By Simon Vincent
“You can’t talk about gay issues without talking about politics,” said Alex Au in a discussion hosted by the Humanist Society of Singapore on Sunday afternoon at the SMU Administration building.
Called Human Worth and Dignity: Two Stories of the LGBT Community in Singapore, the talk also featured Lynette Chua, author of Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State.
Au shared poignant and humorous anecdotes about his engagement, as a gay man and activist, with the Singapore state and society.
He said it had been 21 years since he first joined People Like Us, a local gay advocacy group, which had “run into trouble with the authorities.”
2000 was a “seminal year” for Au because it was the first time that The Straits Times had interviewed him. Au recalled how for the sake of “balance” an interview with a psychologist was positioned alongside his article.
“I got the bigger share of the feature, so that was progress in a way,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
While highlighting organisations like 7-11 which have hired LGBT people as front-line workers, Au expressed scepticism over just how much progress has been made. “How many people have we convinced with our arguments?”
Following Au’s talk, Lynette Chua discussed the main themes of her book. She likened gay activism in Singapore to “pragmatic resistance.” Gay activists, according to her, have to balance between “toeing the line” and “pushing boundaries.”
“You have to come across as non-confrontational,” she said.
When a gay haunt called Rascals was raided by the police in 1993, its patrons wrote a letter of protest. Chua said the protest was framed as a complaint against the police officers for overstepping their boundaries. “There was nothing about gay rights.”
While noting the greater acceptance of the LGBT community today, Chua drew attention to what she saw as a “problem of not being inclusive enough.” She said LGBT issues tend to be framed around gay men.
When asked about the recent Christian opposition to the LGBT community, Au said he was quite confident that the movement will eventually lose steam.
Chua felt that opposition from the Muslim quarters of society should also be taken into account. The state is more fearful when it comes to the Muslim community, she said.
Vincent Wijeysingha, who was among the audience members, said “a radical critique of religion” has to take place. The churches would grow, not diminish, because they are “oriented to money.”
When interviewed about his stance, he noted that people would have to negotiate laws such as The Religious Harmony Act. Nevertheless, he felt that it was important to “begin the process of questioning religion.”
“The radical critique will have to occur, it will be painful,” he said. “My experience of critiquing the archbishop was painful as well, but it has to start somewhere.”
Sharing his thoughts on how progress can be made on LGBT issues, Paul Tobin, the president of the Humanist Society, said: “I think it’s about getting people on your side, people who may be your opponents at the moment, but as long as they accept you for who you are, everybody wins.”