Andrea is a trans woman who comes from a Muslim family. Growing up, she felt like there was no place for a trans kid in her home. So when she decided it was time to start hormone therapy and undergo operations, she ran away.
She understands her family’s struggle of coming to terms with her sexuality: “My mother is a part of the previous generation of Singaporeans that thought it was so taboo. There was a lot of fear and misunderstanding so when her child went through it, I can understand how scared she must have felt. My parents heard so many stories of trans women in Singapore becoming hookers and getting beaten up and killed, so they just wanted me to be safe.”
Looking at Andrea’s story, and that of the others I spoke to for this piece, one thing is certain: Singapore is a unique place for the LGBTQ community. As a country, it treads the line between being a place where queer individuals can openly express their sexuality, and a place where they are offered no protection from discrimination.
The latter comes from an existing law that was implemented during the colonial years: Section 377A of the Penal Code, which states that sex between mutually consenting adult men is illegal, and punishable with a prison sentence of up to 2 years.
Public consensus is slowly changing however, as society becomes more liberal to LGBTQ matters. In September last year, the debate around section 377A resurfaced after India repealed the same colonial law. But in response to activists calling for the same to be done, the Catholic Archbishop of Singapore asked people to “make a conscientious decision to reject the repeal for the future of our families, humanity and society” as “the risks to the common good will be long-term and irreversible.”
Off the streets and in parliament, actions to address the law have not garnered much momentum either. In April, Pritam Singh, chief of Singapore’s main opposition party The Workers’ Party, stated that they would not be calling for the repeal of 377A because views within the party are divided on the issue, which he called a “microcosm of Singapore society.”
He went on to explain that 377A is a “tangential issue” that would distract from other more pressing issues such as “young people delaying marriage.” Singh also claimed he would not “participate in the culture war” that the LGBTQ matter has become, and that refraining from acting is for “the common good of our society.”
With the government’s current laws, and the opposition’s disinterest to push for change, the local movement of queer individuals have little hope in legislation.
While Singapore isn’t exactly an unsafe or dangerous place for the queer community, and is a generally open society that accepts individuals, it is within the fabrics of Singaporean society where obstacles appear. What speaking with local queer individuals showed me is that it is not so much the law, but society, that poses one of the biggest challenges to their freedom.
VICE spoke to young LGBTQ Singaporeans about their experience manoeuvring the city-state, how times are slowly changing, and what their coming out experience has been like.
School is often the first contact kids have with wider society outside their homes, and it is also the time when most young people realize they are queer. With Singapore’s rigorous and prominent same-sex schooling system, coming out can be even more daunting than most Western countries.
Camira, 24, who owns her own fashion label in Singapore, recalls the confusion that came with being in a girls’ school and being queer: “I thought it was just a phase caused by all the eye candy.”
School traditions didn’t help either. “When you first enter [high school], there’s this thing called ‘angel and mortal,’ where a [senior] will write to a [junior] to make them feel welcome. Everyone loved their senior, and we all thought it was a phase. My first memory of being gay is getting this letter from my senior and crushing on her. It makes sense though. You like her because she's so nice, she buys you gifts and chocolates and makes you feel comfortable in a new environment.”
In Singapore, students need to change schools when transitioning from primary to secondary to tertiary, and no two schools are the same. But one thing they have in common is their conservative and rigorous culture, which exposes young kids to homophobia from a young age.
For Aliy, 16, who identifies as trans male, moving schools was a shocking experience. “In primary school, everyone is too young to understand what is going on, so I was accepted. I was the tomboy kid who would hang out with the boys. In secondary school though, people grow opinions which are more extreme. In secondary one, I came out as queer, and my school is really sexist, homophobic and racist,” he said. "People were hostile and it became a really negative place. I would hear rumours about me and I felt isolated. As an Asian society, we aren't that aggressive with our words, instead, we work behind the scenes to make sure we won't let people thrive.”
The Singaporean school system is notorious for being competitive, and is often a source of scrutiny in the country. But in dire situations, it provides an unhealthy escape. “The backlash made me put expectations on myself to be better than the people who hated me, instead of doing things for myself. So I forced myself to keep working, and I would get scholarships and accolades but I don't think I ever felt fulfilled because I wasn't doing it for me, and I wasn't happy at all,” said Aliy.
