By Marcus Lee
On 24th January, founder of Buro 24/7 Miroslava Duma shared on Instagram stories a photo of her friend, couture designer Ulyana Sergeenko’s handwritten note, “To my niggas in Paris.” Both were criticised for using the slur before apologising. Duma’s backlash grew when transgender model Andreja Pejic posted an Instagram video of Duma in 2012 lambasting Pejic’s swimsuit shoots and fashion blogger Bryanboy’s feminine style.
Here’s one of my favorite pictures from the time I’ve been working in this business. I’ve never been the girl to do every campaign or walk every show, but I’m happy that I’ve had some pretty unique moments in this industry – a few of which have challenged the dominant paradigm, outdated views of gender and a few that have even spilled over into pop culture. I woke up to a video yesterday, where a woman by the name of Miroslava Duma said some pretty ugly things about @bryanboycom and me during a conference (scroll right to see). I wont say it wasn’t hurtful. However instead of focusing on this blatant ignorance, I couldn’t help but realize the contrast between the state of our business today in comparison to 2012, the yr of this video. Fashion hasn’t always celebrated, to quote @miraduma “people like us.” Today I can say I’ve walked for iconic designers like @MarcJacobs and even landed on pages of American Vogue as none other than myself. However for a long time I didn’t believe that I was deserving of a firm place in fashion. I remember when I was one of only two people representing a specific “trend” that many people would now place under the title “gender diversity in the fashion space.” Circa 2010 my friend @LeaT and I found International media attention on the one hand and no small amount of ignorance and scorn on the other. Today we are part of a movement of unique talent that is smashing the old categories that once stood and proudly displaying a spectrum of age/color/gender/class. @miraduma ‘s hopes that “this trend fizzles out quickly” have not been realized. I am thankful I got to stick around! I understand that an apology has been issued and I do think people should be given the chance to grow, change, overcome their ignorance. To my little sisters, bros and non binary siblings who don’t have the resources to fight back, to change schools, pay for medical care or the support of thousands of followers and who experience cruelty directed at them only because they have the guts to follow their hearts and minds in the hope of an honest, happy life please remember, chin up ALWAYS! Evolution is no stranger to our cause and one day we’ll see revolution❤️
In the video, Duma said, “Say there’s this weird person called Bryanboy. Say there’s another weird person calling himself Andrea Pejic. Who else can you even name here? Thank God there aren’t that many of them! And I hope that this trend fizzles out […] No, we would never publish someone like Pejic. We have censorship at Buro, we’re very concerned about the beauty and purity of the things we publish. And honestly, just like some “wonderful people” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian would never be hosted on our site, so it is with such… BOYS… you mentioned. Because we understand… well, we respect our readers too much for that.” Bryanboy denounced Duma’s sentiment on his Instagram, ending off with a call to love. Duma apologised again, her second apology that day. Buro 24/7 Singapore also sent a message of love on their Instagram:
We reached out to Buro 24/7 Singapore’s Digital Editorial Director Norman Tan and Acting Editor-in-Chief Amelia Chan for a comment; their response: “After speaking with management, we would like to reserve our comments to what was said in our statement.” As a fellow Singaporean online publication ourselves, we respect Buro 24/7 Singapore for calling out racism and bigotry. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about our society at large, where ramifications of Section 377A are still prevalent.
Section 377A of the Penal Code on Singapore Statues Online Plus
Criminalising gay sex tightens censorship laws, lowers media representation, prevents gay sexual education in schools, encourages close-mindedness in the workplace, and of course prohibits adoption and civil union. This undoubtedly affects other sexual orientation and gender minorities as well, making the LGBTQ community in Singapore a vulnerable target of discrimination because of hate laws.
A while back, our Editor-in-Chief, Adele Chan heard on 91.3 ONE FM’s Breakfast Show, Glenn Ong and The Flying Dutchman, a “joke” that two DJs made on 1 February 2018:
It made her think about the appropriateness of that joke. She says that she understands this is just Glenn (the DJ)’s personal preference towards a gender, but there are underlying implications that can be hurtful to some individuals.
Late December last year, a gay Singaporean man was denied single-parent adoption of his biological son conceived via surrogacy, since Singapore law prohibits IVF between an unmarried man and woman. District judge Shobha Nair, who rejected the man’s bid for adoption, said, “This application is in reality an attempt to obtain a desired result — that is, formalising the parent-child relationship in order to obtain certain benefits such as citizenship rights, by walking through the back door of the system when the front door was firmly shut.” The man is a doctor who had planned on raising his son with his partner of 13 years, who works in the marketing industry in Singapore. He now faces a crossroad: migrate to the US with his family (where his son has citizenship) and lose his home, or stay in Singapore with no legal bond to his son.
In an effort to understand the difficulties the LGBTQ community in Singapore face, we spoke with notable opinion leaders from the community about their views on this topic.
Eugene Tan, or Becca D’Bus
Drag Queen / Activist
Eugene Tan, aka Becca D’Bus; photo by Benjamin Matchap
“If we’re going to dismantle oppression, and there’re people whom that oppression benefits, they’re going to experience that as negative. They will then fall back on derailing tactics, that we’ve already witnessed — all of a sudden gay people are coming for your kids to ‘recruit’ them into gayness, despite how that’s completely illogical.
