Supporting queer youth: A teen activist’s perspective
By Lisa Twang, Jun 17, 2021
19-year-old Elijah Tay is nonbinary and bisexual, and founded @MyQueerStorySG on Instagram and Facebook, which shares real-life stories from the queer community. Elijah goes by the pronouns they/them.
In January, Elijah participated in the peaceful #fixschoolsnotstudents protest outside the Ministry of Education (MOE), calling for schools to stop discrimination against transgender students. Elijah shares their journey as a queer rights activist, and why queer youth need a diverse community of allies behind them.
When I was 14, my friend told me: “You know, you might be bi.” I looked up what the term ‘bisexual’ meant, and realised that yes, I could relate to that. All the crushes I’d had suddenly made sense.
A few years later, I also discovered my gender identity as a nonbinary person. Once, I wrote a personal biography in third-person, referring to myself as ‘she/her’, and realised for the first time that I was very uncomfortable using these pronouns.
When I switched to using gender neutral they/them pronouns, it felt like such an authentic way of representing myself. I discovered the term ‘nonbinary’ and realised it fit me perfectly, because I identified as neither male nor female.
As a nonbinary person, I also consider myself to be a part of the transgender community. To me, being transgender means my gender identity doesn’t match the biological sex assigned to me at birth, so I believe this applies to me.
Not all nonbinary people consider themselves transgender, because they may take it to mean that they are trans men who were assigned female at birth, or vice versa. It can be complicated, but I believe everyone should have the freedom to choose the labels (or lack thereof) they’re comfortable with.
My journey towards advocating for queer rights started with discovering who I was as a bisexual, nonbinary, transgender person.
As a child I didn’t know anything about being queer, because my family and friends never talked about it. I had to learn what being queer meant by finding my own online resources, following people like Miles McKenna, Chella Man, Sam Collins, Nick Camryn, Ally Hills and Stevie Boebi on Instagram and YouTube.
On social media, I started discussions on less-talked-about issues relating to gender and sexuality. I asked questions on Instagram polls, like what my followers thought of the statement: “As long as you’re wearing a skirt, I consider you female”. It led to deeper conversations on how gender identity is separate from gender expression. The responses I got on social media were mostly supportive, and I started going for LGBTQIA+ events to educate myself.
When I was 16 I attended the #Ready4Repeal town hall event, which changed my life forever. It inspired me to help tell stories of the discrimination queer people face here.
The #Ready4Repeal movement was founded by a group of local activists pushing to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex. We talked about the stigma queer people face because of this law, and how we could be denied employment because we were queer, were not eligible to buy HDB flats before age 35 if we were not in a straight marriage, and how queer students could be shamed in school for expressing a different gender identity from what they were assigned at birth.
Around this time, a minister had stated that there was no discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community at work, housing, and education in Singapore. We discussed how important it was for our community to share our stories of discrimination, to highlight the reality of it.
But someone pointed out that some in our queer community — like students or civil servants — have hostile, homophobic home or work environments. This makes it impossible for them to tell their stories openly.
This left a deep impression on me, and I kept thinking about it on my way home. It didn’t feel right to keep quiet about the discrimination we faced, and I wanted to do my part. So I started My Queer Story SG on Instagram and Facebook for us share our stories in a safe space, with the option of anonymity.
My Queer Story SG has shared over 100 stories of queer people. Some of them have been ostracised by their friends and families, and others fear rejection and keep silent. They may have received death threats and rape jokes, or been insulted with homophobic slurs. As a result, their mental health has suffered and sometimes, they feel suicidal. I wanted them to know they were heard, even if they chose not to share their names.
Identifying as queer can make you feel very alone, because you don’t know who you can share your true thoughts and feelings with. That’s why being part of a community, and having a safe space, are so important.
When I first came out, I didn’t feel safe at home or in school. When my parents found out I was bisexual, the TL;DR version was that there was a lot of crying, and I was called a disappointment. They said: “If you’re bisexual, that means you are 50 per cent straight and 50 per cent gay: so can you try to be 70 per cent straight, and later become 100 per cent straight?” But it doesn’t work that way; you can’t control who you are attracted to, and who you are.
In school, I was also gender policed (expected to change my gender expression to enforce and conform to gender norms associated with the gender binary). When I wanted to run for CCA president, teachers insinuated that they could not appoint me to a high post because I didn’t fit into the norms of what a girl “should” look like. I would be representing the school, they said, and my very short hair wasn’t acceptable. I ended up not getting the role.
When queer people feel rejected, having our community behind us gives us confidence, and the courage to be true to ourselves.
Social media has made it easier now to find other queer friends: when you post and like queer-affirming content, algorithms on Instagram and TikTok will suggest similar accounts to follow. This has been very helpful in building our local community.
