Sayoni sat down for a chat with Olivia and Irene Chiong last year. The Chiongs have been receiving some attention in recent years, with Olivia’s blog gaining traction online and their same-sex parenting group (Rainbow Parents) advocating for equality for LGBT parents and children. But over the course of the interview, it became clear that Irene and Olivia do not want to be solely defined by their same-sex parenting activism. Other topics that came up in the course of the chat included media representation, children's rights, and queer politics. Olivia has released her first book, The Unbusy Entrepreneur and is taking preorders for her second book, titled Baby Zoey: Our Search for Life and Family.
Note: The views represented here are those of the individuals and may not represent Sayoni's stand.
Irene (left) and Olivia. Photo courtesy of the Chiongs
How would you describe yourself?
Irene: I've done quite a bit of queer activism and language activism, working on issues that affect me personally. I would like to work on issues that don't affect me personally, like racism or transgender issues. I'm a queer parent. I'm also interested in the intersections between feminism and the tech space; other related issues are sex work, queer rights and transgender rights. I don't want to use the umbrella term "queer rights" to cover transgender rights, because there are unique challenges.
Olivia: I'm an accidental activist. Still accidental after all these years. I like to think that I put my family first at this point in my life. I'm enjoying my work and hoping to build an empire helping small business owners. My politics are different from Irene's, in that I'm passionate about things that touch me personally. For example, encountering someone who is transgender helped me to understand and want to contribute to that.
What's the image you're trying to present?
Irene: I'm not trying to present an image, but I don't want to buy into the thinking that queer rights is based on being safe, monogamous and having children. It should not be the case. So part of me is thinks that we shouldn't be so visible, not because I am closeted, but because queer rights is about everybody.
You mean it should be about the whole spectrum of queer people and not just a certain group.
Irene: Yeah, not only monogamous, married queer couples are entitled to certain rights. I'm quite uncomfortable with using couples or families as the face for queer rights.
Like the whitewashing, what do they call it?
Irene: Ya, Alfian Sa'at gave it a name, "sanitising".
What are your causes?
Olivia: Children, in general. I feel that right now, there's a huge disconnect between how we were brought up, how our children are being brought up and how our parents were brought up. How do you plan and get the best of both worlds? People seem to think that they know the best for children in general. It's like there's no space for a child to grow at their own pace anymore; you have to be bigger and better than everyone else in all aspects. Children have become my focus, not because I have a child but because I saw it all the time, even before I had Zoey. That's why I want to write a series of children's books. There are not enough books in the market that let children know that it's okay to be different, it's okay to be who they are. We've looked. There was one book, and it was commissioned and written on behalf of a hearing aid company.
That's your main cause now?
Olivia: I would say it is. That's also one of the motivations behind starting the blog. A lot of people kept coming to ask me the same questions. We ended up going out to meet people, sitting down and talking to them. I think it has to do with the fact that we are not really closeted. That was one of the reasons I started Rainbow Parents and launched it at Pink Dot in 2014. I was hoping that we could build a community, which we have. But we also hope that at some point, the community can become more visible and more open.
Have things changed?
Our experience of the media has changed a bit, I would say. I think that if the whole MSIG thing had happened five years ago, it would either not be reported in the papers or it would be reported very negatively in the papers.
Irene: I didn't think it would be reported negatively, but when she told me that a Straits Times reporter contacted her, I said, "Are you sure they're not going to censor us by taking out the fact that we're married?" That was what happened for the Straits Times article five years ago. Even though we were talking about our relationship, the article did not say that we're a couple at all. It only said this person, Irene, and this other person.
Olivia: It was censored.
Why did you do the insurance interview with The Straits Times?
Olivia: I did the interview partly because the reporter said that she had been connected to us through a schoolmate of mine. I also thought that there was no harm. She talked to me for quite a long time on the phone telling me that she spoke to all the different insurance agencies, which I thought was quite interesting. She called up and wrote to the different insurance companies to find out what their policies are. It was actually quite useful. She was doing some work for me that we didn't need to do!
Were you happy with the final article?
Olivia: I'm happy, because I have friends who told me that now they know what travel insurance to buy. I'm also happy because now we know AIA will accept all policies regardless of sexual orientation.
Irene: We need to change the way we talk about representation. It's not only talking about queer rights. You shouldn't only see or hear queer people when people debate about Section 377A and quote a queer person, it can be anything. Interview someone on the street for something unrelated, the person is gay, and it's revealed and stated. What can the fundies do? They cannot write to the Straits Times: "I have an issue with you interviewing that guy on the street because he's gay." There's no way to push back. This representation needs to be everywhere, not just when we talk about queer rights or queer issues.
Let's go back to same-sex parenting. What was your initial consideration when you decided to have Zoey?
Irene: It was about the legal aspect. I would not have parental rights over the child, so that was a concern.
Olivia: Of the people we told that we were having a child, the ones who had objections were lesbian couples who said that we were doing the wrong thing and that our child would be ostracised in school. But it was never about what other people thought. I always knew that I wanted a kid and I was going to do it anyway. So the legal aspect was the only thing. It was not as easy as going to a clinic, getting the sperm and getting pregnant. We had to jump through different hoops to get there. The biggest obstacle was getting pregnant.
