The Fight for All


by Lee Wan Yii, Change Maker 

If you’ve been following recent celebrity news, you would have noticed the huge uproar over a portion of Patricia Arquette’s backstage speech after the Oscars (watch 2:16 to 2:36). In feminist circles, the word “intersectionality” is thrown around a lot, and this recent controversy has the brought the word into light a lot more. Everyone’s asking for intersectional feminism to be brought to the table and for us to fight for “all women”.

But just what is intersectionality? I think this is a great teachable moment for everyone about the topic, and what we should do about it.

What It Is

image 3 (1)Let’s first break down Arquette’s exact words to understand exactly why they were so controversial:

So the truth is, even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America, right under the surface, there are huge issues that are applied that really do affect women. And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Arquette seems to have her heart in the right place – she’s calling out the pervasive problem of gender inequality, and is calling for people to help empower women and level the playing field (earlier on, she was addressing the specific issue of wage inequality between men and women). She’s saying loud and clear that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, because it’s not okay for men to have a systemically sexist advantage over women. Shouldn’t feminists applaud that rallying call rather than tear her down for it?

I think there are a some problems with her statement, which reveal that as she fights sexism in her own way, she still has clear misconceptions about racism and LGBTQA+ issues. Her statement suggests:

  1. That the groups “women”, “men that love women”, “gay people”, and “people of colour” are all separate categories of people, instead of possibly overlapping aspects of identities. (For one, there are many queer women of colour out there!)
  2. That the fight for “all the gay people” and “all the people of colour” is separate from and less important than the fight for women.
  3. That the former two are over or close to over, while the fight for women is not.
  4. That women have been involved in fighting for “all the gay people” and “all the people of colour”, and so the latter two groups somehow owe/are in debt to women for their progress.

Her seemingly harmless statement ignores some basic realities about people, identity, and the fight for social justice. When she says “we”, she doesn’t seem to be referring to all women – she seems to be referring to a specific group of women: namely white, heterosexual women. And so this begs the question: what about everyone else?

Here’s where intersectionality comes in!

The term refers to the connections between forms of oppression or discrimination. In every system of oppression, there is a group that is disadvantaged based on their identity (e.g. women being discriminated against because of their gender), while there is another group that is privileged based on their identity. And because people have many aspects to their identities (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation, class, and other identity markers), each individual’s experience in society turns out to be unique.

For example, someone may identify as a female – but beyond that, she would also identify with a race, belong to a certain socioeconomic class, and fall into many other social categories and systems. She may be privileged due to how she identifies in some ways, and oppressed due to others.

Therefore, intersectionality recognises the following:

  1. Everyone has many different parts to their identities.
  2. Everyone is somehow privileged/disadvantaged by various systems of discrimination, e.g. racism, sexism, LGBTQA+ discrimination, ableism, etc., in different ways.
  3. We don’t want to make various social justice causes mutually exclusive, or reinforce some forms of oppressions while combatting others.
  4. We don’t want to force people to choose between different parts of their identity. (Would a woman of colour have to say, “Let’s pause the fight against racism to help women get equal pay!” in response to Arquette?)

And so an intersectional feminist would say, “All women of all backgrounds are victims of gender inequality, and so we’re going to fight for and with all of them, without disregarding, or worse, reinforcing, any other forms of oppression!”

image 2What to Do

Intersectionality applies to everyone, and all social justice causes should be taken up in light of it.

If we wish to strive for gender equality, then we have to acknowledge that the journey is intertwined with other goals of breaking down racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia and more. Being a feminist means fighting for gender equality for all people. When we aim to eliminate gender-based violence, we are aiming to do so for everyone, including (if not especially) for those who suffer as a result of other forms of oppression as well.

One important step everyone can take is to understand and check privilege.

I identify as female. At the same time, I enjoy Chinese and cisgender privilege in Singapore. And so, I understand that while I can empathise with the oppression women experience due to sexism in society, my experience is limited when it comes to other forms of marginalisation. While knowing this, I hope to engage everyone in feminist dialogue and listen to them when they speak rather than speaking over them when it is beyond my experience to do so. Even with a nonabrasive personality, I try to call out insensitive remarks among my peers as much as possible. And I also hope for my peers to check me whenever I do or say anything that reinforces stigma or oppression, which helps steer my path towards understanding and changing my place in society.

This leads me to my second point on empathy.

