This article on Singapore universities’ LGBT acceptance and inclusivity is guest written by Daryl Yang.
Daryl Yang co-founded and currently serves as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network. Previously, Daryl was President of The G Spot, the Yale-NUS Gender & Sexuality Alliance, from 2014 to 2016. He is currently a third-year student pursuing a double degree in Law and Liberal Arts at Yale-NUS College and the NUS Faculty of Law.
In May 2012, prominent queer activist, poet and writer Ng Yi-Sheng published an article titled “How LGBT-friendly are Singapore universities?”, where he outlined the ambivalent and sometimes hostile attitude of universities towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) students and faculty.
Much has changed since then. In the five years since, we have set up the Inter-University LGBT Network (InterUni) consisting of groups from NUS, NTU, SMU and Yale-NUS College; and it may be timely to review these developments on university campuses since then.
While there have not been much gains in the broader LGBT movement with the failure of the constitutional challenge against 377A and the tightening of funding for Pink Dot, young people have been increasingly active in campaigning for LGBT issues.
However, while there are some campuses with vibrant LGBT communities, other universities have been less welcoming of LGBT groups and students. Ultimately, yielding to fears of public backlash or ideological conflict is a lost opportunity for these universities and their students.
Vibrant LGBT campus communities in Singapore universities
At the point of Yi-Sheng’s article, there was only one student group focusing on gender and sexuality under the University Scholars Programme at NUS: Gender Collective.
Since then, students from the other public universities have set up The G Spot at Yale-NUS College, Kaleidoscope at NTU, Out To Care at SMU and tFreedom at Tembusu College. These groups came together to set up the Inter-University LGBT Network in 2015, and are working together on organising cross-campus social and support programmes today.
I served as coordinator of The G Spot from 2014 to 2016, where I also helped to establish a coalition of groups situated at University Town in NUS. We organised a month-long campaign on sexuality and gender (patriotically named SG Month) last October as well as the most successful Qrientation, a LGBT-focused orientation programme, thus far with over 100 participants.
While other NUS orientation camps struggled with the backlash against sexualised activities, our groups worked closely with the administration to share our experience in fostering a safe and inclusive orientation programme and made various recommendations that have since been implemented.
In SMU, Out To Care has similarly worked closely with the Office of Global Learning in fostering a more inclusive campus for LGBT students. Beyond that, a group of SMU students have also published a new report on strategies to foster inclusive workplaces as well.
Hostility and apprehension against LGBT presence in Singapore universities
But things have not been entirely positive either. In 2014, an NUS Malay Studies professor published a Facebook post calling lesbians a “cancer to society”. Though he was subsequently counselled and an email from the NUS Provost was sent to the entire university community reaffirming the university’s commitment to fostering an inclusive community, it highlights the real presence of hostile attitudes and attacks on the LGBT community.
Similarly, Kaleidoscope at NTU has faced some challenge working with the administration to the extent that it currently operates as an independent group after first registering as an official student organisation.
I have also had experience working with some students who tried setting up a similar group at another newly established technology university, whose attempt was promptly quashed by their administration.
What I find most intriguing is the disconnect with diversity and inclusion. With the world’s largest technology companies such as Google and Apple being firm sponsors of Pink Dot, these technology universities’ clamping down on LGBT presence in their campuses points at a disconnect. While the companies recognise the importance of affirming their LGBT employees to attract talent, these universities actively obstruct any student effort to foster a more inclusive environment.
It may come as no surprise then that NUS has been ranked the 4th most international university. While the best universities here and abroad are actively supporting their LGBT students to achieve their highest potential, some of the universities here have chosen instead to give in to fears of public backlash or ideological disagreements on campus.
Yet, is it not the purpose of a university to facilitate reasoned and intellectual dialogue on controversial matters?
Future possibilities of LGBTs in Singapore universities
While there remain challenges to foster more inclusive campuses across Singapore, the Inter-University LGBT Network is committed to supporting and empowering students from across all universities in Singapore.
If Singapore is to be an intellectual hub where our university graduates are not only equipped with technical skills and expertise but prepared for a complex and diverse world, it is not too late for the rest of the universities to catch up. Yet, it is ultimately up to students ourselves to advocate for LGBT inclusion in their classrooms and colleges.
The existing groups and progress made did not come easy and a more LGBT-inclusive future is up to the young people of today and tomorrow. After all, as Yi-Sheng said, universities are places where change begins. Change has begun, but will it persist?
The Inter-University LGBT Network is looking for passionate and committed university students to volunteer with us as Subcommittee Members to plan and execute upcoming projects and events. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/interusc17info
This article has been edited for clarity.