(Content warning: Homophobic and transphobic violence)
by Nabilah Husna
Singapore’s first report on LGBTQ women‘s experiences of violence and discrimination was met with crickets from the government and mainstream media. Prejudice and hatred shape LGBTQ lives, but their stories are often drowned out by state silence.
377A and marriage equality — likely the go-to topics when you bring up LGBTQ issues to a random sample group of Singaporeans.
Our media might lead you to believe that these are the be-all and end-all of the fight for LGBTQ rights in Singapore.
Politicians stick to this confined menu of issues. Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered his take on Section 377A: “This is an uneasy compromise, I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.”
National polls that examine our social attitudes, like a recent IPS study on conservatism, stream the discussion to address just one apparently conclusive question: is Singapore ready?
(And then when it is, when Singapore unanimously nods, a political switch will flip: the Pink Dot swells, a colonial law is scratched out, marriage equality for all, an LGBTQ-friendly nation bursts forth).
Left unmentioned are the more heavy-handed elements that add to our deliberate ill-preparedness: like how the Media Development Authority routinely censors homosexual content, and how Ministry of Education teachers only acknowledge heterosexual relationships, and police queer ones, in our schools.
Violence against LGBTQ persons is commonplace, with no legal protection in place to recognise anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.
Instead, it is our society’s beliefs about some markers of equality — whether people “agree with” same-sex relationships or not, whether they believe that marriage equality should be legal — that are used to measure how LGBTQ people should be treated in our country.
In April, Worker’s Party chief Pritam Singh announced that his party would not be calling for the repeal of 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, claiming that to do so would be degrading themselves into a ‘culture war’. Moral courage, he claims, is in rising above it, and swallowing pride.
This argument leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those whose courage is tested daily, as they live (in a very literal sense) with the consequences of dangerous social attitudes towards LGBTQ people.
The cruelty of such political “neutrality” is further thrown into sharp relief following the recent release of a groundbreaking report, ‘Violence and discrimination against LBTQ women in Singapore’.
On 25 May, Sayoni, a local NGO for queer women, launched the hard-hitting, harrowing study, which contains powerful stories of 40 LGBTQ persons.
The report is the country’s first systematic documentation of LGBTQ women and transgender men’s encounters with violence and discrimination.
It expounds their experiences with family violence, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, psychological abuse, discrimination and prejudice, across all major areas of their lives: family, relationships, housing, healthcare, education and help-seeking.
It took six years and some one hundred dedicated volunteers to see the project through to publication. Not to mention, it is a huge achievement pulled off by a relatively resource-poor sector of advocacy.
So it feels critical to note the deafening silence from our mainstream media and state actors following the release of the study.
This isn’t a statement of surprise nor of naiveté, as much as it a heartbreaking reminder of where LGBTQ lives stand in Singapore.
Prejudice and hatred shape the way LGBTQ women move through the world in devastating ways, and their stories are nestled deep in a chorus of state silence.
They go about their lives
“Even after she had left (home), her family harassed her at work, shaming her for leaving home and living with a trans man, telling her she would go to hell.”
Singapore likes to pretend that its homophobia ends at 377A. In 2018, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung infamously stated, “The fact is they (the LGBTQ community) live in Singapore peacefully, no discrimination at work, housing (and) education. They go about their lives.”
The way real LGBTQ persons go about their lives in Singapore is a far cry from what Ong Ye Kung pictures in his curiously rose-tinted vision.
Sayoni’s study documents clearly what many human rights advocates have over the years reiterated: that LGBTQ persons’ sexual and gender identities — whether consensually revealed or not — are consistently returned with violence in the hands of the people, institutions and the state.
“Her parents wanted her to go for an exorcism as they believed she was possessed. (They) left her out of the Hari Raya family gatherings, treating her as if she did not exist and instead making excuses to extended family for her absence.”
In their family lives, the study’s respondents shared how they put up with abuse, stigma and harassment, with parents relentlessly scolding and denigrating them, beating them, telling them that they will “go to hell”, invading their privacy, or making others stalk them to “keep an eye” on them.
Many fear returning home, unsure of which version of abuse they’ll be met with; others were kicked out of the family home, physically threatened, sexually assaulted, ignored for months or years by family members or left out of family gatherings.
“(Connie and her family) fought a lot, with her mother not speaking to her for a year and asking her father and her siblings not to talk to her as well. Her elder brother…thought she had sold herself to the devil. (Her) younger brother said, ‘Don’t talk to me, you’re not part of the family.’”
As a result, LGBTQ persons move out of the family home earlier than their heterosexual counterparts, often to escape ongoing abuse and prejudice from family members. But the violence they face doesn’t necessarily end even if they manage to leave home.
“For a very long time, in my room, a lot of my furniture are actually my boxes with cloth over. I’m kinda prepared to go if I have to. Because every year, the lease, they tell us it’s going to end.”
