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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In essence, the lens through which you attempt to see the woman, and the language with which you use to describe the woman, all are crafted by a society and system that already subjugates women. What if the concept of the woman is beyond the description enabled by the stick, the trough, and the amount and even quality of sand?

It is the very same sandbox of heterocentric patriarchy that we come to make sense of sexuality. We are often bombarded with norms and values of the dominant group, ‘Be a man! Behave like a lady!’ and after much socialisation/indoctrination/brainwashing, most of us, when encountering a gay male or female couple, will come to ask, ‘Who’s the man? Who’s the woman? Who’s on top?’

On the first level, it is obvious this form of curiosity informs of a subscription to binary opposites, and along with it, a certain set of expectations. On the second level, upon closer scrutiny, it seems that the curious is rather quick to sexualise the ‘other’. In asking who’s the man/woman and who’s on top, the curious exposes his/her internalisation of binary oppositions in the domain of sexuality.

Lesbian. I learnt that word when I was 11. It was probably the third word in my queer vocabulary after ‘Ah Kwa’ and ‘Gay’. I’m not sure if ‘sissy’ counted. Imagine that, the first form of language in which we are socialised when encountering queer folk is abusive and derogatory language. Even in the early moments of learning the word ‘lesbian’ from my playful peers, it was used and spoken in an insulting manner. Now I just call queer people ‘gay’ (as an adjective) or ‘sexual minorities’, but some persons in the legal profession may have differing opinions about the usage of the latter.

I take great issue, even as a straight person (note that ‘straight’ is originally a gay lingo for heterosexual persons), in the usage of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ as nouns, i.e. you’re a gay/lesbian. It may be mere trivial grammar, but it reduces the person to the functions of sexuality that the word so defines, displacing other identifiable characteristics and traits, a view shared by Alex Au in my last conversation with him. There is more to a person than just an adjective, and all the more should this adjective not be converted into a noun. Society is lazy, and always tempted to simplify and generalise, so in this case, the adjective becomes a noun.

The Oxford English Dictionary even states that ‘lesbian’, for example, is originally an adjective, referring to someone who came from the island Lesbos, North of the Grecian Archipelago. Arthur J Munby, through Derek Rommel Hudson (Munby: Man of Two Worlds. The life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby), first mentioned ‘lesbian’ to refer to female homosexuality in 1870. Aldous Leonard Huxley, in Letters (edited by Grover Smith in 1969), then used ‘lesbian’ as a noun in 1925:

‘After a third-rate provincial town, colonized by English sodomites and middle-aged Lesbians, which is, after all, what Florence is, a genuine metropolis will be lively.’

The politics of sexual diversity are very complicated, and mainstream dominant values systems do not help their integration. Sexual diversity scares most of us. Some straight people do not understand homosexuality. Some self-identified homosexual people do not understand bisexuality. And some bisexual people, along with the rest of us, do not understand pansexuality. Queer-ness is the symbolic ‘other’ of straight-ness, and both form again a dichotomy! What on earth is going on?

On the planes of heteronormality, the fluidity of sexuality (I am very sorry I haven’t read Foucault on that, shame on me) appears to only exist among queer sexualities, as heterosexuality has walled itself with socio-religious and moral boundaries and control mechanisms. Those who have the privilege to live in and view from the heteronormative vantage point will subscribe to the notion that all other sexualities are deviant and ridiculous.

Of course! Deviant sexualities are ridiculous. That is because our system and structures do not support them. Lesbian mothers cannot be mothers because the law does not allow them to be mothers, and instead slap sanctions and disincentives on them. Janadas Devan wrote twice about lesbian marriage and mothering in Nov 28, 2003 (Straits Times: Brain magnets) and Jul 7, 2007 (Straits Times: Can mum, mum and kids make a family?), with the former adopting a rather economic globalisationist rhetoric created by Richard Florida’s Creative Index thesis, and the latter attracting a moral outcry from conservative members of the public, continuing the debate on homosexuality in Singapore following the St. James Power Station incident.

