LGBTQ

We Asked Queer Singaporeans What They’re Doing to Challenge the Law That Makes Gay Sex Illegal

“I was getting death threats, I felt unsafe, and there was absolutely nothing I could do because people were using the law as a justification to be cruel towards me.”
November 19, 2019, 7:50am
lgbtq singapore law 377a challenged in court
Left: Kennede, Center: Ching, Right: Joshua. Photos courtesy of the respondents. 

In recent years, Asia has finally made progress in accepting the LGBTQ community. In a first for the region, Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage earlier this year. In India, gay sex was decriminalised last year. But in Singapore, things are moving slower.

Section 377A of Singapore’s penal code forbids sex betweeen two men. It’s a colonial-era law that is similar to the one struck down by India that, but still exists in the city-state today. It is now finally being challenged in court again, after Singapore’s High Court, last week, started hearing cases filed by three LGBTQ activists that seek to repeal it. Hearings will continue until Friday.

In this moment of possible change, VICE spoke to queer Singaporeans to find out what it’s like to be part of the LGBTQ community in Singapore, and what they are doing to push for change in their own ways.

Joshua Simon, 29

joshua simon lgbtq singaporean

I grew up feeling like “the other” in many ways: how I thought, spoke, looked — being half Indian and half Chinese, morbidly obese, with curly hair, and bad at math skills — it was a lot. A kid like that? Once he learns how to walk, he also needs to learn to stand up straight.

When everyone was holding hands for the first time, gushing about their first kiss, nursing their first heartbreak, reenacting these iconic rom-com moments just for laughs, I had to deal with the shame of knowing that how I love — how I want to express that — is criminal.

There's obviously the stigma to challenge. That's often what you're faced with first: the uneducated, uninformed perception of what being gay must be like. But all that is held down and cemented by section 377A. We can argue all we want with our opinions, but it's in our habit that we “check-the black-and-white” and look up to our authority heads. If it's written on the wall, it's also on the textbook.

There are people going to the government, talking with lawyers — they're awesome. I'm not built like that. I believe my calling is in other areas. While they take the meetings, I'm talking with the one sitting alone at the back of the bar. I see a community that's been wronged and hurt for a really, really long time by the trickle down effects of Section 377A. I believe hurt people hurt people.

Thank God for our tenacity and those $12 Blue Spins at Tantric (a gay bar), or else we would've all gone mad. But yeah, I douse my shame with empathy every day; I am kind to myself and try to take that energy with me everywhere. That's my role right now, and it's something I think we can all start with: being kind.

Leon Markcus, 23

leon markus singapore lgbtq singaporean

The idea of people being gay in Singapore has hardly been talked about until recent years. People used to believe that being gay was a myth until recent years, at least from my perspective as one of the only out and proud queer musicians in Singapore.

I would say the older generation of people are very aggressive towards the LGBTQ+ community in general, and I have experienced the discrimination first hand.

A few months ago, I got booked to perform at a university show. They asked me to censor the queerness in my art in order to perform, so I obviously refused to do so and pulled out.

This led to an article to be written on the subject, and the comment sections were vile. I was getting death threats, I felt unsafe, and there was absolutely nothing I could do because people were using the law as a justification to be cruel towards me.

I also feel that because there is a law that criminalises gay sex, in a way, it invalidates the relationships of gay couples.

But I try to break that stigma. As a musician, I feel the need to use my platform to bring more awareness to queer topics and culture. I think it is so important for queer youth to have representation in the media and examples where they can say, “Hey! There are others like me.”

People don’t have to accept the different, but they should not limit others from being themselves, just because it doesn’t align with their personal views.

I also like to think that I have formed a community that allows individuals of all shapes, sizes, and sexual orientations to be themselves and come together to appreciate the beauty in differences.

Praveen, 23

gay singaporean lgbtq

Growing up as a gay person in Singapore, I felt my identity was constantly under scrutiny by those around me. I was often inundated by an endless plethora of questions asking me whether I was gay and whether I was attracted to men, just because people merely wanted to know.