HDB policies only recognise heterosexual, married couples for purchase of public housing, so many rents from the exorbitant open market, which eat into their savings and put their financial security in a precarious position. They sometimes depend on partners, who may be toxic or abusive themselves.
On top of that, renting from homeowners leave them vulnerable to the whims of homophobic landlords, co-tenants, and housing instability.
“He was homeless for two years and sometimes lives with friends without their parents’ knowledge. When one friend’s family found out that he was hiding there, he was chased on of their home. He was forced to sleep in East Coast Park and other public places.”
For transgender individuals, housing challenges become more pronounced.
In Singapore, transgender persons’ gender identities can only be legally recognised if they undergo expensive gender-affirming surgery, which means that until then, subsidies and grants for purchased public housing as a family unit — that is, if they choose to marry and purchase a home with the “right” partner — is off the table.
“I asked (my uncle) what he thought of homosexuals and he said it was a non-issue and it’s entirely normal. Perhaps if one of the teachers had just pulled me aside and said that, I would have felt very differently about myself.”
In schools, the violence inflicted onto children and young people come from both authorities and fellow students.
Singapore’s strict heteronormative, abstinence-only sexuality education means that teachers, at best, do not acknowledge LGBTQ relationships in sex education and lessons. Otherwise, they actively promote anti-LGBTQ values.
LGBTQ children, when divulging experiences of domestic violence, sexual abuse or intimate partner violence, find themselves faced with adults who are at a loss as to how to respond or react injuriously with victim-blaming, disparaging comments that deny or judge their sexuality.
In one example shared in the study, an incident of sexual harassment in a school toilet, where two girls were non-consensually filmed having sex by their schoolmates, led to the school reprimanding the girls and making them publicly apologise and withdraw from the school. The perpetrators of the harassment were not disciplined.
“Some people knew who it was, but they couldn’t say because they were also their friends. They were protecting the people who did it.”
Like in all other areas, employment rights do not specifically protect LGBTQ persons. Although the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) is meant to provide advice for employment discrimination, its guidelines are not made mandatory; employers have no legal obligation to follow through with them, and discrimination against LGBTQ persons are not recognised within TAFEP’s framework.
“After his manager heard him telling an old friend about his wife while on the job, Amir’s career stagnated. His access to events was blocked, and he was never recognised for his contributions to the company.”
Respondents reported being fired despite meeting targets; passed over for jobs because of their gender non-conformity; sexually and physically assaulted; and reprimanded or threatened with termination when they spoke up publicly about LGBTQ issues.
“Sheila related that she was beaten up by men when she refused to perform sex acts for them. When reported, the police officer told her not to make it a big issue and said that she was wasting his time.”
We are not first taught homophobia and transphobia through the lens of political debates or the Penal Code. That lesson comes much later, when we look to the law books to legitimise our already entrenched prejudices.
Our homophobia takes root early and grows fast.
When family members come out to us and we choose to distance ourselves or threaten their lives, when we hear a rumour about the lesbian girl in school and we ruthlessly spread it, when we pass over two women a little too cosy with one another in our search for tenants, we are sharpening lessons we’ve been taught by different teachers throughout our lives.
Myopic, harmful interpretations of religion are one obvious teacher.
But so was the school principal who suspended the queer couple in your school. So is MDA’s cutting board which doesn’t even spare Ellen Degeneres. So is that sticker that says “No browsing: For mature readers” on a children’s book about a boy in a dress.
And so is the silence from our media and state when powerful truths about LGBTQ lives are told.
We learn it young, and we learn it everywhere. Is it any wonder that the consequences of the lessons we uphold have such devastating and lasting impact on people’s lives?
For the ones who don’t have to “live with it”, do better.
Shelter your LGBTQ friends when they need a place of safety. Speak up for inclusiveness when your teachers spout homophobia. Tell our young people that they should be cared for, no matter their sexuality or gender identity. Help keep your queer siblings and cousins safe. Support social services for LGBTQ people. Pressure your employers to commit to anti-discrimination policies. Keep your workplaces safe from bullying and harassment. Offer your listening ear and company if a friend wants to lodge a formal report against their abuser.
Actually, turn up.
We are left with politicians who sigh defeatedly and pretend that they are above bad colonial laws, but continue to relentlessly stigmatise, censor and teach hate. So we need to do thrice the work.
“For a while, I thought I was morally corrupt. You can’t really feel it’s right if everybody says that it is wrong.”
Being an ally happens not when we form the Pink Dot once a year, among other LGBTQ affirming people. It’s what happens in the everyday after the pink dot scatters, and we all go back to our home, schools, workplaces, favourite bars and neighbourhood haunts. It’s in how we show up to support our LGBTQ friends and family at the worst moments of their lives as much as how we celebrate them at their best.
Get a copy of the report here.
This story was first published on Nadilah’s Medium page and reproduced with permission.