For Singapore’s LGBTQ+ Activists, Repealing Section 377A Is Only the First Step

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For Singapore’s LGBTQ+ Activists, Repealing Section 377A Is Only the First Step

As the government prepares to repeal the discriminatory colonial-era law, LGBTQ+ activists reflect on what comes next.

For Singapore’s LGBTQ+ Activists, Repealing Section 377A Is Only the First Step

The LGBTQ+ rights group Pink Dot SG holds its annual gathering at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, Singapore, June 18, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/Pink Dot SG

“The government will repeal [Section] 377A, and decriminalize sex between men. I believe this is the right thing to do, and something most Singaporeans will now accept,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during his English speech at the National Day Rally (NDR) on August 21. For LGBTQ+ individuals and activists across the country, these words marked a turning point: an end to the criminalization of male homosexuality, and a decisive first step on the long journey toward equality in the Lion City.

The announcement, however, came with an asterisk: while Section 377A will be repealed, Lee simultaneously announced that the government “will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage,” defined in the country’s constitution as the union “between one man and one woman.”

While this led many conservative groups to believe this definition of marriage would be enshrined in the constitution, Minister of Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam clarified the following day that this wouldn’t be the case. Instead, he explained that the constitution would be amended to grant Parliament the ability to define the institution of marriage and make social policy based on this definition. Ultimately, he assured that political parties or groups that want to push for same-sex marriage would be able to do so.

News of the repeal was welcomed with overwhelming joy in Singapore’s queer spaces. At Tantric, one of the city’s landmark gay bars, the announcement came in the middle of a drag performance, prompting a massive wave of cheers and acclamations. Expressing their excitement, many attendees shed tears of joy. “This is so exciting, that comes with the announcement,” one party-goer told me. “There are so many people we owe this repeal to, […] so much work that went into getting this law repealed,” said another.

After the show, one of the drag performers added: “There’s obviously much more that needs to be done, and the constitutional amendment is definitely sending mixed signals. But for tonight, [let’s] just celebrate.”

In a way, it was no big surprise that the news of Section 377A’s repeal would break at this year’s NDR. The rally is one of the most significant events on Singapore’s political calendar, when the prime minister reflects on the social, political, and economic achievements of the past year and announces the government’s political trajectory for the upcoming year. In this sense, Section 377A was inevitably going to be mentioned.

The clause had been at the forefront of the media, both locally and abroad, since a Supreme Court decision in February ruled that the provision did not violate the country’s constitution. The ruling came in response to an appeal, brought forward by activists Johnson Ong Ming, Bryan Choong, and Roy Tan Seng Kee, following a 2018 constitutional challenge in which all three men argued that the clause deprived gay Singaporeans of “life or personal liberty” under Article 9(1) of the Constitution of Singapore.

While the appeal fell short of getting Section 377A repealed at the time, it played a significant role in shifting discussions about the clause into the mainstream. A week before Lee’s NDR address, I met with Benjamin Xue, co-founder of LGBTQ+ youth support and engagement group Young OUT Here (YOH), who spoke on the pace at which queer topics had appeared in the city’s media landscape. “Since the latest ruling, we’ve seen 15 or 16 LGBTQ+-related news in mainstream media, and it’s only August,” he said, adding that this much coverage was “unprecedented.” This remains a significant step forward in a country where the media still carefully filters content that is deemed politically sensitive, a label that has repeatedly applied to LGBTQ+ news.

In between sips of his cold brew, Xue reminisced about the establishment of YOH 16 years ago: “I was 23 at the time working with Action for AIDS [an organization that provides anonymous HIV testing and other community services to gay Singaporeans] and noticed a large number of young queers who would come … Many of them were scared and didn’t have anyone to turn to… because they couldn’t come out to their families.”

In this context, Xue and some of his fellow volunteers got the idea to launch an LGBTQ+ organization centered on queer youths that would provide a safe space for them to meet, express themselves, and build a community. “Most safe spaces [for queer people] at the time were limited to bars and nightclubs,” he said, “we wanted to build an inclusive environment without alcohol.”

In the years since starting YOH, Xue points to a change in the way young queers have come to define and embrace their sexuality. He said that he and his colleagues started YOH at a time when “there was no Tumblr, no Facebook, no TikTok,” and “reaching out to potential volunteers was hard.” “There was a culture of shame around coming out that affected young LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “In today’s social media climate, people usually come out online first, and then to their parents” if it’s safe to do so.

According to Xue, this increasing identity affirmation among the young queer generation has significantly shaped the latest iteration of Pink Dot, Singapore’s largest and most politically significant LGBTQ+ gathering. This year’s edition marked the first in-person Pink Dot since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the city in January 2020, resulting in the 2020 and 2021 iterations of the event being moved to a Facebook livestream. In light of Section 377A’s increasing relevance in the mainstream media, and after two years apart, Pink Dot 14 placed an emphasis the community’s need to come together to push for change.

“This year was a very young crowd,” Xue said. “We saw families coming together, and it was great seeing Members of Parliament attend as well.” While MPs from the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) had attended previous Pink Dot events, this year’s edition marked the first time an MP from the ruling People’s Action Party attended. Xue emphasized the importance of the ruling party attending such an event with regards to agenda-setting, hinting at a change in policy favorable to accommodating LGBTQ+ people.

However, just as the announcement of Section 377A’s repeal at the NDR was expected, there was equal apprehension that more conservative demands would be met as well. Nigel Ng, a local LGBTQ+ activist who hosted an NDR watch party with his friends, spoke in a phone conversation on the dual feelings he witnessed and experienced that night. We are “definitely worried anything will be added to make the road further up harder for partnerships,” Ng said. “There was ensuing debate after about enshrining discrimination [or being] happy that 377A was at least repealed.”

