To empower queer women towards greater involvement and presence in the community
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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.
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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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On the 27th of November, Kelly, Irene and I met Minister Shanmugam. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. He is a soft-spoken man with eyes reflecting his intelligence and who listened closely to what was said to him. For privacy, selected parts of the conversation are reported here.

Minister Shanmugam started out by describing what he saw of the diversity of views in our society and how different segments of the population see the LGBT community. This is an issue of personal conduct and different people will have their own take on such conduct. It is not easy for the government to tell citizens what viewpoint to take – many people will have strongly held views based on religious and other beliefs. He went on to say that the debate won’t stop at the repeal of 377A. Debates on same-sex marriage and other issues would follow. All the culture wars which are being fought in the USA might be brought to Singapore. The government has been saying we should leave things be by letting people carry on with their lives and be tolerant. Even though 377A is kept on the books, charges have not been proactively brought on 377A.

Irene asked why a government that has made unpopular decisions when it felt the need to stays ambivalent on this subject.

The Minister replied that the government cares deeply about citizens’ viewpoints and that public opinion does matter very much. Precisely because of its focus on what people need and feel, the government has been successful. He went on to say that the state cannot govern without the consent of the people.

We described to the Minister experiences in the lifespan of an LGBT person and obstacles we faced from young to old age. The Minister paid close attention when we outlined the kinds of discrimination we face in a wide spectrum of areas, from employment, education, housing and social benefits to violence. We linked the cascading effects of laws and censorship that justifies the discriminatory policies and how they translate to simple day-to-day living circumstances.

Minister Shanmugam listened intently to what we explained and said that for there to be change, there has to be a majority’s social acceptance, which we agreed that we are working on. However, we countered that it is difficult with censorship looming over our media, banning neutral or positive portrayals of LGBT persons.

We noted that the LGBT community would prefer not to have an adversarial relationship with the government. If there are no concrete actions taken on these issues, it is very difficult for us with or without our children to justifying staying in Singapore. The practicality of life demands a solution.

When our time was up, we thanked him for hearing us out. The meeting was a good opportunity to establish mutual understanding.  He offered to meet again, with a larger group of us.


Editor's Update: This meeting was picked up by the Straits Times and their report was published on 5 January with the photo used here.

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