When Singaporean lesbian Eileena Lee sought peer support after a painful relationship experience in the 1990s, there weren’t many local platforms available for gay women.
“I was looking for support [but] there was no support,” Lee said. “And in those days, it was dial-up modem. It was in the ‘90s and all I could find was mostly porn.”
Times have changed but challenges remain. The evolution of Singapore’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activism reflects both how much has improved in recent years and how much remains the same.
One need only go online to find multiple LGBT resources, from established counselling centers like Oogachaga, to media content on blogs like Dear Straight People, to Singapore’s first LGBT legal guide for couples and families.
Offline, Pink Dot, Singapore’s de facto gay pride event, draws thousands each year. Even new state-imposed regulations that require organizers to erect a barricade around the park—so as to prevent any sort of participation by foreigners—didn’t stop Singaporeans and permanent residents from completely filling the park this July.
In Singapore’s universities, LGBT student groups are some of the most active and organized. Determined to create safe spaces for LGBT students at college campuses, student organizations like ‘The G Spot’ at Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS), ‘Out to Care’ at the Singapore Management University and ‘Kaleidoscope’ at the Nanyang Technological University provide opportunities to form support groups.
Five such student groups, part of the Inter-University LGBT Network, organize events like Qrientation, an orientation program to introduce students to gay resources on campus, or SG Month (an acronym for Sexuality and Gender) at NUS to address issues like sexual health, mental health and community. They also seek to facilitate the provision of services like HIV testing on campus.
For Kyle Malinda-White, who volunteers as the Inter-University LGBT Network’s press relations advisor, the motivation to provide peer support and affirmation comes from personal experience.
“[That I was gay] never really came to mind until I was about 14 years old, when I had a crush on a boy in school and I thought there was something wrong with me, I thought that I was sick and that I had to be cured. I went to my school counsellor and my school counsellor sent me to Choices, which is more commonly known as an anti-gay reparative therapy center,” he told Asia Times.
“I went there about two sessions, my mum was there, she was crying, she thought that it was her fault that I was gay. So I told her… it’s fine, I’m cured now. I told that to my school counsellor, I told that to my mum. Both of them believed me and that was it. But I always knew that deep inside I never was really fully ‘cured’.”
A couple of years after a stint of futile counseling, a friend introduced Malinda-White to a support group for LGBT youth, and thus began his first foray into LGBT activism. It was a teenage experience that made joining the Inter-University LGBT network seem like a natural progression.
“I always felt that it was because of the community, the LGBT community, through the counseling by Oogachaga that I received for my anxiety issues, and through the support of my friends, that I was able to get back up on my feet [following a sexual assault]. And I thought this would be a great way to give back as well,” he said.
Although it’s a sea change from the previous generation of activists who describe growing up gay as “feeling very, very alone”, LGBT equality is still a long way off in Singapore.
The government continues to retain Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalizes sex between men. The law is sandwiched between codes that ban sex with corpses (Section 377) and sex with animals (Section 377B) in the Penal Code, indication of official attitudes towards homosexuality in the wealthy city-state. Convictions under 377A allow for two-year prison terms.
In a bid to placate both liberals and conservatives, the government has said that it will neither repeal the law nor proactively enforce it.
“[Singapore] is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the BBC in an interview in February.
“My personal view is that if I do not have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.”
Media policies, meanwhile, continue to block any positive portrayals of same-sex relationships, and conservative elements are both vocal and organized in lobbying against any move towards greater equality for LGBT people.
Nor are all universities thrilled to host a visible organized LGBT presence among their student bodies. One recent university graduate who requested anonymity described her experience:
“The initial idea was that we were casually as a support group for each other,” said the ex-student. “And then I wanted to start a formal advocacy group for gender, sexuality, race, class, those kinds of issues. That got shut down really quick; the management was extremely heavy-handed.”
It can be a vicious cycle, activists say. Without mass support from the rest of the student body, it was difficult to generate any momentum on LGBT issues on campus, while the fact that “any effort on our part was completely shut down very early on” made it impossible to gather supporters or allies, the student said.
“It was quite a painful ordeal to go through because I was really passionate about it,” said the former student. “We kept meeting road block after road block.”
“We take it in our stride,” said Malinda-White of the issues the network has with university administrations. “We take it as a continuing part of our mission to continue to provide as many safe spaces as we can.”
Outside of universities, a new generation of LGBT activists are adding their perspectives to the national struggle for equality.
“Our mind-sets are very different, but they are amazing,” said Alan Seah, a long-time LGBT activist and committee member of Pink Dot. “It’s a privilege that we have attracted young people who are so bright and so ‘on’, ‘woke’, ‘lit’ to advise us also on how to better speak to them.”
It’s an outspokenness that directly challenges the state’s unreformed criminalization of gay sex and the common treatment of LGBT equality as more of a negotiable perk than inalienable right.
“We have to always take into account that the reason why younger activists are bolder and a lot more courageous to stand up and be counted for is because the people before have really paved the way,” said Malinda-White.
“At the end of the day we are all still fighting for the exact same thing. And no matter how much you try to separate the old and the new, the struggles are still universal.”