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Sayoni at 2015 ILGA-Asia Conference
Articles - Activism
Written by sayoni   
Sunday, 08 November 2015 00:11

sayoni at ilga-asia conference

Several Sayoni volunteers attended the 2015 ILGA-Asia regional conference held in Taipei, Taiwan, from 28-30 October this year. Besides learning from other Asian activists at the formal sessions, we also took the opportunity to share strategies and ideas in informal settings. This year's conference coincided with Taipei's 2015 Pride Parade, the largest pride march in the region.

It was the first time that this lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) conference was held in Taiwan. Co-organised by the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, the conference saw 300 activists from 30 countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, China, Malaysia and Singapore. Over a period of three days, activists held talks and workshops about the work they were doing within their organisations and regionally.

We heard about experiences from other countries that gave us much to reflect on. The host city, Taipei, was itself an interesting case. Even as its same-sex partnership bill has stalled in Parliament, Taiwanese activists Jennifer Lu and Victoria Hsu are standing for political office in Taipei; Lu also got married to her partner recently. And they are hardly the only out LGBTQ candidates in the city, which has a burgeoning civil society space. On our end, Sayoni's Jean Chong presented some of her thesis findings at a session with other Asian activists, explaining how Singapore, leaning on Asian exceptionalism, has exerted political control over the private lives of its citizens.

One of the key ideas that emerged from the conference was the concept of intersectionality, an idea that the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, which Sayoni is a part of, actively incorporates in its positions. The Caucus is a network of diverse human rights activists in Southeast Asia that aims for the inclusion of SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) in human rights mechanisms in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As Ryan Silverio, Regional Coordinator of the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, said, “Applying intersectionality in our activism requires us to go beyond single-issue politics. We recognize that our experience of discrimination and marginalization is not just because of our sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.”

Despite the success of the conference, there were also gaps in the formal sessions, particularly when it came to women's issues. A petition that was eventually signed by most of the participants pointed out "the lack of space and diversity, including gender, age and other status on panel and plenary sessions". One of its recommendations was a quota system for sessions at the next conference to "ensure issues faced by diverse women are meaningfully addressed". (See the full statement here.)


Last Updated on Monday, 09 November 2015 01:10
IGLHRC's In Their Own Words Series
Articles - Activism
Tuesday, 12 May 2015 22:53

Brian Tofte-Schumacher of IGLHRC sat down with Raksha Mahtani of Sayoni, a Singapore-based group that organizes and advocates for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s issues. Mahtani is a volunteer coordinating a human rights documentation project on violence and discrimination. The interview took place in NYC, during her visit for the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women conference in March. Mahtani, 26, has represented Sayoni at the newly formed Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression (SOGIE) Caucus, the ASEAN People's Forum and the ASEAN Youth Forum. Before volunteering for Sayoni, Mahtani worked with AWARE, a gender equality organization in Singapore.

Q: What would you say are the biggest challenges for LGBT people in Singapore?

A: I think some of the biggest challenges are quite personal. I think that's a big narrative in Singapore because the society is already multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and generally conservative in that many don't see being LGBT as “natural” or “normal” or “acceptable.” So often because of this, LGBT people are demonized, vilified, and seen as “things” to be corrected. People come out to their families and risk being subjected to corrective therapy or reparative counseling, often involving religious leaders. These can happen in the private sphere, and go unnoticed by most.

Read the full interview here. Sayoni's research project is ongoing and scheduled to be released next year. Thank you to all who have generously shared their stories.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 May 2015 22:59
In Search of the American Dream
Articles - Activism
Written by alina   
Sunday, 12 April 2015 18:40

Rainbow crossing in San Francisco's Castro district

The US has shaped global LGBT history and culture in many ways. In some states, same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws exist, yet LGBT-related violence is not unheard of. So it was with great curiosity that I travelled to the US as a Sayoni volunteer, one of 19 participants from as many countries participating in an International Visitor Leadership Program exchange.

Our specific programme focused on civic engagement. The group received an overview of the US political system and, through a series of meetings, a better understanding of how its civil society organisations and government agencies advocate for civil and human rights. The journey took me to four states, Washington DC, South Carolina, Utah and California, with a final stop in San Francisco.

History of a movement

Over the course of three weeks, I met many organisations working to achieve the American narrative of equal opportunity and others that pointed out gaps in that same narrative. I saw geographical mobility and individualism in action while talking to random people who had crossed state and national lines to build the life they wanted. It was clear that the American Constitution and democracy was central to their efforts, a stirring, flawed but attractive ideal.