It is difficult to fully understand certain kinds of marginalisation if we are not ourselves the victims of them. Our deepest empathy has limits. But is it the attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of others and remind ourselves of the struggles of fellow human beings which allows for a broad, intersectionalist fight for all. Contrary to some misconception, understanding intersectionality helps us be more inclusive, kind, understanding, and powerful as we tread the path towards equality.

And this empathetic effort extends to everyone, including people like Arquette. Sometimes we do need to ask whether it is productive to immediately hurl vitriol at them, or point out the effects of their words and actions in an honest, effective dialogue. The latter is possible if her heart truly comes from a well-meaning place.

As I personally find out how to best combat gender inequality and gender-based violence, I am searching for the path that is most progressive, effective, and inclusive. Showing an understanding of intersectionality and acting on it is one big step along that path.

About the Author: Lee Wan Yii is a student waiting to enter university, and is now spending her free time knitting, brushing up on her French, getting her license, learning Kapap, and writing, among other things. She enjoys good music as much as she enjoys good conversation.



Gender Stereotypes We’d Like To Get Rid Of

The following quotes were collected for the unpublished We Can! magazine, now published for the We Can! blog. 

I wish people would stop thinking that guys should be really into physical ability, whether in real life or in the media. Am I supposed to feel bad because I don’t want to spend as much time in the gym as others do, or because I can’t run in circles as fast as other people? I don’t want to “be a man” and hit the weights with you!

– Alvin, 21

People (usually relatives) like to ask, “Do you have a boyfriend?” When you answer in the negative, they always give you a sceptical look, or ask again teasingly. Why can’t it be that a girl has other priorities?

– Melissa, 22

A stereotype I would like to get rid of is that guys cannot participate in so-called “feminine” activities such as dancing. I think dance is a way of expressing oneself and it should not be classified as either “male” or “female.”

– Edmil, 16

There is an expectation for women to obey the “head of the household” in the family, who is usually either her father or husband. This should change as it takes away a woman’s right to make decisions on her own.

– Wan Jing, 20

The gender stereotype that I find the most annoying is how guys are expected to be emotionally stoic and “man up” when encountering difficulties – as if having or showing emotion is a bad thing.

– John, 22

I don’t like the fact that people think I am bad at cooking just because I am a boy. My relatives expect my sister to cook and do the dishes and would prefer me to be doing odd jobs around the house, but I enjoy cooking and I’m pretty good at it!

– Anand, 20

A stereotype I wish did not exist is that women don’t have to achieve as much as their male counterparts. We start to expect less of ourselves and send the message that women don’t deserve equal support and opportunities.

– Genevieve, 22

I wanted to study Literature at university, but for some reason my friends and family accused me of being “girly” because I didn’t want to go into Maths or Engineering. I went through a hard time before finally applying for English.

– Harith, 24

I hate the misconception that women are somehow more emotional than men and that we are better at coping with sentiments like love or grief. I hate it when my feelings are dismissed because I’m a girl.

– Nehmat, 19


For The Young Men Who Love Women

By Robert Bivouac, Change Maker

Don’t be that guy. You know, the guy who hangs around women, doing things for them, because they’re pretty and he’d like to go out with them. The guy who holds doors open, offers to do homework, always ends his texts with a “☺” or “;)” or “hahahaha lol” because that’s not nice, that’s just creepy. Doesn’t mean you can’t be nice to people; don’t be daft. Just don’t be nice to them because you want to have sex with them.

Don’t be that guy. You might’ve seen him before, the guy who doesn’t put any effort into his presentation and wonders why women don’t like him. Also, don’t be that other guy. I’m talking about that guy who goes to the gym, who drinks several different kinds of shake every day, even though he’d rather be at home or doing something else, just to look attractive to women. Look, you have every right to dress the way you want to. You can do whatever you want with your body. You can keep a neckbeard if you want to. You can get ridiculously bulked up if you want to. If you’re doing it for yourself, that’s fine. If you want to look attractive to women, that’s also fine. Nobody gets to judge you. Don’t feel like you have to look attractive, or that you ought to be attractive regardless of what you look like, though. You don’t deserve a partner, and you don’t need one. Get comfortable with your body. Do what you want to.

Don’t be that guy. As in, that guy who looks for tricks to pick women up. Yes, it’s tempting to think some dude has things figured out, that he understands women better than you do and knows how to get them to have sex with you. It’s reassuring to have something to fall back on, to blame your failure on not being skilled enough at the “game” instead of not being attractive, but when the “game” involves harassing and assaulting women it’s not something you should be training to do. Besides, women aren’t simple. Nobody’s that simple. Understand people, as a whole and as individuals.