There was a girl in my secondary school who was openly lesbian and she had a horrible time — people would call her names, hide her school bag, and she was the last to be considered for any opportunities representing the school. One might reason that it may be due to her lacklustre performance, but we all knew the truth behind everything.

Because I grew up in a household where my parents viewed homosexuality as a choice, rather than the way you are born, my coming out and exploration of my sexuality was pushed back a few years.

I only felt like I could come out when I was in Australia. That said, it would not have been possible without the undying support and love from my friends and people around me, then and now.

Unfortunately, Singapore is still a socially backward country, and the majority of Singaporeans share the sentiment that the legalisation of gay marriage would sway future generations to “become gay.”

I support LGBTQIA+ causes whenever I can, and with people that I interact with in Sydney now, I talk about the penal code and how blessed we are to not have that in Australia. I believe the first step towards change is encouraging thought and discussion around the topic.

Kennede, 22

pink dot singapore lgbtq

377A is a symbol of discrimination. Although it isn’t actively enforced, its systemic effects can still be felt. Growing up in Singapore, I noticed how teachers always avoided discussing homosexuality.

The topic is seen as “out of bounds” and teachers around me were not prepared to discuss my sexuality with me. One time, a teacher found it acceptable to tell me my sexuality was just a phase and that I was “acting out for attention.” As per the MOE (Ministry of Education) website, teachers are taught to explain homosexuality in accordance with “legal provisions.”

Because of what I faced, I have made it a point to get involved in activism with some organisations that carry out grassroots activities, but I’m most vocal on my Instagram page @377bae. Initially a tongue-in-cheek play on the law that criminalises gay sex, I’ve taken the platform to inform people about the struggles of the community. Especially at a time when our right to love is being debated upon in our courts, I hope that more people will support the repealing of 377A and fight for our love.

Specific topics I discuss include family violence against LGBT children, as well as casual homophobia (microaggressions) in school and other settings.

Offline, I volunteer with the Inter University LGBT Network, which aims to foster more safe and inclusive spaces for LGBT students. Initiatives include career fairs, mixers, and content to raise awareness about LGBT discrimination in our universities. Recently, we conducted Effective Allyship workshops at Pink Fest, aimed at allies who want to learn more about how they can be better allies to the community.

Ching, 36

ching

Ching and her partner Cally

This is a country I love, want to contribute to, and want to live in with my partner to raise our kids. But I feel that even though I love my country, it isn’t a reciprocal love. It does feel easier to leave Singapore, but I choose to stay for as long as I can, in hope to make and see change. I am crossing my fingers for the constitutional challenges against 377A.

While many of us do not face physical violence, 377A creates a trickle down effect on many laws such as media representation, education, housing, etc. Growing up, I never saw an LGBTQ person portrayed in a neutral or positive light, only as someone psychotic, suicidal, or as a degenerate. More than just constructing or concretising societal roles, the law has an adverse effect on the community’s mental health and perception of future.

The way I impact the discourse is simple. I manage the social media accounts of Pink Dot (Singapore’s only pride parade)and Ready4Repeal’s (organisation working to repeal section 377A), and our objective is always to educate and engage the community and allies. By putting the information out there, we try to generate discussions, provoke others to think, and make information accessible to those who may not proactively seek out the latest happenings on LGBTQ issues.

On a personal note, I organise events with my partner Cally, co-founder of Prout, to bring the community together in a safe environment. From Queer Trivia Nights, to speed dating events for landlords and housemates, it gives the LGBTQ community a space to be themselves, and connect with others in a meaningful way.

I have also tried to bring up discussions with my Chinese-speaking mother, who used to be homophobic, but has since come for Pink Dot twice. While she still does not entirely understand what the LGBTQ community faces, her willingness to discuss difficult issues and to show up for Pink Dot is good enough. This change did not happen overnight, so I urge others to do the same, to never give up engaging their parents and friends, and to keep pushing boundaries. There is hope for our community.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

Find Edoardo on Twitter and Instagram.