I was watching the European Cup at a dingy bar in Singapore. Sitting next to me was an older man. Both of us were drinking in silence when two young guys walked by, hand in hand. I smiled at them, and the older man next to me scoffed.
"Are you gay?" he asked with visible alarm.
"No, I just like seeing people happy."
"Good, they will throw you in jail for that."
I knew the LGBTIQ community in Singapore lacks much of the rights afforded in other nations, but this jail thing is new to me. Fascinated, I did a quick Google search to find that according to Section 377A of Singapore's Penal Code, "any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years."
While state-sanctioned homophobia receives a lot of attention in places like Russia, I feel the situation in Singapore is kept mostly under wraps. So I headed to Tantric, Singapore's biggest gay bar, to speak to some locals about how they get around the country's backward legislation.
VICE: Hi Jonathan, how do you find Singapore?
Jonathan: I actually think it's very fun. I feel like my straight friends are very boring people. I feel like gay people are more fun to be with.
Does your family know?
I'm still hiding it from them. I haven't told my parents because they're quite religious. I think I will always hide it from them. I told my sister last year because I'm very close to her, and I wanted to tell her about this guy I was dating. She took it quite well.
Do you feel angry that telling your family is still such a big deal?
Well the government says they're doing this because of what the people want, and I feel like I can sort of empathize with that from what I was taught growing up. I understand where people are coming from. It's unfair, but I think everyone has their own opinion.
Hey Rave, do you feel like Singapore's repressive laws are reflective of its culture?
It's actually quite open nowadays, not like the olden days. Although homosexuality is criminalized, it's a non-enforced law unless you are convicted of molestation or rape; then they'll put the law in action. But if you're just walking down the street hand in hand with another guy, then it's OK, nobody will say anything.
Do you feel your friends and family accept you?
My family is quite accepting. There are families that have a very traditional Asian way of thinking, and they try to change their children. But society-wise, people are much more accepting now. They won't scream at you or assault you on the street just because you are gay.
Why do you think such a law exists when it is so rarely enforced?
Religion is a factor, so is tradition. Like what our prime minister says, "The nation is not ready for it."
The prime minister once said that "the family is the basic building block of this society. And by family in Singapore, we mean one man, one woman, marrying." Obviously in his view, same-sex relationships aren't legitimate. How do comments like this affect your future?
I would move if I wanted to get married or adopt. I have plans for the UK, or any country that accepts me. But if we keep working and pushing for things like openness and awareness, then the new generations will start to accept it. I think that's really the time when the whole nation can accept it because if you do a sudden push, there will be a pushback.
So you think change will come from the younger generation?
Yes, I was openly gay in school, and none of my friends discriminated against me. I think most of the people who oppose it are in the older generation.
Would you say the opening of Tantric was a big step toward acceptance?
Definitely. I think all gay places are about gay causes, so it is pushing for acceptance.
Hi Ruth, what's it like to be gay in Singapore?
I'm lucky to have gone to a school where everybody was quite open-minded, but actually the lesbian scene in Singapore is quite boring.
In what way is it boring?
There's just not that much culture around it... but at least it's not as hard as where I came from in Malaysia. I was very sheltered over there. Actually I only started to know what the term "gay" means when I came to Singapore. I always knew that I was kind of different, but I just can't describe it. I just thought that I'm normal, that's all.
Do you feel accepted by your family?
I come from a very conservative family, so they won't really say they accept my sexuality. I'm out to all my family, but they didn't accept it at the start. Now my grandpa's totally cool with it, and my mom is just starting to accept me too, so it's a very good thing. The only reason some people don't accept it is because of the population pyramid. There are older people with an older mindset, and there's religion.
Do you think the opening of more gay bars in Singapore are playing a role in promoting wider acceptance in the wider community?
Definitely. Look around, it's not just gays coming here. There are straight people coming too, which I think is a good thing—gay people and straight people sitting under one roof talking and having fun, it's a good thing.
Brett, 32, (an Australian ex-pat I found at Tantric)
Why do you think this law still exists?
Colonialism, the British empire, and the vestiges of that empire, which people haven't really considered, is that the British government and the British people have moved on, but the colonial states haven't. But they will.
Do you think it's just a matter of waiting for the older generation to die out for things to really change?
No, I don't think we need to wait. It's an advanced economy, but it's not an advanced society, yet. They're tolerant of Muslims and other cultures here, great start, but be tolerant of other sexualities as well. I think it will come, and I think it will come quite rapidly. It's just a matter of a legal case or something. Singapore has quite a strong legal system. If somebody challenges an unfair law, potentially they'll win, and that will change society overnight, maybe.
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