Rediscovering the Self: how Singaporean LGBT youth come to understand and accept their sexuality

Abstract 

Support for pink dot has been growing over the last few years and news outlets have been focused on the conflicts between those who are for and against the movement. However, none have focused on the people we want to protect the most, the youths of Singapore. Especially those who identify as LGBTQ+. This research paper is meant to focus on understanding how LGBTQ+ youths in Singapore understand and accept their sexual orientation, and what we can do as a society to support this process.

I based the process on Robertson’s 2013 paper that suggested it is a 4-step process: “violating compulsory heterosexuality”, “seeking explanation”, “exploring sexuality” and “negotiating identity”. On top of that, I also seek to understand what were the resources the participants had used to make sense of their sexuality and what could have been done to make the process easier for them. Except for “exploring sexuality” and “negotiating identity” phase in which 1 person could not recollect a specific moment fitting the label, all participants experienced 3 or more phases in their life time. This information was obtained through face-to-face interviews, in which they were asked a series of 8 questions, all of which were open ended.

All respondents suggested the following actions to be taken to help current LGBTQ+ youths:

  1. A central resource should be created for access to information
    1. Only vlogs and content that depict LGBTQ+ life in Singapore
    2. An index of all the common terms used to identify one’s self in the LGBTQ+ community
    3. Links to centers and hotlines that can help speak to youths, be it online or offline
    4. Detailed and proper advice on sexual health that not only benefits LGBTQ+ youths but heterosexual youths as well.
  2. Ensure that staff/volunteers are trained to handle LGBTQ+ youths who call in and the source of their trouble is their sexual orientation.
  3. School to keep the topic of sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ open.
  4. School should introduce a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum that would not only protect LGBTQ+ youths, but youths in general.
    1. This program should be made compulsory

By following the recommendations, we are providing a support structure for youths who are questioning and exploring their sexual orientation. This support can ensure they have a healthy sex life in the long run, improved academic performance and overall better quality of life.

Regardless of which side we stand, for or against pink dot, we all have a common goal in mind, to give a better life for our kids. We should not be choosing which kids should have a better life purely based on their sexual orientation. These recommendations cater to all youths and hopefully we can start acting to improve their lives rather than just preach about it.

Introduction 

With the increasing recognition and public awareness, followed by backlash, on the topic of LGBTQ+ rights and awareness, it has been pushed into the forefront of public debates. While an increasing number of Singaporeans are showing support for the community, group of Singaporeans have fought hard to show their disapproval. But in the mess of public debate, one argument has always been brought up, that legalizing such unions and showing support for the LGBTQ+ community would drastically affect the youth of Singapore. And this research paper was inspired by that very idea. To see if, like LGBTQ+ teens in USA, Singaporean LGBTQ+ teen follow the same process of discovering their sexual identity and the viability of online resources.

LGBTQ+ teen go through a 4-step process in realizing they are queer; the four steps being “violating compulsory heterosexuality”, “seeking explanation”, “exploring sexuality” and “negotiating identity” (Robertson, 2013). The first stage, “violating compulsory heterosexuality”, is when the youth first realizes they do not fit the hetero norms that they are surrounded by. They may have behavioral clues or attractions that do not fit what is desired by society. They would then move on to “seeking explanation”. In this stage, they seek out information or tool that can help name the difference. They would identify themselves as “gay”, “lesbian”, “trans”, “queer”, etc. that help show that they do not fit the norm and explain the difference they feel. After which, they will move into the “exploring sexuality” phase, in which they get to meet other people in the community and interact with them. They immerse themselves in the community and in there they will start “negotiating identity”. In which they move and experiment between different identities to see which fits them the best.

LGBTQ+ youths are incredibly high risk of contracting HIV (Mustanski et al, 2014). Mustanski et al (2014) research also shows that LGBTQ+ teen do not have easy access to information about sexual health and safety that fits their sexual identities. They are not surrounded by people or social circles that can help give advice and school sex education does not cater any information to them. Their research proved that online resources are the best to ensure that a large amount of youth can have easy access to the necessary information on how teen should handle their sexuality and safety. He also noted that existing resources that help prevent the spread of HIV primarily focuses on adults rather than on youths. This is further corroborated by Greene et al (2014) paper, that concluded a mix of online and offline interventions were the best at teaching youths how to handle LGBTQ+ relationships and the risks involved in them, primarily a mix of internet resources and social network referrals.