Part of the Martin Luther King Jr memorial

Understanding the historical context of the African American civil rights movement helped me to see its LGBT movement as a natural extension of the struggle for the rights of women and African Americans. Activists have built upon the work of those who came before, whether in harnessing the power of the media or building effective coalitions – Rosa Parks was hardly the first to refuse to give up her seat on a public bus in segregated America, but she was the right person at the right time, supported by the weight of experienced activists. The struggle is also not static, and victories come and go. During our visit, Indiana signed a law to allow businesses to refuse to serve LGBT people in the name of religious freedom. These are lessons that hold true across movements in any country. I was reminded of the short, fraught history of Singapore civil society and that we were still young in many ways.

I also had the opportunity to meet a civil rights icon, Democratic Congressman John Lewis, and passionate grassroots advocates such as Harriet Hancock, who founded a PFLAG chapter in Columbia, South Carolina, for families and friends of LGBT people. It gave me hope to see that the struggle for change shares certain characteristics across national lines, even as our strategies may differ according to context.

Another source of inspiration was the other participants, who are all engaged in meaningful work in their own fields, whether it was helping LGBT people, women, children and other less advantaged groups, or driving political participation in their countries. It is one thing to hear about struggles or oppression in far-off US, Europe or the African region, and quite another to call a distant activist a friend.

Coming home overseas

What I didn’t expect was facing my own issues with national identity and culture. In one of the meetings, I was asked by an academic what my language was. I froze, struck by the irony of hearing the question in an immigrant nation that had also inherited English from its forebears. As a researcher, he was firm that we should begin with an awareness of our own heritage, but there was no easy way to explain what Singlish was. (A creole language, perhaps?)

The national discourse really hit home when founding father Lee Kuan Yew passed away and Singapore mourned en masse. Random strangers in a shop or on a taxi would ask me about him. “I’m sorry to hear about your President,” they said – the title of the head of state varies around the world. Next came the news about Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner, closed in tribute to Lee, and of the charges against Amos Yee. As I spoke to each person about the nation, I came to understand the mixture of pride and discomfort I and many Singaporeans grapple with.

Outside the programme, I took time out to visit an LGBT centre in Sacramento and a protest in Utah against police mistreatment of a transgender teen from Guatemala, Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco. Apart from wishing that we had a broader range of support services for LGBT individuals in Singapore, I couldn’t fail to see how there was a similar need for awareness surrounding issues of race, sexual orientation and gender identity in both countries.

And that was how I left the US – aware of various facets of the American Dream, both positive and negative, but also with fresh ideas and perspective on my own activism. Perhaps there are some questions that are best asked away from home. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to confront them.


Last Updated on Monday, 13 April 2015 12:32
Playing Parts, Women's Parts: A Review of The Vagina Monologues
Articles - Activism
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 21:47

This post is by guest writer Jennifer Koh, about the activist reading of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues presented by Etiquette and Sayoni at The Arts House on 10 May 2013.


The Vagina Monologues

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one [wo]man in [her] time plays many parts [...]

- William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Act II, Scene vii)

How many names do we have for the vagina? Thirty-nine at my last count, according to the rendition of The Vagina Monologues presented by Etiquette and Sayoni, staged at The Arts House on 10 May 2013.

This was a community reading that brought together 16 women of different ethnicities, sexual orientations and occupational backgrounds, all of whom are active in civil society, to stand in solidarity as part of V-Day 2013, an annual global campaign to raise awareness about gender-based violence and raise funds for local beneficiaries whose work addresses gender-based issues.

Last Updated on Monday, 10 June 2013 04:44
18 women (a V-Day poem)
Articles - Activism
Wednesday, 16 May 2012 02:47

This post is by guest writer Bianca, written in celebration of V-Day 2012 Singapore, held at the Arts House on 22 April. V-Day is a global activist movement to stop violence against women and girls through the use of creative events to promote awareness and action.


18 women

In swashes of pink, red and black

Red shoes, or black or barefoot with pink painted toes

Red roses, pink hairclips, lipstick, rouge, glitter

On sacred stage

Eager to show, talk, listen, laugh, moan, cry

To tell the story on sacred stage

The Road to Gay Equality
Articles - Activism
Friday, 06 January 2012 03:00

This article is by guest writer Bernie Leong.




