Sunday, June 19, 2011

Supporting Pink Dot

Pink Dot 2011 was my first Pink Dot.

After missing the first two due to conflicting schedules, I was glad to have been invited by the organising committee to be there, not only as a person, but also a representative and supporter of the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance (SinQSA).

While I have always supported Pink Dot, its concept and messages, I have been critical of it. There are others, straight and queer-identified, who have their own criticisms of the event.

1. Pink Dot is highly commercialised.
It appears to be organised by a well-oiled machinery, with merchandising and all that. This does not appear to invoke romantic imaginings of the business of change that is LGBT activism (or at least how we expect it to be).

2. Pink Dot does not represent the victims of homophobia.
It appears to be too "happy" with its celebratory and carnivalesque atmosphere. There are youths who are abused, beaten or thrown out of their homes by people who do not understand them. Pink Dot does not reach out to these victims of homophobia (or biphobia, transphobia, etc.) And what does Pink Dot do about LGBT people who lose their jobs or cannot find work because you-know-why/what? ... Add in more questions of similar nature...

3. Pink Dot does not represent trans people and people of multiple-minority status.
Some trans persons feel Pink Dot tokenises them. After all, with "freedom to love" and rhetoric invoking sexual orientation and predominantly "gay" discourses dominating LGBT activism in Singapore, there is little room for discussion and activism for gender identity and trans rights.

In the "business of change", as I like to call it, in place of the more serious "activism", Pink Dot is necessary, despite its imperfections and limitations.

Pink Dot is not the be-all and end-all. It tries to target the masses with a message that encourages harmonious diversity, in this case supporting the freedom to love.

For LGBT rights in Singapore to progress another millimetre, it requires a nebula of different, divergent and often-times conflicting points of view and messages, most of which sharing a (more or less) common direction). Some messages resonate better with the masses, others less.

As a result of campaigning, awareness-raising and fighting stereotypes over the years, the mainstream come to know of LGBT rights movement as largely comprising well-educated middle-to-upper class gay English-speaking ethnic Chinese sissy men and muscled men who shout too much (combine that with other stereotypes religious fundamentalists will tell you).

We had to start somewhere, right? In the most romantic sense, I always believed it to be important that people or individuals in positions of privilege make use of their positions of privilege to share the message. People who fit the mould of the stereotype, ironically, are in a better position to be the first to be heard.

After all, in the business of change, one has to gain access to relevant elites and relevant majorities (considering we're, on paper, a democracy) in order to make change.

This is where Pink Dot comes in. It is doing its bit to make change by gaining access to the mainstream, appealing to the masses and in turn, making news and be picked up by the mainstream press. And from there, its message can be conveyed to the masses.

This strategy comes at the expense of people further down the LGBT political pecking order, as well as people of multiple marginalities. It is not so much about being a numerical minority, but it is relatively more difficult for a large-bodied Indian Muslim FTM pansexual leatherdyke to be accepted by a society which in the first place, does not understand sexual orientation, let alone gender identity.

Activism, or the business of change, or "fighting the good fight", is only as good as the intended recipients of the message. The message cannot be too complex, or too paradigmatically jarring/challenging/threatening. In the end, we get a very simple abstract message, which appears to be more oriented towards homosexual orientation than gender identity, more oriented towards monogamy, etc.

It does not sit very well with folks who have been sweating very hard for years, or even their entire lives, studying and fighting for diversity and equality for the minorities of the minorities. They've probably heard every argument in the book and see a grand media spectacle that is Pink Dot as a step back. But Pink Dot exists with respect to an audience, a citizenry, and a nation of multiple communities, who probably know little about LGBT issues and still harbour harmful myths and stereotypes of people like them/us.

LGBT rights can never be forwarded with one discursive swoop; it needs multiple voices that constitute its rich diversity. But for social integration or queer-straight harmony to exist, the message has to be simple, or "dumbed down". The advocate has to speak the language recognisable and understandable to the audience he/she wants to change.

