Arts & Culture

SWING MAG on Being Queer in the Digital Age

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

Words by
b-side staff

Zine culture in the Instagram age is unstoppable. Zines are 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 our 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 LGBTQA+ zines. Op-eds, visual art, stories and perspectives of underserved narratives are a mainstay here.

B-Side speaks with SWING MAG about finding a collective voice amid 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?

Gerald: I think there’s no “turning point” at which Swing was conceived. The queer movement was in full swing, and Rhyhan and I were just fresh from serving as volunteers in Pink Dot ’16. And the debate has 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, and 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.

Rhyhan: Swing was conceived as a result of pent-up emotions that I felt in response to the LGBTQA+ community in Singapore. I was frustrated that the community was overwhelmingly represented by picture-perfect Instagram influencers and excluded those on the sidelines — those who didn’t conform to the gender binary, those 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 to support this counter narrative by providing a platform where the LGBTQA+ community can take refuge and share personal stories that 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 LGBTQA+ 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 know that they aren’t alone.

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

How has the consumption of LGBTQA+ 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 LGBTQA+ 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 in social media helping the queer community gain its voice, but I’m also highly sceptical 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 is 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.

G: 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 cliché here, but it really is a double-edged sword.

R: It has created a narrow definition of which parts of LGBTQA+ life are worth sharing. It builds a culture where the gravity of LGBTQA+ 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 since we started. First we were editors-in-chief, then publishers, then curators, and 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 feel accepted and worthy.

G: Curating content is important because you have to shave off stuff. It’s like woodcarving; shave off too much or too little and you get bad quality work.

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

Ultimately, I think stories that 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 that will act to exclude them.

G: Intersectionality. The queer community has always been intersectional with the feminist community and 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 LGBTQA+ 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 LGBTQA+ youth can learn about themselves. This means that social media becomes the primary means for LGBTQA+ 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 LGBTQA+ community need more of from ourselves?

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

One’s race, religion, physical appearance and socioeconomic status are powerful identity markers that can limit this. We should be aware of the circumstances of LGBTQA+ folks with whom we may not often interact, but whose struggles are equally valid and important.

G: Self-introspection. Every year, Pink Dot sees itself accrue more participants and volunteers. It’s a huge organised mass that 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 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 LGBTQA+ twist, so we might start selling them on our website 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 LGBTQA+ 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 LGBTQA+ culture is:

G: In need of more discourse

R: OK. It should be more than OK, though.

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