top of page
  • Writer's pictureNatalie Tai

HECKIN' UNICORN TALKS RUNNING AN LGBTQ+ BUSINESS IN SINGAPORE

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

"You feel like you exist, and that your stories are being told."

Singapore’s road to LGBTQ+ equity and cultural acceptance remain a work in progress. From marital rights to constitutional protection, the civil liberties and lack thereof of Singapore’s LGBTQ+ identities is a reality that has seeded a myriad of disadvantages for the country’s queer community.


While legal impediments to accurate representation and advocacy are only a small portion of the inequities Singapore’s queer folks face, they stand as some of the biggest hurdles of the country’s path to cultural and political inclusivity. Though it isn’t easy seeing the silver lining beyond Singapore’s seemingly static progression of gay and trans rights, the integrity and indignation of the country’s LGBTQ+ community and activists continue to narrate the greater possibilities of today and tomorrow.


In the following interview with Heckin’ Unicorn’s Yu Sheng Teo, we discuss what it’s like running an LGBTQ+ business in Singapore.

 

Heckin’ Unicorn is an LGBTQ+ business based in Singapore. Their works include:

  • Subtle pride accessories like enamel pins, socks, and notebooks to help people express their identity in pride (and safety!)

  • Satirical comics on social media illustrating the irony and nonsense behind common struggles queer folks face.

  • Blog articles that talk in depth about queer issues in and out of Singapore in efforts to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ discrimination and inequalities.

  • The Unicorn Library, a free LGBTQ+ library based in Singapore, composed of queer books along with books by queer authors.

 

Tell me a little bit about yourself.


My name is Yu Sheng, I am a cisgender gay man, my pronouns are he/him, I am 29 turning 30, and I run Heckin’ Unicorn. I’ve been running Heckin’ Unicorn since 2019, and in March last year, I quit my job to run it full time.


As the founder and person behind Heckin’ Unicorn, how did the idea of running this brand initially come about?


When Heckin’ Unicorn started out two years ago, it really was just a very pure, frivolous, superficial side project. And because I am a designer, it was just an idea of designing some cute pride pins, thinking that people might like them, so I tried making a batch of enamel pins. We started out with six designs, and essentially they were quite well received, way beyond what I expected.


Especially with it starting out in Singapore, and Singapore is generally quite hostile to queer people, I was surprised that there was even a demand for that. And gradually as the brand started growing, around one year in, I started thinking more about the long-term objective, what I really wanted to achieve with Heckin’ Unicorn, and that’s where all the other facets of advocacy came into play, like the comics, the blog of course, and the donations that we do.


What would you say catalyzed or motivated you to start a brand that focuses heavily on LGBTQ+ activism and representation?


I think from the beginning, the thing that motivated me to start the brand was also the relative privilege I have as a gay person in Singapore. The context is that I am out to everyone, and all my friends, families, and all the colleagues I’ve ever worked with, in all the companies I’ve ever worked in, were all very supportive of me. I know enough people to know that it is not the norm in Singapore; the norm is that you have to hide yourself from some people in your life.


I’m lucky I guess, and so at the back of my mind, I’ve always been thinking what I can do with that, whether I could use this relative privilege to help people who don’t necessarily have a voice yet, especially within the context of Singapore.


My other initial motivation is more superficial, that I think that we can have more cute pride pins, especially those that can help people that are still somewhat closeted, to help them show off a little bit of their identity in a way that is safer that might not necessarily out them.


What would you say is the main mission of Heckin’ Unicorn?



I think the main mission of Heckin’ Unicorn is quite clear now, and that is to empower every queer person to be proud of their identity, even if they live in hostile environments. That is what we want to achieve, and advocacy is a strong aspect of that. It’s not just about creating products that closeted people might also be able to wear without fear, but there’s also the part about making sure that people no longer have to stay closeted out of necessity.


I think there’s also a very strong aspect of raising awareness for queer issues, which is somewhat similar to what other LGBTQ+ support organizations are doing. The difference is that it’s also a business, meaning that we also have different types of content and products, but in general, they are catered to the queer community, and most of them skew towards the more subtle end, though we also have products that are not that subtle.


As a LGBTQ+ brand, would you say that Heckin’ Unicorn’s content is more aimed towards affirming LGBTQ+ identities or educating people about LGBTQ+ issues?


I would say it’s a bit of both. For advocacy, the main content is our blog, which has 3 main audiences.


The first one is the queer community, because even within the community, we also need to raise awareness of issues. Partly because of censorship in Singapore, we don’t really retain a lot of our queer history, and so some of the articles that we publish aim to raise awareness for these kinds of issues that people might intuitively know but can’t really articulate. And a lot of the times, it is very difficult for us to actually explain our situation because the politicians are saying that they don’t discriminate, and so the articles helps lee down concrete examples of how LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against.


And of course the allies, the cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) folks, are also a very important target audience, because for change to happen, the majority of people also need to be aware of the issues. And since the majority right now is still cishet people, we need them. Similar to how it is for queer people, the blog articles help to articulate the situation.


Our last target is more indirect, it’s more of the state, especially the people working within its systems. It helps them understand that even if they are personally not anti-LGBT, the system is, and so their actions are indirectly transphobic or homophobic. And that’s unfortunate, but a lot of people still don’t get the nuance of institutionalized discrimination.



Speaking of Singapore’s sociopolitical climate, what would you say was the biggest setback throughout your journey of running Heckin’ Unicorn?


I think our biggest setback would have to be the institutionalized discrimination that the business faces.


