Photography: Renée Ting / Interview: Racy Lim
As pro-LGBTQ+ Singaporeans fight to abolish the colonial-era law 377A criminalising sex between men, a counter petition has garnered over 90,000 (unverified) signatures. Those in favour of keeping 377A say that the "the vocal minority should [not] impose their values and practice on the silent majority who are still largely conservative" (read more here).
If you acknowledge the importance of love and respect the freedom for all to exercise this right, Repeal 377A now – open to global signings.Many of those who have called for the maintenance of 377A appear to subscribe to the belief that gay couples cannot foster families, and that same-sex relationships defy the 'natural order' – an archaic notion that also shines light on sexism and imposed gender rules that continue to govern our society.
Just a few months before Repeal 377A, an activist for the LGBTQ+ community was removed from a local TEDxYouth talk organised by a school (read more here). Her speech aimed to address youths who are just starting to become more politically aware. It is a message of encouragement that suggests ways to exercise more compassion and critical thinking in one's pursuit of justice. However, her position was seen as divisive by the school's leadership.
We speak to Rachel Yeo to find out what it means to be an activist in Singapore. In our conversation, she emphasises that the key is not to convert opinions but forge a strong support system for one another regardless of differing beliefs. We also reference parts of her original speech that was intended for her TEDxYouth audience.
Firstly, what led you to activism and advocacy?
I realised quite early on that it was my raison-d’être. Interning and later volunteering as an English tutor at the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations lit a spark in me. I spent a significant amount of time around Singaporeans who had the odds greatly stacked against them. In Sociology we call this “life chances” – the resources and opportunities an individual has to move up in the world. When you’ve faced abuse, neglect, homelessness, get no help with your school work and on top of that are discriminated against because of the colour of your skin, what chance do you have against a kid who has all of the above? And what does it say about us as a society if we choose to leave these people behind?
Anyway, years later, the founders of Inter-University LGBT Network were looking for suitable candidates to helm the various departments. I chanced upon that call, spoke to them and was recruited.
It was quite a natural transition for me as a Sociology student. I have spent years of my life learning about social systems and inequalities, and thought, ‘what good would my education be if I did nothing with that knowledge?’I led the network's research and advocacy for two terms, and now I'm at the helm as executive director. I also decided to step up because of my desire to pay it forward. I was very lucky to have discovered my own sexuality in a supportive environment where same-sex relationships were very much normalised. Girls dated girls, and never once did the teachers try to interfere by outing them to their parents or sending them for counselling.
I could not believe how lucky I was. But this is not the reality for many LGBTQ+ folks. They can’t openly discuss the highs and lows of their relationships with their peers. They live a double life at work or school and at home. They go through periods of self-loathing and confusion. They are guilt-tripped by their parents or religious communities.
I'd like to think that Inter-University LGBT Network fills a much-needed gap with the resources we push out, as well as the social events and support initiatives we organise.Change is uncomfortable – I lifted this from the speech that you prepared for your TEDxSJI talk. Your work centres on change, and building acceptance around it. That being said, has there ever been a point in time when change had made you feel uneasy?
When my relationship of nearly three years ended, I was lost. I knew I would eventually come to terms with it but it didn’t feel like it then. I had also left my part-time job (which I was intending to make a career out of) when it became clear that I would not be fulfilled by it. Both these things happened within months of one another. I went from having it all to feeling like I had nothing.
At this point, most people would talk about how they overcame it. I actually don’t have anything inspiring to say about how I clawed my way out of despair. I fucked up a lot and just kept trudging on until I found my way. After that period in my life, I learned to loosen my grip on things. I was so used to being a control freak and making everything work seamlessly. I finally learned what it was like to lose control and to be okay with it. I feel much lighter now, if that makes sense.
You also wanted to bring up that activism is heavily associated with protests, traffic disruption and holding up campaign banners. What really goes on in the work of an activist – in this part of the world?
