By Howard Lee
What would you get if you put church leaders and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community into the same room?
Given the past two years of PinkDot-WearWhite face-offs, the Orlando shootings and the killing threat that followed locally, you might have expected animosity, anger and suspicion. You might have expected loud voices making indignant accusations about “Christian bigotry” or “the gay agenda”, or maybe a few fists to fly.
It didn’t happen.
In fact, the audience listened intently as a panel of speakers – Pastor Pauline Ong from the Free Community Church, Worldwide Victories founder Reverend Crispus Ratnam, Nicholas Lim of GLBT Voices and former Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan – shared their views about the issues and conflict between the religious right and the LGBT community. At times, the small audience of about 70 broke out into peals of laughter as the panellists cracked jokes and exchanged banter.
There were certainly gasps of horror when Rev Crispus used the term “gay epidemic”, but this was quickly put into place by Ms Ong and Mr Lim. Just as insightful were the two’s personal stories as members of the LGBT community, when they related a lifetime of being discriminated against by society, whether consciously or unknowingly by the people around them, and how they finally found purpose in what they do.
One issue that surfaced was that of gay marriage. Surprisingly, while Rev Crispus was against marrying homosexual couples in church, he was open to exploring civil unions. Similarly, Mr Lim suggested that, even if the government allowed gay marriage, the LGBT community might not even want it themselves.
Instead of using tired old labels to describe each other, the panel members actually reached out to each other to seek clarification on their views. Perhaps the one single most used term that weekend afternoon was “I understand what you are saying”.
Listening is easy, but understanding takes a lot out of us. It requires that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, acknowledge where they are coming from, seek clarification for why they believe the way they do, and try to move the conversation to another plane. We saw plenty of that at the dialogue, within and between the panel and the audience, perhaps more so than what years of anger, mistrust and the exchange of accusing words could have accomplished.
One niggling issue was the retention/repeal of Section 337A that criminalises sex between consenting gay men. Does it make sense given that if the government does not actively enforce it, and why are Christians so against the repealing of the law?
Perhaps the single most important message from the dialogue was when Mr Sadasivan referred to parts of the Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament, when the issue of 377A was debated. He suggested that the government’s position of non-enforcement was deliberately done as the best possible solution, thereby inviting us to further the conversion and evolution of society towards accepting the LGBT community, and even the eventual repeal of the law.
For sure, just as there those who would balk at the idea of the repeal, there would be those who are indignant at the government’s lack of moral leadership in bringing our society forward by doing what is just.
But if we were to ask ourselves seriously, why would we want the government to lead on a matter that is so fundamentally ingrained in our social consciousness?
We saw a bit of that consciousness at the dialogue between the gays and the religious, and it is evident we give ourselves too little credit when it comes to managing touchy issues. No blood was shed, only tears of laughter. No angry words were exchanged, only thoughts, fears and concerns. No one preached the gospel, but neither did anyone tried to promote the “gay lifestyle”.
As Nicholas Lim said, he was glad that he found so many similarities between the LGBT and Christian worldviews and it was our similarities, rather than the differences, that we should work towards.
We need more of such conversions, so that we can be responsible for the society we wish to build, one that is underpinned by dialogue and understanding more than any false delusions of harmony.
The government manipulated-led National Conversation is over. If it wasn’t, it would never have encompassed the topic we heard last weekend. It is time for us to take our society into our own hands and start the conversions that matter to each one of us.
It will never be easy, as it takes willing and open hearts to come to the table. We also need to leave our shields at the door and put our fears in our mouths. We don’t win conversations by asserting that we are fundamentally right, but by acknowledging that we could be completely wrong.
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