Singapore: Religious Homophobia, Gay Activism & Repealing the Sodomy Law

BACKGROUND:

In 2005, the Singapore government cancelled Nation Party, a mammoth gathering of queer people and their allies, held every August since 2001. One report indicates the first Nation Party had 1,500 people; by 2004, there were 8,000. In response to the cancellation, some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists organized Indignation, designed to be a series of events that would de-emphasize the “party” aspects of gay culture and instead provide a forum for LGBT creative expression and political commentary. In August 2007, several public Indignation events were banned on the basis that they “promoted a gay lifestyle.”

On the other hand, in November 2006, the government first announced that it might repeal Article 3771 . Unlike Article 377A2 which, specifically addressed sex between men, Article 377 criminalized what was considered unnatural sex acts between heterosexuals. LGBT activists argued that removing 377 and retaining 377A amounted to discrimination. This ramped up the public debates. At the forefront of public opposition to repealing 377A was the small but vocal population of Singaporean Christian fundamentalists. They vehemently supported retaining 377A and pushed the government to also criminalize lesbianism since the law was silent on this.

Three Singaporean activists spoke to IGLHRC about their efforts to dispel myths, shift attitudes, and change the minds of government and society so that Singapore’s LGBT communities can live openly and with dignity. Each interview was conducted separately but similar questions were used and the responses are presented next to each other for this article.

Eileena Lee: I am a lesbian activist, former president of People Like US, a gay advocacy group, and one of the founders of Pelangi Pride Centre that promotes positive self esteem among LGBT people and sexual health for the prevention of sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS.

Alex Au: I am a gay activist, one of the organizers of Indignation Pride events, and a social commentator on my blog, Yawning Bread.

Rev. Yap Kim Hao: I am a former Methodist bishop and currently a pastoral counselor at Free Community Churches, which is currently the only church in Singapore open to gays and lesbians and queer people.

Grace Poore: Eileena, what kinds of activities do you do at Pelangi Pride Center?

EL: We run monthly events about coming out. We expose gay people to positive information about themselves. We also have events for straight people to come to so they can understand LGBTQ issues and we put our information in libraries. We run activities for parents of gay people. We talk about ourselves as Singaporeans who are part of a family unit.

GP: Singapore’s Indignation is considered by local and international press as Singapore’s Gay Pride season. In 2007, several events during the two-week Indignation were banned – including a talk by a Canadian law professor on sexual orientation in international law focusing on Asia and a photography exhibit of 80 posed shots of clothed gay couples kissing. This was your photo exhibit, Alex. Talk about the ban.

AA: I am not altogether surprised that it was disallowed. The very purpose of attempting an exhibit like this was to test the boundaries of the government because it is not something that’s been done before. And the ban confirmed a pessimistic view of Singapore, not an optimistic view. Bans also raise the profile of the events. I did end up doing nine slide shows where I showed some of the images that were banned and gave talks with each show. So it was converted from a static exhibit to a dynamic one.

GP: Were reasons given for the ban?

AA: Because it promoted a homosexual lifestyle. That’s the language they used. So the censorship was not predicated on any law. It’s usually because they don’t want any positive portrayal of homosexuals; they are happy to allow negative portrayals. Like if there’s a movie where the homosexual person dies they will not ban it but if he or she lives happily ever after then it’s considered promoting a lifestyle and they ban it. This kind of censorship is not only on gay men’s work. It also affects work produced by lesbians even if the law itself does not criminalize lesbianism

GP: Eileena, you don’t support Indignation. Why?

EL: I don’t agree with the premise of the Indignation Campaign, which started in 2005 as a reaction to the government banning the Nation Party. Pride for me is being proud of who we are. Indignation tells people we are different from everybody else. I don’t see this as empowering gay people. People need to come out but in order to come out we have to educate our own families, our own circles, and we have to educate the straight community. It’s hard to educate people if we are telling them that we are different. Also, Indignation uses a negative forum to be Prideful. LGBTQ communities don’t need to say we are Singaporean in an antagonistic way.

GP: Is there an advantage to taking the less antagonistic approach?

EL: Some gay people are not as out as me and for them to attend something like Indignation, it may not be safe because it is all so high profile.

GP: Alex, is the high profile of Indignation frightening off LGBT people from participating and isn’t this having a negative impact on the very people you want to galvanize?

