Singapore’s Plan to Decriminalize Gay Sex Draws Mixed Feelings from the LGBTQ Community

With the repeal of the colonial-era law, comes cautious optimism from Singapore’s LGBTQ community, as the government promises to retain its other heteronormative policies.

Cheers erupted in private parties and gay bars across Singapore on Sunday evening as the country’s prime minister announced the repeal of a colonial-era law that criminalized sex between men.

But as people exchanged teary hugs, caution and uncertainty soon set in over the scrapping of the controversial law, which activists argue has formed the basis for discrimination against queer folks for decades in the city-state of 5.7 million residents.

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While the repeal would effectively decriminalize gay sex, there were mixed feelings among LGBTQ people as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reaffirmed in his annual National Day Rally speech the government’s stance on recognizing only heterosexual marriages. He also said authorities would protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts—effectively making it harder for marriages to be legally extended to same-sex couples in the future.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening,’” said Teo Yu Sheng, the founder of local queer merchandise brand Heckin’ Unicorn, who watched the speech on a livestream at his brother’s home. But Teo pointed out that Lee upheld all the other policies affecting the LGBTQ community, such as the lack of recognition for same-sex unions.

“So there’s a bit of confusion: Should I be happy, should I be celebrating?” Teo told VICE World News.

Still, there was plenty of joy surrounding the historic announcement.

Introduced in 1938 when Singapore was under British colonial rule, section 377A of the penal code carries a jail term of up to two years for “any act of gross indecency” between two men, be it in public and private spaces. In the last decade, the government had sought to placate critics by saying it wouldn’t enforce this law, but refused to drop it until now.

Benjamin Xue, the co-founder of queer youth community group Young OUT Here, called the repeal a “hard-won battle.”

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“[I’m] super relieved and frankly super hopeful,” Xue told VICE World News after the prime minister’s repeal announcement. 

While the details of the repeal remain to be ironed out in a parliamentary debate, Xue says that the announcement still holds great significance for the LGBTQ community in Singapore, which has long borne the brunt of section 377A. 

The 1990s were a time of frequent raids on gay businesses, as well as “anti-gay operations” that saw plainclothes policemen arresting cruising queer men and charging them with different offenses—including section 377A. These operations occurred at varying frequencies, until as recently as 2010

“A lot of people who have lived through it are still alive. Well, some of them are no longer with us,” said Xue, who expressed bittersweet feelings for the repeal. “I’ve lost friends over the years, friends who would never see a repeal coming. So I’m taking a more somber-slash-commemorative approach to this.”

“This announcement will hopefully be able to start reconciliation for many families. At the same time, a moment for healing for the community.”

As local media—especially Singapore’s government-aligned news outlets—amped up their coverage of section 377A over the past week, many in the LGBTQ community eagerly anticipated what the National Day Rally speech would hold for the local queer rights movement. But many came away from the speech with what they described as a “mixed feeling.”

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While the repeal represents a small but significant step to improving queer rights in Singapore, the initial excitement of the LGBTQ community was soon dampened by the realization that same-sex marriages have just been shoved further out of reach. 

On Sunday, Lee also announced that the government would amend the country’s constitution to protect the current heteronormative definition of marriage from being challenged in court—a move lauded by religious groups. As confusion surrounded the potential constitutional change, Lee’s announcement was further clarified on Monday by law minister K Shanmugam, who said that the intended amendment was not to enshrine heterosexual marriages in the constitution, but to allow Singapore’s parliament to change the definition of marriage through a simple majority. Still, the goal remains: to stave off legal challenges to the existing definition of marriage.

“Under the law, only marriages between one man and one woman are recognized in Singapore,” Lee said. 

“Many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage—including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, film classification,” he said. “The government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, nor these policies.”

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Under existing national policies, only heterosexual couples are eligible to apply for public housing; sex education in schools also explicitly promote heterosexual marriages, while public broadcasting regulations prohibit positive portrayals of queer characters

In 2018, activists mounted a legal challenge against section 377A, arguing that it violated the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law. The challenge was dismissed by the court, which said that the repeal was a highly divisive issue that should be decided by the parliament. 