Don’t be that guy. Like, that guy who doesn’t take no for an answer. The guy who calls at women in public places, on public transport, and gets mad when they don’t respond the way he wants them to. The guy who doesn’t want to hear “no”, and so waits until his target is too drunk, or high, to say “no”. The guy who keeps pushing until “no” becomes “yes”. Respect the “no”, and move on. Everything must be built on consent.

And lastly, don’t be that guy. Don’t be that guy who believes his main goal in life is to get into a relationship, or have sex with as many women as possible. The guy who wants a happy ending, who maybe watched too many movies as a kid and thinks his life is a fairytale, who feels like he needs to be in love or having sex. No, you don’t. Love is fun, sex is fun, but it’s not necessary. People don’t exist to be loved. They don’t exist to have sex. They just exist. That goes for you, and it goes for everyone else too. Get a hobby, find some friends.

For the young men who love women: don’t be those guys.

About the Author: Robert Bivouac is a 20-year-old writer and spoken word poet from Singapore. He enjoys Singaporean food, music and literature, and lives mostly on the internet where he pretends to be cool.

This article was edited on 23 June 2017.


Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Violence

The following article was written by a Change Maker for the unpublished We Can! magazine, now re-published for the We Can! blog. 

stereotypes Everyone laughs at jokes about PMS, Sarong Party Girls, and gu niangs. Birthday gifts to boys – trucks, trains and soldiers – come in blue, while girls are given dolls and kitchen sets wrapped in pink. A guy raking up sexual conquests under his belt is an enviable stud, yet a girl who does the same is a cheap slut.

What does any of this have to do with violence against women?

For most part, we let these stereotypes slide as jokes or convenient ways of classifying people. Yet those who accept gender stereotypes are more likely to be the perpetrators – as well as victims – of sexual violence. Why? At the heart of these stereotypes lie messages of male superiority and entitlement, and conversely those of female inferiority and subservience.

Let’s break down some examples. Trivialising a woman’s emotions, especially anger or sadness, as “just PMS” enforces the idea that women are naturally worse at decision-making than men, and conversely, that men are always level-headed and unsentimental. Calling a man who’s physically weaker a “gu niang” or “girl” reflects how we view women as weak and incompetent, such that for a man to be seen as one is to have failed. Bad-mouthing women who enjoy male attention or aren’t ashamed of their sexuality by referring to them as “SPGs” and “sluts” means agreeing that women who have sexual relations on their own terms are airheaded or debauched. Men, on the other hand, are largely able to dictate when, where and with whom sex happens without their virtue or intelligence being called into question.

Gender stereotypes inform our (mis)conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Based on these beliefs, we come to define manhood as being dominant, macho, and sexually aggressive. We define womanhood as being cautious, modest, and gentle; women who fall short of this are “bad girls” who deserve trouble.

stereotypes2These broad and often unquestioned ideas of what makes a “man” or a “woman” – some of which we may not even be aware we hold – in turn contribute to sexual violence. A boy forces himself on a girl because he has grown up learning that “real men” are forceful and always get what they want, while women don’t really know what they want or are taught not to express it. A girl who likes to drink and dance is immediately read as promiscuous, and her behaviour is taken as consent to sexual intercourse.

It is not true that men are aggressors and women victims by default: men, too, are vulnerable to abuse. Male victims face difficulties speaking out, being believed, and finding help in large part because of the expectation that men are to be stoic and strong. Women make up the bulk of victims because as a group, they are vulnerable in the same way that certain other sections of society – such as the elderly, children, ethnic minorities, and migrants – are also more susceptible to violence and exploitation. These groups are not given as loud a voice as other, more powerful groups are. Discrimination and violence, whether individual or systemic, often come from the same roots: the strong trying to control the weak.

We are socialised into gender stereotypes, not born into them. They do not have to shape the way we treat people or ourselves. By recognising that gender stereotypes box people – including ourselves – in harmful ways, we make the first steps towards equal, violence-free relationships with the people around us.


The Art of Growing Up

by Lishani Ramanayake, Change Maker and Body/Language creative writing workshop participant

Here’s an urban myth-
If your second toe is longer than your first,
you’ll be a dominating wife.
When you are 12, your grandmother will tell you that when a nice doctor with a car and a house
comes looking for your hand,
Your sari should always cover your feet,
because who wants a wife that will tell you what to do?
This will be the first time they teach you womanhood.

