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(This post was first published on Feb 04, 2021)
It’s not easy to be in the minority.
It is lonely to be the sole voice, speaking up for what you believe in.
It takes courage and it takes strength.
But it also takes wisdom to know when, where and how to fight your battles.
In January 2021, there was a rumbling online about a student, Ashlee, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2019. The condition is where a person is psychologically distressed over a mismatch between their gender identity and their biological sex assigned at birth.
Ashlee took to popular online forum Reddit to allege that the Ministry of Education had prevented her from undergoing hormone replacement therapy, prompting a denial from the ministry.
MOE’s brief statement prompted more than 1,200 responses.
Ashlee went on to talk about her situation with the media, laying out in detail her concerns over her treatment in her junior college, adding that she has since applied to transfer to a polytechnic.
On Feb 1, 2021, Education Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament that schools can exercise flexibility, based on valid medical grounds, to work out practical arrangements for students diagnosed with gender dysphoria if they are facing difficulties with school rules.
Civic society seems to be working as intended, where awareness is raised about the perceived unfair treatment of a situation or condition that isn’t well-known or well-documented. The resulting public concern prompted a ministerial response, as well as other replies from parents.
Leong Soo Yee, writing to the Straits Times forum page, shared a moving letter urging love and understanding for children with gender dysphoria sooner rather than later.
So far, so good, right?
But there’s a second part to this.
On Feb 2, 2021, Ashlee posted an update to Reddit, alleging more complaints against her school administration.
She wrote: “Over the past few weeks, my parents and I have met with the school’s administration a few times. While MOE and the school has continuously said that they would ‘work with me’, their overall inconsistency, intentional disregard for proper medical advice and discrimination is showing to me – I have not received the level of support I had hoped for.”
That post received more than 1,300 responses on the original r/SGexams subreddit before it was locked by moderators.
The reason given was “… due to the sheer number of comments that violate rules of the sub-reddit & reddit itself. While we want to allow discussion and opinions on the topic, we cannot tolerate harassment and insults.”
Having a dialogue that works
I don’t want to get into the specifics of Ashlee’s frustration and the responses from her supporters.
Suffice it to say, it is a very real issue, made all the more emotional due to its intimacy – it deals with her identity as a person and her sense of self.
How would you feel if someone told you that you could not be the person you see yourself to be?
And like many Singaporeans who have voiced their support for Ashlee, I hope that she finds a resolution to her situation.
That said, I also have sympathy for the school and its administrators. How do you ensure that the needs of the few do not outweigh the needs of the many? It is a fine line to walk to maintain harmony within the student body – should the vocal few dictate to the silent majority?
Some Singaporeans (five, to be exact) felt compelled enough to protest outside MOE headquarters against transphobia. Three were arrested for allegedly taking part in a public assembly without a permit. Later on, a group of teachers and social workers presented a petition of more the 300 signatures urging MOE to implement a clear policy to support transgender students.
Which is why I want to bring up this question: How do we talk about a situation that we feel strongly about, and to show frustration while still remaining committed to resolving the problem?
Here’s something that I’ve learned through painful experience: Solutions are almost never found through yelling.
You can either hunker down and solve the problem, or you blow it up. It’s seldom that you can have it both ways.
I understand that some people may decide that protest, loud and proud, is the only way to get heard. And in a sense, they are right. Ashlee’s case only came to light after she took to Reddit to raise awareness of her situation.
That’s why it is important to know how to choose your battles. A small amount of force, applied appropriately, can move a mountain. Don’t believe me? Ask a lever. Or a structural engineer. Or as Greek mathematician Archimedes famously said: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”
Believing you are right, isn’t enough. Even “being right” isn’t enough. You need to be able to convince the other party to agree with you and to find a solution that works for all.
That’s where compromise comes in. Decide what are the non-negotiables and list down what can be given up.
After all, the Rolling Stones said it best: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes… well, you might find… you get what you need.
Change comes through consensus, not just conflict
Isn’t the fact that the school administration and the Ministry of Education have addressed this issue already a sign of progress?
Change in society is seldom overnight. It is done, slowly and painstakingly by degrees, changing hearts and minds, convincing people of your case through persuasion, not coercion.
If you shout too much, people tire of the drama and you outstay your welcome.
Should the authorities pay attention to you or give you special dispensation simply because you’re making the most noise? Or should they listen, because you are making the soundest argument?
It’s different if you are raising an issue that no one knows about… but now once the issue has been addressed, consider giving due process a chance to work.
One step towards understanding others is to find out more about them. Free exhibitions like Dysphoria/Euphoria, on till Nov 20, 2022 at Projector X (The Picturehouse), The Cathay, open a window into seeing the world through the eyes of people with gender dysphoria.
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I understand the frustration. When you seem alone and you think the system is stacked against you, the urge to do something, say something, shout something is very real.
But how is dealing with this kind of discrimination any different from the other types of inequality in society?
It might be gender dysphoria this time around, but it could just as easily have been foreign worker discrimination. Or casual racism. Or gender equality. Or any of the other inequalities, perceived or otherwise, that exist in modern day society. Ask yourself, when does anger and frustration, while understandable, really help?
Today, there are scores of people and organisations quietly working behind the scenes to raise awareness for migrant worker rights. And yet more charities (often working with government ministries) bringing people of different cultures and backgrounds together to kill stigmas and stereotypes on gender, race and social strata.
We don’t hear from them as often because that’s not how volunteerism works. But they’re there, tireless and unsung. Working on the issues, without yelling at people.
Often, it is through calm dialogue, through compromise and other-centredness, that true progress in society can be made.