Singapore’s LGBTQ community worries that a government move to “protect” the institution of marriage could perpetuate discrimination in the conservative city-state, even as a colonial-era law criminalizing sex between men is finally repealed.
As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the clause in the penal code known as Section 377A would be repealed, he reiterated that the institution of marriage would remain between a man and a woman.
“Even as we repeal s377A, we will uphold and protect the institution of marriage,” Lee said in a speech last month to mark the country’s National Day. “According to the law, only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized in Singapore.”
The continuation of a heterosexual definition of marriage is likely to leave gay Singaporeans in long-term relationships unable to access social services such as public housing, which are primarily available to married couples.
“Many national policies rely on this [heterosexual] definition of marriage — including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, film classification,” Lee said in his speech. “The government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage or these policies.”
Many worry that it will also allow discriminatory attitudes long promoted by 377A to continue.
“The way the conversation is framed pits us against family when the reality is we are your relatives,” Clement Tan of advocacy group Pink Dot, which organizes an annual gathering similar to Pride, told Al Jazeera.
“We all want healthy families and homes of our own. Like everyone else, we love our families. Like everyone else, we want strong relationships with our parents and our partners.”
Johnson Ong, a DJ and co-founder of a digital creative agency who mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge to 377A in 2018, agrees.
“We need to address the fallacy that if you’re LGBT, you’re not pro-family,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth. LGBT people are part of families. We live together with our families. We take care of our families. We provide for our families. So for conservatives to pit us against pro-family values is a fallacy, it’s unfair. It’s just fake.”
‘Sense of relief’
Singapore has long tried to limit the representation of the LGBTQ community in public life, and films, TV shows, books and advertisements deemed to “promote homosexuality” face a ban. To see also : Class President Fla. he said he could not talk about a homosexual using the metaphor of hair.
Pink Dot, which has drawn thousands and become increasingly popular in recent years, also takes place under restrictions. Only Singaporeans and permanent residents are permitted to attend the event, while foreign companies are prohibited from sponsoring it.
Ong told Al Jazeera that he experienced “a sense of relief” when Lee finally announced the end of 377A, even though the law has not been actively enforced for some time.
“It took me a while to wrap my head around that and actually believe that they were actually going to repeal that law,” he said.
“I feel like it’s a sense of relief that it’s finally happened.”
The 377A was introduced in 1938 when Singapore was a British colony. Along with the criminalization of consensual sex between men, proponents argued that the law promoted homophobia in society and led to the denial of rights to same-sex couples.
“I think it’s the right thing to do and something that most Singaporeans will now accept,” said the prime minister, whose nephew came out as gay in 2018 and married the following year in South Africa.
“This will bring the law in line with current social mores and I hope it will bring some relief to gay Singaporeans.”
The government has since emphasized that there will be no attempt to enshrine a definition of marriage in the constitution.
Culture, Community and Youth Minister Edwin Tong told local Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times that the change would only be made to ensure the protection of marriage between a man and a woman.
Tong told the paper that the government was concerned that “hard-coding” marriage into the country’s founding document risked prompting “those who disagree with this position to mount a campaign to mobilize, agitate, perhaps with even greater intensity”.
Human rights lawyer and ‘Ready to Repeal’ advocate Johannes Hardy found hope in the “small difference” in words.
“If they had changed the constitution to define marriage primarily as between a man and a woman, that would tie the hands of future parliaments who might want to legalize same-sex marriage.
“So a future Parliament could very well – in response to changing public opinion – decide to revise the definition of marriage and they would have no impediments in the Constitution to do so.”
A constitutional amendment needs the support of two-thirds of the country’s MPs and is likely to pass as Lee’s People’s Action Party holds 83 of the 93 seats.
People lost, families torn apart
For many homosexuals in the city-state of nearly six million, it will take some time to overcome the effects of 377A. To see also : Gay men are in line as early as 2 a.m. for smallpox vaccines. Many of them leave empty-handed.
“It has done a lot of damage in terms of attitudes towards LGBTQ Singaporeans,” Ong told Al Jazeera. It has caused a lot of emotional anguish, psychological problems. It has caused the breakdown of family relationships and ties to our community and ties to our religious affiliations. It has caused a lot of damage. We just want to heal from that.”
“A lot of [LGBTQ] people have struggled with mental health,” he said.
“Many families have been split up. Whether it’s the people we’ve lost to suicide or the people we’ve lost because they decided they needed to leave the country for a more accepting environment, the law has taken a toll on society.”
The repeal of the law is a sign that attitudes can and do change, and Ong hopes that with 377A gone, Singaporeans will become more accepting of the LGBTQ community – even if marriage remains reserved for heterosexuals.
“[We want to] re-establish our connections with our families again. Now that the law is off the books, maybe they could start thinking differently about the LGBT community,” he told Al Jazeera.
“This is just the first step in a long, long process of healing and reconnection.”