When you are 13, your aunt will tell you to eat less,
That cute boys don’t date fat girls,
That there are a 100 calories in a banana,
That you are unpretty until told otherwise.

When you are 14, your English teacher will tell you that he’d like to see your hips in a sari,
You will want to take your thick anthology of poems by Rudyard Kipling
And shove it down his throat
As if doing so will erase the indelible mark he left on you
As if doing so means that you can drape silk on skin and not have it feel like an unwelcome touch
As if doing so means you will forget
But instead, you will smile and glance away, uncomfortable, apologetic, because good little
Ceylonese girls are always meant to be seen and not heard.

When you are 15, your mother will tell you not to cut your hair,
Do not listen.
When she says that girls should have two tight braids hanging down the length of their spine as
they sit straight, legs crossed at the ankles like the ladies they- YOU- are supposed to be,
Do not listen.
Cut your hair. Run with scissors in your hand. Do not listen.
When you are 16, you will meet a boy
with eyes the colour of a bleeding sky and a smile that tastes like Sunday mornings.
You will think you’re in love.

When you are 17, don’t do it.
When he tries to take your shirt off instead of teaching you how to drive,
Don’t do it.
When he says you’ll do it if you love him,
Don’t do it.
When he breaks up with you, you will feel like cutting out every part of you he’s ever touched
As if salvation can come from the sweet kiss of a razor blade,
As if bleeding your veins dry will take away whatever is left of him inside you,
Don’t do it.

When you are 18,
You will think you have the whole world figured out,
You’ll think you fit in their boxes,
You won’t fit in their boxes,
Fuck their boxes,
Make your own box,
Make your own circle if you have to.

About the Author: Lishani Ramanayake hails from Sri Lanka, but has made Singapore her adopted home. She has been many things- an imaginary pirate, a tree climber, a freelance journalist, and an undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.



The scourge of cyber harassment

By Kimberly Lim, Change Maker

According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of adults had witnessed some form of cyber harassment in 2014 alone. Widespread cyber harassment has prompted individuals like Monica Lewinsky to commit themselves to ending cyber bullying. However, the issue of cyber harassment is multifaceted and women are disproportionately the victims of cyber-harassment.huffpost

1.  Stalking

Perhaps one of the most well-known forms of cyber harassment is stalking. Today, personal information like email addresses and photographs is easily accessible online. It is also possible to obtain private information illegally through hacking, as seen from the recent leak of nude celebrity photographs on the imageboard 4chan. But more than often, it is not celebrities, but ordinary people who are targeted—one of the most famous cases is that of Randi Barber in the 1990s, whose stalker revealed her home address on sex chat lines and online advertisements, putting her in danger. Such stories are no longer uncommon in today’s context, as seen from movies like “Cyber Stalker”, where protagonist Aiden Ashley’s online stalker broke into her home.

2.  Slut-shaming

know your memeIncreasingly, the proliferation of social media and the ability to hide behind anonymity have fuelled malicious attacks on individuals perceived as sexually promiscuous. In 2013, the hashtag #slanegirl was particularly infamous, as Twitter users collectively denounced a girl caught performing oral sex at a concert venue, with some even going to the extent of publishing her full name and age on online public spaces. More recently, schools in USA are facing protests after humiliating students who were perceived to be inappropriately dressed by forcing them to wear loose fitting “shame suits”. Such behavior, however, irresponsibly perpetuates the damaging outlook that victims are responsible for their own plight, while removing responsibility from perpetrators.

3.  Revenge “Porn”

The non-consensual distribution of sexual images has also become worryingly common. This usually occurs after a breakup, where intimate pictures or videos are posted as a form of retaliation. According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 1 in 10 have threatened to post explicit material implicating their former partners, while 93% of victims have undergone extreme emotional distress. Only recently have lawmakers begun to formulate specific legislation tackling revenge porn; under California’s new anti-revenge porn laws, Noe Iniguez was the first to be sentenced in December 2014.

4.  Rape Videos

telegraphThe glorification of rape has also, unfortunately, emerged as part of the culture of violence online. Underscoring the popular hashtag #Jadapose is the cruel mockery of 16 year old Jada, whose rapists posted pictures of her online. In Russia, with intolerance towards the LGBT community on the rise, videos featuring vigilantes humiliating and physically hurting homosexuals have become widespread as well.