There’re people in my extended family who not only go to Faith Community Baptist Church, but have relatives who’re pastors there. Not only do they give 10% of their income to that church, they’ve family members who’re literally profiting from that [anti-LGBTQ] industry. I don’t think they recognise it’s about far deeper power. Because it’s a large church, they have bargaining power, working actively to influence culture.
A lot of people don’t know queer people who have ‘come out’. I don’t think queerness is foreign, but outness (as a concept) wasn’t prevalent in Singapore for a very long time. I know people my age who’ve never had the “I’m gay” conversation with their parents, but whose moms have stopped talking about getting married.
Society has a lot to gain from including queer people. We have a larger society when we understand the lives queer people lead.
Section 377A should be taken off the books immediately. There isn’t a conversation to be had. Any conversation against has no logical merit. Even people who’re against Section 377A know what they’re saying is illogical.
A lot of policies are built on Section 377A, so it’s an important step for queer activism in Singapore. That’s not to say we can’t do other things at the same time, which we are.
Drag is progressive in how it thinks about gender, queerness, politics and culture. It’s an expression, and my creativity is generated by my belief system. I do believe there can be a world where we’re free and powerful. My creativity helps imagine that world.
I don’t think if you want to be oppressive to queer people, you should be accepted. Your religion does not teach you to be an asshole. If you want to be an asshole, there should be consequences. If you are The Necessary Stage producing the M1 Singapore Fringe, and want to programme The Glory Hoes Present: Paris Is Burning, and you talk to your sponsor, then censor it from your lineup, you should expect people will fight back. You should expect I will make sure this costs you as much as possible.
The problem with Section 377A, is not that gay people can’t have sex. (It’s that) you can’t be an ‘out’ teacher. There’re no records of ‘out’ people in our military (leadership). There’s currently no ‘out’ person in parliament. It implicates families or married couples moving to Singapore. It affects sex education in schools. Adoption, surrogacy, etc.
Imagine being queer in secondary school. Everything you read tells you you’re different, maybe a freak. Religion tells you you don’t belong. The government actively tells you you’re wrong. Sex education tells you your sex life is dangerous and illegal but will not tell you how to not make it a danger. You suspect your teacher is queer but they can’t be a mentor to you because they would lose their job otherwise. The teacher could leave you alone and have you possibly kill yourself, or lose their job.”
“As a queer lawyer, I frequently had my friends ask me questions about the law and their relationship, because they did not know other LGBT-friendly lawyers. Which, I also knew, was another barrier to access to justice, as people would be too afraid to approach lawyers to ask for advice because they were afraid of being discriminated against.
I would help LGBT clients through my firm on an ad-hoc basis, and sometimes through informal advice. Pro-bono work is very important to me, so I also used to volunteer with the Legal Aid Bureau and Community Legal Clinics.
In 2015, I had just gotten married to my husband, which made me acutely aware of the privilege we possessed as a heterosexual couple. I wanted to do something to help LGBT couples struggling with the lack of legal recognition that we had so easily.
Around late 2015, I started to put together a team with a vision: a legal guidebook to answer the questions that LGBT couples would have with respect to the legal aspects of their relationship, written in a layman-friendly manner.
For the LGBT community to be able to achieve concrete legislative change, there needs to be active lobbying with members of Parliament in order to develop relationships and understand the inner workings of our laws that are passed. You would require an organisation that is specifically just dedicated to this kind of work and that in itself requires a lot of time and resources. However, such an organisation would not be impossible to form. We just need people who are willing and have the courage to face such a daunting task.
When we hear about the retention of section 377A, it is usually comments coming from the government, usually with some palliative language about ‘compromise’. However, this is not a compromise as only one community is actually suffering. There isn’t any kind of open and public discussion about the matter, which is necessary for a society which is looking to change.
The Singapore government has been repeatedly questioned about section 377A and other discriminatory laws by the international community, both through the UPR and CEDAW process. And the Singapore government repeatedly refuses to acknowledge this to be a problem and even maintains that there is no discrimination.”
LGBT Rights Activist
“LBT women face the issues women face, like sexism and patriarchy, but at the same time they’re also persecuted for their sexual orientation [and gender minority]. These issues create different kinds of discrimination gay men don’t necessarily face.
If our representation is masculine, we get the same treatment as gay men. When I go to the toilet, I get the same kind of discrimination transgender women get. Through research [at Sayoni], we found that the kind of discrimination LBT women suffer is often domestic. More ‘obvious’ lesbians face violence in the public, from verbal use or molestation and for transgender women, people might try ‘funny’ things like try to rape them.
Sayoni’s always done research and advocacy, we do work with the UN like for the Convention of Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Over the last seven years, we went to the UN to report on LBT issues in Singapore. We also participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that reports on human rights situations in all countries. We also organise events to give people a safe space to share their journeys and fears.
