Sexual orientation and gender identity remain one of the most taboo subjects in Singapore. Recent developments both at home and in the region, however, are slowly but surely making gay rights an increasingly visible issue, and a crucial litmus test for a society’s respect for human rights.
In August this year, a Buddhist same-sex wedding ceremony was performed in Taiwan, Province of China, for the first time, garnering much international attention. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage is currently pending in the government of Taiwan, Province of China.
Vietnam is also considering legalizing gay marriage, and hosted its first gay pride parade this year, as did Myanmar and Laos. In August, gays, lesbians, transgender people and their supporters in Nepal marched to demand recognition as a third gender in citizen certificates, to allow same-sex marriage and to criminalize discrimination based on sexual preference.
In Singapore, change is also afoot. In a Channel News Asia programme about sex education for students that aired on July 11, Liew Wei Li, Director of Student Development Curriculum for the Ministry of Education, said: “We do teach that they should respect everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, because we want relationships, then, to form, good sound relationships, based on friendships, based on love, based on respect.”
This would seem to be a significant shift from MOE’s previous position on its sex education programme, which, as described in a 2009 statement, “does not promote homosexuality” and “reflects the mainstream views and values of Singapore society, where the majority of Singaporeans hold conservative views on sexuality”.
Singapore’s Court of Appeal also recently reversed a High Court decision about a constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men. In its judgment, released on Aug 20, the Court of Appeal stated that the existence of Section 377A carried a credible threat of prosecution, and “affects the lives of a not insignificant portion of our community in a very real and intimate way”.
Writing for the Sayoni website, lawyer Indulekshmi Rajeswari described this judgment as “nothing less than earth-shattering for the LGBT community. For the first time, the Courts have acknowledged the existence of the gay person, and the gay community, and their interests”. Indeed, Section 377A has long been a catalyst for galvanizing the LGBT community here, having inspired repeal campaigns in 2007.
Beyond this piece of legislation, however, there remain numerous areas of discrimination that affect the LGBT community in Singapore. At the AWARE Roundtable Discussion held on Aug 16, speakers Jean Chong and Kelly Then touched on some of these issues. Jean and Kelly are members of Sayoni, a community that works to empower queer women, and People Like Us, the pioneer gay and lesbian advocacy group in Singapore.
“A lot of social institutions are built around the idea that one is attracted to someone else, and wants to be with that person,” said Kelly. When same-sex relationships are not recognized under the law, this means that the people in these relationships are barred from basic rights and social support networks that those in heterosexual relationships may take for granted.
As same-sex marriages are not recognized in Singapore, women in such relationships are not allowed to undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) or any other form of assisted reproduction. (This prohibition applies to single women in Singapore as well.) Jean noted that this led to the emergence of ‘lesbian flights’ to Bangkok for IVF.
A member of the audience at the Roundtable also mentioned that children of couples in heterosexual relationships are granted more than 200 types of legal protection that are not available to children of couples in same-sex relationships. This includes rights of access in parenting.
Individuals who are in same-sex relationships cannot be recognised as related by marriage. For example, if a person’s parents reject their same-sex relationship, they can legally prevent their partner from visiting them in the hospital.
Those in LGBT relationships may not enjoy spousal benefits, as most companies do not recognize such relationships (although a number of MNCs do). They also cannot access state-sponsored social support schemes like Medisave and get less in housing grants, and are not entitled to jointly purchase property using their CPF.
Pressure from prevailing social attitudes are not countered by any significant State support. While there is no data for Singapore, the worldwide rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide are higher for LGBT youths; they are often teased and bullied in school because of their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no information on safe sex for gay teens in the current sex education syllabus, and no state-sponsored institutions that have expertise in providing counselling for those grappling with LGBT issues.
Jean also mentioned that a study that has shown that many gay people go back into the closet when they grow old, because old folks’ homes are not open to the idea of same-sex relationships.
In the absence of decriminalization and State recognition, it is therefore crucial to include LGBT perspectives in areas such as research, advocacy, and social services, said Kelly. These include the Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), sex education, maternal and paternal leave, violence in relationships, singles, de facto relationships (where couples may cohabit for extended periods but not marry), ageing, poverty, and sexual harassment – all issues that impact the LGBT community.
For example, in the case of de facto relationships, which are becoming increasingly common for both straight and gay persons, Kelly mentioned that the law will have to deal with issues that arise.
One of the areas where progress is not being made is in the media. Positive portrayals of homosexuals or homosexual relationships are still subject to censorship in the local media, and outlets are penalized if they are seen to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
However, censorship is no longer as great a hurdle as it was in the past due to the arrival of new media. For example, TV shows or movies that are censored either in whole or in part by governmental bodies can now be easily downloaded or streamed online through the Internet. With greater access to information and perspectives, younger generations are more open and less discriminatory toward LGBT persons.