This is a story of pride, passion, unicorns, and an Instagram ad that led me to something wonderful.
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Heckin’ Unicorn is a Singapore-based brand that designs unique LGBTQIA+ merch. According to the website, all products are designed by their “resident Singaporean unicorn.” I was lucky enough to get to interview the unicorn himself, Heckin’ Unicorn founder Teo Yu Sheng.
Teo Yu Sheng founded Heckin’ Unicorn a little over two years ago. He had a few motivations to start this project. Some years ago, Yu Sheng traveled to San Francisco on a short university trip, where he visited the famous “gay capital of San Francisco”, Castro (the neighborhood that elected Harvey Milk to office). He was excited to buy pride merchandise but was left disappointed. “Most of them were quite boring,” he says. “A lot of them were just the rainbow flag pasted on different shapes and media. Tote bags with rainbow flags, square pins with rainbow flags… just like permutations of rainbow flags. I later realized that lots of amazing and cute pride products exist — just not in brick and mortar shops.” Yu Sheng was a product and UX designer – he knew he could do this too.
Puns and Discreet Designs
So began Heckin’ Unicorn – first as a side project. Yu Sheng started off by designing six pins. As in the Instagram post above, they could not definitively be identified as pride pins, unless you looked closely and already knew the lingo. “A lot of the designs are inspired by puns or inside jokes.” He points to the bicycle pin as an example. “If you are an outsider, the bicycle just looks like a bicycle. But if you are within the community, you realize that the bicycle has the bisexual colors.”
He conducts research on inside jokes within the LGBTQIA+ community and gathers his ideas for discreet designs from there. “The idea behind that is, in Singapore, the acceptance is just not there yet,” he explains. “A lot of people are closeted to some extent.” In this regard, Yu Sheng considers himself lucky. “I am in quite a privileged position. Not really financially, but more in terms of my existence as a queer person in Singapore.” Yu Sheng is out to his family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom have accepted him.
Not everyone in Singapore is as fortunate. This was another motivation behind Heckin’ Unicorn, the desire to use his position and skills to push for change and make people feel proud about themselves. Yu Sheng thinks that closeted people are the ones who most need to feel self-pride and self-love. The discreet designs are a way for the most vulnerable members of the community to feel pride and acceptance.
LGBTQIA+ Laws in Singapore
Singapore is a very conservative country – Section 377A of the Penal Code in Singapore prohibits sex between consenting male adults. But is it illegal to be queer in Singapore? According to Yu Sheng, not really, but kind of. It is important to understand the local culture and nuance when talking about the law and the LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore. The law still exists, but people are not really penalized under it. The law in its direct form seems to cause less harm than it does in its indirect form, which is why activists in Singapore are fighting to get it repealed.
“This law is sort of the foundation of all the institutionalized discrimination,” says Yu Sheng. The Heckin’ Unicorn website has a blog in which Yu Sheng addresses issues faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in Singapore. I ask him how it works running the blog and running a queer company in Singapore – does he censor himself anywhere? “You can be critical, but you just need to be very careful with how you word things,” he replies. “That’s the thin line that I’m trying to walk.”
As a queer person growing up in Singapore, the culture makes it such that you don’t really know what it is to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Many politicians in Singapore have asked that society be allowed to naturally progress on LGBTQIA+ issues in its own time. But how can this happen if society’s eyes and ears are closed to their struggles? “That’s the main idea behind the blog,” he says. “To write more in-depth articles about queer issues.”
The Unicorn Library
The Unicorn Library is a completely free online library by Heckin’ Unicorn, featuring LGBTQIA+ characters and writings by LGBTQIA+ authors. Yu Sheng got the idea to start this when he read a book called Peculiar Chris by Johann S. Lee. It was the first time he ever saw himself, a gay Chinese man in Singapore, represented in literature – and this was just a few years ago. The book made him realize just how important representation was. Most people who borrow from the library tend to be younger people who don’t have access to LGBTQIA+ literature in their schools or homes. Yu Sheng wants them to know that even if they have not seen representations of themselves when they were growing up, such representations do exist. “It’s important for them to know that their stories are being told and that they are not alone.”
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Yu Sheng thinks it will be interesting to see if he can run a business that pushes for change to happen faster. Although he loves it, the work can get exhausting at times. “Now my whole life is about queer identities,” he says, laughing. “I think one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s okay for me to take a break. And it’s okay for me to not respond to everything that happens because I’m just one person.”
He may be just one person, but I can see that he is doing a lot for the LGBTQIA+ community in and outside of Singapore. I, for one, am really excited to see new designs and hear more from this creative Singaporean unicorn.
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