Breaking the Binary: The Reality of Changing Pronouns in Singapore Schools

We uncover what it’s really like for students in Singapore today when it comes to the hot topic of pronouns and gender expression.

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In January 2021, controversy erupted when transgender pre-university student Ashlee claimed Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) had prevented her from receiving hormonal therapy. MOE denied her allegations. But their denial only made matters worse as MOE used her dead pronouns in their public statement.

The saga blew up into a national conversation. But Singapore’s official response seems to be to quietly sweep the matter under the rug for fear of igniting ‘culture wars’.

Dear Straight People,

There is little doubt that significant progress has been made with regards to LGBTQ+ acceptance in Singapore.

Unfortunately, this progress has not been reflected in most Singapore schools. Despite the perception that Gen Z queer youths have it easy, LGBTQ+ student support in the education system is still the exception rather than the rule.

The failure of Singapore’s schools to keep up with shifting values is a significant concern as education is essential in dismantling prejudice and promoting acceptance.  

Through interviewing four anonymous students, we’ll be uncovering what it’s really like for students in Singapore today when it comes to the hot topic of pronouns and gender expression.

Meet Our Interviewees

First, here’s a little bit about who our interviewees are.

“Mia”: I’m Mia, and my pronouns are she/they. I’m currently studying songwriting and law at the University of Auckland. I also identify as asexual and queer but I’m still figuring it out!

“Clove”: I’m Clove, a non-binary person (they/them) currently in Year 2 of my undergrad studies. As an LGBTQ person, I spread awareness through the study of sexuality in my UG studies and by being involved in planning LGBTQ-inclusive events.

“Shan”: I’m Shan (they/them), a Year 6 student who realised they were queer in the most stereotypically sapphic environment possible: Convent School. After 6 years in another institution saturated with queerness (art school), I have decided that my shifting and fluid identity is purely what I make of it.

“Rain”: I’m Rain, and I’m in my final year of IB (JC 2-year). My pronouns are they/them and have been since around September 2020. I actually remember the exact date I realised I was queer: 6th March 2018!

How Other Gen Z Students React To Pronouns

All four students are forced to deal with the daily discomfort of being misgendered both within and outside the classroom. Despite what you may expect, many youths in Singapore are still resistant towards embracing the preferred pronouns of their peers. 

For instance, Mia has seen their fair share of students being misgendered by fellow classmates throughout secondary school. They still hesitate to publicise she/they pronouns online, having been shamed in the past for being ‘cringe’ and ‘woke’ by those their age.

“I’ve been asked why I use these pronouns when I’m so ‘obviously female’.”


While Clove understands that it’s only natural to be initially assumed female, it’s an endless source of frustration and annoyance when they ignore Clove’s repeated efforts to voice their preferred pronouns over time. 

It shows they clearly don’t have any consideration towards how you feel or why you’re taking the effort to educate them. If someone is telling you something repeatedly, it’s a very clear sign they want something to change.” 


Similarly, Shan generally keeps their non-binary identity under wraps. Most of their cohort mates have picked up on their pronouns through hearsay, but not everyone is inclined to use them properly. Having better settled into their gender identity, Shan has become increasingly bothered with being casually misgendered.

It’s kind of something you have to deal with as a non-binary person, stepping outside of that box entirely.”


Rain is unique out of the four for choosing to publicly go by a new name, along with using alternative pronouns. This rebranding was meant to cathartically signify a new non-binary self. But the path to adapting was not smooth-sailing for Rain’s peers.

A lot of my friends accepted it really fast, but some needed more time to get used to it. I would get upset if they accidentally screwed up, but then I realised they were trying their best when a lot of people can be brutal.

In some JCs, they still use gay as an insult. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.”


Nevertheless, all four students report a generally positive image of their fellow classmates amidst these unpleasant encounters. 

Clove told us at their university, people are generally receptive to those using alternative pronouns. In fact, queer students felt affirmed when concerns surrounding transitioning and misgendering are openly raised in the classroom.

Meanwhile, the other three attribute their ability to embrace their authentic gender identities to having forged a strong found family. 

I think it’s important for every queer person to find belonging in a community as they might not find it at home. Personally, surrounding myself with queer, non-toxic and accepting people was an important part of my formative growth.”


The Teacher’s Perspectives On Respecting Pronouns

The situation is bleak when it comes to teachers respecting pronouns. Unburdened by protocol, teachers are free to do whatever they want.