AA: My observation is that in the last 10 years in Singapore, there’s been a massive coming out despite how much flak we get because, in Singapore, we are still quite safe, we are not arrested for participating in public Pride events, and most of us are accepted by our families. Some of our families speak up on our behalf. So more gay people are seeing Indignation as something positive. Also, the awareness about gays and lesbians in the general society has gone up. Six months ago, a young college person who was interviewed by the press said that if you ask college students, they all say they know at least one gay and lesbian person. In fact, Singapore Polytechnic did a survey recently of Singaporeans between the age of 15 and 29. And 50% of people in this age group thought homosexuality was acceptable. This represents a massive change from the generation 10 years ago.

EL: How you go about organizing is crucial. When you organize things that you know are going be banned that’s taking an antagonistic approach. Part of the process of Indignation is to test the waters with the government. Pelangi Pride Center has different goals. In the same week of the banned activities we organized a talk by Rev. Oyoung WenFang [the first openly gay Malaysian Chinese pastor ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches]. Over 80 people attended and the event wasn’t banned. We reached out to our own communities and we publicized it in the mainstream press. The point of the publicity was about the book he wrote. A few years ago, we organized a coming out event with a local NGO (non-governmental organization). Someone asked what is this about and we said it’s about a mother’s love for her child. So our approach is not to be antagonistic or on the offensive.

GP: Do you think the ban of your photo exhibit was because gay people were kissing or because public kissing between anyone, including heterosexuals is frowned on in a conservative Asian culture?

AA: But gay people jogging and having a picnic in the park were also banned events at Indignation. So this is not about Asian culture but about Bible belt homophobia from America transported to Singapore. The language used by the Media Authority for the ban was clearly cut and paste language from America. These were the same people in favor of keeping the sodomy law, who use references to Leviticus and the Christian god. So you get a sense that opposition to repealing the existing law is by church fundamentalists. Yet Christianity only makes up 15 percent of Singapore. Many high level civil servants are themselves Charismatic Christians. Very much like what’s happened in the Bush administration.

GP: But Singapore is majority non-Christian. What is this majority doing about the homophobia from the fundamentalist Christians?

Rev YKH: The Buddhists are little bit divided on the Gay issue. They are not necessarily anti-Gay but because they have a different view on sexuality, they don’t take a position on homosexuality. It’s the fundamentalist Christians who are vocal so the debate tends to be controlled and shaped by them. The religious climate shifted in Singapore around the 1970s. Charismatic influence from America came here and has penetrated most of the churches now. People who grew up in these charismatic movements are in the forefront of the anti-gay movement in Singapore and they mobilized the Church of the Savior to be on a battle against gays. There’s also the impact of Focus On The Family, which is from America, and uses the gay issue to win support for its mission. It emphasizes traditional family values. And they have set up an office in Singapore which is run by a former Methodist parishioner. Church of the Savior also set up a therapy program called Choices. It’s an ex-gay program and a lot of gay people tried it out and left because it doesn’t work for most people. Some of the gays who went through it came out and started organizing Indignation.

GP: Are there no progressive Christians in Singapore to counter the fundamentalists?

Rev YKH: Many open-minded people have just given up on churches. The more liberal are not becoming part of church leadership. They are finding more satisfaction in secular work and non-church work. When there’s pastoral leadership it’s gone into the charismatic movement. And most of the church members have responded to the charismatic approach. So when there are liberal pastors who are gay supportive, they have to be closeted because their membership is not in favor of gay people.

GP: Of the 15 percent of Christians in Singapore, what portion is fundamentalist?

Rev YKH: They are in the majority, especially the younger people. The older Christians remain liberal because they have not joined the charismatic circles.

GP: Why does it appeal to the younger people?

Rev YKH: The appeal for the younger people is the music and theater, and with the uncertainties they face – the charismatic church, which is more prescriptive, gives them something they’re looking for. These young people are not from poor families but from the middle class and more affluent families.

GP: It’s ironic that the Singapore government has allowed Christian fundamentalism from the west to have such an influence while it has not been as open to rights of gays and lesbians, which is also often seen as the product of western influence.

AA: Singaporeans have been educated to be utilitarian. They may understand what you are saying about rights of gays and lesbians but the typical culture of people in Singapore is not to speak out. Also, ours is the kind of society that is not terribly interested in gay and lesbian history. If you look at the history of Asian societies, like that of the Javanese, and of the societies in Thailand and China, there is a recognition of homosexual relationships and the third gender. None of these societies has had a major clamp down on homosexuals or same-sex relationships. Homophobia came into this part of the world through colonizers and missionaries.