I cannot make change if I went to Hong Lim Park alone, and start reading aloud research articles from "The Transgender Studies Reader" (edited by Stryker and Whittle). The idea is there, but will only be hampered by its execution.

In order to communicate with an increasingly disenfrachised Singaporean population nestled in a vibrant consumerist culture, the idea of Pink Dot and its multiple celebrity endorsements will seem more well-placed.

As for staying power, message retention and political follow-up, we may not be sure what Pink Dot can offer. But what plagues many groups and organisations in the business of change is the heterogeneous and divergent sets of expectations heaped onto them.

It is normal that different people and individuals project their aspirations onto platforms and organisations, but difficult to implement these ideas. For Pink Dot, they got their feedback and expectations from the community and beyond. However, there's one aspect of the idea of Pink Dot I fully endorse, and that is the push for visibility. I read Pink Dot to be saying "Okay, we are here. There are different people hanging out together and saying they support the freedom to love." I think that is one way to moving towards harmonious diversity. It works.

Pink Dot fights the media blackout of LGBT issues. Even if it means it will be featured in a small segment of the mainstream newspapers and television programmes, I consider it a huge progress. I cannot say more on how difficult it is for an LGBT or LGBT-affirming person to raise issues on LGBT rights and equality in the mainstream media.

People will disagree and continue to criticise Pink Dot, even though they themselves support LGBT rights and equality. I am one of them.

But there is no reason to feel angry or resentment to those who essentially agree on the same principle/goal that is equality in Singapore regardless of orientation and persuasion. We may campaign to the masses, write blog entries, "like" Facebook pages and articles, what-not, but all these move in tandem regardless of size and rhetoric.

Another point worth noting is whether we should be taking all these very seriously or personally. I feel that in the business of change, for example advocating queer-straight harmony (vague concept, but I'm ok with that), being firm about the message is one thing, but taking it too seriously is another.

If we take advocacy and the business of change too seriously, to the point we display anger, resentment or boycott those who share the similar ultimate aspirations as we do but happen to take a different route, we become no different from the same homophobic bigotry we have tried to address/fight in the first place.

It is also ironic that we show intolerance in the fight for greater tolerance, and that as we push for harmonious diversity, we show impatience with diversity in our own ranks. We become no better than our abusers (yes, straight people who stand up for queer people do get abused too).

I learned from many "veteran" advocates of LGBT equality that it is important to be able to not take yourself seriously as it is to take yourself seriously, as this eventually sets you apart from hateful homophobes who resort to abuse, threats, ideological terror and sometimes violence because they take their masculinity/femininity very seriously.

I personally believe that to be able to laugh at one aspect of your identity (e.g. my heterosexual masculinity) shows an understanding of it - its cultural, historical and textual dimensions. You can insult me "Sam, you're not a man" and I can laugh it off "You're right, but what's a man?" without feeling insulted, instead of reacting with anger and violence.

Some queer and questioning individuals have a history of abuse and when we speak of abuse, it often warrants a more serious approach. However, I feel that the seriousness has to be balanced in such a way that it is not too individualised, that the people to whom these issues are communicated do not feel distanced/disconnected from the issue, and do not come to the conclusion that "this problem is YOUR problem, not mine because I have nothing to do with it" - they don't connect with the aggrieved.

Supporting Pink Dot requires some degree of rationalising for me. It is easy for me to criticise it, but it has proven itself to be a platform for both straight and queer Singaporeans to come together, do something, put it in the public eye, and sharing a message that I fully support. So that is something worth supporting, no?

Pink Dot complements the many efforts we have, a sizable portion of which have been deemed to be preaching to the converted. In the business of change, it is about reach and relevance, and this some how works.

When straight people see families and other straight people (identifiable by their couple-dom) at the event, there will be a chance that they feel that Singapore is a safe place for straight people to support, stand up or even speak up for their LGBT friends and family.

