Supporting queer youth: Q&A with LGBTQIA+ activists
By Hoe I Yune, Jun 23, 2021
In the fourth and final part of our series this pride month, we speak with non-profit organisation representatives in Singapore to better understand the ways in which we can support the young LGBTQIA+ individuals among us. By now we’re aware of systemic challenges such as a lack of right to housing and marriage, and Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalising consensual sex between men in private. However, in today’s conversation, we’d like to focus on some steps we can take in our everyday lives. Whether as a friend, family member, or school staff member, we want to provide a safe space so no one feels like they are alone.
We speak with 26-year-old Oogachaga youth worker Alexander, 24-year-old Minority Voices co-founder and editor Sharvesh, and 31-year-old AWARE and Project X volunteer Yi Ting. More information about them can be found under Writer’s Note.
Diving right in, if someone comes out to us, how can we show support?
Yi Ting: If someone approaches you, listen and find out more about how they’re feeling. Ask questions such as “Have you been able to talk to anyone else?” and “Do you need help of any kind?” Don’t assume that they have issues with being queer, be accepting and don’t out them without consent.
Alexander: Even if you are not aware of certain issues, a statement like “I’m sorry, I don’t know very much about what you’re going through, but I am willing to learn more so I’m better equipped to support you” can do wonders for a distressed young person.
Sharvesh: If someone comes out to you, you shouldn’t invalidate what they’re feeling. I think there needs to be more empathy to understand what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling.
If someone were to be nervous about coming out, what encouragement would you give them?
Sharvesh: The reaction of others doesn’t have to be a defining point of your identity. Along a similar vein, it’s not necessary to come out by making a statement out of it, as long as you feel comfortable about who you are. I didn’t really plan to come out but it came up in conversation when I was 16 and my mum asked if I was going to get a girlfriend. At first, I got the regular response from my parents — “What would people think?” and “It’s not natural”. But I come from a place of privilege because I was sure about who I was; my siblings were supportive and my parents accepted me after I was very vocal about who I am and what I wanted to be.
When I spoke with my friends about it, the first thing they said was, “okay, cool”. So I didn’t see sexuality as a defining point of my identity — it doesn’t have anything to do with my character or interests. In general, it helped knowing that people were open to just listening and understanding. A lot of LGBTQIA+ depictions in the media are negative, so it can be quite disheartening and instill in you the fear of coming out. It’s not easy for a lot of LGBTQIA+ people — a lot of anxiety, stress and wanting validation and to feel accepted by people they love.
As peers, teachers or adults of authority, why is it important not to out anyone without their consent?
Yi Ting: Outing students before they’re ready only contributes to what is already a problematic system fueled by stigma and discrimination. A school counsellor once had this great initiative to try to sensitise teachers to mental health issues. I thought it was progressive when I saw how one of the mini modules was about gender and sexuality, but she told us that if we know our students are gay, we have to report it to the school because gay sex is illegal in Singapore. It only puts queer students in positions of precarity, and disregards the consequences of what outing someone does to their mental health!
What would you say to people who consider themselves allies to the cause, but hesitate in being vocal about it?
Sharvesh: If you don’t actively participate and speak up then you’re complicit to the problem. As much as it might be difficult, a straight person would automatically have more power because no one is going to bully them for being queer. I think policies will only change when there’s that collective want for change. Be empathetic and show solidarity by speaking up in social circles or online.
When I have family gatherings with extended family members, I try to speak up about issues that people might not normally talk about like sexuality and queerness. It might take time — conversations might get uncomfortable and lead to arguments or feelings getting hurt, but if the end goal is to create a safe space for the marginalised, we need to first be brave enough to start conversations .
On my personal social media and Minority Voices, I try to highlight queer brown voices and reshare what other queer organisations are doing on their platform. I’m always extremely vocal about queer rights and liberation in Singapore but I’m also interested in the intersectional issues that people are not speaking about. While I think racialised queer individuals have always been speaking about their intersectional identities cause them multiple minority stress and affect their lives, what we don’t see is Chinese queer folks speaking up against racism within the LGBTQIA+ community — a lot of the time, they are the ones perpetuating this discrimination. From my experience and by speaking to other queer brown folks in Singapore, I’ve come to notice that overt racism is extremely common because queer spaces are mostly online. People feel emboldened to be discriminatory and racist because there’s no real consequence.
Speaking of intersectional issues, why is it important to spotlight different experiences?
Sharvesh: Within queer circles, we don’t see many queer Indian or Malay representation and it can feel invalidating — like we don’t exist or not enough. A gay Chinese man might face discrimination for being queer but for those of us with darker skin, we face the added stress of racism. Even as a gay cis Indian man, I am privileged by virtue of the way I present myself and my support network, whereas there are so many issues that others of different gender and sexual identities face personally and systematically. I hope for more organisations to consciously do their part to make everyday people — not only Singaporeans but also migrants, expats and permanent residents — feel included.
Schools are meant to be a safe space for youths. Why is it a particularly unsafe space for queer students?
Yi Ting: Even if it isn’t explicitly communicated to students, there are ways that gender is policed within schools. I’ve never met a visibly trans person as a student or teacher. And as a young person especially, how can you accept your gender identity if you don’t see any representation of it in your everyday life?
I think that students are generally good at identifying which teachers are queer-friendly but it’s unfortunate that the onus is on them to figure it out.