Rev YKH: By and large the majority in society are not concerned about the gay issue but the vocal minority have whipped up the anti gay sentiment. And the government is reluctant to push against public sentiment. Privately they [the government] will support MSM programs, even financially, but they have to keep saying Singapore is a conservative society that’s afraid to embrace gay people.

GP: What is your take on Article 377 and Article 377A of the Singapore Penal Code?

EL: The whole penal code argument is ridiculous. If they are going to decriminalize anal sex for straight people then why not also for gay people? Are they are only thinking that gay people commit sodomy?

GP: Isn’t the problem with the use of the term, sodomy? Doesn't it convey crime? Shouldn't sodomy be used to refer to rape and sexual assault, not for consensual sex?

EL: People see anal sex between gay men as violent and non-consensual. So it’s not same-sex love that people feel is wrong but anal sex. The idea of anal sex is taken as an affront. For instance, many people I have spoken to are a lot more accepting of gay women because they believe lesbians don’t perform anal sex and because there’s no penis in a lesbian relationship. Hence, most straight people think that gay women don’t have sex. At the same time, the image people have of all homosexuals is a villainous picture. They believe that gays are pedophiles and that gay relationships are predatory.

GP: The sodomy law in Singapore is silent on lesbianism. Where does that leave the lesbian community?

EL: Just because we are not included in the law doesn’t mean we are accepted.
We are invisible. It’s like we don’t exist. And because there are no anti-discrimination policies and no laws in place, anything can happen. There’s nothing to protect us when something does happen. For instance if a lesbian couple buys a house, one partner dies who does it go to – the other partner or the family because the family automatically inherits the property? If the will is written can the family contest it because same sex relationships are not accepted by the State? So the law may be silent on lesbians but gay women can also be discriminated against. Many lesbians are not aware of 377A…they should also get into 377A, they need to speak out against 377A.

GP: Since there already is constitutional protection for other minorities in Singapore based on ethnicity, religion, and language, what is the government’s resistance to repealing 377A and protecting LGBT people also as a minority community?

AA: The discussion is much wider than 377A. It is likely the government will draw a line between gays and lesbians and other minority groups because the Constitutional protection for other groups is not because of a rejected identity, there’s no issue with not conforming with heteronormativity. At the same time, homosexuality is conflated with pedophilia. That’s like conflating consensual sex with rape. There’s a victim in the case of assault and pedophilia, which is very different from consensual relationships between people in gay relationships.

Rev YKH: Singapore doesn’t approach the gay issue as a human rights issue but a globalization issue. It’s a very pragmatic approach. If we are open, people will come here. More of the artistic element will come here. Tanjong Pagar [in the business district of Singapore and considered a historic area] will become a gay district and the government will project Singapore as an international city. So purely for economic reasons, things will change. After all, this is a puritanical society that allows gambling. So we can be open to gay culture.

AA: 377A has to do with sodomy and it is as much a heterosexual issue as it is a homosexual issue. I am confident that the law will be repealed in about 5-10 years. But my concern is that even after repealing 377A there will be continued policies that discriminate against homosexuals. I mean, Lee Kuan Yew [former prime minister and currently the Minister Mentor] says that homosexuality should be allowed as long as it doesn’t infect the heartland.3 What does that mean – get away with the absolute minimum liberalization? Also, I fear it may take so long to repeal 377A that the cost that Singapore pays in terms of bad press internationally will accrue – turning away many talents and investments.

EL: I think what will happen in the near future is that 377 of the Penal Code which is about anal sex between straight couples will be repealed, and a few years after that Singaporeans will recognize how ridiculous it is to retain 377A, which targets MSM [men having sex with men], and the government will repeal it. So instead of having a big ceremony to repeal 377A, they will try to ease our society into this so that one day, sexuality won’t matter anymore. That’s how the government works here – using a slow incremental process. For instance, after what the Minister Mentor said about the gay issue, there have been press interviews with two or three members of parliament [MPs], and they have been gay affirmative.

AA: But they [the two MPs] are nailed by other MPs who say they are not doing their job because they should be reflecting the views of the people, the assumption being that people’s views are conservative.