You know the ThinkStraight project? ( It is spearheaded by a team of predominantly straight folks and their LGBT friends, if I had to use sexual orientation as a differentiating factor.

What has straight Singaporeans done for queer-straight harmony today? Or ask your straight friends, "What have you done for queer-straight harmony or harmonious diversity in Singapore today?"

If they went to Pink Dot, and played their role in making monetary contributions, volunteering or making the Pink Dot that the mainstream media picked up, they did something at least. If you're not homophobic, why not be LGBT-affirming and supportive of their rights (to be similar to the rights of straight people?)

I don't know if it is a good idea to say this, but I have spent $1210.10 of my own savings on the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance badges and car decals, in the hope Singaporeans (and non-Singaporeans too) can display them in a way others will know that an alliance exists, that they support queer-straight harmony. It's more than just merchandising any way. Some of the money will be used to recover the costs, the rest can be used to help further LGBT advocacy. At Pink Dot, thanks to the generous (voluntary) contributions of the public, we raised slightly over $490.

Even if this is not "activism" by any means, it sure complements the effort of LGBT activists and rights advocates in Singapore. If advocating LGBT awareness and rights is recognised as a multiple-prong movement, shouldn't we recognise the fact that others in the same movement, may move at different paces, in different directions from us?

Pink Dot's not perfect, probably hardly constitutes LGBT activism (in the traditional and romantic sense), but it sure complements what we've been doing all along for equality in Singapore regardless of orientation or persuasion.

It represents a positive energy aimed at promoting greater acceptance, considering we live in a Singapore dominated by strong and bigoted opinion leaders who devote their time and resources to mobilising people into believing homophobic rhetoric and myths, spreading fear and hate.

It is also good to see teenagers and youth participating, making their rounds around the different mats and booths, and learning about the existence of advocacy and interest groups (definitely beats getting indoctrinated into uncritically embracing homophobic ideology), and hopefully going home and thinking about what they can do to make Singapore a little better.

Well, feel free to be part of the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance, but more importantly feel free to do something on your own accord to making Singapore a better place for all regardless of orientation and persuasion.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Genderal Elections

The recent Singapore General Elections have provided a lot for us Singaporeans to think about. One interesting observation is the construction and varying degrees of (dis)approval of femininities in the political scene.

Given the high usage of new/social media, these femininities are constructed, enframed, replicated, memeified and heartily consumed in a matter of seconds, immortalising the projections of certain female politicians/political candidates, even if these projections may not fully and accurately represent the individuals themselves.

All these constructions are made in a domain governed by (general) people's paradigmatic demands and insistence on a certain set of behaviours and performativities they believe to be commonly associated with political discourse - our expectations are gendered, and we have a taste for desirable femininities.

The emergence and political participation of young women in Singapore politics over the years have often been greeted with sexist underestimations of their potential and ability to contribute to politics and the community.

As compared to their male counterparts, female politicians tend to receive more attention on their looks - almost indicative of the belief that they do not bring to the table the same quality of input as their male colleagues do.

Put in decent looks, youth and (desirable) female-ness into the political arena, you get the shallowly sexist construction that is the Tin Pei Ling-Nicole Seah diametric. It is a mere coincidence they happen to make their political debut in the same General Elections, in the same GRC. Any comparison would have been the convenient and inevitable.

People are heavily influenced by gender cues, demanding in the case of female political candidates, the right quantities and mix of femme and butch. Gender is one key variable in impression management.

Some like women to be womanly, not girly. Some like them confident and assertive, but not too loud or too butch. Like the treble and bass of a speaker or amplifier, people like to have just the right balance of femme and butch (just don't bring a napsack to Parliament).