In Lillian Faderman's groundbreaking book, Gay L.A., she writes that in 1942, "A circle of lesbian friends pooled their money and purchased a row of rental houses in Los Angeles. They created an early lesbian enclave, constructing communal areas such as a swimming pool, where they would meet each other regularly; and the homes in which they did not live, they leased only to other lesbians. They provided not only fellowship for one another but also social services. For example, when the sixty-year-old resident of the community suffered a ruptured aneurysm, and doctors wanted to institutionalize her permanently, her lesbian neighbours organized rotating shifts to dress and undress her, feed her, and keep her stimulated by conversation. Against the doctors' dire predictions ('She will survive as a vegetable'), she recovered normal speech and became fully functioning after three years."


Last Updated on Monday, 16 January 2012 13:46
Congrats to our very own Jean Chong for being shortlisted in the AWARE Heroine award!
Articles - Activism
Written by sayoni   
Monday, 26 September 2011 20:23


We are proud to announce that our very own Jean Chong has been shortlisted for the AWARE Heroine Award 2011!




The nominations for Singapore’s first gender equality awards were made by members of the public, as

well as members of AWARE. Each nominee has made a significant contribution to promoting gender

equality. For the judges, the key factors for deciding of the shortlist were the effort and impact of the

nominee’s contribution and the nominee’s identification with gender equality.

The judging panel comprised: AWARE board member and education entrepreneur Lindy Ong, playwright Eleanor Wong, journalist Ong Soh Chin, academic Philip Holden
and ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh.

The winners will be unveiled at AWARE's Big Ball fundraising gala on October 17.


Further details at

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 September 2011 10:41
On the prosecution of Mr Tan Eng Hong under Section 377A and the challenge to the law’s constitutionality
Articles - Activism
Written by sayoni   
Tuesday, 28 September 2010 23:44

People Like Us (PLU)'s official statement :


On 24 September 2010, Mr M Ravi, a lawyer acting for Mr Tan Eng Hong, initiated a constitutional challenge to Section 377A of the Penal Code. This is the law that makes “gross indecency” between two men a crime in Singapore, punishable with up to two years’ imprisonment.


Mr Tan had been charged under Section 377A in connection with an alleged incident of sex in a shopping centre toilet.


People Like Us is not a party to this case and the associated constitutional challenge that Mr Ravi initiated. Moreover, as the matter is now before the courts, it is not appropriate for us to make any comments about the specifics of the case.


That said, People Like Us do not condone sex in public spaces where conflict with other members of society can occur. At no time do we say that these should not be prosecutable offences. We have however long held the view that should the State wish to prosecute, it should do so using gender-neutral laws, so that whether the specifics are same-sex or opposite-sex, there is parity in treatment.


It so happens that there is such a law — Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. This law makes “indecent behaviour” in public an offence and is written in a gender-neutral way. It is regrettable that prosecutors have chosen to use Section 377A instead of this one, especially since the penalties are dissimilar. Section 377A mandates a prison sentence, but Section 20 gives the judge a choice of imposing a fine of up to $1,000, or a prison sentence of up to one month, or both, for the first offence.


Given the disparity in penalties, any decision to use Section 377A precipitates discriminatory treatment, and it is for this reason that People Like Us consider it an inappropriate law to use. Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (public Order and Nuisance) Act being available, it is hard to understand why prosecutors are still choosing to use Section 377A; or what beliefs underlie the decision to perpetuate the use of this law.


Furthermore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared in October 2007 that Section 377A will not be “proactively enforced”. The current prosecution of Mr Tan raises questions about what the Prime Minister meant when he said that. Even if the State does not actively seek out men who have sex with men to prosecute but rely instead on private security guards to report, such an argument ignores two important facts:


1. the State has discretion whether to charge them under Section 377A or another law;


2. the continued existence of Section 377A legitimises homophobia and the private vigilantism of security guards, who then take it upon themselves to do the proactive work that the State says it does not do.


Mr Tan should not have had to face a charge of Section 377A. Better yet, the government should take immediate steps towards legislative repeal. In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s October 2007 promise not to proactively enforce this law should be honoured through a total moratorium.

Last Updated on Saturday, 22 January 2011 14:59
So what if you are an activist?
Articles - Activism
Written by Kelly   
Tuesday, 25 March 2008 00:00

Or how else to save the world


Image taken from


I had an interview with a student conducting research last week. She and her partner were interested in what made people interested in political and social activism. I suggested that there are three prerequisites:

1. Consciousness
We are aware of the ways in which the world is imperfect or could be better. We consider the sources of influence. Without such consciousness, there would appear to be no necessity for action.

2. Role
We believe that we have a role to play in effecting change. The role may include spending time and energy mobilising others and building a sense of community, persuading publicly and privately for the cause. It may involve empowering the marginalised to live well, be seen and speak up.