Dehaan et al (2013) also found that LGBTQ+ youths explore their sexuality and relationships offline and online. These explorations tend to be very secretive and this results in many of the youths lacking proper support structure in the event that anything goes wrong. An online platform can act as a support structure that can help them process the issue and return to normalcy if needed. Such education can empower youths to be more open about their sexuality, which has been shown to not only improve academic grades but overall well-being throughout their life (Kosciw et al, 2014)

Method

For this study, interviews will be conducted on a one on one basis where the participant will be asked a series of question with regards to how they came to realize they were queer and adoptability of an online resources. All interviews were conducted in spaces they regarded as safe, be it in cafes or at their homes. Their names were not recorded to keep anonymity and to prevent unintended disclosure of their sexual orientation. The questions were all structured as open ended, allowing for them to freely respond. This allowed for as much detail to be collected as possible and truly understand their perspective. They could interpret the question as they wanted, and respond accordingly. All answer was recorded in detail, however in text form. No digital recordings were taken and had their names altered. Post interview, they had the option of removing any details that were too personal or could be traced back to them. The questions are as follows:

  1. How do you identify in terms of your sexual orientation?
  2. How did you first realize you were XXXXX?
  3. How did you feel about that at the time?
  4. How has that changed, if at all, over time?
  5. Did you ever consider other labels besides the one you identify with today?
  6. Did you access any resources when making sense of your sexuality?
    1. How would having online resources be useful for people going through this process?
    2. What kind of content would you suggest such an online resources contain?
  7. What do you think is the best way to create awareness of this online resource?
  8. Do you think LGBTQ+ youth would adopt and utilize it? How and why?

Results: 

Almost all respondents followed the 4-step process of identity acceptance that was stated by Robertson’s research in 2013. They all first noticed, mostly by the response of others, that they did not fit in. When Christina was 9 years old, she experienced a slight attraction to an older girl and felt it was normal “until friends called her lesbian as a tease”. Yoghurt went through it as well, “labeled gay in jokes/bullying in incidents, that showed he may not have fit in”. James was the only participant who could not recall such a phase, however, he did feel it was “wrong, should change”.

The next stage stated was “seeking explanation”. All 5 respondents not only found labels to help explain how they feel but utilized resources to understand it better. Samuel asked his parents about his confusion but they rejected the idea while Maridith decided to seek out resources from Sayoni, a nonprofit group aimed to support queer women, access videos and online support groups. This showed that as soon as they were aware they did not conform to the heterosexual norms, they figured out their label and accessed some form of resource, mostly online, to make sense of it.

They would follow up with the next step, “exploring sexuality”. All but Samuel mentioned having explored the community and meeting people to hear their stories and mingle among others who also come from similar sexual orientation. They all mentioned how that helped bring comfort and helped them accept their orientation more easily.

Finally, they would enter the “negotiating identity” phase. Here, 4 out of 5 respondents considered a label besides the one they identify with today. Most stuck to the label they currently identify with due to social stigma or it just felt appropriate.

From here we can see that offline and online resources play a huge role in LGBTQ+ youths understanding and acceptance of their sexual orientations. And as Christina mentioned, sex education is largely lacking for Singapore LGBTQ+ youth, and that also related to Mustanski et al (2014) research which showed that LGBTQ+ youths struggle to find resources that provide the sexual education and information they require to have a safe sex life. Even with the access to videos about LGBTQ+ sex education, they rarely relate to the Singapore culture and context which makes it hard for youth to relate and apply what they learnt. Thus, we should set up an all in one, online resource site for LGBTQ+ youth to access. This site, as recommended by the participants, would contain Vlogs (YouTube daily videos) of people’s coming out stories, Vlogs about LGBTQ+ couple’s day to day lives, counselling service, family support, sex education, act as a networking platform, bill board for social events and resources for figuring out one’s identity. All participants felt that it would give access to information for those who are seeking it out, regardless if they are LGBTQ+ themselves. As stated by Dehaan et al (2013), youths tend to explore their sexuality online, as well as offline. Thus, this can be act as the center for that exploration, where an effort can be made to ensure that all information and recommendations are applicable to LGBTQ+ youths in Singapore. This can give a sense of a “safe space” where they can explore and learn freely without having to worry about judgement or security.

To create awareness of such a resource, most agree that social media is the best place as it has the widest outreach and is highly visible. Other recommendations include promotion at public events, word out mouth, suicide hotline (at risk teens may call when at the very brink of suicide and awareness of such aid could help with their recovery), and through school if possible. James pointed out a large fact that if the government backs up the project, it has a much larger reach. This can be due to the fact that it has increased validity in the public eye and can be incorporated into school curriculums as Maridith suggested.

