Friday, July 5, 2013

Punctuating Pink Dot with Optimism

Pink Dot 2013 was my third Pink Dot. Wasn’t able to make the first two though, but had lots of fun for the ones I attended.

Pink Dot is what it is – a carnival that unites a considerable number of pink-clad individuals and groups to form a message and collective bargain on equality regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

That it appears so commercial, coordinated and massive, it becomes incoherent with the myriad of queer intersectionalities that characterise LGBT Singapore. And for that reason, among others of course, some segments might have felt that Pink Dot, as much as it is pro-equality, is commoditising, complicit in tokenism and further oppression of marginal queerness, and presents paradoxes that trouble the SOGI troublers.

For many activists and defenders of human rights, it is easy to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity at length. But depending on your business of change, you may have a target audience that might be less informed and probably need a more simplified message: Equal rights, treatment and opportunity for LGBT Singaporeans; abolish S377A; stand up as friends and family of LGBT Singaporeans.

Unfortunately, a simple message dilutes the queer diversity and the different challenges LGBT and questioning Singaporeans of different cultures and socio-economic statuses face on a daily basis. Furthermore, Pink Dot appears to be a one-off occasion, where thousands gather together and have fun for a couple of hours and the impression is given that there’s no continuity in this business of change.

Ah. Pink Dot and its continuity. Does discrimination and marginalisation continue as per normal after the event?  Sing, dance and sweat for a couple of hours and that’s it?

For me, Pink Dot is a platform for collective bargain, to show Singapore that there is a significant number of people who stand up against discrimination. People willingly attend the event, as opposed to cornering a senior politician and presenting him with a political bargain.

I think Pink Dot is not about pluralistically representing every queer corner and margin of Singapore society. It is focused on numbers for a more significant collective bargain that is visible to all Singaporeans and the world. It puts together the relevant ingredients to bring together not only the 24/7 champions of LGBT rights, but also the casual supporter, the fence-sitter and even people who never cared for most of their lives but happen to do so for 1 or 2 hours.

Pink Dot forces the local media to report about the event not because of its message, but because of its newsworthy massiveness and celebrity ambassadors (straight allies among them). The dominant discourse is commercial, commoditised, English-speaking, middle-class, mostly male (homo)sexuality (at least for most straight people, because penis-less female-female relationships are beyond their simplistic and misogynist lesbian pornographic imaginings), homonormative, monogamous, “just like straight people”.

It is this particular approach and discourse that is more coherent and less threatening to the heterocentric decision-makers, the neutrals and the marginally homophobic. It does risk diluting the queer spectrum in the process, or even silencing the margins of margins, and maybe this is the trade-off. I wouldn’t go so far so to call this a “big picture” “activism”, but it does what is necessary for a bigger collective bargain – it maybe in tandem with some smaller circles and out of sync with others, but it has its own purpose.

As in music, you don’t add more chords, musical and artistic nuances, transposition, chord variations, wide-ranging complex vocals to a simple 3 or 4-chord pop song that aims to be number one.

Without neglecting these paradoxes and complicities, we can focus on the positives. Pink Dot provides a platform for various LGBT interest groups, communities and civil society organisations to reach out to the public – queer, straight or questioning.

Another positive is the lengthy speeches by the straight ambassadors, who somehow almost feel apologetic for the numerous fuck-ups their fellow straight community folks have made in dealing with SOGI issues. It’s necessary for a straight LGBT-affirming person to speak up and at such lengths, because the silence that has plagued the “straight community” for the longest time continues to impress upon everyone that all straight people do not support equality regardless of SOGI.

So the next time before you scream, “Hurry the fuck up, Mark Richmond!”, do think about the context of the event.

Pink Dot has a legitimate message that may not necessarily and directly support other queer messages and lived daily complexities faced by the margins of margins and the more invisible among the invisible. I personally feel more could be done for gender identity issues, but Pink Dot, for the sake of a relatively prejudiced and ignorant Singapore populace, has to choose the most accessible message – sexuality. And sexuality has to be communicated in a way this segment can best understand – in terms of family, love, acceptance and treatment.

In the process of focusing on sexuality, some assumptions have to be made about gender, and this threatens part of feminist and queer movements and circles here. The focus on monogamy is also another point, and can be read as validating heterocentrism (kwa kwa kwaaaaa). That fact that the event is in Hong Lim Park furthers the post-structuralist imaginings of circumscribed liberties. How not to be pessimistic?

I share some concerns and have issues with Pink Dot. It will make a good intellectual discussion, but left for another time and place.

Here’s the situation. There are rules against positive or normal media depiction of homosexuality. Homophobic faith and religious groups, with constitutional protection and all, have safe spaces to perpetuate myths and discrimination against LGBT Singaporeans, to the point of demonisation and wanting to wage “war”. In a country in which homophobia is institutionalised (military, schools, media, etc.) and normalised, Hong Lim Park is probably the only place to have a collective bargain against this madness. Small space for 20,000 people. 3-4 hour event. Once a year. So that’s pretty reasonable.

