A journey from homophobia to LGBT advocacy

Photo: YouTube screengrab

By Tan Tatt Si

Unbeknown to people not caught up in the petition battle that is going on between opposite camps of Section 377A, on how to deal with the colonial-era, baggage-ridden legacy of a law, the stakes are very high in the eyes of its defenders and detractors. These petitions are not referendums : one hopes to show sheer numbers of opposition, and the other to show enough underground living and support.

Perhaps a glimpse from the eyes of a reformed homophobic, would help in elucidating others the thoughts evolution of someone initially hurtful to LBGT, to the same person becoming an advocate of the movement over time. The major phases are identified by the title of the phases, representing the inhibitions or myths I overcame :

1. They were’t faking their feelings. It took me some ten years (I was slow) to recognise LGBTs were not faking their affinity or repugnance. My resistance in accepting had to do with the blame I placed on their community for HIV/AIDS, and potentially being coerced into their folds. They are clearly sticking to their preference, as strongly as I stand up for my family.

2. They can do it, while this is not for me. Not criminalising LGBT came quickly after appreciation for the previous phase, but there is the soul-searching part for I tried to deal with my internal struggle, one of double standards : I can allow others to be LGBT, but what if it involved a close one ? What if my children were LGBT ? Another four to five years were used to nurse this question to my satisfied conclusion.

3. They can get married. The commitment to be with each other, is a noble and loving thing. A community that had been plagued by underground relationships and promiscuity can begin to keep steady relationships, if society approves them. My toying with the term civil union did not last very long. If it walks and quacks like a duck, just call it marriage. This would be the next inevitable step in equalising LGBT status. This took me only two years to get here.

4. They will be open and loving parents. Biological or adopted, I feel LGBT couples can have children. Children raised in such an environment, may be wrongly perceived to be ‘over-sexed’, but the reality will be – the children will be very aware and open to gender and sexual orientation, more so than children of regular families. The right to have children should not be denied from them. This conclusion took around two years for me as well.

The me-versus-they struggle is very clear to see, and now I hardly think I should ever be in a position to decide ‘what that were not for me shalt not be for anybody else’. It took me almost twenty years to reach a conclusion for the various phases described. I know my parents will never take these steps, while at the same time my children had already gotten there – accepting that LGBT is a legitimate part of societal life. It helps when one has no encumbrances of religion, and not bound by stiflingly self-serving cultural norms. Societies exist where polygyny and polyandry are the norms, and following society rules of these would still have their citizens as equally moral people. In a hypothetical thought experiment of human race dwindling down to only a handful and needing to repopulate Earth, incest laws will be out the window. Laws serve societies, and societies continue to make relevant laws.

It is important to walk through history, to try to get a ‘distaste’ for certain acts of the times, to garner contextual intent for the laws written. Singapore’s Penal Code is mostly the Straits Settlement Penal Code, which was taken almost entirely from the Indian Penal Code. The original Section 377 was about ‘unnatural sex’ , something that did not differentiate between male or female, private or public. Unnatural sex, as it was, was defined as sex acts that would not lead to procreation or coitus (penis-vaginal) intercourse. This seeming masterstroke of a law was thought would curb any sort of non-male-female sexual activities that involved penetration. Little imagination is needed to know that non-penetrative sexual acts, which there are numerous, were not covered. Hence born Section 377A, almost a carbon copy of the Labouchere Amendment in English Law, while missing out completely the female-female non-penetrative sex coverage. The reasons behind the omission could only be speculated, and suffice to say we can make matters worse by floating any wild conjectures. History is more about what happened, less of what could have happened. One thing quite certain regarding the inclusion of Section 377 and the later addition of Section 377A, is that religiously-linked strict moral codes was the invisible hand.

Laws are not made to be broken, but laws must be made with the conscious and conscientious thoughts to review them. With Section 377 rewritten in 2007, to decriminalise certain sexual acts, e.g. anal and oral sex, it would seem fair game for full-on legalisation of both kinds of homosexuality. No, not for males, not for the only country in the world that kept the current form of Section 377A. Suddenly, ostensibly all sexual acts penetrative or not, became interpreted as gross indecency as long as two males are involved. This specific law used in the targeting of unrelated people to be punished for acts that another gender can perform, is truly draconian and discriminating. While it was explained that the law would not be actively used, any law that is not enforced, is still a law – its transgressors may not be readily prosecuted, but society will persistently persecute, especially the segment of society that pride themselves high, mighty and right.

Many of my friends treated Section 377A as the fortress, the Alamo, the last stance, against indecent and immoral sexual acts, with many not even aware that lesbianism had been legal for almost 11 years. Far from them to question ‘why singling out males’, than for them to lament ‘why were females allowed earlier’ when they later found out. Section 377 was the real dam with Section 377A only a sluice gate, and legitimately speaking, sexual acts involving the ‘unnatural’ bodily areas had become legal.

It is difficult to argue, whenever God or gods are invoked, because they cannot be put on the witness stand. It is claimed that one old book from every god-religion had already shed light for infinitum, and other knowledge, wisdom or findings not convincing enough to open up these non-negotiable, locked-in decrees. So much for state-church separation. In time, we shall walk similar paths as enlightened nations had, unless the church continues to be intricately entwined with state affairs. The irony of ‘love the sinners hate the sins’, is completely lost on religious institutions that are supposed to mobilise to help the downtrodden; they act the complete opposite, with condescending attitudes, with denials, and non-scientific conversion objectives. Their strident opposition leaves us pondering the corollary ‘love the religious but hate their religions (that demonise people)’.

NCCS, National Council of Churches in Singapore, appeals using the invisible hands of God, to continue to deny love to one specific community. Its statement three days ago about its objection to the repeal, was not so much ‘not in the backside’, but more ‘not in God’s backyard’, a flagrant manifestation of an us-versus-them attitude. Contrast this with NCCI, the same national body for India, who took a bold step in January this year, and supported India’s repeal of their Section 377. “As followers of the non-conformist Christ, the one who consistently questioned unjust and non-compassionate traditions of public morality, our call is to reject all laws that demonise, criminalise, and exclude human beings, and work to facilitate just inclusive and loving communities.” India repealed Section 377 eleven days ago, with NCCI a partner to the community, side-by-side, and above all things – loving. The spirit and humanity of Christ overcame the hard rules of God, dogma, tradition, and superstition.

Yesterday marked the 146 year anniversary of the acceptance of Straits Settlement’s Penal Code into Singapore. Numerous sections had been altered since its adoption, the most relevant being Section 377 being reconstituted on 22 October 2007. History can be rewritten again, though it may be 2019 the earliest, before the the government returns with its recommendations on changes after the painstaking Penal Code review this year. Section 377A was not slated to be looked at, but the powers that be have the prerogative. The right thing to do, should not take the next cycle of Penal Code review to happen. The government would want to be on the right, though still less popular side of this issue.

“Mr Tan runs his own creative venture and is also the current President of the Humanist Society (Singapore) . He shares his personal experiences and opinions here.”