16 August 2008

Queer women within feminist Singapore

Part of Singapore's month-long gay pride celebration Indignation 2008, this talk might be its most important event as it best fits this year's theme of Building Bridges. Agagooga has declined to attend the talk due to his antipathy to the idea of feminists, but for the boy who grew up counting Murphy Brown (since 1989), Hillary Rodham Clinton (since 1991), and Ellen Degeneres (since 1994 - I loved the unconventional streak in her even before she came out) as his role models, this is a must-go event.

Ms. Constance Singam, current president of AWARE [Association of Women for Action & Research], Singapore’s leading advocacy group for gender equality, will shed some light on the place of queer women within the feminist movement. Where have we been?

Building bridges is terribly important. As is painfully clear with the years, the LGBT movement does not have much allies in the wider civil society. None vouched for PLU when it made its various attempts at formal registration. None fought alongside its members when they protested against the Liberty League and NPVC. When its NLB/Spell#7 event was pulled out by the NAC, none of the rest of civil society groups featured in the event came to its defense. During the 377A debate, the community could only count on the theatre community for its endorsement as a community, and on AWARE.

For me, this talk held the possibility that the recounting by Ms Singam would provide a guideline, some clues, or a blueprint for the LGBT community to build bridges to the wider civil society.

1. Perhaps I was naive, but only the L part of the community turned out in force. Maybe the men didn't need to learn how to build alliances...

2. Constance Singam made what amounted to a manifesto for civil society today. The statement may have eluded its audience, but I'll repeat it here for posterity (making allowances for imperfect memory and lack of access to the presentation slides):

We are engaged in a project to change the unsatisfactory [limited, intolerant] paradigm of Singapore society, to create a truly diverse, inclusive, and tolerant society

This is a core statement that any liberal civil society group in Singapore can affirm and base their future cooperation and coordination on. A future Singapore that is more likely to accept homosexuality would most probably be as likely to support non-discrimination of women, unfettered citizen participation in policy discourse, and so on.

This statement was the single most important gift Ms Singam gave to the LGBT community in attendance today. What follows is whether they see the point of building strategic alliances and cooperating with other groups on projects where their values and interests overlap, and standing up for other groups - even if it's not on an explicitly LGBT issue.

Questions and Answers

The Q&A session provided a clear picture of where the LGBT movement and AWARE stand, in relation to each other.

3. Classic feminism vs identity politics

Singam formulated AWARE's fundamental ethic as the support of diversity and rejection of all discrimination. That means supporting all women - regardless of race, age, class, gender orientation, and what have you.

Most interestingly, the response from the audience was to question the fairness of this adherence to "general diversity" - as I understand it, they wanted AWARE to
have lesbian-specific programmes and be explicitly pro-lesbian - because being just "pro general diversity" is apparently as good as being heteronormative.

I think I need to point out, on behalf of Singam, that look: AWARE is bound to serve ALL women. Its pro general diversity stand should be a guarantee that it will NEVER have an anti-lesbian agenda, and that the policies it champions will at least make Singapore better to live in, for the FEMALE part of any lesbian person.

Which brings me to the next observation: 4. AWARE is not the gahment.

The overall impression from all the beseeching of the audience was that they wanted AWARE to spoonfeed the LGBT community with all the answers [i.e. come out with explicitly in support of LGBT issues, formulate pro-lesbian policy recommendations, etc].

Unfortunately, this is not how civil society works. Every group has limited capital and manpower. Every group needs to have a clear set of objectives that mustn't be diluted. AWARE is your ally, not your maid. Their charter is to serve all women, without distinction. Without. Distinction.

In other words: there will be times when AWARE's goals and interests will overlap, intersect with the LBGT community's. That will be an opportunity to collaborate. And this is why they must be counted as allies in the wider civil society.

Further, it's troubling that the LGBT activists (whom Singam believes are more well-funded than AWARE) expect AWARE to do the spoonfeeding and heavy lifting for the community... when AWARE itself is direly short of funds and is probably overextended on the manpower front.

5. AWARE is not the oppressor of lesbians

I'm saddened that this point has to be made. Yes, AWARE's membership has lots of lesbians. That these lesbians have not deemed it necessary to declare their orientation, is not a BAD thing nor indicative of something rotten within the organisation.

A. AWARE's activist culture is general diversity. I take it to mean that they're a bunch of race-blind, age-blind, gender-blind people who would of course not see sexuality as something they should divide women with.

