In line with our bimonthly theme, Queer, and in the wake of Pink Dot 2022, SGCR wishes to provide space to local queer activists to share more about their activism efforts and explore the intersections between our causes. We spoke with two queer activists, Sherry, a Malay-Muslim transgender sex worker from sex workers’ rights group Project X, and Lune from the LGBTQ community, about what motivates their activism, the challenges they’ve faced, what they would like to see moving forward, and how climate activists can be allies to their respective communities.
Both Sherry and Lune didn’t start off as activists but were inspired to do so after volunteering with organisations. Sherry, who first started volunteering for Project X around 8 to 9 years ago, says that she had always wanted to ‘correct the stigma and discrimination’ that her clients had about transgender women. After meeting Project X’s Executive Director, Vanessa Ho, during an outreach program, she was offered to come aboard.
“When I first joined Project X, I was in my early 20s and with no prior experience to advocacy or activism…so it’s been a learning experience for me. What I had was only passion and belief that I could make a change for myself and for the community,” she says. “Because I liked whatever Project X is doing, I stayed on for many many years since then. So it's a passion turned to career.”
Lune has been involved in various organisations such as Trans NUS, Transgender SG, tFreedom, Transformative Justice Collective and Students for a Safer NUS amongst others. However, she didn’t start out as a queer activist, and initially went to Pink Dot in 2013 as an ally. Recently however, she has been more involved in local campaigns and organising efforts, including being part of the community tent housing various LGBTQ organisations. She says with a laugh: “I feel like I've seen enough of Pink Dot already lah… for me it's just a place to see friends and recruit people for student groups. [It’s] more like political mobilisation than anything else.”
Entering university was a seminal time for her. When she entered university, she became a co-head of her LGBTQ group (tFreedom) at her residential college. She also founded transNUS for new transgender people entering the university. In 2019, after a spate of sexual harrassment incidents including Monica Baey’s case, she and several other friends created Students For a Safer NUS (SafeNUS) to advocate against sexual violence and take against against the sexual assault cases that were prevalent on campus.
Despite some progress, sex work and LGBTQ topics remain very much on the sidelines of public discourse. Sherry notes that talking about sex work in Singapore is still a taboo topic, although she gamely states that she is up for the challenge of spreading awareness, and this pushes the sex workers at Project X to find more creative ways to do so.
“It took a while…I would say, maybe a few years when I first joined Project X to really get the community to see and believe what Project X does and what’s our aim and goals…as of now, I believe that sex workers have fully understood us,” says Sherry.
Likewise, Lune notes that queer activists face several challenges, as the government has become ‘more hostile’ to activism in Singapore. In general, the university space has also become less conducive to student activism, due to bureaucracy and red tape stifling organic movements.
Still, she noted a positive development recently as transgender students are able to request for changes to their official salutations within the school system (e.g. from ‘Mr’ to ‘Miss’). This was one of the recommendations that transNUS had pushed in a community report. “In terms of policy, [change is] very very slow, very minute, but there has been a bit lah,” she commented.
Adding to these challenges is the fact that both sex work and LGBTQ activism exist at the intersections of other issues. Sherry mentions that sex work activism intersects with societal issues like drug use, mental health, racism, as well as access to justice and healthcare. For instance, she is ineligible to work as a licensed sex worker, as transgender sex workers are not permitted to do so. There also exists a grey area between licensed and unlicensed sex work in Singapore - while prostitution is legal, any form of soliciting clients remains illegal. As shown by the latest case of Titus Low, OnlyFans content creators have to take more precautions to avoid breaking the law. The current legal restrictions on sex work in Singapore have made sex work difficult for the workers here. The legislation paints an unfavourable image of sex work for Singaporeans, which may explain why sex work is still such a taboo topic today.
The situation has also become ‘more precarious’ in general for the transgender community, including its activists, according to Lune. She notes that the closure of a gender health clinic at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) is a stumbling block for the community, as although there will be a new gender clinic at National University of Hospital (NUH), it is uncertain what form this will take, and if the process of getting a referral for hormone replacement therapy remain as accessible for individuals.
With these challenges in mind, we asked both activists about the changes they hope to see in their respective communities. Sherry, who is the Asia-Pacific representative in the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), aspired to see the decriminalisation of all kinds of sex work in the future. However, she is cognisant that this is a ‘big request’ due to the presence of existing licensed brothels in Singapore.
After many years of working at Project X, she acknowledges her views towards what can or should be achieved have changed: “I’m not asking for decriminalisation, what I'm expecting the law to [do is] simply to respect sex workers…I believe it would make the community be more at ease in terms of having a safer working industry, in terms of not having always having negative media portrayals [of sex workers].”
More importantly, she also wants people to realise that not all sex workers are coerced or trafficked into the industry, and that there are sex workers who voluntarily take on the profession. At the end of the day, sex work is what it should be seen as and respected - as a profession like any other.
For Lune, she wants to see more independent organisations and ground-up initiatives. She opines: “With my experiences in NUS, I’m not very fond of groups that collaborate with state agencies and stuff like that. I think they have gotten it completely wrong, actually, to be honest, because like the way they’re going about it, they’re at the mercy of the government and the law and the policymakers. So if they don’t like you, then you’re not going to get anything, it’s as simple as that.”
She also talked about working with IndigNation, and their future plans: “We also want to do more things with regards to…like what happens after [the repeal of Section] 377A…we want to shift the conversation to what happens after the repeal, is this actually a good thing, what other issues are there that are extremely pertinent still?”.
How climate activists can become allies
While environmental advocacy is not new, the youth climate movement in Singapore has only exploded in the past few years. How can climate activists include queer communities and support them in their efforts?
Sherry says that she has done plenty of media interviews, but is not interested in ‘repeating stories again and again’, and wishes to bring in new insights. “Because I always believe in fresh ideas, and to get creative when it comes to collaboration, and not just okay, ‘share our post’, you know, that’s simple but it’s very typical as well. So we organisations or partners should always be more creative when it comes to working together.”
Lune, agreeing with Sherry, said that ‘coalition-building’ and sharing resources between the different groups would be the next step forward, in order to build a ‘broad-based movement’. She argues: “When you form independent organisations and you build power within your communities, it shifts the power over to you, and in that sense you have that power to bargain, you have bargaining power.”
Ultimately, climate activists and queer activists should find a common ground in the causes that we fight for, and leveraging on that would be key to forging such coalitions. And of course, there is nothing more universal than what happens to our planet, as Lune notes:
“In the end, the climate emergency is going to affect trans people also lah (laughs), it’s going to affect everyone. So there’s good reason why most of us should be concerned about this.”
Interviews and writing by Isaac and Pei Qi