Take for example the foot stomping mock-petulance of Tin Pei Ling in one of the YouTube videos, filmed long before the General Elections. In a certain space and time, it was permissible to act like this. During the course of the General Elections campaigns, the conscious "performance" of Tin Pei Ling's femininity, the slow, conscientious, calm and composed speeches/interviews, the absence of girlish and frivolous gestures, the lowering of the pitch of her voice, all depart from her YouTube foot-stomping heyday. (New media really cements one's gender, even those one's character will normally and reasonably be a little more complex)

Assuming that the foot stomping is part of her spontaneous reaction to certain things, there is a spectrum of behaviours that constitute the Tin Pei Ling femininity. Unfortunately, people do not expect and appreciate spectra and diversity. They believe that femininity, or at least the performance of gender, should be a consistent one across spaces.

The verdict on Tin Pei Ling's political maturity has been dished out pretty quickly based on that video. Her interview on Razor TV (i.e. the one about her biggest regret) did not help either, but then again, how many of us are spontaneous and quick-witted in interviews?

Gender is disciplined in such a way that the diverse representations of it by one person is not tolerated. Neither tolerated are the diverse representations of gender across space and time. People see it as destructive, in the sense that one Tin Pei Ling foot stomp in an old video connotes political suicide.

The political arena demands candidates to "butch up" and shed traditional and stereotypical feminine traits. This demands already creates a biased and sexist political environment.

Furthermore, we are today not helped by the historical fact that women are viewed to be less able than men to think logically, reasonably and keep their emotions in check. Most women haven't been taken seriously. Men on the other hand, are historically perceived to be able to separate emotion from rational thought, which makes them believe politics is their domain. (But of course, men have also been physically more capable of violence and that property plays a role in the male retention of political power)

This is further compounded by the historical ageism that plagues politics time and again. As much as it has been positively emphasised over the decade, youth still figures as a good enough reason to not take a political candidate seriously.

So when you have young women in the political mix, people start to feel really curious. Looking alone at their background and physicality, people will think these women are out of place (but their views would have changed accordingly to how the women spoke).

The actors/actresses on the political stage are not only the components here. We are talking about an internet-savvy audience, who have been exposed to the purportedly undesirable femininities of Mrs Goh Chok Tong (got hit hard in the nutsack, that one), Ris Low, Wee Shu Min (couldn't get out of her face), and some women at the AWARE extraordinary general meeting (depending on whose side you were).

You might think: What has their sex and gender got to do with being a prick (that's phallic, no?), an elitist, or so perceivably intellectually challenged that The Noose and Chestnuts have to lampoon a hole in your dignity? Everything.

These women (and the rest of us) traverse a gendered terrain pockmarked with norms of and desires for "right" kinds of genders. This is not news, but we demand correspondence and alignment of one's gender with one's sex in one's environment.

When the alignment is weak, people start to feel that their idea of balance or gender equilibrium has been threatened. We come up with the socialised reactions which serve as defence mechanisms for the gendered regime.

"That's not how a wo/man should act/speak/behave!"

Both men and women are pressured into conforming to unspoken rules of how to conduct oneself and to portray a desirable gender role. We are the canvass on which society and its unwavering predispositions paint. Even in our mothers' wombs, our parents (or at least most of them) are already thinking of suitable names that best reflect our sex (I think Althusser said something about that).

Going back to how society demands for the right amounts of femme and butch in a woman in particular settings, there is also the marcoscopic expectation. Depending on the climate, politics continue to rebalance the femme and butch order. By order, I refer to what people perceive their politicians to be, and not what the politicians actually are.

Take for example Singapore 1970-80s - Lee Kuan Yew, uber-butch; Goh Keng Swee, femme. The transition from Lee Kuan Yew's leadership to Goh Chok Tong's and then Lee Hsien Loong also signals the reordering of femme and butch. Lee Kuan Yew was all about shaking fists and pointing straight fingers (at least that was how he was portrayed), which are symbolic of the erect phallus. Penis is might. Very old school.