In 2007, the government was at a CEDAW session where experts asked them about Section 377A. They said there was no discrimination in Singapore. We decided to do something about it. By 2011, we reported how Section 377A affects all of us, not just gay men. There’s no sex education. There’s censorship of not just gay men but everyone else [in the LGBTQ community].
We’re the first LGBTQ group in Singapore to have gone to the UN. Because our reports are in the UN’s system, the government’s claim that there’s no discrimination is looking more and more lame. After us, more LGBTQ organisations in Singapore became interested to go to the UN. Learning about CEDAW’s mechanism has inspired our operation framework.
We’ve recommended sex education to CEDAW. From our research, LBT girls between 12—16 years old don’t know they’re being sexually abused because our sex education doesn’t affirm their identities and don’t discuss same-sex relations. Even if these girls know they’re being sexually abused, they don’t report it to their teachers because in sex education classes you can’t mention LGBTQ people as neutral or positive, so some schools would rather not mention them.
The government recognises our voice is loud. They’ve told us not to rock the boat, but we can’t not rock the boat — it deals with our lives. Since we face so many obstacles, we won’t stop talking about it.
Collective voices are powerful. It gives a diversity of views. There’s empowerment. You don’t have to feel like you’re alone. As an individual, taking control also means you no longer feel helpless. It works both ways.
The government shouldn’t push responsibility to the public. They’re the protector of our citizenship rights.
If you can migrate, you should. A lot of LGBTQ people have left anyway. We can’t wait 20 years for the government to change. But those who want to stay and fight, let’s do it together.”
“My transgender friends have said: ‘I’ve such a popular following online, I know I’m a talented actress, but I never get a role on mainstream media every time I audition for them.’ I’ve let my platform be one where their narratives are included in a way that’s not pervasive. You’ll see transgender people on my channel, but I never exploit them. I just let them exist.
A lot of my friends feel because they’re Malay Muslim artists for the Malay-Muslim market, they need to keep mum about situations even though they’re allies.
When I wanted to do my show in January, I was told to keep my dance crew less queer, have less drag elements and fewer transgender people on my stage. The problem is the more you tell Hirzi no, the more Hirzi wants to do it — if it doesn’t hurt or discriminate anyone.
When Munah and my ambassadorships for Pink Dot in 2015 were announced, an international label that’d sponsored us outfits for Singapore Fashion Week told our agents, ‘We’re okay with them wearing our label and taking photos, but can they not tag us, we’re a heterosexual brand.’ There’s no way it’s a ‘heterosexual’ brand. That Singaporeans managing these brands could speak on behalf of a bigger name isn’t right.
At the 2014 YouTube fanfare, a 12-year-old boy talked about being effeminate, sexually bullied by his heterosexual ‘friends’, being scared-shit to tell his parents and asked me how to deal with life. For him to ask me, that was scarring, I went through my fair share of being bullied. Then, a 14-year-old Hijabi girl started crying. She said she had feelings for girls but couldn’t come to terms with her faith. The boy now lives comfortably being the Bretman Rock of Singapore. He wears makeup, cross-dresses whenever he wants — of course not in school.
When I was younger I remembered thinking, holy crap my friends are two straight girls so I don’t look lonely in school. Now when I do my flea markets, all these boys come in squads. At the gym, this dude went to his boyfriend and gave him a peck on the cheek. I’ve seen lesbians cuddling in front of Cineleisure.
In mainstream media there’s almost zero representation. Watching Glee reruns on Star World, they remove Kurt and Blaine’s and Santana and Brittany’s narratives. On CSI it’s okay to have bloody, murder, rape scenes, but the minute we talk about a gay romance, it’s censored.
We can’t fight fire with fire. What we can fight for is secularity where people exist in the same space who’re not just tolerant, but inclusive.
After Wear White, the conversation has begun. It’s better to debate, than to keep mum. Historically, Malay cultures were the most inclusive culture. It’s bizarre we’ve never had this conversation. I’m hopeful for the next brown person to be a Pink Dot ambassador. Then the conversation continues.
There’s no conservation when Section 377A’s not even repealed.
Love openly. Hold hands, kiss your partner, wear whatever the hell you want to wear.”
MP K Shanmugam
We reached out to the Minister for an interview earlier in February, and have been in contact with his secretary, Sally via phone calls for over a month. We recently got an email from Ms Ng Siew Hua, the Assistant Director of Media Relations under Community Partnership and Communications Group rejecting our request for an interview with MP K Shanmugam, who referred us to these links we think you should check out too:
- MFA Press Statement: Singapore’s participation in the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 January 2016
- Decision to retain Section 377A ‘carefully considered, balanced
- PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Interview With BBC HARDTalk
- Govt has no plans to repeal section 377a for now
There are members of our government who assert that while they’re personally pro-equality, their jobs are to represent the majority of Singaporeans who are anti-LGBTQ. In my opinion, however, retooling their policies to further restrict Pink Dot’s visibility has been the biggest testament to a pro-LGBTQ sentiment in Singapore. Which, for better or for worse, is also proof that they’re capable of responding. Will they respond to this article? Probably not. But then time and again they’ve confessed repealing Section 377A is not up to them, it’s up to us.
Date: 21 July 2018
Venue: Hong Lim Park