[I know it sounds weird, but what was Singam's idea of an ideal Singaporean man again? As I recall, Singam feels the ideal Singaporean man is the same as the ideal Singaporean woman; and that men can be just as feminist as women can be. In other words, AWARE's second-wave inclusive liberal feminism is completely at odds with the exclusive identity-based activism of latter-day activist movements]

B. LGBT activists in Singapore should be aware that there are gay and lesbian people who would very much prefer to dedicate themselves to other causes, or to swear allegiance to other, more general ideals like the betterment of all women, or to the liberal project. And that this isn't a wrong decision. Because in the end, everyone will still end up collaborating once in a while in the shared liberal project to change/subvert the dominant paradigm.

14 August 2008

Brain surgery - what's inside the heads of homophobes?

Part of Singapore's month-long gay pride celebration Indignation 2008, the eponymous talk attracted the attention and interest of Agagooga and myself. [Yes, we attended the talk together and I typed the notes on his laptop - happy picture of us live-blogging (or note-taking, as it turned out that 72-13 had no wireless@sg network) at event to come, courtesy of the official photographers from Sayoni].

Brain surgery - what’s inside the heads of homophobes? AnJ Ho will take you inside homophobia, to find out from the perspective of research: What constitutes homophobia? What’s the profile of a typical homophobe like, and what might make a difference?

There are several possibilities that suggest themselves from a title like this: as Agagooga points out in his blog post, it is highly provocative:

try turning it around: "Brain surgery - what's inside the heads of homosexuals". Surely, such an event would be labelled homophobic sooner than you could say "rim me now". Given that the theme of the festival is "Building Bridges: Indignation 2008", the title was especially puzzling.

To me, the title raised the possibility that the talk would about giving people who have negative attitudes towards homosexuality a bad name, and/or possibly raising up strawmen arguments of people unaccepting of homosexual (the aforesaid "homophobes").

As Agagooga points out, thanks to the saner heads of Sayoni and its event speaker AnJ, the worst of our fears did not come to pass. This is my report on the talk.

1. The psychological construction of homophobia

We were relieved that the talk consisted of a literature review of homophobia from the psychological perspective, and AnJ was more than qualified and trained to conduct this talk.

That said, being scientific wasn't really a guarantee against the potential pitfalls of the title of the talk: the study of homophobia by psychologists is apparently a new field, and a working definition of 'homophobia' (currently defined as a score in the Wright, Adams, and Bernat Homophobia Scale), hasn't been agreed on by the experts in the field - who are still in the process of fine-tuning their methodology.

Second warning sign: other researchers in this field have acknowledged that homophobia isn't even a real (clinical) 'phobia'. For simplicity's sake, we know that personal and public acceptance of homosexuality runs along a scale, but 'homophobe studies' makes the leap into turning a emotion-leaden phrase (homophobe) into... a subject of study.

Third warning sign: Sociologists of medicine and those familiar with Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic will recognise with discomfort from AnJ's overview of current Abnormal Psych research, the all too familiar strategy of grand medical science: the creation of a clinical scale for a brand new phenomena (homophobia); of a field of knowledge, with objects of knowledge, subjected to a medical gaze that asks: What are the answers a good (nonhomophobic) person should conform to and report?

Presumably anyone who disapproves of homosexuality in any way could be labelled as a diseased and unnatural "homophobe".

Of course this is highly problematic: More than a century ago, the psychological profession used a set of methods, strategy, and rhetoric to classify homosexuality as a condition; today, the psychological profession uses the same methods etc. to create new 'abnormalities of human psychology' to include "internet addiction" and now... homophobia.

I have no doubts that the researchers cited by AnJ were acting in the purest of motives - yet the studies cited are extremely troubling, and Agagooga raises doubts of the assumptions and methodology of the experiments carried out in "Homophobia and physical aggression toward homosexual and heterosexual individuals", as well as the validity of the questions used in the WAB scale, which I do not have anything new to add.

An interesting note about the alternate "functional theory" of homophobia - more time should have been spent to explain what's a functional theory and how this one differs from the rest of the night's offerings. My personal analysis of the slide: functional theory approach may explain 'homophobia' as a manifestation of boundary maintenance behaviour, but does not explain why it takes the form of homophobia specifically - this may mean homophobia is not a special condition and homosexuals aren't all that special - they're just being discriminated against like any other minority and out-group.