GP: What is coming out like in Singapore? Is it difficult because of the conservatism?

AA: Generally gays and lesbians don’t have a very hard time telling classmates. From anecdotal information that I’ve heard, people with the hardest time coming out are those whose families are Christian. Their parents tend to be the most homophobic. The Confucianist understanding of family is very patriarchal, and continuing the family line is critically important. When a family has no daughters, to keep the family name going, they happily adopt sons from other families to continue preserve the surname. So the Chinese idea of family is very different from the usual nuclear idea of family, it’s a very extended family, lots of adoptions. Traditional families were polygamous as recently as two generations ago. Men had many wives. But not any more. So to use the word conservative to us does not apply. Singaporeans are not necessarily looking at family as self-procreating.

EL: I came out to my mother 10 years ago. At the start she was as homophobic as anyone I know but she has come a long way. With availability of information it’s easier for me to help her understand. I have friends over to the house. I expose her to the work I do and give her the opportunity to interact with gay men and women in my life. She now gives talks at the Pelangi Pride Centre and also for SAFE, which is Singapore’s version of PFLAG.

GP: What were some of the barriers your mother had about accepting you?

EL: Her barrier was needing to know that I’d be okay – because in her mind gay relationships can’t be long term. There’s a big barrier in our society to accepting us because the homosexual relationship is not seen as a loving relationship but a deviant and overtly sexual relationship.

GP: What’s the LGBT movement doing in Singapore to change the social climate?

AA: There are those working on the HIV health front who I believe are building good bridges with the health ministry to persuade them that there are rising rates of HIV and AIDs in Singapore and they should stop the homophobia and repeal the sodomy laws and engage with gay people. There are people like me who write blogs and raise our opinions freely so that those who are monitoring the blogs see that people proposing the repeal of the sodomy law are outnumbering the anti-repeal people.

EL: Right now people think the gay issue is a separate issue. It is not. We are a part of the family unit. Those against us constantly keep invoking the phantom conservative majority. What gay people need to do is more grassroots lobbying and reach out to the heartlanders. And we all have to come out to people we love and they are the people who will lobby for us because their voices will be heard better and their voices will be louder.

Rev YKH: We are trying to mobilize the liberal Christians. On September 29, NGOs and churches together are holding an AIDS awareness program. The government is sending a key person. To avoid AIDS being associated with gays, we are looking at how AIDS affects women and children. We are also encouraging prominent gay people to come out so they can be role models. We are trying to encourage the Free Community Church to have a public discussion about the issue. And we are asking gay people to project the positive aspects of gay life not only the sorrows.

GP: You’re a non-gay Christian pastor, and you support LGBT people. How do you respond to your fellow Christian critics?

Rev YKH: It’s reinterpretation of the biblical teachings. Charismatics know from an intellectual standpoint that there are many different interpretations of the teachings [of Christ], Roman and Greek interpretations for example. Yet, they have to keep saying that there is only one interpretation, the literal one. They also like to say, hate the sin and love the sinner, yet they hate people who support gays. They feel anyone who supports gays people is trying to promote the gay lifestyle, and they believe that gays can convert heterosexual people to become gay. That’s their fear. And I say, why would heterosexuals convert to homosexuality? As for the non-Charismatics who oppose gays, I say, once upon a time, marrying a divorced person was an abomination to the Church. The Church has changed its position on this. So why not on the gay issue?

GP: What contributed to you not being homophobic?

YKH: It was a natural transition for me because I have always been interested in marginalized people and influenced by liberal missionaries. So when the gay issue came out five years ago, I was invited to be part of the movement.


NOTES

1- Article 377 of the Singapore Penal Act, 1871, states, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

2- Article 377A of the Singapore Penal Act, states: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”

3- In response to a caller on a CNN radio show on December 11, 1998, former prime minister and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew said: “Well, it's not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide. It's a question of what a society considers acceptable. And as you know, Singaporeans are by and large a very conservative, orthodox society, a very, I would say, completely different from, say, the United States and I don't think an aggressive gay rights movement would help. But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody.” In April 2007, Lee said in a Reuter’s report: "If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual -- because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes -- you can't help it. So why should we criminalize it? …Let's not go around like moral police ... barging into people's [bed] rooms. That's not our business… So you have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstances." A month later, Lee said, "Eventually the law against homosexual sex would have to be repealed.”