In Post-Repeal Singapore, LGBTQ Activists Work to Expand Family Structures

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ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

In Post-Repeal Singapore, LGBTQ Activists Work to Expand Family Structures

For this year’s Pink Dot campaign, the first since the repeal of Section 377A, queer Singaporeans hope to expand the definition of family in the city-state.

In Post-Repeal Singapore, LGBTQ Activists Work to Expand Family Structures

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

Ten months ago, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the city-state would do away with Section 377A, a colonial-era law prohibiting same-sex relations between consenting men. Since then, queer people have had to navigate an uneasy new reality in which male homosexuality is no longer a crime, while public discourse and mainstream media continue to push the idea that queer acceptance is antithetical to family values.

The desire to challenge this false dichotomy and reconcile queerness and family structure inspired Rainbow Families, a queer collective advocating for the love and acceptance of LGBTQ people in Singapore, to hold their sophomore exhibit under the theme “Dear Home.” The exhibit was an effort to showcase the many struggles faced by queer people and their families in Singapore, navigating between fear of rejection and seeking acceptance from their loved ones.

“We set up this exhibit hoping it would start conversations between queer people and their families,” explained Koh Zhi Kai, project lead of Rainbow Families. “The concept of home came up a lot after the repeal [of Section 377A] last year, and we started discussing what we could do to bring families together.”

“Our goal was to bring families together to help them understand each other,” added Yu Sheng Teo, design & operations lead at Rainbow Families. “Parents don’t always realize the extent of institutionalized discrimination their children face as queer people [in Singapore], and children also don’t realize that their parents are themselves embarking on a journey of acceptance.”

The campaign’s outreach was however complicated by restrictions from the Infocomm Media Development Authority, Singapore’s media regulatory board. Owing to the exhibition’s explicit themes of homosexuality, access was limited to individuals aged 18 or over, something that both Teo and Koh denounce, saying that these issues “are effectively erased from public discourse because of current restrictions”. Teo added that “an ease of media regulation guidelines would help destigmatize queer people, especially among the youths.”

The motivation behind the Rainbow Families exhibits echoes this year’s campaign launched by Pink Dot SG, Singapore’s biggest queer advocacy group and host of the city’s annual eponymous LGBTQ rally. This year’s campaign, which marks the organization’s 15th anniversary, started in late May with a promotional video titled “Celebrating All Families,” an ode to Singapore’s queer and non-traditional family units.

Clement Tan, Pink Dot SG spokesperson, explains that the video was largely inspired by the parliamentary sessions held last November before the repeal of Section 377A. He emphasized the phrase “protect family values,” which repeatedly came up during parliamentary proceedings, as particularly harmful, “advancing narratives of LGBTQ+ equality being a threat to ‘family values.’”

The road to repeal thereby became the catalyst for this year’s Pink Dot campaign, seeking to highlight the challenges of reconciling Singapore’s traditional family values with the city’s queer population. In this sense, the organization also worked to increase the reach and accessibility of its campaign by translating their video to Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil – the other three official languages of Singapore alongside English – for the first time.

Tan, who mentioned Pink Dot’s desire to make the campaign more inclusive for families that only use English as a second language, also touched on the importance of connecting queer language with Singaporeans’ mother tongues, which lies at the core of the city’s social cohesion project. “Each language carries its own unique nuances and cultural references that cannot be captured in a single video. By creating different versions of our campaign video in multiple languages, we hope to connect with Singaporeans on a deeper emotional level and expand space for empathy and solidarity,” he said.

In addition to language inclusivity, the organization adapted its outreach strategy, sharing the mother tongue videos on WhatsApp group chats and channels, which are more familiar and widely used among the city’s older population.

While this multilingual effort was warmly welcomed by queer Singaporeans for its inclusivity, the campaign’s online material has also faced backlash from conservative forces. The Malay language video specifically became the target of negative attention, with comments from Muslim conservative users condemning homosexuality, ultimately prompting Pink Dot to upload a note reminding users to refrain from using discriminatory or derogatory language.

This incident serves as a reminder that queer Muslims often face higher rejection from their community in Singapore as a result of an enforced dichotomy between Islam and queerness. “We want to push back against harmful narratives that pit LGBTQ+ people against family values. And we want to show that just because our versions of family don’t look a certain way doesn’t mean they are less valid, or less deserving of support or protection,” Tan reminds.

Despite the negative attention the Malay language campaign faced, overall social perceptions of queer families and parenting have slowly but steadily improved over the years. According to the 2023 LGBT+ Pride survey conducted by IPSOS, 55 percent of respondents In Singapore said they were in favor of same-sex couples getting some form of legal recognition, with 32 percent approving same-sex marriage.

With regards to parenting, 57 percent expressed their support for same-sex couples to obtain the right to legally adopt in Singapore, and 59 percent said they believed same-sex couples are just as likely to successfully raise their children as heterosexual parents, placing the city-state on the same rank as Japan, and several ranks ahead of South Korea, where only 38 percent of respondents expressed the same sentiment.

