Advocacy, is it “just a phase”?
By Carman Chew
In this series, we seek to find out how COVID-19 has both challenged and blessed the various fields of activism in Singapore. While we’ve seen thus far how advocates for migrant worker rights transition and largely benefit from the online sphere, what about a movement which has seen a longer history of activism online?
LGBTQIA+ advocates are no strangers to the internet and many of its earliest organisations were first birthed in this space. Is the online sphere the safe haven many often associate it to be? And has it been as inclusive as it claims to be for all members of the community?
In this post, we talk to Lune to find out.
Lune campaigns for LGBTQIA+ rights and for better methods of tackling sexual violence across several organisations in NUS: In Tembusu College, she heads tFreedom’s SpeQtrum wing, which primarily holds adhoc tea sessions on gender issues and collaborates with other queer groups in the college on LGBTQ+ events. She is also the executive director of TransNUS, a small mobilizing union for trans, non-binary and questioning folk in the university, as well as the head of the literacy team of SafeNUS, a student-led initiative aimed at improving the way NUS handles its sexual misconduct cases.
[Legend: L – Lune]
First of all, with this year’s Pride month being online, how was it the same or different for you?
L: Since 2019, Pride Month has become for me what is popularly known on online spaces as ‘Wrath Month’. This Pride was the same! It was Wrath Month instead. Wrath, because discrimination persists, the State continues to bear down upon our existence as LGBTQIA+ people, and pretty much aside from the ever-expanding LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore, we’re still in a relatively violent status quo.
As for differences, this Pink Dot was held on a live stream, and I would say the best thing that came out of that was how it attracted an entire LGBTQIA+ youth demographic, from ages 13 – 19, that would not have otherwise been able to leave the house and publicly stand on Hong Lim Park without their parents’ scrutiny.
The result of the live stream was the formation of a Pink Dot Discord server – finally!! after THIS long – that was set up entirely by these young queers. The more academically-inclined queers like us criticize Pink Dot for being homonationalist and homonormative, but I am very heartened by how the repercussions of live streaming Pink Dot included younger LGBTQIA+ youths creating and organizing their own community. The Zoomers know how to grassroots on their own! No one taught them!
Could you maybe elaborate on what ‘Wrath month’ is for those less familiar?
L: It is double-valenced, referring to both wrath that the community receives on a daily basis, but also, more importantly, the destructive or constructive anger that the community has against structural discrimination.
At the same time, we are still lacking in solidarity and in the understanding of each other’s issues [both within and beyond the LGBTQIA+ community]. It’s hard to be proud of a community where detractors like to perceive us as monolithic, but in reality, is unable to make sense of violence and reconcile differences from within. In the years of being in the community and seeing the cracks from within, I relate a lot more to wrath – in anger at a system that creates the conditions of violence from outside and inside the LGBTQIA+ community.
That being said, in the context of offline advocacy, it is much more likely that most of us would strategically tone down our anger and wrath, especially in a context like Singapore, where activism offline is conditioned to be palatable and respectable, as opposed to online, where it is a much vaster space where we can afford to be more uncut.
“No one asked, but if I’m expected to comment on destructive and constructive anger in the community, I would say both are extremely valid expressions and are complementary forces needed in the realm of LGBTQIA+ activism.”
What were some of your biggest concerns after COVID-19 struck?
L: I’m very sure that the fact that the government forces you to stay at home, as we know, increases that risk of domestic violence. Of course, violence comes in a lot of forms, in terms of physical violence, emotional abuse and infrastructural kind of violence, where your physical space is not suited for you, like the lack of privacy or space to do anything, being confined with your parents who might be abusive.
(A lot of personal problems, family problems come to the forefront, but whether that affects people in their advocacy it depends lah. That one’s a matter of privilege already because some spaces are still better than others, so it’s very very complex.)
But at the same time [more specific to SafeNUS], direction-wise, we’re really looking for a whole change in cultural practice lah. We were definitely looking at bringing the conversation away from the justice system and the law and towards community accountability instead.
There should be a recognition that the justice system was never meant to convict people who are responsible for sexual violence, and considering the systemic nature of sexual violence, it’s not just something that can be resolved by punitive justice because again it puts too much responsibility on the justice system. No matter the punishment, people will still continue to do it, because the punishments do not educate people on why it’s not a good thing to do and how to keep them accountable for their actions.
“There is a limit to deterrence; it just keeps people coming up with more and more ways to conduct sexual violence that allows them to be better undetected as we’ve already seen in the most recent cases.”
On intersections with queerness, a lot of queer people depend on spaces outside their homes and their immediate biological family is not always able to support them. Pre-COVID, one would maybe have the chance to go out and a lot of people depend on such spaces to gather – it’s very important for one’s mental well-being and emotional well-being, to be able to express who one is and in that sense to be healthy. So in that sense, a lot of our queer families that we’d rather associate with are outside.