Activists in Singapore must toe the line while also trying to make their voices heard.By and large, activists in Singapore do choose to comply with regulations and the law. But the prospect of imprisonment and other penalties (such as fines and not getting tenure) is very real, and the ambiguity of certain laws (public assembly) is partly why.
Tangentially related to your question, I think it’s also important that we are clear about what an activist is. Who is an activist? Recently, I was invited to a Telegram discussion with a group of SJI alumni who were displeased with the VP’s remarks on activism. Initially, their plan was to launch a public petition and get as many signatories as possible, putting pressure on the school to publicly rescind those remarks.
But their love for their alma mater led them to write a private letter instead. They do, however, plan to go public with it if the school does not accede to their requests. By coming together, organising and agitating for change and clarity, I think they’re very much activists in their own right. Don’t you?
I think we try to challenge the status quo as respectfully as we can, and this act should not be seen as a lack of love for nation, or gratitude for what we have.
Activism is often what is needed when advocacy fails.You know, that whole excuse about how our society ‘isn’t ready for change’. What I’m more interested in is, how ready are we for change?
I’m going to be honest. I think there will NEVER come a time where 100% of the population are receptive to queer people so we can’t wait for that. It’s worth working towards but if we look to other nations where same-sex couples and transgender individuals enjoy more rights and are treated better — even in those nations there are people who disagree. I think it’s about the people in power having the moral courage to do what is right, and not pretending that we aren’t ready.
Our government has historically insisted on doing what is right, not what is popular. Why is this any exception?How is activism a viable route towards reforms?
Remember when activists exposed poor labour practices and forced Nike (which at first said it couldn’t control factories it didn’t own) to be accountable for the workers making their products? There we go. Sure, the company isn’t perfect. But the conversation has changed from then on.
From your experience and observation, do you believe that the Singaporean society is a largely conservative one?
I think the great majority of Singaporeans aren’t extremely conservative and would be happy to learn more about queer issues and people. Aside from consuming unsavory narratives about gay or transgender people in the media, it is possible that they have never gotten to know a transgender or gay person in their lives. It is important for us to engage this demographic, clear up any misconceptions and gain their support. It is in them that we might be able to find our greatest allies, so it’s important not to alienate people just because their views might appear bigoted or ignorant to us.
It may seem silly that we have to reach out and educate people about what it means (or does not mean) to be gay. It’s also very tiring to feel like you have to defend yourself and your community.
When more Singaporeans realise that there is NO “homosexual lifestyle” or “gay agenda”, and that gay people are just trying to live their lives and not be branded a criminal under the law, we move one step closer to becoming a more inclusive society.On our part, we have to understand that it can be very tough to have your worldview questioned when it's all you’ve ever known. Now, the question is how do we break down those mental barriers to foster understanding?
When they emphasise the human, not the political — is there (or should there be) separation between the human and politics?
To be clear, I meant emphasising our shared humanity and shared goal for a better future for all of humanity. Instead of looking just at how different our politics are from someone else’s, I think it’s more important to recognise that we’re all fighting for the same thing – a better world.
When you believe that, you stop demonising the other person and realise that neither side is inherently evil. It’s just that we believe in very different ways to achieve it.I feel like the tendency to dehumanise the LGBTQ+ community comes also from the fact that, for the most part, controversial issues like LGBTQ+ issues today tend to be discussed online. One of my fellow activists has tried on numerous occasions to invite anti-LGBTQ+ individuals running the We Are Against Pink Dot or Defending the Family and Marriage Facebook groups to step away from their screens and into a college so we can hear them out. They have never taken up these offers.
They would rather be on their keyboards lambasting a community they have never met or genuinely tried to understand, instead of publicly espousing their views and holding them up to scrutiny. It’s very easy to make fun of people and criticise them through an online platform but few are daring enough to say these same things when they have to look into the eyes of a gay or transgender person.
I don’t mean driving past a transgender woman. I mean having to sit face to face, and to have a conversation. Because then, all of a sudden they realise that they have a responsibility to use their words wisely or risk causing harm to a living, breathing human being.
Is there a separation between the human and the political? No.—