Living as an LGBTQIA+ individual is fabulous, but it isn’t always easy. British Vogue shared that according to a 2018 Stonewall study, “41 per cent of trans people have experienced violence and harassment in the past 12 months in the UK, meanwhile around 36 per cent of young queer students experience discrimination from university staff. Hate crimes are still being underreported, with estimates by The Trevor Project showing that numbers for victims of hate crimes could be as high as 72 per cent of adolescents in the past 12 months in the US. But most alarmingly, suicide rates among the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise, particularly among young people of colour.”
In Singapore, the 2021 Pink Carpet Y Cohort Study revealed that 58.9 per cent of 50 participants reported ever contemplating suicide, whereas 14.2 per cent had ever attempted suicide. This study is focused on experienced homophobia and suicidal ideation or suicide attempts among young GBTQ men in Singapore, and suggests that there is oppression, discrimination, and aggression towards the LGBTQIA+ community still exists. The common denominator behind this reaction is shame.
Though there are more open conversations surrounding the subject thanks to social media and movements such as PinkDot, the full acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t exactly there yet. We still see negative media portrayal of LGBTQIA+ on local screens. If it isn’t a caricature of an over the top hyper feminine male who brings comic relief to a scene (oftentimes a minor role, might we add), it’s the tired trope of a pervert with ill intentions. There have also been news headlines that suggest that there is no discrimination in housing, employment, and education in our system. Yet public discussions fronted by frustrated LGBTQIA+ individuals online seem to demonstrate otherwise.
Thankfully, there have been support groups that offer help to LGBTQIA+ individuals who are having trouble dealing with gender identity issues or coming to terms with their sexuality. Such include Oogachaga, Pelangi Pride Centre, Sayoni and TransgenderSG, among many others. Those who turn to substance abuse to cope can reach out to The Greenhouse to turn your lives around for the better. This way, nobody has to suffer silently in shame anymore while you find your way through life.
Vogue Singapore reached out to four local advocates who shared their experiences growing up as an LGBTQIA+ individual in Singapore, and how they hope to make society a safer place for everyone to live in. Remember, if you’re having issues coming to terms with your gender identity or sexual orientation, you’re not alone. Help is always around the corner.
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Rayner Tan, 33, researcher and postdoctoral fellow at University of North Carolina, Project-China
“While I was growing up, I was taught that being gay was wrong. Because of that, I developed a deep sense of shame around my sexual orientation which deepened over time. As much as I wanted religion to help, it made me feel even worse because I had this idea that I was unable to be what I thought God wanted me to be.
“This self-loathing feeling festered in my adolescence. It didn’t help that on top of all that, I was also bullied for my body weight and my mild Tourette’s syndrome. The thing about internalised shame is that you’ll feel like you couldn’t trust anyone with your issues. Because there was little to no awareness about subject matters such as mental health or LQBTQIA+ matters back then, helplines and supports groups were almost non-existent.
“I dealt with that by focusing on improving my outsides. I excelled in school and at work, got physically fit, and climbed the social ladder. I later found myself dabbling with substance abuse, and that’s when my life went downhill. I sought treatment and went to rehab at 24 and it was then that I realised that I was overcompensating for my insecurities surrounding my sexuality this whole time. I decided that I wanted to use this experience to help the LGBTQIA+ community. I went back to school and went down a path of research. There, I learned that what I had experienced wasn’t just a personal trouble, but rather a reflection of larger issues around the lack of support for LGBTQIA+ individuals, and a heavy air of stigma and discrimination.
“I think youth suicide, especially among LGBTQIA+ youth, is and will be an issue for as long as stigma and discrimination exist. Being able to have the right resources within the LGBTQIA+ community, government partners, and policies that prevent suicide (and not just deal with suicidal behaviors when they happen) are urgently needed. I am more hopeful today, especially now that we are willing to talk more and publicly around the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQIA+ people in Singapore face. I am a firm believer that ‘communities know best’, and so I think seeing how community groups have grown over the years, serving as safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ individuals and offering professional services ‘for the community and by the community’, has been the most heartening. I do believe that compassion and love for others cannot come without compassion and love for oneself—so I think the community as a whole can stand to collectively heal, listen, and grow together.”
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Salome Blaque, 31, creative, drag queen and founder of WigsBySalome
“We know what society is like. Anything different and unusual will spark fear and confusion, rather than openness to understanding. So growing up as a queer, brown, chubby, femme-presenting person, I definitely received more hate than love—especially here in Singapore.
“Whether it’s verbal or physical, bullying hurts. But it has always been in my personality to fight and not allow these instances to get to me. In fact, all the bullying I went through taught me how to be a fighter. Deep inside, I learned to love myself more rather than beat myself up for being who I am. There weren’t a lot of resources for support while I was growing up, but I found comfort and a sense of belonging in the creative community. So I can’t imagine what the struggle is like for someone who’s living by societal standards, suppressing their true identity as an LGBTQIA+ while going to business school or teaching Math in a classroom pretending to be ‘normal’.