Such apprehension is far from unfounded, particularly in light of strong pushback against the repeal of Section 377A that has grown alongside some anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments among the city’s most conservative individuals.

Such examples include the now infamous Hwa Chong incident on July 13, when a school counselor at Hwa Chong Institution (HCI), an independent secondary school, delivered a presentation on sexual education which drew on outright homophobic points. The presentation slides, which were later leaked on social media by HCI students and published by a local news outlet, presented dubious correlations between homosexuality and pedophilia, framing LGBTQ+ individuals as sexual abusers who were more prone to drug addiction and higher suicide rates.

The following week, an HCI representative stated that the presentation materials had not been approved by the school board and that the scope went beyond the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s designated sexual education slides, and that the counselor had been reprimanded. On August 2, it was announced the counselor had been suspended from all duties.

While condemning the incident, Xue saw a glimmer of hope in the way public opinion responded to the situation: “We received messages from current students and alumni saying ‘this isn’t Hwa Chong, this isn’t us, this is unacceptable,’” he said. “Even amid a largely conservative society, many Singaporeans felt that the counselor’s presentation crossed a line. Fifteen years ago, [such support] would’ve been unthinkable.”

A few days after the presentation slides leaked on social media, a group of HCI alumni wrote an open letter addressed to the institution’s student and parent community. The letter, which was then posted online, displayed overwhelming alumni support for LGBTQ+ students who were affected by the counselor’s presentation.

Some conservative efforts have explicitly advocated for the preservation of Section 377A, as demonstrated by the “Protect Singapore Townhall” organized at Singapore Expo on July 23. The event, which aimed to raise awareness about the impact of LGBTQ+ activism in the city-state, notably vis-à-vis the potential repeal of Section 377A, drew a crowd of over 1,300, according to organizers Jason Wong and Mohd Khair.

The event sparked much controversy among Singapore’s LGBTQ+ population, with many questioning its legality with regards to Singapore’s strict law about political gatherings. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs later released a statement saying that the townhall did not breach the law, as it supported the current legislation rather than challenging it.

The following week, Wong and Khair co-authored an opinion article which was published in The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading news outlet. The newspaper faced backlash for juxtaposing this piece next to another opinion piece, co-authored by Anthea Ong and Rayner Tan, raising awareness about the mental health struggles of LGBTQ+ people, based on evidence from the authors’ research.

AWARE, a women’s rights and gender equality group in Singapore, posted a statement on social media denouncing the decision to publish both pieces on the same page. In their statement, the organization emphasized the lack of peer-reviewed scientific research to back up Wong and Khair’s claims, some of which echo homophobic talking points that have long been a staple of American conservatism, such as the need to “put children first” and that decriminalizing homosexual acts would damage the sanctity of marriage. “If LGBTQ+ people are allowed to live more authentic lives, it shouldn’t damage family values; it should strengthen them instead. Not all families are the same,” argued Xue.

Prior to this year’s NDR speech, the government had repeatedly emphasized its position that marriage was exclusively the union between a man and a woman. In his speech, Lee rearticulated this principle, stating that Singapore would uphold “prevailing social norms and values” and that traditional family will remain the “building block of society.” In a city like Singapore, where marriage lies at the core of social policy, the illegality of same-sex marriage carries systemic implications for same-sex couples and families.

Married couples are prioritized for home rental and ownership, particularly in the public housing market which encompasses the vast majority of rental property in the island-state. The exclusion of same-sex marriage or lack of legal provisions for same-sex relationships effectively ostracizes many queer individuals from the housing market. “Singapore’s social policy is intrinsically linked to marriage,” Xue added. “In this context, we need same-sex marriage to achieve equality down the line.”

In the meantime, Xue believes “the MSF [Ministry of Social and Family Development] needs family groups to be more accepting and to lower the age limit on when the topic [of sexuality] can be brought up in schools.” The imposed age limit of 18 prevents discussion of homosexuality in primary and secondary educational institutions. However, Xue points out that “young people are coming out regardless of whether the government thinks they are old enough to do so.”

Echoing these points, many activists and LGBTQ+ organizations in the city have worked to challenge heteronormative understandings of what family and marriage mean. One notable project was a photo exhibition titled Rainbow Families, which ran from June 24 to July 3 at The Projector, one of Singapore’s landmark queer-friendly spaces. The project, undertaken by LGBTQ+ content platform Kai Unclassified, showcased portraits of queer families in Singapore.

While the exhibition attracted a large audience, even running for two more days than initially scheduled, it also faced restriction from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), Singapore’s media regulatory board, which limited access to the exhibition to individuals aged 18 or over. Under the current IMDA guidelines, media depicting homosexuality as a sub-plot are restricted to audiences aged 18 and over. In media where homosexuality is featured more prominently, or where same-sex marriage or parenting is depicted, the IMDA imposes an R21 rating. In the aftermath of Lee’s NDR address, Singapore’s Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) clarified that it had no plans to change or remove the current age ratings on LGBTQ+ content in the media.

Xue argued that such restrictions limit the representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in the Singaporean media landscape. This effectively hinders positive change in social values, which is required beyond repealing Section 377A if Singapore wants to better accommodate queer individuals within society. “The MCI needs to adjust their language on censorship and drop restrictions on homosexuality,” he said. “The ministry holds the key to the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, and whether we can move forward with homosexuality relies on portraying LGBTQ+ lives in more neutral, more nuanced, and down the line more positive light.”

As Singapore moves toward repeal of Section 377A, there is a general consensus among the local LGBTQ+ community that more change is needed to make queer individuals valued members of society, beyond simple decriminalization. Nonetheless, the collective efforts and actions undertaken by activists that have led up to the repeal of 377A signal hope that, as the community’s activism grows in scope and reach, so do the prospects for equality in the Lion City.