Arts & Culture

SWING MAG on Being Queer in the Digital Age

What does Singapore's LGBTQ community need more of from ourselves?
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B-SIDE celebrates Pride and the lead up to PinkDot Singapore 2019 in June! This month, we’re dropping a special 3-part series, profiling some Singaporean queer creatives who are making waves in the community. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!

Zine culture in the Instagram age is unstoppable. They’re accessible, they’re now and they’re more prolific than ever. They tell stories. Quickly. Weaving and darting around cultural gatekeepers, publishers and censors.

In a country that continues to reconcile its laws that criminalise gay sex with a relentless global march into hyper-modernity, zines offer the perfect workaround. They let us take the pulse of and connect with the community, from the comfort of your phone. For many, it can be the only safe space they know.

With backgrounds in publishing and visual design, co-founders Rhyhan (21) and Gerald (22) have grown SWING MAG into one of Singapore’s most loved LGBTQ zines. Op-eds, visual art, stories and perspectives of under-served narratives are a mainstay here.

B-SIDE speaks with SWING MAG about finding a collective voice amidst the noise.

Note: interview has been edited for clarity.

SWING Mag’s founders - Rhyhan (Left), Gerald (Right)

Tell us about Swing Mag's moment of conception. Why now?

G: I think there's no "turning point" at which Swing was conceived. The queer movement was in full swing, Rhyhan and I were just fresh from serving as volunteers in Pink Dot '16. And the debate really shifted in the past few years. The IPS survey, Li Huanwu's marriage, the repeal of 377A in India and the repeal movement it spun in Singapore, Taiwan's legalisation of marriage.

It might not directly seem like it, but Swing was conceived as a first-response to the things happening in our society tangential to the queer community.

R: Swing was conceived as a result of pent-up emotions that I felt in response to the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore. I was frustrated that the community was being represented overwhelmingly by picture-perfect Instagram influencers and excluded those at the sidelines - those who didn’t conform to the gender binary, whose sexual identity didn’t fall into a neat category and those who didn’t possess an idealised (and often unattainable) physical appearance.

So I think Swing had to happen now in order to support this counter narrative, by providing a platform where the LGBTQ+ community can take refuge and share personal stories which can be discomforting.

G: We're doing a series on being queer in school right now in response to a local JC asking a gay couple to take down their Instagram picture and another prestigious local school dropping an LGBTQ person from their TED Talk. We provide a platform for better discourse, hopefully for some sort of catharsis and self-reflection for a community that sorely needs one.

How has the response been from the community since launching?

G: Good! A lot of enthusiastic responses to our last open call and we're literally struggling to get all of them on the page. We've had people email us. One lady from Australia told us about her queer Muslim son and her reading about the Malay-Muslim Drag Queen that we covered in our first printed zine. That was unexpected as we thought our reach was only within Singapore.

R: Our contributors always thank us for giving them a voice but I think the biggest thank you should go to them, for daring to share their stories and letting others in the same situation as them know that they aren’t alone.

It signals to us that there is a community that wants to hear these stories, and needs a platform to talk about stories that go unheard of.

How has the consumption of LGBTQ+ culture via social media impacted the way it's evolving?

R: Definitely made it more important for one to keep up their appearances in the LGBTQ+ community - putting their best face forward, finding the wittiest caption and using the latest slang introduced in the community.

G: I'm a great believer of social media in helping the queer community gain its voice, but I'm also highly skeptical of its impact. For one, I don't believe in the wholesale import of western style queer activism. Activism in Singapore is a "delicate dance", as Lynette Chua put it. Western activism is a lot of militancy, aggression, and in-your-face demands that I feel might be a bit too much for Singapore to chew.

Queer activism is a set of steps you have to ascend. Before marriage, there is decriminalisation, and before decriminalisation, I would argue there are a set of problems unique to Singapore that we can't look to the (mostly western) models set by social media.

How do we solve majoritarian chauvinism, for example, or break the standard of male gay beauty? Social media won't provide the answer.

What will provide it is active discourse and debate, but it's really crowded out by social media’s dopamine-fuelled critical mass: sex appeal, SEOs, click-bait, PR, and all that jazz. Unable to avoid a cliche here, but it really is a double-edged sword.

R:  It has created a narrow definition of which parts of LGBTQ+ life are worth sharing. It builds a culture where the gravity of LGBTQ+ issues is diminished in favour of content that gets more likes.

Do you feel a pressure to represent 'everyone' with Swing Mag? How do you balance it with the need to curate your content, and the content that actually gets submitted to the magazine?