“The good thing is, a lot has evolved over the years here in Singapore. Now when you type in Google’s search engine, you’ll find numerous support groups and organisations that offer help to people who are struggling across the board, whether it’s sex workers, students, trans individuals and even your average person alike. Even shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Watch Out For The Big Grrrls, have encouraged visibility for people like myself through media, and put us in a positive light, rather than sad, disease-stricken social outcasts. There’s also a lot of conversation on social media platforms that offer clarity to educate the public about the LGBTQIA+ community.
“A lot has changed, but more can be done, like repealing 377A for a start. There are also laws that continue to make the LGBTQIA+ feel like they’re not deserving of a ‘normal’ life. And let’s not forget that misogyny still exists within the community, which I find very strange. I’m grateful for all the support I’ve had, but I do hope that we can do more to help those who still feel underrepresented in the community. Because nobody needs to suffer for being their true, authentic selves.”
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Rosie McGowan, 38, applied theatre practitioner and freelance counsellor at rosiemcg.com
“Growing up, I didn’t have much issues accepting who I was. I studied in an all-girls school, and my sister was supportive of who I am. But through work and interactions with people, I realised that not everyone is that fortunate.
“A lot of LGBTQIA+ people experience mental health issues surrounding their sexual orientation and gender identity because of shame. Toxic shame, to be precise, is where the shame has nowhere to be talked about, explored or processed. Shame tells me that I am bad, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me. If I am bad, then perhaps I internalise that and constantly feel the need to prove that I’m good/right/perfect. That’s where anxiety comes up. Similarly, when I internalise that as I’m the worst person ever, or feel low because I’m made to feel like I’m ‘less than’—that’s where depression comes in. Or perhaps, I externalise that something is fundamentally wrong with me and it manifests when I rage at my parents/friends/partner.
“Obviously, I have massively simplified larger matters at hand because there’s so much more going on in our lives that contribute to these feelings and mental health issues. For example, how is one supposed to feel when they’re told by the highest powers that be, that my attraction to certain people is illegal, wrong, overtly punishable by law or covertly punishable by not allowing me a basic right like a home? That will trickle down to how my bosses treat me in the office. Imagine going to work and being afraid of getting fired for just being gay. And imagine gay children being taunted in school or being taught by parents that being gay is wrong. Everywhere a gay person turns, they’re being shamed for just existing. Now, can you imagine what it’s like for those people who are grappling with their gender identities?
“The good thing is that today, LGBTQIA+-friendly resources for help has grown so much over the years. At PinkDot this year, I noticed that there are so many groups that cater to so many communities within the LGBTQIA+ community, and that they offer so many different forms of support. And as someone who is terrible at finding out information online, I thought that it’s amazing that you can easily find support through different sites and communities on the internet today.
“That said, I do feel like Singapore as a system can do more in supporting the community. For a country that prides itself on being number one and so efficient, we are so slow to look after and protect the LGBTQIA+ community. Laws still exist that fundamentally tell LGBTQIA+ people they are not deserving of children, houses, government support, the right to be themselves and be safe.
“Through my work as a counsellor, I wanted to create a safe space where people can be themselves. With youths, I wanted to see the possibility that can be created when they have that space. People need a sense of safety to fully come into who they are. Shame can really harm a person. It’s when people internalise that shame that you have repercussions like increased suicides, self-harm, drug use, eating disorders, trauma, high risk-taking behaviour, because at the heart of it, people feel less-than. There is nothing wrong with being L, G, B, T, Q, I, A or +.”
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Harris Zaidi, 49, director and brand curator at Arte Oro Personal Jewelers
“I went to an all-boys school. So during my formative years, I had this bunch of fierce senior queens that I looked up to. They were in positions of authority, brought home the gold medals, and they excelled in their studies, so there was no shame associated with being gay. I also found my ‘tribe’ early, so I didn’t feel the need to keep any ‘deep, dark secrets’ from my peers. So coming out wasn’t a challenge for me.
“That said, I can assure you that there were almost no helplines available for LGBTQIA+ individuals who were struggling with their identities and orientation while I was growing up. It just wasn’t something that was openly talked about. So I’ve met people who struggled with that because of different circumstances. Their stories mostly start at home, and it’s usually influenced by religion, society, or simply lack of understanding by their family members. These people were afraid of being disowned, and the idea of being discriminated against by their own family members was just not something that is easy to digest. These stories still go on till this day amongst the youth, and I think it’s important to continue having open conversations regarding the matter.
“I don’t think the government has done enough to support the LGBTQIA+ community because of the trickle down effect of 377A. Most, if not all of us, who are in PinkDot and the LGBTQIA+ community, have survived to a point where we don’t want youths to grow up the way we did. It is important for us to break down this law because we don’t want LGBTQIA+ kids growing up thinking that it’s a crime to be their authentic selves. And it’s almost as if it’s giving non-LGBTQIA+ the right to see us as criminals or perverts just for being who we are, when we’re really not. There’s no need to shame us for something that isn’t even true.
“I would like to encourage the youths to speak up and take the initiative to seek help, if they find themselves grappling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. It never helps to isolate yourselves or have a victim mentality. It’s not easy for some, but you need to remember to be your own hero, and there is always someone around the corner who can help you come to terms with yourself.”