It was thus worth our (me and family’s) time to attend Pink Dot. I sweat buckets every time I’m there. I have spent hard-earned money to make SinQSA (Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance) badges and decals, and managed to recoup about half of it through contributions and donations. Without hesitation, I agreed to help out with the video production for Pink Dot 2012 by being an extra. Even at Pink Dot 2013, with the help of queer women’s group Sayoni, we gave away the SinQSA badges.

For the SinQSA badges, it’s merchandising (without any profit), but if there are some who are willing to use it, explain what it means to them and what they are willing stand up for, I think it’s a success.

I think my contribution, with respect to Pink Dot, is relatively insignificant. Maybe less than 40 hours in the span of 3 years. Outside Pink Dot, I blog, meet up with folks and talk about LGBT and SOGI issues, attend events/talks – takes maybe less than 60 hours a year. Still nothing much. There are many activists, social workers and community leaders who give so much more. And they’re still present at Pink Dot having fun, and being part of the collective bargain.

I feel having values is one thing, but doing something that reflects your values is another. Pink Dot provides that platform for people who believe in equality for LGBT folks and want to stand up for it, whether they do it every day or once a year.

There are many fuckers in Singapore who go out of their way to put down gay people (nevermind other sexualities). They try to tap on the rhetoric of marriage, children, nature, sanity, sin, just to justify discrimination and monger hate. These are channelled into the mainstream. They claim to be straight too, so it becomes my problem because I really don’t want to be associated with them.

In my capacity, aside from writing to the newspapers, one good platform that provides access to the mainstream is Pink Dot. It’s not the most complex, intellectual or disruptive SOGI movement, but it does more than enough to let Singapore know that there are gay-affirming Singaporeans out there.

It’s polarising, says the PAP government as it tries to justify its inaction – yup, working very hard to do absolutely nothing for social justice. What is so polarising about acceptance of Singaporeans regardless of SOGI? I think hate-mongering and discrimination are causing the polarisation. But if a party wants to stay in power, you have to balance between doing what is “right”, and doing what a majority of your voters will think is right in their personal individual opinion.

In some circles, there’s the focus on what Pink Dot is not and probably never will be. I say, horses for courses, and we should be happy (not complacent, a government buzzword by the way) there are many groups and communities that aim to reach out to Singaporeans of varying SOGI.

If we find ourselves wanting to intellectualise and problematise Pink Dot, I would encourage some grounding of the textual analysis (that results in the articulation of complicities and paradoxes) in the heterocentric socio-political conditions in which we reside. Got to balance implications with prevailing contexts. For one, given the myopia and pig-headedness of heteronormality/centrism, the bargain for gender diversity (as opposed to equal rights and protection for self-identified homosexual citizens) will be dismissed before the first sentence can be uttered.

That said, I feel SOGI advocacy is not linear and neither prioritises one community over another nor labels one as the “baby step” and the other as the “next step”. The dominant discourse may make it seem like SOGI advocacy is coerced into a certain rigid formation with a fixed roadmap, but that is not the case. It just has to simply appear in a form that is coherent enough to be understood, but its contents (I never say “essence” ah, I never say ah!) will be what these advocates want them to be. There is another way to be look at it and be a little bit more optimistic.

Being a subject in a dominant discourse and using the very same logic and rhetoric to subvert its dominance need not necessarily be viewed with pessimism (i.e. your agency is an illusion). Even if we replicated “values” and rhetoric of heterocentrism/normality but achieved a substantial improvement in the lived daily realities of a segment of the LGBT community, I personally see it as a progress.

And if the “progress” of one segment comes at the expense of another – in the form of continued or deeper marginalisation – we should then look at how the replication of these “values” and rhetoric (since we’re moving on the pessimistic post-structuralist track) can pluralistically address their challenges. After all, our “straight” society has proven to be able to handle pluralism by having policies and safe spaces for heterogeneous communities to do what they do.

The romantic in me would say that queerness is beyond the heterocentric tribalism and all its trivial and childish shenanigans, but to gain any ground and momentum, you have to play by the prevailing set of rules. For instance, the PAP imposed the GRC system to ensure its political longevity, but the opposition played by those rules and won a GRC. (Of course, one can also argue that because of PAP’s stringent requirements for political leadership, the WP may well be a subject of the PAP discourse. But we should look at how Singaporeans are served and if things have been “better” too.)

The road to equality regardless of SOGI requires a combination of perspectives:
-          “I don’t care who you are, as long as you do good”
-          “LGBT citizens are citizens too, therefore should have equal rights”
-          “If straight people can marry, gay people too”
-          “I’m straight, and I think homophobia is disgusting”
-          “Stop assigning binary gender!”
-          “The government gives me privileges as a straight person, so I think it is only fair queer people enjoy the same privileges, since they contribute to society too.”
-          “Let’s just gather 20,000 people and form a dot to show they support freedom to love regardless of SOGI”
-          Etc.

Some perspectives have more mainstream traction, others appeal to the radical or the intellectual. Ultimately, we have different people who are able to agree on maybe one or two things, and ask for a change together.

Okay. 2,000 words. I’m done. Stay optimistic. Do good.

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