3. Hope
We believe that things will get better with our contributions. Progress may take decades and it may be slow, but change will happen.

Unlike social workers, philanthropists and teachers, we may not be directly aiding beneficiaries. We are trying to address the systemic faults, ignorance and apathy which have given birth to a cause. Perhaps the word ‘activist’ simply recognises a role being played, not the extent to which one cares about the issue.

Last night at dinner, a guest remarked that she is just ‘a partner of a lesbian’, because she is not very involved with the local queer community, although her partner is. A friend reminded us it is like that t-shirt which read, “I’m not lesbian – my girlfriend is.” Our guest was self-deprecating; it belies her personal contributions in supporting her partner, writing empowering articles and a book for lesbians in her country.

So what if she were not an activist in name? She is an example of how everyone can play a part, whether apparently large or small, public or private:

Without being affiliated to an environmental organisation, we could consume less and recycle waste.

By choosing to buy eco-friendly, non-animal testing products, we are sending a signal to producers to make them.

Without being an activist, we could tell our friends and politicians that we support the recognition of queer rights. Collectively, our personal choices affect and make the world around us, because we are connected. It affirms an aphorism attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change that you want to see in the world”.

We may get discouraged by apathy and wonder when enough people will care about our pet cause, that is, when public support will become sufficient to tip the scale. In fact, many of our problems – poverty, war, discrimination, abuse, neglect, abandonment, ecological threats – are linked to one another. They could be resolved by a fundamental practice of awareness, compassion, respect and care for the people and world around us.

The truth is, it does not take a superheroine to save the world, just enough human beings being humane.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 February 2010 16:00
Over coffee with T
Articles - Activism
Written by (Guest Writers)   
Tuesday, 13 November 2007 00:00
This guest article was written by Donniboi

Over coffee, T asked, “Aren’t you worried that signing the petition and open letter for the repeal 377A campaign, would get you into trouble? After all, your home address has to be written down so that your signature is validated’ and the government could easily trace you.”

I replied, “I did think of that when George Hwang approached me to hand-sign the petition’. For once, in the period of being totally out to my family members and friends, having no qualms discussing my sexual preferences, openly engaging in public display of affections with my partner, I actually found myself hesitating to disclose my sexuality on a dead piece of paper’. Holding the pen, wild and random thoughts raced through my mind: like, i am a teacher and i know that MOE runs on an archaic system of ‘values’ shaped predominantly by the homophobic population’. What if my career is jeopardized?? Would I be blacklisted in the government sector??”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 February 2010 23:36
A brief history of the Rainbow Flag
Articles - Activism
Written by sayoni   
Saturday, 06 January 2007 00:00

The Rainbow Flag made its first appearance in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade in 1978. Its symbolism was borrowed from the hippie and black civil rights movements. Artist Gilbert Baker from San Francisco, created the flag as a symbol that could be used year after year.

Along with about 30 volunteers, two gigantic prototype of the flag were hand-stitched and hand-dyed. The original flag had eight stripes, with each color representing a particular component of the gay community: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for nature, turquoise for the arts, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.

Original 8 colour version

The following year, as a result of extraordinary demand for the flag, Baker contacted San Francisco Paramount Flag Company to inquire about the possibility of mass-producing his flag for use in the 1979 parade. He was surprised to learn that due to production issues and the fact that hot pink was not a readily available commercial color, his original eight colors could not be used. The fact is that he had hand-dyed the original colors. Hot pink was removed from the palette and the flag was reduced to seven stripes, with indigo being replaced by royal blue.

7 colour version

The second change to the flag came after the assassination of San Francisco’s openly-gay commissioner, Harvey Milk. To manifest the community’s solidarity in the aftermath of this tragedy, the San Francisco Pride Committee elected to use Baker’s flag in honor of the slain Milk. The turquoise stripe was eliminated so that the colors could be divided evenly on the parade route, three colors on one side of the street, and three colors on the other side.

Wishing to demonstrate the gay community�s solidarity in response to this tragedy, the 1979 Pride Parade Committee decided to use Baker�s flag in honor of Milk. The committee eliminated the turquoise stripe so they could divide the colors evenly as they walked the parade route, three colors on one side of the street and three on the other.

This updated six-color version of the rainbow flag quickly spread from San Francisco to other cities. Soon, it was universally known and accepted as a symbol of gay pride and diversity. And it is recognized officially by the International Congress of Flag Makers as such.

Current worldwide version
Red = Life
Orange = Healing
Yellow = Sun / Sunlight
Green = Nature
Blue = Harmony / Serenity
Violet = Spirit
Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 February 2010 23:09
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