The extra work doesn’t reap the same rewards as it does for other kids either. “In school, some opportunities don't come to me as easily. For example, there is a bias against me taking up roles that represent the school or for being able to access opportunities like overseas learning, as it’s obvious they don’t want me being the symbol of our school identity.”
It did get better for Aliy, in a twisted way. He said that in the last years of secondary school, “no one really cares about you because everyone is busy taking care of themselves and making sure they do well on their O levels. This is Singapore, it's a competitive nation.”
Outside of daily lessons however, school throws other challenges to its kids. School dances, for example, are just as prominent in Singapore as in other countries. Andrea recalls going to prom at 16. At the time, she had come out as a gay male to her peers, who she recalls were surprisingly fine with it. “I wore a wig to my prom when I was 16. I wasn't ready to wear a dress, so I wore a tux with the wig to project a ‘power woman’ vibe. Everyone was strangely ok with it,” she said.
Once school ends, it’s a big sigh of relief for most queer individuals who can finally enter the real world and be who they are. In most Western countries at least. In Singapore, finishing school is only the start of another, even more anxiety-inducing experience for males: compulsory military service.
Josh, 27, who has asked to have his name changed, came out to those close to him during school, but had to backtrack on this during the military: “When I went to National Service, I couldn’t be open about it anymore, I had to switch back to being a different person. The environment is different there. You are surrounded by toxic masculinity. The police guys especially... they have different views about gay guys. I was 19 and I already knew who I was, but with straight boys, it's different.”
Times are changing though, and not all queer individuals have negative experiences in the military. Many of the individuals interviewed were surprised to find how open-minded many young people are today.
Jay, 23, who has also asked to remain anonymous, said he was thrown off when he found out guys didn’t mind as much as he thought: “Before entering NS you would think it's guys that are super backwards. But then you realize, they are also from your generation.”
It all came out when they were hanging out in their bunks, and “a guy asked me, ‘Jay, are you more of a tits or ass person?’ and I was so thrown off I just replied saying, ‘Oh I like everything’. So they asked me if I was bi, and one guy said, ‘Oh I'm bi too.’ So I realized they were chill and I told them all. All the guys were still quite macho in the stereotypical sense, but they were also quite woke.”
As for Andrea, she did the military before transitioning. Although she did have stories about bullying, she also had some support – “there were many more guys who liked me and saw me as a friend” – a lot of Andrea’s bunkmates knew she was going to transition before she even did. “One of my bunkmates said, and it might be politically incorrect, ‘One day I think you are going to install a pussy.’ I got very defensive and denied it because deep down I was hiding who I was. I didn’t want to be judged.”
Completing the two years of compulsory service doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. Every year after that, males get called in for “re-service” that can last anywhere between one to two weeks. Getting called back was the breaking point for Andrea, and made her realize she wasn’t comfortable in her own body. “After University, I had to cut my hair off and go back for re-service. And at 23, any man who does any form of physical activity will become muscular. I was so unhappy with the way I looked. I looked into the mirror and I was like, ‘Who is this?’ I mean it was a handsome guy, but it wasn’t me.”
Religion, Culture and Family
Schooling and the military pose temporary obstacles to a queer person’s life, but there are undercurrents that don’t go away.
Religion and family, for example, remain as major influencing factors on whether queer individuals feel safe to come out. Although Singapore doesn’t have a main religion, the close-knit circles formed by various religious and cultural groups have caused queer individuals to fear coming out, or to be forcefully outed. Singapore has also made a major economic and social leap in the last few generations, going from a fishing village to a cosmopolitan capital, which left a cultural divide between generations.
Jay, who also comes from a Muslim family, had a similar plan to “move overseas, become financially stable and then come out,” he said. However, this did not go through when one of his family members forcefully outed him.
“I came home drunk from a party one night. I had removed my passcode from my phone to allow my best friend to book a cab for me. This family member was standing there when I came in and took my phone from me, locked herself in her room and went through my phone. She saw all my chats and read my Grindr. On top of that, she saw all my drunk videos, and Muslims aren't supposed to drink. Imagine waking up and your conservative parents find out that you are gay, you drink and you have piercings,” he said.
“I tried being defensive and telling them I was born this way, but I realized it wasn’t going to work so I just told them I would stop being gay from now on.” To his surprise, his parents accepted it… even if it doesn’t exactly work that way.
