Oogachaga is a name adapted from a song which the dancing baby in Ally McBeal danced to. Just like that popular TV character, some of us may have parts of our being that we have kept secret, and that eventually pop up and call us to face them. Oogachaga, then, is an apt name for a community-based counselling organisation: launched in Singapore more than 15 years ago, it offers support to LGBTI persons in a country where "a piece of law still reinforces the idea that the whole community is not accepted." We spoke to the organisation's former executive director, Bryan Choong, to learn more about Oogachaga's work and their recent involvement in the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore.
How did you become an activist for the human rights of LGBTI people? Has there been a specific moment that made you decide you wanted to be involved in first person?
It all started more than ten years ago, in 2005. I was introduced to Oogachaga by a friend who was participating in an organisation's support group: I had known him for a while, and he was probably one of the few persons who knew I am gay. I wouldn’t say I needed a support group, but I was just happy to meet people and have friends around me who could have accepted me for who I am, and so I went.
After attending that support group, I was asked to facilitate conversations in the group, but the real change arrived only a few months later, when a few of us went to an LGBTI conference in Bangkok. That was the first time I could meet other people who were running LGBTI programmes, and see first-hand a lively conversation happening about the many ways society can be helped understand LGBTI issues. That was the real turning point for me.
Oogachaga is mainly doing counselling, but has also grown to form a whole community around itself. How does the organisation work?
Basically, what we try and do is use our expertise in counselling and community service to produce something useful, may it be a report for the Universal Periodic Review or a series of YouTube educational videos about sexuality.
Oogachaga began as a support group, and later started offering counselling and community services. During the early years, we realised that running workshops on sexual health and HIV prevention appealed only to a small group of people, and we added more and more topics, such as support for persons who were about to come out. We talked about how to socialise, how to go on a date and, of course, how to be protected from STIs: these workshops became part of a sort of life-stage program.
The "Ginger" counselling room at Oogachaga
We also partner with other social service organisations in addressing mental health, sex addiction and drug addiction issues, to support their work with the gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men (MSM) community in Singapore. We train social workers, counsellors and mental health professionals to better engage with LGBTI persons using their services, and we produced a number of resources they can use as a reference.
We are also working with corporations: as Singapore becomes a business centre in the Asia-Pacific region, more companies launch their internal initiatives for LGBTI employees. We support their activities and advise on how to make these programs culturally relevant for the local community.
Most of our programmes are oriented towards gay, bisexual men and MSM, but we also have a support group and hotline service for LBTI women. We also organise at least one event with our trans community partners every year to raise awareness about trans people’s issues.
What is your specific role at Oogachaga?
After volunteering there for four years, I became the group’s executive director in 2009. After helming the organisation for six years, I have recently stepped down: I am only focusing on a few projects at the moment, like providing training for social workers, counsellors and working with corporate partners.
Together with other activists, I have also been involved in the Universal Periodic Review on Singapore: it has been one of the most complex advocacy works we have committed to, and it lasted for more than a year. When it all started, back in 2014, we didn’t really know how to get involved in it as a civil society organisation, but then we decided to give our contribution and write a report with another organisation, PinkDot SG.
Last December, you came to Geneva for the UPR pre-session: what are your memories of that week?
We were not even sure we would have come: we thought that taking part in the pre-sessions would only be about speaking at a 15-minutes presentation. But then we talked to the ILGA team, and we realised it would have been much more than that: we also would have had the chance to engage with many missions at the UN and having deeper engagements.
Bryan Choong at the United Nations in Geneva
I ended up speaking to 23 missions in Geneva, and we had seven recommendations from our report to make. The team at ILGA really helped us: the organisation’s Gender Identity and Gender Expression Programme officer, introduced us to the process and explained how it could be useful; the person who ran the UPR work walked us through every step of the way, and ILGA’s UN Programme and Advocacy manager advised us to look carefully at what recommendations the various countries had delivered during previous UPR cycles, to understand who could have been interested in learning about specific issues in Singapore.
As much as I had thought we were prepared, it was a very intense five days: even if each meeting lasted 10-15 minutes at most, you needed to make sure every time that what you had to say would have made sense to the persons you were talking to. It was mentally exhausting, and every night I would easily go back to the hotel and crash on my bed soon after the end of the talks. (laughs)
It has been a great week, and we must thank ILGA for all the ways they advised us: its guidance has proven really useful not only when we were preparing out first report, but also for all the work on the ground in Geneva – the whole process of speaking to mission representatives, and of trying to track down all those who had not responded to our meeting requests.
For me and the other activists involved, it really was another level of advocacy experience.
You had to make quick assessments: “Should I talk to this person? Is it a good time? Will the person listen? What would be interesting for that mission?”
It’s a bit of an ambush situation and it’s quite fun, too. And what made it even better is that I could get together with activists from Denmark, Mozambique and Paraguay and work with them: one could go talk to a mission representative and tell the others if they would have met a person who would have been ready for another conversation on LGBTI issues.
The whole experience has been great: even if I didn’t have the chance to present my report during the pre-session, those face-to-face meetings were really wonderful.
Of course, we took time to have the Swiss fondue and went to see CERN, which I was completely clueless about.
Section 377A of Singapore’s penal code is still in force, and it condemns same-sex sexual acts. What struggles does the LGBTI community have to face in your country?
Despite petition and court challenges, 377A is being kept in the books. Even if the Singapore government said it is not actually enforced, having a piece of archaic law still reinforces the idea that the gay community – and, consequently, the whole LGBTI community – is not accepted in Singapore. A lot of ministries and government bodies continue to use that law as a guidance on how to put together policies or guidelines.
For example: if you attempt at registering an LGBTI organisation, the Registry of Societies will respond rejecting the application, quoting “contrary to national interests” without giving any further explanation. This is why none of the organisations in Singapore are formally registered as representatives of the LGBTI community.
The presence of this law creates a very strange situation: positive portrayals of LGBTI experiences are not allowed in TV or radio shows, but you see newspapers carrying LGBTI news from abroad, such as those ones about marriage equality in the United States.
You can’t really understand whether the government allows a discussion on these issues or not, but things have undoubtedly changed in the last ten years.
In 2005, when I started my advocacy work, there was very little discussion on LGBTI issues, while today more and more people talk about them, and this has an impact on our society. The debate hosts mixed opinion, but it is not as one-sided as it used to be: people are ready to read about these themes, and Internet and social media have empowered these conversations.