For example, on Facebook, because we are a business that has products and run ADs, what used to happen pretty much every single week is that my products will get flagged as “going against community guidelines'', and it’s just crazy, because those are just pins. So every time that happens and I flag it up for a human moderator to review the product, they will reinstate it because come on, it's just a pin, it's not against any guideline! For this, it doesn’t really affect my business that much, but it's an example the inherent bias in the system. And the only reason why they would have been flagged as “crude” or “not allowed” is because they are queer products. I don’t think if you’re selling shoes or pants, your products will be flagged as inappropriate.


And last year in November, our AD account was actually suspended by Facebook for two weeks because they claimed that there was a payment issue, and November is the peak retail period, so that had a direct and quite a severe impact on the business. I checked with my bank and the bank balance, and all the payments were paid on time, so I couldn’t find the reason why it was suspended. Facebook separately asked me to upload my personal ID to their system. It seemed like a totally unrelated Facebook issue, but once I uploaded my ID, the payment issue was suddenly resolved and my ad account unsuspended.


There wasn’t any evidence, really, that can prove that these two situations are the same because it's only one incident, but the fact is that they happened within the same period, and once the ID issue was resolved, my payment issue was resolved. It’s something that I didn’t expect would happen since Facebook tends to be quite inclusive, but apparently not.


What were some of the risks you had to take to run Heckin’ Unicorn and what made them worth it?


I think the legal, and I guess political, climate of Singapore needs to be understood. We don't really have freedom of speech, so things are very different from countries like Taiwan or the US where you can pretty much say anything and get away with it. In Singapore, the moment you say something that is critical of, let's say the government, and it’s not true, you’ll get into trouble. So when it comes to Heckin’ Unicorn, especially for the blog, this environment, in a way, does have an effect because there’s just this level of fear — to some degree, paranoia — for me to just be very very cautious when I phrase certain criticism.


Essentially what it means is that whenever we publish our articles, we’ll try our best to make sure that everything is factually correct, that it's not just some crazy conspiracy theory, but beyond that, the wording has to be very careful: claims have to be phrased as claims, and not truth or fact. And this has reached the point where pretty much every other article we publish, I will get my friends or friends of friends who are lawyers, to help vet through the article, just to make sure I wouldn’t get into any sort of legal problems.


It is very stressful, but I can't help it because I just feel very paranoid, but it's worth it, it’s always worth it. Because in the end, it comes from a place of truth. We’re not trying to make things up or trying to misquote people, or piece together partial facts to paint a different picture. It’s that we know that these things are happening, and we’re trying to source through different people, what they’ve said, what they’ve experienced, to put together a coherent and, as far as we are able to humanly tell, a factually accurate representation of the things that are happening. So it’s definitely worth it, because people need to know what’s happening.



How would you describe the role of arts and literature in your personal becoming and your part in LGBTQ+ activism?


I think queer music is quite empowering. It just feels different. And it includes songs that are made for queer listeners, or songs that are made by queer performers, or about queer existence in general. Especially when it’s by, let’s say, a queer singer, and if it’s a love song, in my mind it’s just like “okay this is a queer song”, even though nothing in the lyrics really says that the person that they are singing to is the same gender, but I just feel it because the singer is queer.


And also queer novels and queer books. They always feel different, you feel a lot more represented, you feel like you are seen as a person, and you feel like you exist within society. And sometimes, you just don’t feel like it, especially when you look at the mainstream media, in Singapore at least. For example, in the 2021 NDP (National Day Parade) Song, the MV feels very overwhelmingly straight. I don't see myself in it, and I am an Chinese man in Singapore, and I don't see myself in it, that’s saying something! Can you imagine other minorities?


So sometimes when you just don’t feel seen in society, all these queer music, literature, books, they help you in a very escapist way. You feel like you exist, and that your stories are being told, and that’s very very important; that’s part of the reason why I started The Unicorn Library.


What would you say is most rewarding about running Heckin’ Unicorn?



The most obvious would probably be allowing people to show off a bit about themselves by wearing the products without being afraid of being outed, or their parents finding out what they mean.


Also, moments where customers or followers send messages or even send me physical letters about how essentially how Heckin’ Unicorn helped them a bit is also really rewarding. I was quite surprised, pleasantly surprised.


So those are the most straightforward ones, but there are the moments where people just feel happy that queer issues are being made norm, that there is someone, or some brand, in Singapore, who thinks its worth it to call out the bullshit and discrimination that exists here, despite what the extremely powerful politicians are saying. And so I think those are probably the moments that made me feel like it's worth doing this, and that some of the risk is worth taking on. Essentially, it just makes me feel like I am helping someone, and that is the best part of running Heckin’ Unicorn.


Do you plan on expanding Heckin’ Unicorn beyond an online brand or through new projects in the future?


Before COVID happened, we used to have physical booths at different pop-up events every now and then, it’s very tiring, but it’s very fun, because you get to meet people face to face. And I’m an introvert, so I don’t usually like meeting new people, but meeting queer people, I guess, is different.


I think once COVID blows over and we can start having mass physical events, I will be happy to have pop-up booths.


It would be amazing if I could be in Taiwan though. If I had to the chance to go to Taipei Pride, I would do it, but for now, I'm not sure what else is in stall yet. And I'm always thinking of new ideas, new products, new types of content, but as of now, there are many ideas that I haven’t really had the time to work on yet.


 
"We are lucky today not by chance, but by the decades of work that previous activists have put in, and we would never have progress if we, ourselves, also put in effort for the future generation."
 

As the bravery and strength of Singapore’s LGBTQ+ activists continue to pave the path to justice and equality, remembering their works and giving back to the community cannot be forgotten:)


To support Heckin’ Unicorn, you can:

You can also find and follow them on:

Kommentare


bottom of page