2. Profiling the homophobe

While other social scientists (notably Ronald Inglehart and his World Values Survey) have confirmed the correlation between lower acceptance of homosexuality with religion, age and education, I fail to see the wisdom in launching from this fact into a hatchet job on "conservatism", which the speaker blamed for the ills of racism, classicism, sexism, intolerance, inequality and authoritarianism.

Here's your history lesson of the day: the suffragette movement only gained traction when Susan B Anthony got the conservatives on board; the abolition movement was very much the effort of very religious people; the "solid (racist) South" used to be the province of liberal Democrats before they crossed party lines to join the Republicans. Last I heard, authoritarianism isn't the sole province of the conservative right.

This particular section of the talk was thankfully short, taking only paltry 3 slides of a total of about 20, and being the 3 of the slightest slides of the presentation. That the speaker got sufficiently carried away to raise the hatchet on conservatism or blame homophobia (note: not the same as 'low acceptance of homosexuality') on people being older, less educated, and therefore unenlightened... tsk.

3. Breaking news: Everyone's a little bit racist (should we pathologise them too?)

Lest readers think I'm being unfair to the speaker, allow me to report some of the Q&A responses from the floor: Several audience members told several anecdotes highlighting the point that LGBTs themselves make disparaging remarks about each other that straight people would be labelled homophobes if caught using.

A member of the audience also pointed out/weakly objected to the apparent rush to medicalise/pathologise homophobia as a condition.

I'm not sure if the speaker got the import of what these audience members were hinting. The dialogue that would have resulted would have served to clear up questions about the assumptions of homophobia studies for everyone, including Agagooga and myself.

4. Conclusion: Eye for an eye makes the world go blind: How not to build bridges

If the psychological profession used to create a homosexual subject, criminalise and pathologise 'homosexuality', it appears that the same profession is now being used to create a homophobic subject, to criminalise and pathologise 'homophobia'.

I'm flabbergasted. I don't get it. According to the banner on Sayoni, Indignation 2008 is dedicated to "Building Bridges". I don't get how this talk builds bridges, and who it will build any bridges with, given it ultimately did end up being about giving people who have negative attitudes towards homosexuality a bad name.

As a talk, it has succeeded in giving a fair overview of current research in the field of abnormal psychology, as well as avoid creating strawmen arguments for the opposition, but failed in the sense that:

99.9% of the audience already know how the opposition behaves, what they tend to say about the acceptance of homosexuality, and how to spot the opposition a mile off.

While interesting to know what motivates opponents of homosexual acceptance, the talk failed to develop strategies of building bridges and civil engagement with them.

While glib and entertaining, the stereotyping of 'homophobes' failed to suggest a way to divide and conquer, or to handle them.

If the speaker had prepared by searching for studies about acceptance/non-acceptance of homosexuality instead of homophobia (thanks, Alex Au, for sabotaging AnJ with just one line of advice!), and taken a far wider interdisciplinary perspective, it could have been a truly well-researched and informative talk.

Instead of building bridges, the talk ultimately did to 'homophobes' what had been done upon to LGBT; and embraced the eye for an eye logic of its title. That Alex Au persuaded AnJ to change the title of her talk to this is proof enough of its disturbing, incendiary logic.

Evidently several audience members got the dog-whistle too, and were infected with it: possessing a laptop on which we used to type notes during the talk, an audience member was jittery enough to mistake us for Christian fundies out to sabotage/picket the talk, and pointedly asked if "the two gentlemen in the corner [that is, myself and Agagooga] are from a religious organisation". I suppose that when you give your talk a name like that, people from the religious organisations will want to crash and picket your talk. Ergo: How does this build bridges?

Never mind that Agagooga and myself are natural allies of the LGBT community - Agagooga having been flamed and threatened by Christian fundies, while I have declared my opposition to the National Council of Christian Ayatollahs Singapore - if the two gentlemen had been any other blogger (aka "potential liberal ally") than Agagooga and myself, that one statement from the audience member would have cost the community our support, right there and then.

Again: By giving this talk such a name that somehow signals to audience members of possible 'enemy participants' and heightening their paranoia, how does this build bridges?

I'd disagree vehemently and gladly debate with anyone subscribing to stupid conceptions of homosexuality, but I'd defend their right to believe in such nonsense - rather than try to get them institutionalised, pathologised, marginalised out of the conversation and labelled as 'abnormal'.

Unlike Agagooga, I intend to attend more Indignation events, namely Queer Women within Feminist Singapore, on Saturday.