Through social media, I’ve made other queer friends who encourage and inspire me. We’re constantly learning from one another, sharing resources on mental health, queer rights, and public education.
Since the pandemic it’s been harder to gather in person, but we hold many online events too. They help support people with very strict parents, who may not allow them to go openly to queer events.
This year, I had the privilege to represent queer youths in Singapore at Pink Dot, our biggest LGBTQIA+ event. I've received a lot of affirming messages from queer people and allies, expressing their support and excitement. Some said that hearing my story made them feel safer about their identity in Singapore, which makes me really happy. I hope my advocacy inspires fellow LGBTQIA+ folks to have the capacity to speak up too, and look towards a more equal future.
Having straight allies is so important for the LGBTQIA+ community. Though our fellow queer friends support us, we’re still a minority and need more people on our side.
The conventional narrative is dominated by cishet (cisgender and hereterosexual) people, who are not always accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community. Having supportive cishet loved ones gives me hope that people of privilege also have the potential to be allies, and that there are people who will still love and support us unconditionally.
When I wasn’t feeling accepted by my parents, I was grateful for one aunt who was really here for me. She sent me affirming messages, like: “Whoever you end up with in the future, you have my support.” My sisters have also been really supportive of My Queer Story SG, and help to share our content.
In January, I took part in the #fixschoolsnotstudents peaceful protest, asking MOE to support transgender and queer students.
This was in response to trans student Ashlee being refused Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) even though her parents had consented, and being misgendered (referred to by he/him pronouns instead of she/her pronouns).
Though I didn’t know Ashlee personally, I felt her treatment was the last straw, and wanted to stand in solidarity with her. I hoped to make a difference by sharing what we queer students go through.
Two of my friends and I were arrested for protesting without a permit. My parents still don’t agree that protesting was the right thing to do. They asked: “Why can’t you just stick to social media? Why did you have to get arrested?”
I don’t know what the final outcome of my protest case will be, and whether I will have a criminal record in future: but I am ready to accept it. I’m encouraged that the #fixschoolsnotstudents movement has started a discussion on queer youth, because I want the next generation of students to grow up a more equitable nation, where trans students like Ashlee and I can be more supported at school.
I think it’s important for people to know that queer people are more than just our gender identites and sexual orientations. I play the erhu, drums, and ukulele, and enjoy cycling and hiking trips.
I’m also a representative of Red Dot United’s Youth Wing, and go on walkabouts talking to people about their needs. My dream is to enter politics one day and help bring about more inclusive institutional change for disadvantaged communities, including migrant workers and people living in poverty.
As a young advocate for queer rights, I want to use my voice for my generation, and the queer youth of the future. I want us to live in a world where we’re all seen as equals, and are free from discrimination.
My queer friends and I may be young, but please hear us out and acknowledge our feelings while we’re figuring out who we are, and dealing with people who can be cruel and insensitive to us.
There are lots of resources you can check out to learn about us (like in the list below). You can listen to experiences other LGBTQIA+ people have, hopefully empathise with us, and share our stories so more people can become our allies.
I’ve seen that biases and prejudices can change over time. For example, I’m grateful that my parents have come a long way in accepting me. While they don’t agree 100 per cent with the way I advocate for queer rights, they’ve become more understanding of my advocacy work. My mum and I have kept our lines of communication open: she looks through relevant resources I share on Instagram, and we discuss LGBTQIA+ issues together at home.
I learned this the hard way, but advocacy is not about chiong-ing (attacking) all the way. It’s important to also take breaks, and trust that fellow advocates and activists are also putting in the work while you give yourself time and space to breathe. This is a team effort, not a solitary one.
Recently, I got a tattoo of the equality sign (=) on my finger. It represents marriage equality and on a broader scale, my belief that all people deserve equal treatment, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality.
It may take time, and hard work: but I’m hopeful that we can create a better society for queer youth, with real systemic change.
We might not live to see the day where our society achieves the level of equity we've been pushing for, but there is hope for queer youths, and for social equality. There is strength and comfort in solidarity, where we can support one another as the fight goes on.
The Dayre team reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment on the following issues: what support is provided for queer students who face discrimination or experience gender dysphoria, and whether it is true that staff can only refer to students by their statutory names and assigned gender.
The Ministry has clarified their stance with the following Parliamentary replies made by former education Minister Lawrence Wong:
We thank the Ministry for their response.
A non-exhaustive list of several organisations and communities that support the queer communities in Singapore include:
Pictures provided by Elijah.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. I’m a mother to my five-year-old daughter, Tully. On my personal account, I’ve written about how I’m dealing with the gender discrimination Tully faces at such a young age, and the complexities of the relationship between parents and children.
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