To empower queer women towards greater involvement and presence in the community
Advocacy for LBTQ women's rights at CEDAW
Sayoni was at the United Nations in Geneva in October 2017 to bring Singapore LBTQ women's issues to the forefront. The CEDAW Committee heard our concerns and raised recommendations related to LBTQ women in their Concluding Observations for the Singapore government.
Sayoni is a Singapore-based feminist, volunteer-run organisation that works to uphold human rights protections for queer women, including lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. We organise and advocate for equality in well-being and dignity regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and sex characteristics.

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Before this, websites concerned with LGBTQ issues operated in a grey area: Content which “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts or promotes incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia” is prohibited under the Internet Code of Practice, which affects internet content providers and broadcasters. It should go without saying how ludicrous this policy is, with its premise that people can become gay or transgender through external influences. Now, instead of sensibly revising the law, it has been further embedded in the system as another level of bureaucracy we have to leap.

And then there’s the context this change was introduced in.

The LGBTQ community has coped with our lack of representation in mainstream media by expressing ourselves online. We have formed entire communities on the internet; we were using online dating before it caught on among the straight folk. Virtual communities and online media often are the first places a young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in Singapore recognises themselves, because we’re invisible on official tv channels.

Sayoni’s 2010 CEDAW shadow report, submitted to the United Nations review committee, cited three instances where tv content providers were fined for simply showing lesbian relationships in a positive light. The CEDAW committee subsequently took up these points in their questions to the state delegation, asking whether the government was considering revising these media codes and policies.

The committee’s concluding observations recognised the presence of negative discrimination towards women, including LBT women, and took the state to task. “The Committee further notes that despite the fact that the State party recognizes the principle of equality of all persons before the law, as enshrined in the Constitution, regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender identity [...] there is still negative stereotyping of women belonging to this group.”

Indeed, in this environment where pockets of representation are few and between, we have turned to the safety of virtual spaces and online media. (How else would we learn about The L Word?) We've gotten used to relative freedom in the past few years. Little wonder, then, that the news of further regulation came as a slap in the face. How could it not look like a clear step backwards?

Although the government has assured us that the "light touch" regime will remain and that the change will not affect most websites, I was reminded of the rhetoric around Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex. During the 2007 parliamentary debates, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it would not be “proactively enforced”. But the section came up again in 2010 in the Tan Eng Hong case, before the charge was amended. The parallels are self-evident.

LGBTQ websites, too, exist in a precarious alternative space. They are allowed to exist, tolerated, but not really acknowledged, somewhat like the queer community here – and lives are constructed in those gaps.

So what happens when you redraw the boundaries between what’s allowed and what’s not? What happens to the grey areas in between?

That said, I acknowledge that the LGBTQ community might not be the main group targeted by the rule change. As a minority that’s already under existing constraints, however, we stand to be disproportionately affected by it, and that's why I hold that we should care about this issue very, very much.



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