And because the government assumes that your immediate family, your nuclear family, is the only one that can properly support you, it prevents any kind of consideration about your outside family or extended family or friends and communities which these people really depend on a lot more for their well-being.
How have the different organisations you work with adapted to COVID-19?
L: For SpeQtrum, we didn’t really manage to adapt to COVID. Before COVID, I wanted to invite Becca D’Bus, the drag queen, for a student’s tea and I did everything but then it got cancelled. I had the choice to convert it [to an online session] but I chose not to because Becca has a presence, you really have to see them in person. They have this great atmosphere that’s very raw and great and very in-the-flesh kind of experience; like you’re literally looking at one of Singapore’s most prominent drag queens and a very important drag queen as well. And it was very sad because I had a good number of sign-ups, I was like “wah *clap clap clap* everyone wants to come and hear Becca talk”. Then yeah, y’know – SHAME. So, for now, I’ve postponed it indefinitely. I still have the poster and the Eventbrite.
“And I think people tend to forget that the Internet is a wonderful tool to create spaces, because it’s so easy to create a space and it’s one way to decentralise advocacy.”
Safe Word (the chill get-together wing of tFreedom for queer people) tried to hold a get-together on Zoom where they played Club Penguin together.
But overall, I would say that tFreedom has been more sluggish for shifting online because so much of it is based on the physical connection, at least in its current iteration. I mean especially for Tembusu, that communal interaction is so important so it’s a shock for the college in general that we cannot meet up at all because much of college life is based on that. And so many of our events were based offline. Whereas for SafeNUS we’ve always been more flexible, we have our offline interactions and we have our online interactions so we’re very versatile in that sense.
For SafeNUS, Discord is generally our main based because it has a great number of functions: within a single server you can create multiple chat rooms, you don’t have to turn on your video in the voice channel, you can react to announcements, and most laptops can take it, though, of course, you still need a good internet connection lah, although you need less bandwidth with voice channels. So it’s very good lah, especially for survivors who might not want to show their face and remain a bit more anonymous.
For TransNUS, we don’t really have a COVID thing because our existence is just within a Telegram group. We were thinking of getting a booth at Pink Dot this year but then now it’s happening online.
But we make it no secret to our members that it is meant to be a political space and if we need to make demands to NUS about their policies, whether it’s about bathroom policies, freshman orientation camps, the registrar or healthcare, there’s a space that you can put forth your grouches. As a union goes, if you don’t have a problem then yeah lah, nothing for you to do. I mean it’s a community space also lah but like it’s a reality that people have other communities as well and we haven’t met enough physically to have a proper communal connection.
What advice do you have for people who might be interested in getting started in advocacy?
L: The layman can join mutual aid spaces or create mutual aid spaces as well. So like the Wares book fair thing, the layman can literally just fundraise for other people and then just give the money directly. That is so much faster than the bureaucracy of NGOs and charity organisations. This is the ‘kampung spirit’ that the boomers like to talk about, but they never really understand what it is because they’ve been so changed by the whole system and younger people like us are rediscovering that. You don’t do it because you expect something in return, you do it because they’re your neighbour, you do it because you’re in your community and you have that space to help people who are in the community. So yes, the layman can just join in. You don’t need to be of a high educational standard to understand what a gift economy is, to help someone in need.
And I think people tend to forget that the Internet is a wonderful tool to create spaces, because it’s so easy to create a space and it’s one way to decentralise advocacy. It’s as easy as creating a Telegram chat or a Discord server. TransNUS was also created out of a Telegram chat and that space has already done quite a bit because we’ve managed to do our focus group discussions pre-COVID and understand the challenges of our own community. And the point is that anyone can make that space, so long as they have an interest in advocacy and they don’t even have to make it an officialised kind of organisation cos, in fact, the less official it is the better. That means fewer hurdles to go through.
And even if the layman doesn’t create these spaces, they can just join the mutual aid cause lor, you can just be the one that’s giving the money lah and that’s already helping the cause because you’re connecting your money with people and you’re giving your money away instead of parking it in like some shady hedge fund which only participates a particular demographic of people that don’t need the money.
LGBTQIA+ advocacy in Singapore is definitely not a new phenomenon, and neither are they new to the online sphere. It remains an exciting space, with a fresh generation of activists capitalizing on the benefits of new platforms and capabilities.
Yet, while many have grown more comfortably from and on the online space, there are still offline elements that have been difficult to replace or that remain unsafe. Moreover, there is still a long way to go. As Lune points out, as a community that prides itself on diversity, it needs to more intentionally include those who might have been rendered invisible, existing only as a “+” at the end of the community.
In the words of Marsha P. Johnson: “No Pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.”
Here are some resources for and by the community below:
- Inter-uni LGBT Network
- Queer Zine Fest
- The T Project (resource for homeless trans people)
- Project X (resource for local sex workers)
- Destination: Ink (queer-friendly open mic)
- Bissu (minority-focused LGBTQIA+ group)
- The Healing Circle (for queer Muslims)