The second and third Prime Ministers began speaking more "gently", in terms of choice of words and tone, diplomatic and sensitive like a romantic construction of the desirable woman. They spoke and gesticulated with open hands. Lee Hsien Loong waves and smiles a lot more - very very femme in the forest of penises that is Singapore politics (I got that forest analogy from South Park by the way). Of course, he's never far away from his open hand slapping days.

When we approve of a female politician, we are in some way making an approval of her gender. Can't be too overweight because we might think she is too comfortable, distracted or not in control of herself (especially when there still linger masculinist impressions of women who most likely to have these qualities).

Can't be too girlish, because girlish/girly politicians cannot be taken seriously even though it may be rather difficult to confirm any correlation with girlishness and political ineptitude. To be less girly, you have to have firmer wrist ligaments, a slightly lower tone and show less emotion (although many political candidates during the General Elections 2011 did a 1965 vintage Lee Kuan Yew).

If these "rules"/expectations are not met, people actually see it fit to start questioning their ability to be a politician. Hegemonic gender's defence mechanisms are in our speediness to evaluate or judge the worth and character of someone just by how his or her gender identity is portrayed (with respect to his/her physiology/physicality).

These rules and expectations allow the continual dominance of men in politics (and also other areas such as science) because of the expectation of certain gender traits to be befitting a certain profession. Like the ancient Greeks, we demand a certain set of suitable behaviours of our adult men because they are citizens, not women and children, since they were believed to be incapable of mature rational thought. Thus, any display of traits commonly associated with children, adolescents or women in the political arena can be pretty jarring for some. (Of course, the Greek men also nurtured and had sexual relations with younger men, to show them the ways of responsible citizenry and manhood)

We also happen to subscribe to the belief that emotion and reason (or logical and rational thinking) are diametrically opposed - very strong European thought by the way. At the same time, these traits have for many millenia, been associated with specific sexes, and in turn socially reinforced/enforced as gender cues. Anything opposite, in-between, beyond, or spectrum-like encountered by society will be greeted with apprehension and defensiveness.

Can a female politician behave like a 1950s-80s Lee Kuan Yew (as we would have known him publicly)? Why not? But having a demeanour or behaviour which moves towards the other end of the hegemonic gender pole, would be a no-no in politics. People demand more traditional masculine traits - so please "man up" or "butch up" for politics.

As much as I believe it is irrelevant, a lot of people feel how a politician "performs" (in every gendered sense) is necessary for him/her to be taken seriously by the electorate. Necessary, but not entirely justifiable because politicians essentially make decisions, and decision-making in principle has nothing to do with how girly or how manly you are.

Decision-making exists in a gendered society (surprise surprise... not), and people want to see and experience the reassuring reinforcement of how men and women are expected to behave. Moving along these (il)logical lines, the "correct" portrayal of gender as to how society expects it to be, can play a big part in helping you gain moral authority (even before making any political decisions).

Societal expectations of desirable gendered behaviour are projected onto us everyday, and we somehow feel a sense of responsibility to comply, or risk alienation and the implications of swift judgement by the majority or the moral elite. It appears that harmonious integration demands compliance and homogeneity, despite in its romantic definition, integration primarily implies the existence of difference.

It is quite interesting when people speak of political "wayang" (acting, performance, in the most negative sense), the "wayang" goes very deep, all the way into how one consciously regulates one's gender cues. The purpose of "wayang" is to gain the trust and support of the people, similar to how female politicians have to strike the "right" balance of femme and butch to appeal to the masses.

Seldom do people actually challenge the justifiability of the policing (or fierce guarding) of gender boundaries. Why are we creating criteria for gendered behaviour in the political domain when it probably has nothing to do with how intelligent or how capable the politician is at decision-making?

Next time when we pass judgement on a female politician, do take some time to think to what extent does her femaleness play a role in our evaluation, and perhaps why we think this way and assume it to be a "natural" reaction. You don't know what to say, but you know what to think about next time.