I take no position on what makes a good family, but I believe that bad parenting and broken families are ‘colour-blind’. Bad parenting and broken families know no boundaries, irrespective of age, gender, race, class, sexuality. You could have a straight couple fighting, straight parents divorcing, and so on; you could also have gay and queer couples in the same position. The response to this is one that evokes the rhetoric of nation-building, ‘How then are they supposed to have babies?’ We do not have to answer that question, because it is derived from the very same mentality that oppresses women, i.e. defining them according to their roles and functions to the dominant status quo. When you attempt to answer that question, you are grabbing the very stick and trough of sand provided by the questioner, and trying to craft an answer, rearranging, reconstructing, and eventually reproducing the dominant ideology that the questioner so internalises. We are not obliged to dignify the questions posed to us by the privileged, but we have the right to pose questions about the privileged and their positions of privilege.

We have seen the revival of Victorian morality, a stowaway in the ship that is Westernisation and globalisation, the prevalence of the English language, the accompanying easy access to some branches of Christianity, culminating in a rather neo-puritanical and ascetic perspective on sexuality and sexual deviance in Singapore. Women, in Victorian era morality, are seen as asexual. Sex is meant for procreation. In a sense, the sexuality of women is a function, and women are thus a function. Moreover, while we should not only point the finger at religion, we should also be ready to look at the patriarchal values and accompanying gender norms we have so blindly embraced, and these come from the many cultures that make up Singapore.

I think lesbian women have it worse in the domains of media representation, especially in Singapore. In my research, almost mirroring Leong Wai-Teng’s research:

‘Leong (2005) observes that lesbian women are often represented as being engaged in stormy relationships, and are depicted as ‘catty, vengeful and treacherous’ lovers. Arson and suicides have reportedly been the culmination of such stormy relationships.

A handful of (Straits Times, 2001-2007) articles have discussed lesbian mothering and marriage, while some have regarded lesbianism as an unnatural, breast-binding subculture. Lesbian sex and sexuality are invisible in the ST ‘ a stark contrast to the visibility of gay male sex and sexuality. Lesbian sex continues to be not just a taboo topic for film censors but also an alien and mysterious entity in Singaporean society ‘ an accurate reflection of the androcentric Penal Code which criminalises sex between two men and not two women.’

The mainstream media portrayal of lesbian women, save for Janadas Devan’s articles, is often less than favourable. Stable and loving lesbian relationships are underrepresented. What is worse is that most people, ignorant of lesbian relationships (me included), will have no conception whatsoever of a stable and loving lesbian relationships, and the questions they ask are merely reflective of the patriarchal heterocentrism that so permeates society. What these people understand of gay relationships is mainly centred on the domain of sex (also viewed through a rather heterocentric masculinist lens), because these people have come to exclusivise all the niceties of relationships to a heterosexual one.

Our understanding of gender is sexed. Our understanding of sexuality is gendered. Male, one function; female, another function. The roles of the active penetrator and passive penetrated. Who’s on top and who’s below? At the same time, our understanding of homosexuality, or queerness for that matter, is gendered and sexed. Who is the ‘male’/’female’? In the process, we forget about the wide ranging definitions of (sexual) attraction and notions of love (and of course, such a rhetoric is acknowledged to discriminate against the asexual, very sorry).

The best we can do is to point out that diversity does exist in many forms. There may be institutionalised celebrations of diversity, sanctioned by the state, the elites and the dominant moral systems. These agencies have unshakable and unbreakable notions of right and wrong, and natural and unnatural, taken to be universal gospel truths. That doesn’t mean your non-institutional beliefs and values have to be shakable and breakable. Their micro-narratives have to be applied to the macrocosmos that is society at large and onus is on them to reconcile with their own rhetoric of diversity.

Diversity should not be celebrated in a way where minority groups become obliged to internalise the very same patriarchal and heterosexist norms, expectations and anxieties that the majority of people do. It should not fall into the same trap that is the politics of instiutionalised multiculturalism/racialism, which has been critically observed to be initiated and perpetuated by one dominant culture/race.