Singapore’s constitution currently doesn’t define who can get married, though a marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman in other national laws. With the proposed amendment to the constitution, which grants the parliament the power to define marriage, those calling for the recognition of same-sex marriages would no longer be able to appeal to the court for changes to the law in the same way that 377A critics have.

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“We express deep regret about the suggested changes to the Constitution on the protection of heterosexual marriages by the Prime Minister. This will continue to render [LGBTQ] persons unequal members of society,” said Jean Chong, the co-founder of Sayoni, a non-governmental organization that advocates for queer women, in a statement.  

“Such discriminatory protections will continue to threaten the basic dignity of [LGBTQ] persons, sending a powerful message that their families are not valued and that their rights are contingent on the benefit and readiness of the majority.”

In the months leading up to Sunday’s speech, government officials have made public mentions of section 377A, citing changes in social attitudes toward homosexuality in the last decade. In March, law minister K Shanmugam said in parliament that the government was taking an incremental approach to change, involving engagement with different groups, balancing these different viewpoints to create consensus regarding section 377A. Among them are conservative and religious groups who support the anti-gay sex law as a “marker for many social and moral considerations” and a way to temper local LGBTQ activism. 

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“The government sees itself as a ‘fair, honest broker’ between different identity groups,” said Rayner Tan, a sociobehavioral researcher at the National University of Singapore. “On LGBTQ rights, the government takes a balancing act approach to mediate between those who support equal rights for LGBTQ people and conservative and religious groups that oppose it.

However, he added, this approach also makes it harder to for the government to truly address the interests of the LGBTQ community, especially when the repeal is combined with policies that continue to disregard queer identities. 

Despite the government long claiming that 377A will not be proactively enforced, activists have argued that there have been detrimental cascading effects from the law—such as social stigma, the lack of inclusive education, challenges in securing housing, and workplace discrimination—levied against LGBTQ individuals.

“One big challenge is when I was growing up in school, a lot of sexuality education was demonizing LGBTQ people,” said Kennede Sng, a 25-year-old gay man in Singapore. “I think that 377A has definitely played a big part in shaping these mindsets from a very early age.”

“There is a cause for celebration that 377A is repealed because of the symbolism. But it’s just a starting point.”

As recently as May, new adoption laws were introduced to curb “undesirable practices” in the adoption sector, allowing only married heterosexual couples to apply for adoption—leaving same-sex couples out of the equation.

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It remains to be seen whether the shift in the government’s position toward the LGBTQ community would usher in policy changes that would create a friendlier environment for queer people living in Singapore. According to activists, these issues may not be solved simply with the scrapping of an archaic law, especially when the LGBTQ community is much more diverse than just gay men. 

“Now that [377A] is gone, it’s very important for us to remember that it’s not just about the ‘gay men policies.’ I really have no idea how or when the policies will change, not just for gay people, but for everyone else within the community,” said Teo, citing the transgender community as one of the most vulnerable. 

Sharvesh Leatchmanan, a 25-year-old graduate student who identifies as queer and non-binary, says that the repeal has highlighted the inequalities that exist within the LGBTQ community. While gay men are finally being accepted at a national level, there remain those who have fallen through the cracks—especially queer people who live on the intersections of marginalization, such as ethnic minorities. 

“Honestly, it’s quite somber. I really don't think it’s a win because it’s a win for a specific group of people within the queer community,” they said. “It’s not a win for people like me.”

“What are we doing after this? What happens now?”

But for now, as Singapore navigates what the government considers the “best way forward” in dealing with different voices surrounding LGBTQ issues, activists around the country are cautiously optimistic about the gaps that still lie ahead in safeguarding queer rights, while not forgetting to commemorate the milestone that they have taken decades to reach. 

“The demise of Section 377A represents something different to each of us. For everyone who has experienced the kinds of bullying, rejection and harassment enabled by this law, repeal finally enables us to begin the process of healing,” reads a collective statement issued by LGBTQ activist groups in Singapore on Sunday night. 

“For those that long for a more equal and inclusive Singapore, repeal signifies that change is indeed possible. And for our friends and family who have stood by us, repeal is proof and encouragement that your allyship makes a difference.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.

Update: This article has been changed to reflect the Monday remarks by law minister K Shanmugam.

Tagged:

Singapore, worldnews, LGBTQ rights

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