G: This is really tough. Our job descriptions have fluctuated ever since we started out. First we were editors-in-chief, then publishers, then curators, then now we're what I would call "providers of a platform", like that notice board you see in the CC. This definitely comes from the pressure to represent everyone. The advantage of this is that we can get to really capture the dynamic of the queer community in its full force. The downside is that sometimes Swing is left without a clear direction.

R: By putting lesser known stories at the forefront, we ensure those with similar stories but who cannot share their identities, to feel accepted and worth something.

G: Curating content is important because you have to shave off stuff that's less irrelevant but still keep the parts that are intact. It's like woodcarving, shave off too much or too little and you get bad quality work.

R: One of our most recent stories we posted, “Finding Myself At 21”, was about the writer’s experience as a LGBTQ+ individual from a conservative Indian family and a convent school. In mainstream LGBTQ+ media, we often don’t hear stories about those who are from Singapore’s minority racial groups.

Ultimately, I think stories which offer a unique perspective is what Swing should be about.

G: That's something we should work on in the future - give the content we publish more incubation time, consult the queer community and people in content-publishing, and process the stuff people want to give us into stuff that people want us to give them back. We still have a lot to learn.

What's an aspect of queer youth culture you wish we focused on more often? Why?

R: Stories from the margins. We need to keep reminding ourselves that while being queer is a label that unites the community, there are still so many different parts of someone’s identity which will act to exclude them.

G: Intersectionality. The queer community has always been intersectional, with the feminist community, the minority communities... This is because all these communities have experience with being the Other.

Yet we still have rampant misogyny and racism in the queer community.

We can't be intersectional when we don't want to understand other communities. And when we aren't intersectional we lose out on the potential strength that we have if we unite our fronts.

What's an aspect of LGBTQ+ youth culture you wish we focused on less often? Why?

R: Face value. Specifically, the idea that one’s public face, especially online, are accurate markers of their identities and worth as individuals. This is especially a problem because of the limited physical spaces and communities where LGBTQ+ youth can learn about themselves, which means that social media becomes the primary means for LGBTQ+ youth to do so.

G: Pride. This whole fixation on pride is good, but it also puts unnecessary pressure on people to come out. That's discounting all the other factors at play, like religion, socioeconomic status, family values, personal values, etc. Come out whenever you are ready, or don't come out at all. Different strokes, for different folks.

What does Singapore's LGBTQ community need more of from ourselves?

R: An awareness of other LGBTQ+ folk who cannot easily find spaces or social circles to belong to.

One’s race, religion, physical appearance and socio-economic status are powerful identity markers that can limit this. We should be aware of the circumstances of LGBTQ+ folk who we may not often interact with, but whose struggles are equally as valid and important.

G: Self-introspection. Every year Pink Dot sees itself accrue more participants and volunteers. It's a huge organised mass which gives our community visibility. But we need to see what's wrong within our own community. Exclusion in a community premised on inclusion is not a good look.

And there are platforms for this. Indignation has forums and discussions that you can look forward to. does a lot of great PR campaigns to improve gay health habits in Singapore.

Gay culture is so much more than circuit parties and ladies' night. I don't blame the community though, sometimes it's easy to drown out the problems with blaring techno and tequila shots. I say this from personal experience.

What are your future plans for Swing Mag? Is there anything we can look forward to?

R: In terms of content distribution, I’d like to come up with a better strategy, especially on Facebook! We primarily use Instagram now but I think our posts will get greater exposure on Facebook.

G: We have another series in the works - it's about queer places and spaces. We hope to come up with another zine output. The zine imprint part of Swing is dormant and I hope we can revive that, in the style of the queer activists from the '60s.

R: I hope to also create some merch for Swing! Swing is not-for-profit, which means that the cost of running the website comes directly from our personal savings. We’ve gotten a lot of encouragement in terms of some of the promotional designs we’ve created which are spinoffs of local logos but with a LGBTQ+ twist, so we might start selling them on our website in order to finance the website.

G: I also hope that we can intensify our first-response to queer issues. Really ask the community to respond to the things going on around us and post them hot on the press. We need a participative queer community, which I'm sure won't be a problem.

Ok, quickfire round.

Underrated local LGBTQ icon:

R: Anita Sarawak, never afraid to challenge what a Malay woman should look like and always real!

G: Sun Ho. If Kill Bill isn't camp I don't know what is.

Favourite LGBTQ+ space in Singapore:

R: Hong Lim Park during Pink Dot.

G: The Projector. Queer-friendly.

Coming out for the first time is:

R: ...tempting.

G: Tiring.

Coming out for the fifth time is:

R: ...less tempting.

G: Tiring.

Singaporean LGBTQ+ culture is:

G: In need of more discourse.

R: Okay. It should be more than okay though.

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