Lesbian women suffer double-marginalisation, for being a woman and being gay. Gay men have the ‘privilege’ of the attention and condemnation, while lesbian women are relatively invisibilised and often unspoken of. I am one of the many people out there who are exposed to the stereotypes and folklore that have taken over the representation and understanding of queer women in general. ‘She turned lesbian because of a bad relationship with a man.’ or ‘All lesbians bind’ or ‘It’s just a phase.’ ‘ all popular explanations that turn into conventional wisdom, sucking away from us the responsibility and initiative to understanding and respecting queer and questioning persons.

Lesbian women as couples are so taboo in society, because this irritates the societal expectations of the roles and behaviours of women. Serious relationships are brushed aside as mere ‘trends-bian’, lesbian by trend, and taken for granted that these misguided girls will eventually (and are expected to) snap out of this homosexual ludicrousness and be what society wants them to be. Procreation and reproduction, factors of the dominant mode of production, are what society needs.

Society will tell you who and how to love. If you love ‘correctly’, you will be protected by the state and the many institutions that serve its interest. If you love the ‘wrong one’, you will be punished, formally and informally. Society will not protect you from abuse, but sometimes legitimise it.

I also feel the open acceptance and inclusion of sexual minorities in Singaporean society should not be buttressed by the rhetoric of the economic imperative. If we are going to talk about queer and questioning sexualities and their integration, it would help a lot if we ditched the whole ‘liberalist economic globalisation’ narrative which insinuates that gay people are a side-effect or a necessary evil for economic progress and sustenance. Women in Singapore have been at the receiving end of such rhetoric: In the 1960s, Singapore ‘needed to survive’, so women were granted equal education and employment opportunities; in the early 1980s, in view of declining birthrates, women were encouraged to reprioritise their roles (read Michelle Lazar’s (2001) ‘For the good of the nation: ‘Strategic egalitarianism’ in the Singapore context’). We should by now at least learn something from that.

My lecturer once told me that every democracy should have some republicanism in them, in the sense, the 51% cannot vote to kill the other 49%. In Singapore, we swing to and fro when it comes to leveraging on the rhetoric of democracy, spicing it up with the ideology that is meritocracy, yet mixing it all up with some welfarism and socialist policies to redistribute resources to help the needy. This shows that while you cannot make everyone happy, you can at least make the attempt to listen to, tend to, and represent them ‘ a humble effort in my opinion to stay true to the slogan ‘No Singaporean gets left behind.

We should make the effort to allow GLBTQ people to be represented fairly, and rethink the censorship that regularly impedes that. We should also let various role models from the community have the opportunity to be visible and change mindsets and lives. If you wanted to use the rhetoric of democracy, be sure to be consistent with the fact that everyone in this democracy of yours deserves to be visible and represented. If everyone is equal before this construct that is the constitution and law, be sure to be consistent with the fact that everyone in this country has a right to participate in the democratic process. Women can participate, and by women, I mean all.

The funny thing is, on another note, another lecturer said, ‘Lawyers practise the law, but don’t question it.

I feel everyone has the right to question the law, without any fear, because everyone has the right to make sense of things for himself/herself. The laws of mainstream society, as they call themselves, should be questioned. All the leveraging and leanings on European authoritative notions of what is natural and unnatural, right and wrong, are creating many divisions in our society. There are many Singaporeans who are experiencing some kind of dissonance everyday because they cannot make sense of the realities and contradictions that confront them, and it is not their fault.

The problem is that we do not question. We accept what is given because it seems so normal for us. We accept the existing divisions and segmentations that define society. Change is difficult. MDA fined SCV $10,000 for showing lesbian intimacy as reported in early April. This is the symbolic denial of lesbianism as part of reality. When you deny it, you would not even have the initiative to discuss it. As mentioned, stereotypical and populist ideas of lesbianism will take over and you get the reality we’re living in now. By denying someone recognition, you deny him/her respect, representation and rights. Janadas Devan has recognised lesbian women. And I do the same, and for all queer and questioning women.

It all starts with some tacit acceptance and I believe it will inspire others to do the same. That is actually pretty easy, and I don’t see why we should complicate things.



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