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.


Bryan Choong said...

PinkDot has its merits and limitations. You are most accurate in saying that it pushes for visibility and public awareness. It makes anyone who watched the video, edattend the event and participated in the online discussion feels good with what is going on. It inspires people. And it stops for months before it returns after its organisers evaluate and regroup to do the next one.

For those who works on the other platforms like yourself and myself, we do the different types of outreach. Oogachaga does its work at more intimate level with the communities, many who would never step into PinkDot, sometimes because they are still working on their understanding and acceptance of their own sexuality, but also they feel alienated by an event which they should rightly feel belonged to. It is important for us, as individuals or groups to understand our roles and do what we are best at.

I would like to think that PinkDot and all other groups are playing collaborative roles each year. And like all things in life, we negotiate and re-negotiate our purposes in the movement. We learnt to co-exist, argue and sometimes part without agreement.


Mike said...

Hi Sam, first let me say how much I enjoy your writing, and thank you for this entry. I was at the first Pink Dot, skipped last year's and went to this year's. I have to say that the third edition is vastly different from the first.

It is perhaps more commercial (as you put it), more of a spectacle, more carnival-esque. I've read a lot of the criticism that's out there about Pink Dot and I'm frankly disappointed by it.

I'm really still trying to work out my thoughts on your post (probably too many for me to articulate clearly). I'm not an activist for LGBT rights or publicly vocal about them, as you are. All I am is a gay Singaporean, and this is an important identity to me, something I've fought hard to claim and own. I wonder if you'd feel the same way about Pink Dot if you were gay too.

I hope it doesn't come across like I'm questioning your ability to empathise with gay; I'm not. But as a gay man walking through that crowd at Hong Lim and experiencing the outpouring of openness, goodwill and support, it's an experience that takes my breath away.

Anyway, many thanks again for your work, and best wishes.