From The Straits Times    |
pelangi pride community lgbtq

Pelangi Pride Centre is run entirely by volunteers. From left: Librarians Chong Jia Yi and Carl Chong, lead volunteer Leighann Lee, and cataloguer Ash Chua

Situated at the end of a cavernous corridor in an industrial building, Pelangi Pride Centre (PPC) is housed in an unremarkable unit, save for a small pride flag plastered on the glass door.

For many in the queer community here, the library and resource centre is a familiar name. PPC – “pelangi” means rainbow in Malay – was set up in 2003 by LGBTQ+ activists Benedict Thambiah, Roger Winder, Charmaine Tan, Eileena Lee and Dinesh Naidu, who wanted to create a daytime venue where people could gather for free.

At its current location in One Commonwealth, PPC is hosted by Free Community Church, an inclusive Christian congregation known for openly welcoming LGBTQ+ individuals.

“It was primarily focused on creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals. At that time, such spaces were significantly lacking, particularly those not centred around alcohol, parties, or nightlife. Essentially, there were no public community spaces catering to this demographic,” says Jordan Tang, a social worker who has been the lead volunteer at the centre since 2015.

PPC, which marked its 20th year last month, has been entirely volunteer-run and community funded – a remarkable feat considering that queer issues and causes have been considered taboo in conservative Singapore for decades.

While examples like the repeal of Section 377A, and Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam discussing LGBTQ+ related issues in parliament, seem to suggest shifting mindsets, there remain those who feel that the move would go against their personal values.

It’s one of the reasons why PPC is still very much an “under-the-radar” group outside of the queer community. While the team relies on Instagram to promote its events and initiatives, they are careful about drumming up too much publicity due to concerns that PPC could be misconstrued by those are unfamiliar with the space, or who disapprove of its ethos.

Says Jordan: “We are a community, not a registered charity, and this reality is common among many other community groups. Negotiating this unregistered status is a challenge that we and other similar groups face. We don’t have control over who enters our space, but we’ve established rules to safeguard our operations, preventing potential risks that might lead to unwanted attention or attempts to shut us down.

“It’s a delicate balance; we want visibility [in terms of raising awareness about LGBTQ+ issues in Singapore], but we also need to maintain a low profile to evade scrutiny that could threaten our existence. Over the years, managing this balance has been crucial, and it remains a significant consideration until the possibility of registration becomes more feasible.”

Built by the community, for the community

There are seven volunteer leads who form the bedrock of its operations. One of them is Leighann Lee, an IT professional who’s been managing several back-end roles at PPC since 2012. She shares that the library has amassed close to 2,000 books through donations or sales and marketing initiatives – and the collection is reviewed and refreshed from time to time.

For a token fee of $10 per book (which is refunded upon return), users can loan from genres as varied as romance and fantasy, to self- help and Singlit. There are even magazines for browsing, and non-English language book titles. Most of the literature are written by queer authors, or have LGBTQ+ themes.

“We recognise that the relevance of certain books written 10, 15 or 20 years ago may have changed. Our most recent refresh took place in 2022, when we removed a few hundred books to accommodate new arrivals. Presently, we’re at about 1,800 to 2,000 books, inclusive of those ready for shelving or awaiting categorisation,” says Leighann.

Some popular titles available are SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century (Ng Yi- Sheng), The Man Who Wore His Wife’s Sarong (Suchen Christine Lim), and Over the Top, by Queer Eye host and author Jonathan Van Ness.

According to Leighann, their volunteers have been instrumental in the selection of books.

“They often identify gaps in our collection, and suggest titles that are affirming and beneficial for readers, both within and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Their diverse backgrounds have significantly impacted the diversity of our collection. Initially, our collection might have leaned towards more gay-oriented titles.”

“However, with volunteer contributions, we’ve seen an expansion in our offerings to include titles that cater to a broader audience, such as those centred around bisexuality and transgenderism.”

“Providing a safe and welcoming environment, especially for those seeking a place to comfortably explore and express themselves, distinguishes us from potentially less inviting spaces.”

– Jordan Tang, lead volunteer

A safe and engaging space

In September 2023, PPC organised a fully-booked session with Singapore author and playwright, Alfian Sa’at, as part of its ongoing Introduction to Queer Arts series, which spotlights local queer authors. The series offers up-and-coming creatives a platform to showcase their work, says Jordan.

It’s one of the many free community-driven events available to the public, which includes a monthly book club for LGBTQ+ and allies, and a mental health series that spotlights different issues.

Another community initiative that PPC has recently launched is addressing the challenges faced by the ageing queer population. Organised in collaboration with psychologist Maha Y. See and counsellor Chuanfei Chin, the sessions are meant for gay and bisexual men aged 40 and above.

“Participants undergo screening to ensure a conducive and secure atmosphere. Rather than explicitly labelling these sessions as a support group, we integrate psychoeducational components facilitated by mental health-trained leaders to address topics including financial matters, relationship shifts, family dynamics, and age-related health concerns,” explains Jordan.

The aim is for the group to transition into a more supportive phase, and to foster a community that is open and engaging. Ultimately, Jordan hopes that it lays the groundwork for similar initiatives for other subgroups within the LGBTQ+ community in the future.

“In my eight years of volunteering [at PPC], I’ve witnessed younger visitors stepping in tentatively, unsure of what to expect. Yet, the centre has a magical way of easing their initial awkwardness. It becomes a safe space where they gradually open up, finding support from volunteers willing to engage and make them feel at home.”

“Providing a safe and welcoming environment, especially for those seeking a place to comfortably explore and express themselves, distinguishes us from potentially less inviting spaces. It’s an essential part of the PPC experience, one that fosters a sense of safety and inclusivity for all who enter its doors,” he says.

Pelangi Pride Centre (@pelangipridecentre) is located at #02-02 One Commonwealth, 1 Commonwealth Lane.

Illuminating reads at Pelangi Pride Centre

Lead volunteer Leighann Lee shares her recommendations.

Pages For Her by Sylvia Brownrigg
Two former lovers unexpectedly reunite 20 years after parting ways. As they navigate their current relationships in intimacy, work and motherhood, they find themselves rediscovering a past love amid the complexities of their own lives.

Yes, You Are Trans Enough by Mia Violet
This affirming biographical memoir of a queer transgender woman traces the ups and downs of her transition journey.

The Girl That Can’t Get A Girlfriend by Mieri Hiranishi
A light-hearted and funny lesbian autobiographical manga about love and loneliness.

Burning My Roti: Breaking Barriers As A Queer Indian Woman by Sharan Dhaliwal
This guide and memoir delves into personal experiences, while addressing the challenges faced by the new generation of South Asian women. It explores the complexities of juggling cultural identities, alongside the pressure to conform to various beauty standards.

Ace Voices: What It Means To Be Asexual, Aromantic, Demi Or Grey-ace by Eris Young
People in the asexual community share how they experience attraction, and how they live and love in their unique ways.

Baby Zoey: Our Search For Life And Family by Olivia Chiong
A Singapore lesbian couple pursues their dream of having a biological child.

The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer
Persephone, daughter of Zeus, discovers that Hades is not merely a Lord of the Dead, but rather, the Goddess of the Underworld. This retelling of the classic Persephone and Hades myth explores themes of love and self-discovery.

Hild by Nicola Griffith
The story revolves around a young bisexual girl, strong in both intellect and will. Her mother relentlessly pushes her to assume the role of the king’s indispensable seer, despite the dangerously high stakes involved.