What it’s like to be LGBT in Singapore: ‘It definitely takes a thick skin’

A supporter wrapped in a rainbow flag attends the annual "Pink Dot" event in a public show of support for the LGBT community at Hong Lim Park in Singapore on July 1, 2017. Thousands of Singaporeans took part in the gay-rights rally on July 1. / AFP PHOTO / Roslan RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent controversy featuring Paris Jackson has sparked a conversation on Singapore’s LGBT+ rights record and on how LGBT+ celebrities and allies should deal with countries that criminalise homosexuality.

The 20-year-old daughter of the late Michael Jackson, who identifies as bisexual and has promised to be an advocate for the LGBT+ community, shared a picture of her cover for Harper Bazaar’s Singapore edition with the caption “honoured and grateful” on Instagram.

The post was deleted after Gay Star News’ entertainment editor Jamie Tabberer accused the young star of being a hypocrite in an opinion piece published on Friday.

As a former British colony and a member of the Commonwealth, Singapore inherited a law criminalising homosexual acts—one that has never been repealed.

Responding to the criticism, Jackson apologised via Twitter for her ignorance over the country’s situation, while also pointing out that the article was “ridiculously mean” and that a member of the LBGT+ community appearing on the cover of a magazine could be a “step forward.”

PinkNews asked a prominent Singapore-based LGBT+ activist, Rachel Yeo, to discuss the situation in her country, where she grew up and lives as a cisgender bisexual woman.

Yeo works as research and advocacy director for the Inter-University LGBT Network and was recently barred from speaking at a TEDx Youth event scheduled for July 20 at a school.

Singaporeans wearing pink t-shirts in support of gays and lesbians gather at the speakers’ corner in Singapore on May 16, 2009 (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

How often is the law criminalising homosexuality enforced?

As far as publicly known cases go, the law against homosexuality is not regularly enforced.

The last high profile case was probably around a decade ago. Among Singaporeans, there isn’t a real fear of being at home with another man and having the police called on you. But there is this sense of uncertainty, and rightly so.

Do you feel safe living in Singapore?

As a bisexual woman in Singapore, I feel relatively safe. Safe from physical hurt, though not safe from judgment when I’m walking hand in hand with a woman on the street.

I think it definitely takes a thick skin to live my truth. I also have a very tight network of queer friends or queer-affirming friends so that helps.

But I know that isn’t the case for everyone… which is also why I wear a Pride badge to work because I want people to know that they can be safe and free to confide in me.

Supporters form a rainbow among lights at the annual “Pink Dot” event in a public show of support for the LGBT community at Hong Lim Park in Singapore on July 1, 2017 (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty)

What was it like to grow up in Singapore?

The experience growing up LGBT+ in Singapore really varies so I can only speak for myself. I consider myself immensely fortunate because I discovered my sexuality in a safe environment. I was surrounded by girls who dated girls, and teachers never tried to out us to our parents or school counsellors.

That being said, I also did not date girls in secondary school and largely repressed my feelings for my crushes because I did not know what to make of it.

My positive experience, however, is an exception. I acknowledge that, and that’s why I go out of my way to give back to the community now. Among many other issues, sex education in Singapore’s schools is not LGBT-affirming.

Positive representations of LGBT+ people have been outlawed in mainstream media. Many young people who grow up in a religious environment often struggle to reconcile religion and sexuality. And let’s not get started on the myriad of mental health issues faced by LGBT+ youth.

Participants dress in various shades of pink, hold up placards during the ‘Night Pink Dot’ event arrange to increase awareness and understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Singapore at Hong Lim Park on June 30, 2012. (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)

Do you think the coming out of Li Huanwu as gay is a sign of changing attitudes in the country?

Personally I haven’t read the coming out of Li Huanwu as a sign of changing attitudes. If anything, his decision to come out—particularly as a public figure, though not by choice—was more a sign of his own courage and readiness to be a target of criticism, but also a source of strength for LGBT+ individuals thinking of coming out.

I think attitudes have changed. I can’t say how much, but I think we’ve made great strides as a community. We see local companies putting their dollar into Pink Dot [an annual event in support of LGBT+ rights]. We need to continue to engage the vast majority of people who I believe aren’t ‘anti-LGBT.’ It’s more that they have never been exposed to LGBT+ issues or individuals.

It’s possible they have never met a gay or transgender person in their lives and engaged with them as a human being, rather than some caricature. They might hold some misconceptions about the community, but if we can take the time to dispel those fears and myths, I think in them we will find our greatest allies.

The Pink Dot event is an annual gathering held in support of the freedom to love (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty)

Do you think LGBT+ celebrities should appear in Singaporean media and work with Singaporean organisations or is that detrimental to LBGT+ rights in the country?

I don’t see why they shouldn’t appear in Singaporean media or work with Singaporean organisations. But I would much rather they not turn a blind eye to the plight of LGBT+ folk in Singapore.

They have the clout to start a conversation and raise important issues… like how wrong it is that the T Project, a shelter for homeless trans women cannot register as a non-profit in Singapore. Yet the government continues to send homeless trans folk their way, while trying to deny their existence. Not enough people know that this is happening in our country.