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.


Anonymous said...

Completely agree with whatever you have said. The Q&A session felt like a session where the gay women were desperately trying to shout out to people that they're gay, and that people need to pay attention to them. And only to them. If Singam is gender-blind, the gay community (or at least part of it) is gender-extremely-sensitive.

Although to be fair, lesbians have suffered from invisibility, and gays from hyper-visibility. And being the somewhat-oppressed, I guess it's inevitable that we would strike at any opportunity for support from an established organisation.

I hope I dont get slammed for this posting.

vanessa :)

akikonomu said...

The question is... how do we go from here, to building alliances with AWARE and the rest of civil society?

Welcome, Vanessa!