Camira had a similar experience. “I brought my first girlfriend home when I was about 21. I thought they wouldn’t notice because I always had other girlfriends sleeping over. I didn’t know that my mom had gone through my MacBook and saw webcam photos of us kissing. So when my girlfriend was in my room, my parents called me out. They asked me if she was my girlfriend and I said yes. I told them, you might think this is wrong, but what if this is really me? You have to accept it.” Things have gotten better since.
Those who haven’t been outed often don’t plan on coming out at all, largely due to social and family pressure. Ezra, 26, who asked to have his name changed, said religion is largely tied to family and social status, and therefore his choice to come out would impact all members of his family.
Ezra is not out, as in a city like Singapore, he finds he has to choose between community or individuality: “I like being Muslim and I am proud of being one, even if I’m technically not doing the things I should be. I want to stay close to my relatives. My job requires me to be very active on social media, I can’t flaunt it on there as it would give my parents a bad reputation. I don't want my parents to have the issue of having to handle relatives because of their son's decision. For me, coming out would be selfish.”
For mixed kids, the struggle is different. Aliy is mixed Chinese-Malaysian and has had to manoeuvre the different expectations from both sides her entire life.
“My mom was essentially fine with it because within Chinese culture, there are no deep-rooted anti-queer connotations. She asked me when I was 12, and it was quite pressuring. On the other hand, my dad was more reserved because he is Muslim. Being Malay and being a minority in Singapore means trying to navigate a world that is already more prejudiced towards your people and family,” he said.
“One thing my mom isn’t fine with is being trans. She once said, 'Please don’t tell me you are going to be trans,’ so she doesn’t know I am, but I’ll force her to be fine with it eventually.”
Mental Health Stigmas
Society is slowly becoming more aware of mental health, but recent progress are only baby steps as compared to where we could be. The social stigmas faced by queer individuals can often lead to mental health struggles, but not everyone has the resources to seek the help they want.
After being outed by a family member, Jay recalls going through a period of deep depression. “My parents threatened to send me to a religious teacher. It was the worst time of my life. My parents knew I was depressed and suicidal but they didn't give a fuck. I had to beg them to send me to a psychiatrist. All my mom said was ‘Oh I can't have a son who sees a psychiatrist, it will affect my status.”
There are many spaces in Singapore where queer people have found safety and supportive communities, and these are only growing, and slowly becoming mainstream. For Camira, joining art school and starting her own fashion label connected her with other open-minded individuals. “I was from Lasalle, the art school which is very liberal. I never had the pressure to not be myself. Especially the girls, they are always exploring even if they're straight. Everyone's open. Now that I have my own business, I don't need to deal with office politics or anything.”
Andrea found that freedom in the workforce. “People felt the need to be straight acting to be accepted and have a job. But I am transgender, I own a business, I model and I do many things. But because I'm trans I need to be in a cabaret show in Thailand? It's ridiculous. I am living proof that these stigmas are not true, and working makes me happy.”
After running away and gaining the space she needed to transition, Andrea, now 28, reunited with her family. “They found me. My father went down to the Central Provident Fund Board office to deal with some documentation, and they told him, 'Oh you have a child called Andrea'. My father was like ‘No, I don't, I have three sons, so who is Andrea?’ But they looked at the photo and knew it was me, so they took the address and they came. I was so scared. Not of them, but of how they would react. I had just gotten implants, so it was very emotional for them to see their son look so different.”
Overall, she finds positive things about being queer in Singapore. “Singapore is actually quite forward because I could change my passport and my identity card to female. I think secretly, deep inside, they have a place in their heart for people like me,” she said.
As for her family finding her, a happy ending awaited Andrea. Her parents grew to accept her and her grandma turned out to be the most open of all, giving her a pet name, sharing outfit advice and asking her to join her in the kitchen, which Andrea says is “her way to make me feel accepted.”
Andrea, like Camira and Aliy, are out and open about their sexuality. Josh, Jay and Ezra, three gay men, are not, and asked to remain anonymous – which may speak to specific challenges between genders as well.
What's clear is the decision to come out is deeply personal, and must be weighed against each one’s own experience – especially given the obstacles of being queer in Singapore.
For Aliy, it was a decision she made to take a stance. “I was sick of the sexism and homophobia within the system, and being out meant having people shut up around me,” she said. “People who would normally make sexist or homophobic comments have to control themselves when the ‘gay kid’ is around. So the fight helps, because now my peers are less exposed to seeing homophobia, and are less likely to internalise it because of that.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.