Findings

Through the interviews, it has become apparent that local LGBTQ+ youths follow the same pattern of negotiating and accepting their sexual orientations. Considering that a lot of the literature used to make this research was done far ahead of this and cultures, in both Singapore and America, are quite different. This makes the process seem innate, almost natural. We need to see that an equal amount of support and acceptance must be given to LGBTQ+ youths compared to their heterosexual counterparts. That equal aid, resources and acceptance should be given to ensure the confusing, and challenging, process of discovering and embracing one’s sexuality can be made easier. The ideal time for positive intervention would be at the “seeking explanation” stage, where they are the most open and confused. We can ensure they are aware of the right resources, which guides on how to go about their exploration safely.

Many LGBTQ+ youths do have access to foreign media that help them feel more comfortable with their sexuality. However, these content is just not relatable in our context, as mentioned earlier by the fact western culture is very much different from Singapore, in turn affecting the media content they produce. Having content and stories set in the local context can give insight into the LGBTQ+ that exists locally and the life they might grow to have.

All the people interviews felt that their limited access to resources, mostly foreign, helped them in the process of understanding the sexual orientation. They also suggested that having local content can increase the relatability and would be more effective in giving advice and seeking out help.

Recommendations 

There are few steps that can be taken by Singaporeans to help LGBTQ+ youth handle that phase in life. They are as follows:

  1. A central resource should be made to ensure that LGBTQ+ youth can utilize to get all the information they require to understand and accept sexual orientation. The site should contain links to
    1. Only vlogs and content that depict LGBTQ+ life in Singapore
    2. An index of all the common terms used to identify one’s self in the LGBTQ+ community
    3. Links to centers and hotlines that can help speak to youths, be it online or offline
    4. Detailed and proper advice on sexual health that not only benefits LGBTQ+ youths but heterosexual youths as well. This is a response to the lack of proper sex education, regardless of sexual orientation.
  2. Ensure that staff/volunteers are trained to handle LGBTQ+ youths who call in and the source of their trouble is their sexual orientation. They should know how to approach the matter and how to direct the person to resources that can help assure their sexual identity.
  3. School to keep the topic of sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ open. Where by teachers do not judge, or criticize the moment and encourage students to accept those who identify differently from themselves. This idea of treating people as equals from all walks of life is something deeply rooted in our national identity and should not be selectively done only with those we agree with.
  4. School should introduce a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum that would not only protect LGBTQ+ youths, but youths in general. We should also teachers are trained to handle the discomfort that may come from the topic and to ensure the program is progressive build over the years to ensure a constant, open conversation about the topic.
    1. This program should be made compulsory, based on research that “show that increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates” (Stanger-Hall et al, 2011). They are also able to enjoy their sex life a lot better in the long run.

If the recommendations are followed, it can create the support structure needed by LGBTQ+ youth to live a more open and safe life. To note, some of the steps not only benefit LGBTQ+ youth, but youths in general. This can empower youths to explore their sexuality safely and allow for them to focus on other aspects of their lives as well. Thus, their school performance will improve and live a better life over all. (Kosciw et al, 2014)

References: 

Dehaan, S., Kuper, L. E., Magee, J. C., Bigelow, L., & Mustanski, B. S. (2013). The Interplay between Online and Offline Explorations of Identity, Relationships, and Sex: A Mixed-Methods Study with LGBT Youth. Journal of Sex Research,50(5), 421-434. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.661489

Greene, G. J., Fisher, K. A., Kuper, L., Andrews, R., & Mustanski, B. (2014). “Is This Normal? Is This Not Normal? There Is No Set Example”: Sexual Health Intervention Preferences of LGBT Youth in Romantic Relationships. Sexuality Research and Social Policy,12(1), 1-14. doi:10.1007/s13178-014-0169-2

Kosciw, J. G., Palmer, N. A., & Kull, R. M. (2014). Reflecting Resiliency: Openness About Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity and Its Relationship to Well-Being and Educational Outcomes for LGBT Students. American Journal of Community Psychology,55(1-2), 167-178. doi:10.1007/s10464-014-9642-6

Mustanski, B., Greene, G. J., Ryan, D., & Whitton, S. W. (2014). Feasibility, Acceptability, and Initial Efficacy of an Online Sexual Health Promotion Program for LGBT Youth: The Queer Sex Ed Intervention. The Journal of Sex Research,52(2), 220-230. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.867924

Robertson, M. A. (2013). “How Do I Know I Am Gay?”: Understanding Sexual Orientation, Identity and Behavior Among Adolescents in an LGBT Youth Center. Sexuality & Culture,18(2), 385-404. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9203-4

Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. PLoS ONE,6(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

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