Although these numbers show a growing open-mindedness within Singaporean society, government policies have remained strongly antagonistic to queer parenthood and the rights of same-sex Singaporean couples to start families. The lack of legal recognition for same-sex relationships, together with the city-state’s social policy that prioritizes public resources such as housing or healthcare for married heterosexual couples, poses a significant number of barriers to queer people seeking parenthood.

James*, a local Singaporean gay man, highlights the many hurdles and obstacles he encountered on the road to becoming a father. He first points to the challenge of finding a surrogate mother, explaining that “[North American] agencies are usually used by gay fathers in Singapore,” owing to a “streamlined and legalized process,” in contrast to agencies elsewhere that may operate in the shadows, posing a legal and safety risks for both the prospective fathers and potential surrogates. However, the steep costs associated with surrogacy, which fluctuate between $100,000 to $200,000 in North American clinics, effectively shun same-sex couples from lower-income backgrounds.

James, who instead opted for an Asian-based surrogate agency, also brings up the highly contentious issue of legal recognition of the child upon returning to Singapore. As a result of being born abroad, even when one or both parents are Singaporean citizens, the child remains ineligible for citizenship, a situation further complicated by the illegality of surrogacy in the city-state, leaving them with few legal options to claim their parental rights over the child.

In the absence of Singaporean citizenship, parents are forced to accumulate short-term visas for their children to remain with them in Singapore, mainly tourist visas or student passes. Many turn to visa runs, when short-term residents of Singapore cross the border into neighboring Malaysia or take a short trip in the region, then re-enter the country to renew the tourist stamp on their child’s passport, which ranges from 30 to 90 days depending on the nationality that was assigned to the child at birth. James points to the extreme stress these visa  runs place on the parents, as the decision to grant entry to the child ultimately relies on the border agent, who can choose to refuse their entry at any time.

Faced with numerous legal hurdles, some fathers start exploring other routes in an attempt to legitimize their relationship with their children in Singapore. In 2018, a landmark ruling from the Singapore High Court approved a father’s bid to adopt his own child conceived via surrogacy in the U.S. The application had initially been rejected by a district judge after the father brought his child back to the city-state, but judges from the High Court approved the bid saying that adoption would significantly enhance the child’s prospect of remaining in Singapore.

Nonetheless, they also clearly stated that they did not endorse the couple’s decision to go against Singaporean social policy. While many hoped the ruling would pave the way for some form of legal recognition of queer parenthood, it instead led to the Minister for Social and Family Development amending Singapore’s Adoption of Children Act in May 2022 to restrict adoption for couples whose marriage is legally recognized in Singapore.

Speaking on this ruling, James expressed his frustration with what “could have been progress, but ended up setting the whole movement back.” He also said that cases like these are the reason why such few queer parents are willing to speak up on their issues in Singapore, fearing that too much spotlight might have unintended consequences for existing families.

The precariousness of queer parenthood, and the overall lack of information available outside of the U.S. context, is what prompted James to join forces with Proud Parents, a local organization providing online resources for queer parents. “Our goal is to work to increase the visibility of all queer families, which is why we picked a name that would include all queer parents, beyond just gay fathers and lesbian mothers,” says Proud Parents volunteer Bjorn Yeo.

James added that the organization also serves as a “conduit to tell our stories with a certain level of anonymity,” and recently expanded into workshops and educating people on queer parenting, and the different sets of legal challenges faced by gay men and lesbian women.

Ching Chia, Proud Parents volunteer, highlights the hurdles that prospective lesbian mothers encounter with regard to elective egg freezing and in vitro fertilization, as both procedures are currently reserved for legally married couples seeking to procreate. Turning to overseas fertility clinics becomes the next best available solution, but with each procedure costing tens of thousands of dollars, only wealthier couples can pursue that option. Although the birth mother can pass down Singaporean citizenship to her offspring, she remains the sole legal guardian, meaning that next of kin rights don’t extend to her partner.

Chia also points to the lack of provision for same-sex couples upon returning to Singapore, which automatically disqualifies them from public housing contention, forcing families to figure out private housing, a significant challenge in a city with one of the most expensive rental markets in the world.

In light of these extensive legal hurdles, Chia emphasizes the role that Proud Parents play in providing a sense of support from the community. “There are such few models for queer parents in Singapore, who else can we look up to,” she said. “Singapore is our home too, and we should be able to start a family here if we want to.”

For parents like James and Chia, a road to acceptance is hard to envision without some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples that would allow them to (re)establish the link between parental rights and next of kin. For gay men, such recognition would also provide access to long-term visas or even citizenship rights for their child, sparing them cumbersome, anxiety-inducing visa runs.

While the road to recognition is likely to be a long process, there is an undeniable effort from local groups to reconcile Singapore’s conservative approach to a family with queerness and parenthood, offering a hopeful glimpse into what the Lion City could look like once the “Singaporean dream” becomes accessible to all its citizens.

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.