The school’s leadership need to be queer friendly otherwise there’s no point having one queer affirmative counsellor. It is a Catch-22 situation when policies and mainstream societal views are waiting on one another to change. Without decriminalising queerness by repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, you’re not encouraging society to accept queerness, and when society is not accepting of queerness then schools then can’t be a safe space for queer youths.
How can we stand against queer-bullying?
Alexander: As a teacher or adult of authority, it is all well and good to tell a student not to bully others, period, but it is also important to address what they are bullying them for. Just as it is important to teach students that it is wrong to bully someone because of their race, place of birth, or disability, schools should also make it clear that bullying someone for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression is wrong. Otherwise queer and transphobia become the norm — figures of authority perpetuate it and no one thinks there’s anything problematic about it.
Adolescence is in itself a trying time for many; for young LGBTQIA+ people, especially those who are transgender, feeling the need to hide their journey of self-discovery and identity, so as to avoid being bullied, is exhausting and demoralising.
Sharvesh: If you’re a cis-gendered heterosexual person among friends, use your privilege to call it out and consciously advocate for queer rights. Nowadays it seems actionable change can only happen when there’s evidence: if you see queer-bullying, take your phone and start recording if it’s verbal abuse. You could call the police or report the incident to school administrators, but first consult your queer friend to ask how you can help and support them when such incidents happen. There’s an extremely valid fear of outing your queer friend, and they’ll always know what works best for them.
Why is it dangerous that the curriculum is not addressing or affirming diverse identities?
Yi Ting: The MOE sex education syllabus is heterosexist. There’s a lot of focus on marriage — for instance, abstinence until marriage. But marriage can’t always be on the cards for queer people in Singapore. Even for heterosexual individuals, it might not be something they want to choose.
It’s important that we challenge gender stereotypes. Under AWARE’s comprehensive sexuality education series Birds and Bees, we paint scenarios with gender neutral terms and characters to get people thinking about how gendered assumptions affect their understanding of issues such as consent. Straight, cisgender youths can also benefit from learning how to respectfully engage with people who have experiences beyond their own.
Alexander: Without being able to learn about sexual and gender diversity in a supposed safe space such as school, most of what youth learn about the LGBTQIA+ community is through social media; the problem here is that while there is a wealth of information that is factual and affirming, there is also another side that perpetuates ignorance and hate towards the community.
How have the rise of queer-friendly organisations and online communities made an impact on the LGBTQIA+ community?
Yi Ting: There are more queer youth groups at a university level, such as those under the Inter-University LGBT Network. But there are still limitations — having to wait until one’s university years to feel accepted is a long time and what happens if someone doesn’t attend university? There are also regulations on how political student organisations can be and LGBTQIA+ rights are a political issue in this country.
Alexander: One of the great things about social media is that there are groups for LGBTQIA+ people of all ages to support each other. But I think discrimination has actually increased; as more youth find appropriate language to describe their identity and gain confidence in expressing themselves, this makes them more of a target to LGBTQIA-phobic behaviours.
Sharvesh: With social media and the internet, it is easy to find people who will love and accept you online. Among Gen Zs especially, I’ve noticed more people being visibly queer. It’s heartening because growing up, I remember not wanting to be seen as gay in how I dressed and behave. But these days, I see people being very authentically themselves and it is beautiful.
Even if systemic challenges persist, I think the internet has also enabled everyday people to create safe spaces and spark discussions on our own. Last week, a new Instagram group (@ sgbrownqueers) was created after a notable lack of queer brown representation at Pink Dot, the only Pride event here.
Thank you for your time. How can queer youths and allies reach you or avenues that you support?
Alexander: We are currently hosting monthly kopi/teh hangouts online, where LGBTQ+ youth aged 16-29 get together and have conversations around a set theme. Once restrictions on gatherings relax, we plan to host drop-in days at our office — for it to be a safe physical space for LGBTQ+ youth to mingle and relax.
Our resource page Congregaytion is also available to anyone who wants to learn more about how to support LGBTQIA+ youths.
Yi Ting: Some NGOs such as The T Project have shelters for trans individuals. For LGBTQIA+ youths in particular, they are in a vulnerable position because if they come out to homophobic or trans-phobic parents, they risk losing a safe space — physically and psychologically.
Within the LGBTQIA+ community, queer women’s groups receive significantly less funding than queer men’s, and I hope this shifts.
Sharvesh: If anyone wants to learn more, I’d say follow accounts on social media — there are so many such as @ thebipluscollective.sg, @ Quasa, @ crittalk.sg, @ indignation.sg, @ queerzinefestsg, @ bissu.life, @ sayonisg, @ thehealingcirclesg, @ gayhealth.sg, and @ uequalsu_sg. I understand it can be difficult to learn more about LGBTQIA+ issues if you don’t have LGBTQIA+ friends, but you could attend events organised by LGBTQIA+ organisations or volunteer with them. The moment that you have a regular conversation with someone, you’ll really be able to empathize with them. These are real human stories and real human beings.
As a youth worker at Oogachaga, a community-based non-profit professional organisation that works with LGBTQIA+ individuals, couples and families, Alexander identifies as a gay trans man and has been volunteering with the LGBTQIA+ community since he was 18. Sharvesh is a cis gay man pursuing his masters in gender sexuality and women’s studies, while running @ minorityvoices on Instagram. Yi Ting was formerly an educator for five years and actively volunteers with gender equality advocacy group AWARE and sex worker empowering non-profit organisation Project X.
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:
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve previously written about J.K. Rowling’s controversial trans tweets, educating myself on social issues, and books I enjoy reading.
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