young gay people about what life was like when you come out.

I thought, ok, fair enough, I hear what he’s trying to say, but after thinking about it and talking to other people I realized that that was homophobic in itself to think that we shouldn’t share these stories, that we should censor ourselves and not allow these stories to be heard.

Did that make you want to seek out a more positive story in response?

Even before that person made that comment, I made sure to ask in every interview ‘what kept you going?’ through the suicide attempts, hospitalization, rejection from family members, etc. I wanted to find the source of resilience. The title of the book is I Will Survive and I was curious about what keeps people going through these difficult situations.

Hopefully the people who read the stories will draw strength and find common links. I think it’s amazing, after speaking to all 21 people, that they are still alive and thriving after they have gone through what they’ve gone through. I find that remarkable.

Was there one story which you found particularly poignant or touching?

I remember the first story very clearly. It was with someone who had bipolar disorder and had gone through several suicide attempts, not unlike my friend who had killed himself. That stayed with me.

Another one, a young man in his 20s told me how he got HIV at the age of 18. It was one of series of unfortunate events in his life. We did the interview during a candle-lit memorial for World AIDS Day. It was very poignant to sit there and listen to the story of this HIV positive young man who had gone through a lot and still had a lot more to go through in his life.

Of course HIV Is not a death sentence anymore but I was really touched how this young man was given this challenge this early on in life. When you’re 18 and you hear you are HIV positive it can feel like the end of the world, but for him it wasn’t. He didn’t give up.

Another person just out of the blue dropped me an email and offered to help with the admin for the book, but as it turned out he had a story to share as well. His story was harrowing. He had been in a very very violent relationship. At one point he un-buttoned his shirt to show me the scar where his boyfriend had stabbed him. It just blew my mind.

Was it hard to get a cross-section of LGBT Singaporean society for the book?

More men than women tended to get in touch, I guess because I am a gay man. But I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with a few woman who had stories to share. And I was able to get in touch with a few transgender people, trans men as well as a trans women.

That’s why it took so long. It took me two years to gather all the stories and another two years to get published. Of the 21 stories two-thirds are from gay and bisexual men and the rest are trans people and queer women.

Was it difficult to get published?

One thing I learned from this whole experience is to be very patient with publishers.

There was more interest than I expected because I was worried publishers wouldn’t want to touch it at all because of censorship issues. But actually the publishers I spoke with weren’t worried about that. They were worried about how financially viable it would be.

The first publisher who indicated a strong interest was a local independent publisher, but we didn’t go through with it eventually because they were worried about the money. Then I went to another publisher who decided to bypass the financial concerns by publishing it as an e-book to keep the costs low.

And then more recently a bookstore – Books Actually – with a publishing arm called Math Paper Press, who are incredibly supportive of local literature – poetry, fiction, non-fiction – decided to go ahead and publish I Will Survive.

Do you think Section 377A affects the mental health of LGBT people in Singapore?

It’s institutionalized homophobia.

It’s hard to say because in the absence of research we don’t know. From my book we have anecdotal evidence and I think elsewhere in the world we do know that rates of mental illness tend to be a bit higher in the LGBT population.

In Singapore we just don’t know. I’d love to see someone conduct research on that – on how Section 377A affects mental health of queer people in Singapore.

Do you think the government should penalize pastors such as Lawrence Khong who sermonize against homosexuality

How is it that someone like that can spout such hate? It’s beyond disbelief. That’s not the first video and that’s not the first time he’s opened his foul mouth to say such things.

It’s not just homophobia but Islamaphobia as well. Although in Singapore we don’t have legislation to protect people against homophobia, we do have laws that protect people against discrimination based on race and religion. So he should be caught out on that. He’s making hateful comments not just about gay people but about non-Christians.

It’s a known fact that the Christians are in a minority as a religion in Singapore, but it’s quite clear they exert disproportionate power and influence in the country.  

Recently a YouTube video from 12-year-old Theo Chen in which he addresses homophobic bullies, has gone viral. Do you think the younger generation will force Singapore society to become more open-minded and less discriminatory? 

It was incredibly encouraging to see this obviously very intelligent and well brought-up young man being so articulate about a simple concept of not being judgmental. I can think of so many adults, Lawrence Khong for example, who just don’t understand what it means to be nonjudgmental. He might think he’s being nonjudgmental but it takes a 12-year-old to remind us how important it is to be nonjudgmental.

When it comes to young people, they have to be our future. I think we are slowly beginning to see that university students and young people have more awareness about LGBT issues – they have friends who are gay or lesbian, they know the difference between transgender and gay. They have access to the internet and media from overseas.

It’s happening gradually almost like a very evolutionary kind of way. It’s not happening overnight that’s for sure. There will still be young people who either through choice or socialization continue to be ignorant and bigoted but we just hope that that group continues to shrink while other young people continue to be more aware and exposed to issues. Hopefully that’s what my book will do.


I Will Survive is launching on Friday 17 May at Math Paper Press, 62 Neil Road in Singapore. See event details here.