Back in secondary school, Mia once chose to openly use gender-neutral pronouns for their personal bio during an extracurricular activity. But teachers advised Mia to keep to their ‘given gender’ registered in the school system as strictly female. 

While they eventually found a way around it, it was upsetting to be censored.

It’s common for teachers as the higher authority to bring their personal biases and face virtually zero consequences, especially for malicious remarks that may seem harmless at first glance.”


Rain has personally given up telling the higher-ups their pronouns knowing they wouldn’t get it, let alone deviate from the birth name listed on the class registry.

Some teachers immediately got it, and others were like, are you sure? Some teachers were like, Down here it says you’re ‘Rachel’ so I’m gonna call you ‘Rachel’. They thought it was obviously a joke. I had to put up with constantly being misgendered.”


Similarly, Shan’s female-to-male transgendered friend has been suffering in the classroom with regards to the teachers respecting his new identity.

I remember there were some times where the teachers would dead-name him, because his birth name is part of the system, or they would use the wrong pronouns for him. And we would be like…what do we do?”


However, there’s always a silver lining. For every dismissive teacher, a few diamonds in the rough emerge. Clove is heartened to see some professors show acceptance towards students who use alternative pronouns in class.

It has really made those students feel safer and more vocal in class, to be able to confidently share experiences or contribute in class, especially on topics where their views may be more interesting.”

“If the teacher were to purposefully go out of their way to misgender someone, it just sets a precedent for other students to do the same. Respect is not assigned, it’s earned. A student will respect a teacher better if they see the teacher respects them.”


Shan recalls the first time a teacher in a theatre class openly asked for their pronouns, which eventually led them to realise they identified as non-binary.

I didn’t even consider that I might not identify as being a girl until I was asked. So that just opens up a metaphorical door to explore. I’ve also had teachers introduce them with their pronouns, and I feel immediately safer around them because they are acknowledging that pronouns can be different and can change.

Every time I have a queer teacher and they make it known to me subtly through supporting me, it’s like you’ve found your tribe. I think it’s great.”


Rain also backs up the idea of forming this unspoken alliance.

Knowing a teacher is queer with similar struggles to me makes me feel safe and secure.”


How The System Deals With Student Pronouns

As with most matters, the onus ultimately falls onto the larger system to resolve the root cause of the issue. The longer the system remains inert, the worse the problem gets.

At Clove’s university, it was requested that students be able to display their preferred pronouns on their name cards. But the college was reluctant to implement this, fearing possible contention if some displayed their pronouns while others chose not to. They didn’t want to ‘pressure’ students to out themselves according to liberal Western values. 

But Clove saw this as a flimsy excuse.

It’s not like everyone has to display their pronouns. It’s more about allowing students to voice what they’re comfortable with, so that people who are more sensitive to these issues can refer to them correctly. It’s unfortunate, because that would have been a really good opportunity to improve inclusivity.”


Another contributing factor to this phenomenon of disrespecting student pronouns is sex education, something all Singaporean students are familiar with for its incredibly narrowed view of the heterosexual family and relationships.

A lot of people are very uneducated about queer representation and the importance of respecting queer students, because the sex education itself is also very limited”


Shan and Rain also agree that choosing to exclude the queer community almost entirely from the student curriculum hinders the normalisation of pronouns.

I think there was one lesson where they acknowledged the LGBT community ONCE. It’s stuck in my memory, but it has never happened again. I think Singapore’s method of dealing with this kind of thing is to avoid the conflict entirely.”


That being said, all four students are dismayed at MOE’s choice to support gender dysphoria on a ‘case-by-case basis’ rather than compiling preferred gender pronouns for all students. 

It’s an example of wilful ignorance. If you choose to have this kind of attitude, they are being complicit in the issue of teen suicide or depression. You don’t want it to be the case of students contemplating suicide before you realise they’ve been harbouring these thoughts for a very long time.”


Hope For A More Inclusive Singapore

In schools today, you can find positive signs of change here and there in terms of promoting inclusivity. But Singaporean schools still have a long way to go.

Schools are meant to be a safe space for youths. But if student pronouns are not respected in the classroom, it will never truly feel like a welcoming environment. 

We hope that these stories show why schools must play a more active role in promoting diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance for all students, regardless of their gender identity.

Written by Rochelle Lee

Dear Straight People would like to thank these four students for sharing their stories.

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