Irene: At one point, we were travelling a lot. It was quite stressful because she had to work. I think after the baby arrived, the kind of challenges we had were no different from straight people's.
Olivia: I don't think we face many different challenges. I think part of the reason it's been so easy to connect with a lot of parents is because, in parenting in general, you're facing the same challenges!
Irene: Doesn't matter whether you're straight or gay, whether you're a couple-
Olivia: -or you're single, it's the same thing.
So the horror stories that people were telling you didn't come true?
Olivia: Till this point, no.
Irene: I didn't have people telling me the child would be bullied, but I did have many people asking why I wanted to have a child. I always shoot back, "Do you ask that of your straight friends? If you don't ask that of your straight friends, why are you asking me that?"
Olivia: Zoey goes to school, swimming classes and so on, and we've not met any parents who say that your kid cannot play with our kid because you're gay. Who does that?
Irene: Maybe we'll face that later; we don't know, because now, the kids are all very young.
Olivia: We probably will face that sometime in kindergarten or whatever, but we'll cross the bridge when we come to it. I mean, we've heard of other parents who've had issues.
How did you find the best way to have her?
Irene: There were a few people who gave us advice. A few lawyer friends helped to look up information. Someone actually managed to find out why you cannot get fertility treatment as a single woman in Singapore. It's in a very obscure section of the law. And the law does not say single women are not allowed. It says that you are to obtain consent from your husband. Husband. That's the exact wording of the law.
Olivia: We depended on our friends for the legal aspect, because we didn't want to pay expensive lawyer fees like some of our gay friends. Gay men and lesbian women have very different challenges in same-sex parenting. For us, if you give birth to the child, the child is automatically yours. Gay men obviously can't give birth to a child, so they're facing things like adoption, and surrogacy, which is not legal in Singapore. So even if they bring a child born through surrogacy from overseas, there are challenges. They face things like difficulty getting adoption approval for single men. I think we both recognise we are quite fortunate that if we give birth to a child, the child is ours.
Irene: For gay men, the issue is always what right the surrogate has. Technically, you cannot terminate the mother's right in Singapore, even though it might have been terminated overseas. When it comes to visa, citizenship and parenting rights, it's always a question mark, because nobody knows what to do.
Olivia: We had friends who were living in Singapore, lesbian women who adopted children. They decided to move overseas because they were afraid that their adopted children would be taken away. Simply because they were not the birth mother.
Irene: For adoption cases, who knows when some fundie minister may come in and say that gay people cannot adopt children?
Olivia: We have heard of cases where they did the home study and said, "If I ever find out that you are lesbian or gay, we will take the children away."
Irene: But that was one agency, and we think it was because they're religious. The ministry outsources it to home study agencies. One of our friends said that it depends on the agency; some are homophobic and some are not. The bottom line is, the government is not protecting you, so you are basically at the mercy of whoever is handling your case.
Olivia: It could also be that the agency is not homophobic, but the person who is handling your case is homophobic. I think that the challenges we faced are very low-level compared to the challenges our friends face.
What's your advice to other queer women in same-sex relationships who want to bring up a child?
Olivia: Just do it. Don't think too much, just do it.
Irene: Doesn't matter whether you're in a same-sex relationship, whether you're in a relationship.
Olivia: For the people who are out there who keep thinking they'll do it someday, as long as you don't start planning or don't start doing it, it's never going to happen. A friend of ours who was previously in a long-term relationship really wanted to have a child but her partner wasn't on board; now that they are no longer together, she decided that she's going to adopt a child in a couple of years. I think that for a lot of people, if you keep putting it off, you're never going to do it. For example, I have a lot of people writing to me saying they're in their 20s, thinking about having a child. I always tell them I can give information on what you need, who're the doctors you can see, and how much it costs. As long as you tick all those boxes, don't think about it any more. Straight people don't think about it, they deal with it when it happens.
There's a whole support system for them, though, that may not exist for same-sex couples.
Olivia: For almost every single lesbian or gay couple I know that has kids, or even single parents who adopted or had their own child, once it happens, the support system will come. Somehow, when a child is involved, the village will come.
Irene: Yes... I don't want to say just go and have a child, don't care whether you have anybody there to support you.
Olivia: You must tick those boxes, obviously. Don't go and do it when you're 18 and you have no way to support the child. If you're not financially independent, you can't do it.
Irene: I think financial independence is the most important thing, because if you don't have a support system, you'll need to buy a support system, purchase childcare.
Olivia: To me, the boxes are things like: Are you able to afford fertility treatment? Are you able to pass the adoption standards set by the Social and Family Development Ministry?
Irene: Which are much higher if you're single compared to if you're a straight couple.
Olivia: A lot of it is financial, but I don't believe people should wait for The One before they do it. I don't believe people should do it because they're in a relationship and that is the next step. No. It should be the fact that you're able to fulfil the criteria.
Irene: Able to fulfil the criteria and you want it, not because of your partner or your family.