Underscoring all forms of cyber harassment is the common theme of violence, lack of empathy and the erosion of human dignity. In Singapore, we have recently proposed new anti-harassment laws, encompassed in the Protection from Harassment Act. However, the extent to which legislation can combat entrenched anti-social behaviour remains to be fully seen. Nonetheless, we can remain optimistic that with recognition from the law that cyber harassment is undesirable, social paradigms may likewise shift in a more positive direction as well.

About the Author:

Kimberly is a recent junior college graduate. She has a fascination for history and an unhealthy obsession over fluffy things. Currently, she is enjoying her life after the A Levels and is trying her hand at felt knitting, constantly leaving traces of wool in her wake, much to the chagrin to her friends and family.



by Goh Li Sian, Change Maker. This piece was written for the Body/Language creative writing workshop, co-organised by We Can! Singapore and Etiquette SG, and performed at the Singapore Writers’ Festival 2014.

In my purple tank top, I yawn and stretch
Sleepy! A hard day’s work. Sensing vulnerability
My mother picks up where we left off,
Though I try in fewer words to tell her things are different now.
She says, “You know, you could.”
I say, “No.”
She says, “Just once-“
I say, “I don’t want to.”
She says, “Why not?”
I say, “We are not discussing this.”

My mother has tried before,
When the tweezers she favoured failed,
Razors, epilators, wax strips, waxing salons,
Until we’ve arrived at this final solution
To troublesome body hair
On troublesome daughters

My mother couches her disgust in tact,
Telling me, “Your father has asked me to bring you to a salon you know.”
Of course, when the noble patriarch says “Shave,”
It’s my job to say, “How close?”
Or brings it up in lighter moments, snapshots that could almost be happy-
“You like this dress? Sleeveless, you know! When you wear it, you must shave,
or wear a jacket. Some people may be offended. I’m just telling you.”
Ah, that bogeyman Some People.
How to explain to my mother, who is not just Any Person,
That I know Some People
And they have nothing to say about my body and how I choose to adorn it.
If they ever did,
I would choose to have nothing to do with them
The way I cannot have nothing to do with my mother.

On my mother’s head rests thinning hair
She dyes chestnut brown,
Disdaining jet black, her original shade, as “too harsh”,
Disdaining long braids that stretch to other ladies’ waists,
Or supermarket cashiers who pick at their hair before checking out her groceries
Shrinkwrapped packages of meat.
“Too dirty,” she says,
And I turn away, stifling casual rage.

My mother’s never shaved her legs in her life,
Has been known to exclaim wonderingly
Over her daughters’ layers of fuzz,
On shin or forearm.
Where does it come from? she asks.
After all, “Me and your Pa have no hair!”

I know where, but don’t say
Secret teenage hours spent locked in the bathroom
Experimenting with a baby blue plastic razor and shaving gel
Before I gave up. The rush of ritual:
Smoothing the gel. Running the razor. Over inches of pubescent limb:
Shin, calf, thigh.
Elbow to wrist, even inside of forearm, smoothed over sides.
Fingers, phalanges to knuckle.
They say
The hair never grows back the same way again, new growth sprouts
Against the follicle, not with,
Springing back with a vengeance against this tree-trimming,
Asserting its existence.

My mother uses tweezers to pick and pick at the armpits
I snuggled under as a little girl,
But to do the same to the hair on her pubic area
Would be inconvenient and obscene.
I try to explain why I feel the same about the fur under my arms,
Knowing a lost cause when I see one.

“Why?” my mother says, a plaintive moan,
And I turn silent, examine the clothes on the rack,
Rows of dresses without sleeves,
Stifling the impulse to swear,
Stifling the reason, “Can’t be fucked.”
Stifling the reason, “Fuck you!”

The hair under my arms
Is coarse and prickly at its roots, but curls
Into the softness of pelts at its tips
I have a sweet lover, who understands this,
Who would stroke the hair there,
Kiss it, a rest stop on the way to his final destination
Sniff, tell me that he adored the way I smell

This is not a battle in a war, but
A piece of the puzzle
She never will understand.
Sometimes, I suspect my mother would like me better
Bald as a newborn,
As sweet smelling

lisianAbout the Author: Li Sian works for AWARE. She enjoys trivial conversations with close friends and makes shy jokes in less intimately-known company. After five months of living at home, she is proud to announce that she is still resolutely hirsute.


Of boundaries, consent and respect

by Delia Toh, Change Maker

If it were up to me to design a sexuality education class for students, I’d put “respect” on my list of learning objectives. I believe that if Singaporeans aren’t having quality relationships, it’s because we’ve not been taught to respect each other.

