There is a tendency for people to give politicians “more credit and gratitude than is proportional to what they are actually doing”, and it is crucial to “distinguish between acknowledging a nice move and praising actual progress”, said journalist and former New Naratif editor-in-chief Kirsten Han.
In a Facebook post on Monday (29 September), Ms Han said that while People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng’s move to open up a conversation with a transgender person via Instagram Live stream is “nice”, viewing such a move as “pushing the envelope” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights allows politicians to “stay at this low bar without progressing”.
“This is why the LAW AND HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER can get rated an A+ ally even though he could be doing *a lot* more to recognise LGBT rights through the law (like moving to repeal 377A, introducing anti-discrimination legislation, or at the very least not making it so difficult for Pink Dot to organise their event in Hong Lim Park and using his powerful position to talk to his fellow ministers about ending censorship),” she wrote.
“If Baey can already be flooded with ❤️ and kudos for having one trans person on IG, where is the political pressure to push him to do more, like speak repeatedly (to keep the issue alive and keep pushing) in Parliament about trans rights, or work with a civil society group to bring in a parliamentary petition?” Ms Han questioned.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was one of only five Singapore politicians to be given an “A” grade in Sayoni’s “Rainbow Scorecard: Review of the Decade” in June.
He topped the scorecard for his multiple public involvements in LGBT issues, from his engagement with LGBT groups such as The T Project and Oogachaga to his comments on amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which protect LGBT persons against religiously-motivated violence.
Findings from the report were based on research done on “statements made by politicians, in Parliamentary Hansard records, social media, mainstream and independent news”, said the non-governmental organisation.
Mr Baey was given an overall “D” rating by Sayoni in the scorecard, with many of the criteria marked as “unknown” or with a question mark.
The praise received by Mr Baey and Mr Shanmugam, said Ms Han, serve as “a slap in the face to people” such as a trans woman she previously interviewed, who — together with her wife — lost their home after their marriage was declared void on the grounds of her gender transition.
The trans woman and her wife were also denied the BTO flat they had paid a deposit for as a result of the voided marriage.
“It is a slap in the face to people like her when politicians from the very party in power are feted for supporting trans people, while she’d been put through hell,” said Ms Han.
When asked by a commenter as to why her critique specified PAP MPs instead of including the Workers’ Party’s (WP) MPs, Ms Han said yesterday that there is “a power differential” between the two parties, given WP’s position as a small opposition presence in Parliament compared to the ruling PAP with a large majority presence in the House.
However, she opined that it should not mean that WP has “carte blanche” – she branded WP’s position on the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code and LGBT rights as a whole “pretty useless”.
Civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham — in his commentary on the Sayoni scorecard in June — posited that PAP politicians need “to be held to a higher standard”, as they have greater power “to change things” with regards to LGBT rights in Singapore with a smaller risk to themselves than those in alternative parties.
“The consequences of someone like Shanmugam or TCJ [Tan Chuan-Jin] making LGBT affirmative statements is significantly different to opposition party figures like Paul Tambyah or Kenneth Jeyaretnam. We cannot assume a level political playing field in evaluating their position on LGBT issues,” he said.
Transphobia “kept alive through wilful erasure, structural discrimination and harmful policies” for which PAP is directly responsible: Community researcher Kokila Annamalai
Community researcher Kokila Annamalai in a separate Facebook post yesterday laid down several suggestions to Mr Baey to address the stigma and discrimination faced by transgender people, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual in Singapore.
The “concrete actions” range from public healthcare insurance for transgender people to formulating a more inclusive sex education syllabus in schools to help young LGBT people.
She added that he should advocate making it easier for transgender people such as Keegan “to change their gender markers” on their identity cards and legal documents.
Ms Kokila also urged Mr Baey to push for the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to “reinstate and make more comprehensive the information it provided on its website on LGBT youth and health, which was taken down due to pressure from conservative religious groups”.
In 2014, former WP MP Goh lauded the Health Promotion Board (HPB)’s frequently asked questions on homosexuality and bisexuality as “factual” and “objective”.
“Informing people about homosexuals actually helps promote the family as a basic building block of society, as it helps family members understand and accept homosexuality as a fact.
“This reduces discord and strengthens bonds, making for a stronger society where homosexuals do not feel ostracized and alienated through no fault of their own,” he said.
“Transphobia, stigma and ignorance are not unavoidable social realities – they are kept alive through wilful erasure, structural discrimination and harmful policies, for which your party is directly responsible,” she wrote.
Referencing Mr Baey’s apology about using Keegan’s “deadname” — the name a trans person was given at the time they were living as their assigned gender at birth — Ms Kokila said, however, that many people may see the conversation initiated by Mr Baey as “unprecedented and welcome”.
Such a gesture, while it may be “frill” from a human rights and social justice perspective, may be significant when “measuring actions” against what appears to be a conservative status quo, she added.
Praise and demands must go hand-in-hand to ensure “continued advocacy”: Journalist Kirsten Han
Citing writer and activist Jolene Tan’s views, Ms Han reiterated in response that an ideal approach in responding to efforts made by political figures such as Mr Baey is to balance praise with “reminders/demands for further and more concrete steps to be taken” to ensure “continued advocacy”.
Of gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy: Keegan’s story
In Mr Baey’s Instagram Live stream on Sunday, Keegan narrated his experience of starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT) at the age of 16 after he began feeling uncomfortable about his body. A trans man or boy typically takes testosterone as a part of such therapy.
The discomfort he felt with his body is part of what is now known as gender dysphoria, where an individual experiences emotional distress over a mismatch between their assigned gender and the gender they identify with.
It was previously labelled as Gender Identity Disorder (GID). GID was renamed to gender dysphoria in 2012 to destigmatise transgender people and to assist them in obtaining the medical treatment they need to undergo transition.
Responding to Mr Baey’s question on what’s next in his transition, Keegan said that he is considering getting “top surgery”, a procedure undertaken by certain trans men to remove their breasts in order to achieve a more conventionally “masculine” body.
Prior to his transition, Keegan spoke to his school counsellor, who referred him to the gender identity clinic at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
As Keegan is underage, his parents were required to sign a consent form in order for him to begin HRT.
Keegan’s father was initially reluctant, but after several consultations with a doctor, he began to understand what Keegan was going through.
The Straits Times reported in 2017 that the IMH gender clinic is “believed to be the only public hospital in Singapore to have a team of medical professionals treating the transgender community” at this point.
Previously, the National University Hospital (NUH) had a gender identity clinic. However, it closed in 2008.