Do you have tips for navigating legal obstacles as a same-sex parent in Singapore?
Irene: I know that a lot of people will find it difficult, but don't be closeted. If you have visa problems, tell the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority that you're a same-sex parent. If you have problem applying for things, look for your Member of Parliament.
Olivia: One of our friends, a gay couple, went and explained their situation to their MP. They have a son through surrogacy and the son can't get a visa. And guess what, he was very supportive! He said that he wished that there's more he can do for them.
Irene: The thing is, you're a citizen of Singapore and you have rights. Your MP is obliged to help you. Do not think that 377A being there means that the government can tell you to fuck off. You have rights as a citizen.
Olivia: To date, we have not had any school turn us away because we're a lesbian couple. We even had a party at our void deck for our daughter, where the MP visited.
Irene: The MP shows up at all events held at void decks, even for weddings and birthdays. He was surprised to find out that we were same-sex parents. I told him if we have any issues, we will go and look for him. Even though I didn't vote for him, I am his constituent and he should help me. When we told him we were same-sex parents, he was a bit confused and surprised, like he didn't really know what to say, but he wasn't hostile.
Olivia: Which is quite common. A lot of people have this imagined fear that comes from their own homophobia. That's our best tip: Don't be closeted. If you're going to be closeted, don't have a kid. Your internal homophobia will translate to your child, and your child will feel it.
You have visited childcare centres for your daughter?
Irene: We visited two private preschools. Our daughter is not Singaporean, so there is no financial incentive to send her to a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten. We were very open. We told them that our daughter has two mummies. Another thing we wanted to know was, during songs and stories that mention fathers or mothers, how the teacher would handle it so that a child who doesn't fit into the conventional pattern doesn't feel left out. The principal of one school said that it will happen with children's material. But they have a single parent who volunteers at the school and gives talks to the students about single parenthood and adoption.
Olivia: They have space for alternative family structures.
Irene: Another school said that it is no issue. The principal actually said that her brother is gay with a longtime partner. It was a lot more positive than negative.
Olivia: We do this even with our paediatrician, with almost anything we sign her up to.
Irene: Swimming class, music class, etc. We don't exactly say we're same-sex parents, but when we fill up forms, we write both our names. We cross out father and write mother. We introduce ourselves as Zoey's parents.
What else did you want to talk about?
Irene: When people interview me, I find it disappointing that they choose to focus on obstacles, about how hard it is. We all know that. There is no point in harping on how hard it is. I think we need to look at this whole issue differently. I'm not trying to make it seem like there is no issue.
That we shouldn't dwell on the negative?
Irene: Correct. Our discourse on this issue needs to be more sophisticated than "It is very hard. Life is sad for us".
Olivia: We don't go around telling people that it is very hard. People keep telling us that it's very hard. We just say no, not really.
Irene: When they interview us, they choose to talk about the obstacles and omit other interesting things.
Who are these people?
Irene: This theatre group interviewed me for a production. In the email interview, they asked more interesting questions like, "As a queer parent, how do you handle things like gender for your child? How do you pick your toys or clothing?" These questions were interesting because we have certain perspectives straight parents wouldn't have. But in the final product, they were not included. They chose to talk about the obstacles only.
Olivia: A lot of people think that to highlight a cause, you need to focus on the hardship that people go through.
And the production may have sensationalised certain things.
Irene: I read Ng Yi-Sheng's review, and it seems like a lot of things were taken from the book I Will Survive. If the entire play is hardship and challenges, isn't that a one-dimensional view of the whole queer experience? There are many dimensions. I don't want to keep talking about the challenges, who does? Our discourse needs to move beyond that.
Olivia: I think we're only going to move ahead if we just do it. I'm really an accidental activist. The only reason I'm doing this is because why cannot? Must do.
I like your point of having to advance the discourse around parenting.
Irene: Not just in terms of same-sex parenting, but in terms of queer rights. We all know that 377A needs to go. But don't get stuck there.
Olivia: We need to do more progressive rights activism rather than just being stuck at taking down 377A. There are a lot more issues that we face.
Irene: The fundies say that if 377A goes, gay marriage and gay adoption comes next, but what they don't see is that gay marriage and gay adoption should not be fundamental to queer rights at all. All these are different aspects, and all these aspects move together. So don't get stuck at any point.
Do you think we're stuck?
Olivia: I think that many people who are coming out now or thinking of coming out have the idea that it's all very rosy, because people attend Pink Dot and everything will be fine. They don't realise that it's just a bubble. We've created this bubble and everybody's hiding in it, but there's so much more outside the bubble. You don't realise how you're not getting your full rights, because you're quite comfortable in your bubble. Tax rebates, for example. There's so much more you're missing out on, even if you're single.
Irene: State policy favours families over singles, so a single person who bears the heavier burden of looking after parents is missing out on a lot of rights.
Maybe people are fighting the law first as a sort of rallying point.
Irene: Right. But my point is that it's not a linear process, it's not going to be 377A goes and... it's very messy. So don't get obsessed with one aspect. Push everything.