I was from a girls’ school, and I vividly remember our teacher telling us during health education classes not to dress in revealing clothes or go out late at night, among other things. Bearing in mind that the majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, this advice is ineffective. What people really need to learn about is consent and respecting another person’s boundaries.


Here, I’ll debunk 4 myths about relationships and dating. However, instead of assuming how people of different genders are “wired” to behave, I will focus on ensuring individual respect

MYTH #1: Men are visual, women are emotional. Men give love to get sex, women give sex to get love. Men are X, women are Y. Stereotypes, stereotypes, stereotypes!

FACT: We ought to unlearn everything we’ve been taught about the “opposite” gender (and of course recognise the existence of other genders). Individuals should be recognised as people with their own desires that have nothing to do with their gender. One dangerous manifestation of these beliefs (that so many of my peers believe) is the misconception that “women only like bad boys, they don’t want nice guys”. Men like Julien Blanc (whose promotion of sexual assault as a “pick-up technique” has gotten him banned from several countries, including Singapore) believe in such harmful rhetoric, and encourage other men to dominate and abuse women to “attract” them.

MYTH #2: If a man persists in the pursuit of a woman who is not interested, she will eventually give in.

FACT: This is a dangerous variation of the assumption that “when a woman says ‘no’, she really means ‘yes’ or ‘convince me’”. The media tends to portray unwanted romantic pursuit as “sweet”, but in real life the experience can be downright scary for women as it may sometimes escalate into stalking or other potentially violent situations. We should remember that women are people with their own agency and they have a right to say no. They do not exist solely as romantic prizes to be won.

If she continuously rebuffs you, it’s a cue for you to move on. Only continue if she responds positively (i.e. gives consent).

MYTH #3: If he’s nasty to a woman, it means he likes her.

FACT: A woman has the right to be treated civilly. If someone else’s behavior is hurting her, then that someone needs to learn to express themselves in a healthy way. Insulting someone else is never “cute” and women are not obliged to feel flattered or complimented if it makes them uncomfortable. This applies to cat-calling and street harassment, too.

MYTH #4: Men are just being friendly when they harass women online and on the street. Women should not be annoyed by it.

FACT: Sometimes, the reason women are bothered by these unwanted interactions has nothing to do with the other party’s intentions, but rather how it makes them feel. I once had a guy add me on Facebook when I’d only met him once, but then he started looking through all my Facebook photos and commenting on the way I smiled and my weight, while saying I was too opinionated and that I could not swear. I don’t know what his intentions were, but I felt like he thought I existed purely for his gratification. I later blocked him. We are not obliged to give anyone our attention if we don’t want to just because we exist.

When we interact with our friends, we’re all aware of the social boundaries that we shouldn’t cross. We should also recognise these boundaries when interacting with women. We can all have better and safer relationships if we all treated each other with respect.

deliaAbout the author: Delia is a second year Chemical Engineering undergraduate at University College London. She has enjoyed blogging since her secondary school days. She would now like to move on from raving about school work to raising awareness through her writing. She strongly believes people are more different than similar, and that individuals ought to be valued for who they are inside.


Beyond The Binary: Ending Transphobia

by Kelvin Ng Jiawin, Change Maker

“My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s f**ked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

pic1transphThe last lines of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note highlight what’s most heart-wrenching about her suicide: that it is not an isolated incident. Leelah Alcorn is one name in the long list of transgender individuals who have faced violence and hostility due to their gender identity, including Islan Nettles, Tiffany Edwards, Zoraida Reyes and Kandy Hall.

Transphobia is a unique form of gender-based violence that remains painfully under-discussed in mainstream discourse, but as recent events have shown, this is a necessary conversation to have – something needs to be done about the discrimination of trans individuals.

“Huh? Transphobia? What’s that?”

Let’s get some definitions out of the way, first.

  • Assigned sex: The sex you were assigned at birth and put on your birth certificate.
  • Gender identity: The gender you identify with; may correspond to or differ from your assigned sex! I can be assigned male at birth, and identify as a female.

For most people, gender identity has never been an issue. Most tend to simply take their gender for granted as they feel comfortable identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth. Individuals whose gender identity match their assigned sex are known as cisgender.

However, it is important not to universalize this experience: for many, their assigned sex simply does not reflect their identity as a human being. Trans individuals can identify as male, female or outside of the gender binary (i.e. neither male nor female, but as genderqueer, agender, non-binary*, etc.).

