The Cost of Decentralised LGBT Activism in Singapore

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Credit: Getty Images

After two pandemic years online, the annual LGBT+ event, Pink Dot has come back “in person” to Hong Lim Park. This seems to have been a relief for Pink Dot organisers and supporters; for example, an attendee told TODAY that “It’s not as impactful online, so it’s great to be back”. 

Yet, the past two years of Pink Dot “online” have shown us how COVID-19 has merely accelerated trends that were already underway. Just like almost every other form of activism, LGBT+ advocacy has moved towards broadcasting in today’s social media landscape, and had its narratives enabled, and sometimes even challenged.

How will an increasingly online LGBT+ activism in Singapore develop over time? Like many other movements using social media for amplification, it’s poised to become more decentralised, more extreme and more pervasive.

A Decentralised Event

Pink Dot 2020 and 2021 featured an “online dot,” where people could write messages of support that were visualised as pink dots blanketing the whole of Singapore (and parts of Johor).

Organisers asked people to put up pink fairy lights in their homes or workplaces to show their support. The link to purchase said lights direct from Pink Dot includes an exhortation to light up their homes and offices “for the entire month of June”.

With Pink Dot attendance restricted to Vaccinated Singaporean citizens and PRs, the option of celebrating at home for the whole of “Pride month” seems to make sense. That way, if one is an expatriate living in Singapore, or is away on holiday, or simply feels lazy to brave the hot sticky of Hong Lim Park, they can still further the cause passively by putting pink lights up in the heartlands and their offices since the “personal is political”. In light of these developments, the wisdom of bringing identity politics into shared spaces is now up for debate.

What are the reasonable limits of protest culture in Singapore? Will these developments which emphasise group identities create a more disunified, polarised populace? Why should other movements not likewise jump at the opportunity to use their residential windows, balconies and offices for the sake of cause messaging – no matter how contentious?

More Contradictory and Extreme Expressions

With increasing decentralisation, it will become harder for activist views and sentiments to be moderated. This applies even to those who critique LGBT ideology or those whom Pink Dot disagrees with. Pink Dot, even if it wishes to, simply cannot be responsible for, or manage all online LGBT+ activism.

For example, the increasing online visibility of non-Chinese LGBT+ people has provided another counter-narrative to Pink Dot. The sgbrownqueers Instagram account has vocally critiqued racism in Pink Dot and the wider LGBT+ community. It appears that Pink Dot has taken some of this critique to heart by featuring non-Chinese speakers and anti-racist messaging at Pink Dot 2022.

Not every critique of Pink Dot has been accommodated, however.

Pink Dot tried to “discipline” LGBT+ activism during the “Faghag” incident in 2021 where an LGBT+ community group The Bi Collective strongly objected (warning: vulgarity) to the use of the term by a straight ally Pam Oei in her eponymous theatre show, produced as part of Pink Dot’s Pink Fest programme. Pink Dot reposted activist Alfian Sa’at’s explanation of the term’s acceptability, which was subsequently reported as hate speech and taken down multiple times. The Bi Collective was also allegedly subject to doxxing.

This Bi Collective example illustrates the dynamics of extreme behaviour being more acceptable online, with foul language, censorious attempts to use social media platform regulations to take down posts, and even attempts to reveal or “highlight” a person’s identity considered “fair play”. Unfortunately, social media platforms currently reward this through algorithms that optimise for, or highlight posts or comments that foster “engagement,” even if such engagement comes from malevolent attempts at stoking public anger.

Pride That Never Ends

Companies that change their social media avatars to rainbow-coloured ones just for the month of June have long come under attack for “pink-washing” or paying capitalistic lip-service to LGBT+ liberation. 

Just as Pink Dot is not limited to a single day, with fringe Pink Fest activities and pink light-ups planned for the whole month of June, less visible LGBT+ advocacy continues through the year. One wouldn’t be wrong in articulating disillusionment since every month seems to be pride month. Here is just a smattering of examples –

  • Drag Day (16 Jul)
  • Bi Awareness Week (16-22 Sep)
  • Bi Visibility Day (23 Sep)
  • National Coming Out Day (US, 11 Oct)
  • Trans Awareness Month (Nov)
  • Trans Parent Day (Nov)
  • Transgender Day of Visibility (31 Mar)
  • International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (17 May)

In much the same way that “Pride Month” is now being imported into Singapore, the increasingly online nature of LGBT+ advocacy means that it is easier than ever to use free social media tools to commemorate a day that originated overseas, locally.

Numerous days of commemoration and countless “engaging” posts on LGBT+ issues make Pride a constant, tiring ambient concern.

Algorithmic “engagement” may even serve such posts to demographics that are ignorant of such activism (eg. young children), or who might not appreciate being perpetually bombarded by identity politics – including those who consider themselves LGBT. After all, outrage generates clicks.

So What?

With more decentralisation, extreme views and pervasiveness, we can expect LGBT+ activism in Singapore to become more strident, confrontational and perhaps deal less with the politics of respectability. It may also become less internally consistent as tensions within the community become externalised in the form of public posts and fights.

How this will translate to concrete social change in Singapore remains unclear. Such activism could lead to increasing acceptance, but just as easily lead to more lip-service to avoid confrontation or even greater pushback, fracturing society further.

On one hand, this will likely mean more conflict and messiness, and perhaps fiercer and more direct attacks on people from all sides who express strong opinions on LGBT+ rights and activism. On the other hand, it presents an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the sort of public conversations we want to have about LGBT+ issues – and frankly, any other controversial issue Singapore finds itself grappling with.

While algorithms will continue to serve us reheated outrage, perhaps we can choose our responses better while holding on to our principles. Perhaps we need to genuinely listen to people who seriously disagree with us, so we can articulate genuine objections. 

In the short term, let’s see how Pink Dot and other LGBT activists continue to conduct themselves online. Will they play along with civility, or will LGBT activism devolve into censorious tyranny, just as it has elsewhere?

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