COMMENT: Section 377A not a question of ‘indecency’ but of humanity

The Pink Dot mascot between the mascots for fear and ignorance. Singapore's High Court upheld the controversial Section 377A law criminalising sex between two men, as the LGBT movement continues in Singapore (Yahoo! file photo)

When the ruling over Section 377A was passed in the High Court Wednesday, some cheered jubilantly online while others voiced disappointment and anger.

It left me wondering: would reaction be different if this debate online on the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) takes place offline? What if the blanket of sexual discrimination was removed in the real world to expose individual tales of struggle and hope that lie beneath?

What if you turn around and suddenly realise your best friend is gay? That one of your parents might be gay? That your sibling is contemplating suicide because society does not accept him or her? That in each anonymous story on Gay SG Confessions, the writer hopes to be equal with others?

Will the shaming of the LGBT community for being deviants and lawbreakers give way when the whole differs from the sum of its parts?

What seems to be missing from the debate surrounding Section 377A is that this law is about individual human beings who are working the same jobs as others and, like the rest of us, they just want a life made honest, made true.

Can LGBTs, religious right get along?

Six years after Parliament debates on Section 377A led to a “live and let live” conclusion, the same back-and-forth has surfaced from the LGBT community and religious right. Conservatives have sounded off on preserving the family unit; LGBTs believe in equality and justice. These are big arguments, at times enveloping the minutiae.

What has changed since October 2007? Pink Dot. The yearly gathering by LGBTs and their straight allies humanises the community by focusing on tales of family members, allies and individuals. Till today, Pink Dot has not touched on marriage equality; it takes up the responsibility to call for the repeal of Section 377A instead. The statute has now become the representation of gay rights here.

While Pink Dot is not the only LGBT movement in Singapore, its approach of humanisation – a collection of people, not a blanket of stereotypes – changes the debate in Singapore. The fight for equality has always been about the right to marry, but around the world, the argument of the right to co-exist is gaining greater weight.

Even in the most progressive countries in the world, there is no persuading the religious right. In the United States, populations in most states differ in views towards marriage equality by less than 10 percent. The religious right will always have an opinion, and much like a basic tenet of human rights, they are entitled to it.

What must change between how both camps engage with each other is that hatred goes nowhere and mutual respect is key. Respect does not mean agreement; it just implies that different belief systems have a right to exist. No one has any right to infringe on someone’s set of beliefs. The LGBT community has no right to lambast religion, and vice versa.

A symbol of what is free and fair

Justice Quentin Loh’s verdict last week sends a strong message: the courts do not decide if the tide has shifted; it only debates legality. It must be noted that by quoting 19th-century case studies, Justice Loh cannot possibly indicate a shift in thought based on archaic knowledge.

Here is the situation now: in order for individuals to make their stories count, they need to feel that they will not be criminalised and vilified for coming out. For the government to repeal Section 377A, it needs to uphold the case of humanity. That is at odds with differing beliefs between the LGBT community and the religious right. For the perception of an alleged LGBT “insurgency” to disappear as some outspoken church leaders would have Singapore believe, individuals must stand up. But, how can the sum of all parts stand united if a law nullifies their existence?

It is a terrible vicious cycle. The law’s perception affects conscription, sex education, cases of rape, and even a gay man getting a job, buying a flat and getting medical benefits for his partner. Who makes a move before someone gives up and leaves Singapore or dies due to persecution in life?

Is Singapore ready? No country will ever be “ready”, nor the timing “right”, to impose laws that clash with the beliefs of a major conservative segment of its population. However, Section 377A is not solely about the illegitimacy of gay sex -- it is about recognising every person deserves a shot at living the best life.

Six years ago, the government missed a pivotal chance to reframe the debate, choosing to sit back and wait for the tide to turn. Six years later, the exact same debate has cropped up again and the court has chosen to ignore the call for humanity in favour of a moderation in current technicalities.

The ball is in the House now. We can argue all day about how homosexuals have an agenda to pass favourable laws, or how misguided the religious right is in thinking homosexuality is a choice and a lifestyle. The chances of agreement – not respect – seem highly unlikely.

A rethink of what the law indicates is necessary. That is how we and the Parliament should look at this statute: not just as a technicality, but a symbol of what is free and fair.

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