Simplistically speaking, transphobia arises from firmly conforming to concepts of sex and gender. Most of mainstream society tends to associate gender identity, assigned sex, gender expression† (and to an extent, sexual orientation) as synonymous concepts; this results in gender roles and stereotypes that affects cisgender, or ‘cis’, individuals as well (cis women, for example, are expected to conform to the feminine ideals of subservience and silence).

While society today, by and large, are more tolerant of cis individuals who don’t conform to a certain gender role, the discrepancy between a trans individual’s gender identity and assigned sex can be met with hostility due to ignorance. In reality, however, there is no one way to be human: just because something is more common doesn’t mean it is any more normal or natural, and it is perfectly normal to feel alienated in one’s assigned sex.

joelizTransphobia is also reinforced by the underrepresentation of trans people. Rarely do we see trans people being adequately represented in governance, civil society or the media. This creates ignorance: people tend to form stereotypes of trans people from whatever little they are exposed to – my first exposure to the word “transgender” came in the form of a disparaging insult toward how another person looked. Trans identities are relegated to punchlines about vacations in Bangkok and deemed perverted or unnatural. It becomes easy to demonize entire groups of people you don’t know much about, but the fact remains that trans people do exist and they don’t just come in the form of shimmying drag queens (they can, and there’s nothing wrong with that!) – they lead human lives as do all of us.

“But why should I care? It’s not like I’m actively persecuting them!”

Leelah Alcorn’s case has illustrated two important things: first, violence does not merely come in the form of in physical abuse or assault, but also (and perhaps more insidiously) in a disregard and disrespect toward a person’s gender identity; second, this violence can be inflicted by anyone – people like you and I, and in Leelah’s case, her very own mother. Hence, it is important to to be mindful of the effect our words and actions may have on trans individuals.

As a cis male myself, I find it essential to recognize the privilege I possess by virtue of my gender identity – while I try to do all within my means to be inclusive toward trans individuals, there is no denying that I myself benefit from a system that actively marginalizes them. Other than the misgendering and exclusion Leelah faced, trans individuals also face harassment, hate speech and violence in schools, at work, in public spaces or even at home. Employment discrimination continues to be rampant as ever against trans individuals, and trans people are still routinely excluded from gender-exclusive spaces as well as basic medical care. In Singapore, trans identities are not legally recognized until after transition, which can be an unaffordable luxury; this deprives trans people of the right to identify as who they really are.

“Transphobia sucks. What can I do as a cis ally?”

While it may be hard, and inaccessible for many, to push for legislative change on an individual basis, cis individuals can play a part as an ally by being more mindful to create a safer place for trans individuals.

The first step in doing so, undoubtedly, will be to respect and recognize a trans person’s gender identity and the terminology they choose. Use their preferred pronouns when addressing them and avoid misgendering them by using their name or gender pronoun assigned at birth. It is also important to realize that their narrative is no one else’s to craft but their own, and to respect their right to do so.

We also have to be respectful about boundaries; be fully aware about confidentiality and exposing a fellow trans person, unwittingly or otherwise, as this may create backlash especially in intolerant settings. (Not to mention the fact that invading someone else’s privacy is a completely asinine thing to do.) Avoid asking about a trans person’s “real name”, or genitalia, or sex life – not only can it be a trigger for unhappy incidences, you wouldn’t ask a cis person the same questions either!

Lastly, actively challenge transphobia – both internalized or otherwise. Growing up cisgender, it can be easy to disregard the existence of trans people. The fact, however, is that this willful ignorance does nothing for trans people – it doesn’t shift the status of their rights nor change the harassment they face on a daily basis. Challenge transphobia by calling out anti-transgender jokes and remarks in public spaces, by supporting gender-neutral language and facilities, and most importantly, by listening to trans individuals. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been problematic in the past – what matters is that we’ve learned from those mistakes and are consciously working towards creating a safer world for our fellow trans friends.

* Genderqueer individuals don’t identify as either male or female, agender individuals don’t identify with any gender at all, while non-binary individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.
The manner you express your identity, via mannerisms, fashion or behaviour. May or may not correspond to the former two categories; cis males who perform in drag adopt a gender expression considered feminine.

pic1About the Author: Kelvin Ng is a debater by training and part-time poet. His biggest accomplishment is remembering all the lyrics to Beyonce’s ***Flawless — both the original one and the Nicki Minaj remix — so that must mean something.


Some Reassembly Required: An Interview with Chris Khor

Interview conducted by Sing Rue, Change Maker

Christopher Khor is a transgender man who has been making headlines in Singapore with his upcoming documentary “Some Reassembly Required”. The film will document his reconstruction and is the first film on transgender men in Singapore. His team raised over $14,000 through crowdfunding earlier in the year for the documentary. We talk to Chris about his thoughts on transgender visibility in Singapore, and globally, gender diversity and what we can expect from the film.

Sing Rue: Can you tell me more about some of the misconceptions you intend to address in this documentary? What are some of the important things people need to understand?

Chris Khor: I think the biggest misconception about transgender people is that people can’t be transgender and gay/lesbian. I get that it’s confusing – I’ve had trouble explaining it to my family members myself. But it’s important to know that being transgender relates to your gender identity, and gay to your sexual orientation, so they’re very separate things. As for me, I identify as a straight transgender man.

SR: Recently, transgender women such as Laverne Cox are gaining visibility, but not so much for transgender men. Why do you think this is so? How do we bring about greater visibility for transgender men?

CK: I think the reality is that transgender men often can fade into the shadows. A lot of transmen that I know do not want to seen. Transmen are men, but there is still a lot of workplace discrimination, and there’s always that fear that someone will view you differently. I think the best way to bring about visibility is to create a safe environment in which they are willing to not be stealth, without having to fear jaundiced eyes and discrimination. Of course, then it’s up to them.

SR: As a gender non-conforming person myself, I am incredibly grateful to you for coming out in such a public way to share your story. What prompted your decision to do so? How is the response so far and how do you feel?

CK: We decided to make this documentary after a chance encounter with a transgender man in San Francisco. Geraldine tells this story better, but in essence, he was the first transgender man I’d met in person. And he’d just gotten married, and his wife is lovely. I think it gave me the first semblance of the life I could live, and that was encouraging to me on a personal level.

After that, Geraldine and I began talking a lot more about what being transgender meant to me, and we realised we had a great story. Still, it took me months after that to agree to being the subject of my own film!

It’s a privilege to be in this position, to educate and bring hope. The response has been overwhelming. I’m incredibly thankful for everyone’s support. But the best part has been getting messages from other transguys, looking for advice and sharing their experiences. It’s so important that we start to build a community that isn’t afraid to reach out to one another, especially since it’s so much easier to just “be stealth”.

SR: You seem to be very comfortable with your gender identity and who you are as a person. Is there anything you would recommend to people who are currently struggling with their gender identity and are not in such a good place as you are?

CK: Oh, it helps that I’ve always known I was a boy. There was never any doubt in that regard. I struggled a lot with not being able to accept the body that I have, even after surgery. The best advice I have, in this regard, is that you are bigger than your body. That your soul is more valuable that anything that people see. And you deserve to be loved. That’s going to sound cheesy, but it’s true. Sometimes, that self-love is the only thing we’ve got.

SR: There are some who have come to a place of self-acceptance with regards to their gender identity, but still face opposition from society. Do you have any advice for them? What were some support systems you had that helped you?

CK: I was very fortunate to have the support of my lecturers when I came out in university, and when I worked at a cafe when I was younger. I’ve found that support tends to spill down from the top. A lot of it, I think, is knowing your own worth, and realising that you can walk away from people that don’t treat you with respect. I’ve found that some of these relationships can be unhealthy, like tumours, and you should get rid of them, like…tumors.

SR: What steps do you think we need to take as a community to continue an open dialogue about gender identity, diversity and acceptance? What are some actions we can take as individuals for positive change?

CK: I think we need to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Dialogue can only be had if people are listening, and respectful. This applies for communities and individuals. Be kind. Give more love. Be slow to respond in anger. Be willing to talk, to understand different perspectives, and do not fear being wrong. This all sounds extremely airy fairy but it’s true. When we see each other as humans, rather than labels, then the world will be a happier place.

So, to put those things into practice: be respectful when talking to others. Make no assumptions because of people’s labels. Understand that everyone is different, and that’s okay. These are not battles to be won – these are people to be loved.

SR: I can’t wait for your film to be completed! In the meantime, do you have an exclusive teaser to share with those of us who just can’t bear the wait?

CK: We’re in the early stages of production, so we’ve just started lining up interviews. Look forward to our web content though! It’s mad season at work, but we’ll have a video going up pretty soon!


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