By Chirag Agarwal*-Dec 12, 2017
(First published in the South China Morning Post and accessible at: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2123923/singapore-its-time-change-closed-minds-towards-lgbt)
Australia recently legalized same-sex marriage in what was a historic moment for the country. While in some parts, the world is tottering towards increased protection of gay rights, in others, frustratingly, the community is still oppressed. Back home in Singapore, male gay sex remains a crime, although the government has, for its part, promised not to ‘harass gays’ or proactively enforce the now infamous section 377A of the penal code.
Growing up in a conservative country and a religious family, I did not consider equality regardless of sexual orientation as a fundamental human right. In fact, even up until the time I left Singapore as a working adult, I did not have a single friend who I knew to be homosexual. It was easy to be apathetic about something that I only understood to exist in theory.
Around that time, a close friend from Singapore revealed that she was in a same-sex relationship. Having learned of my friends’ sexual orientation after I became good friends with them made me wonder: would our friendship be any different if I knew they were gay or lesbian before I met them? The answer seemed obvious: their sexuality made no difference and, honestly, it was none of my business.
Over the many meals I shared with my gay college mate in Australia, I learned of his struggles growing up as a gay boy in a small town in Australia. He found himself attracted to other boys but couldn’t tell anyone because everyone he knew spoke disparagingly about homosexuality and labelled it a mental condition. He went through an existential crisis at a young age. His story left me dumbfounded.
A form of my friend’s worst nightmare is sometimes played out in countries like Iran where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death but sex change operations are encouraged, even subsidized by the government. So, in some cases in Iran, gay and lesbian people undergo sex-change surgery to stay alive.
Asian societies have not always discriminated against homosexuals. Louis Crompton details in his book Homosexuality and Civilization the homosexual traditions of major societies from the Greeks and Romans to China and Japan. He shares famous stories of male love from Chinese history, noting that: “In the West, opposition to homosexuality has most often come from religion. In China, religious attitudes towards sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular have been markedly different.”
In September, Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that a British expat should be given a dependent visa through her same-sex partner who works in Hong Kong, an immigration status previously granted only to heterosexual spouses. The government is appealing against the ruling, and the case is expected to go before the city’s top court.
Whatever the outcome of this case, the tide is turning globally. Singaporeans should reconsider their opposition to the homosexual community. Apathy towards LGBT issues is dangerous, because, unlike race, religion and even socioeconomic status, it is easy for the community to be hiding in plain sight and suffering in silence.
The easiest way to empathize with the community is to get to know somebody in it. For this to happen, more people in the LGBT community in Singapore need to come out. It will be hard, not least because gay sex remains a crime, but it is important to win hearts and minds. It is important to show fellow Singaporeans that the LGBT community is more similar to them than different, that they share the same fears, dreams and aspirations and that they, too, want is to be loved and respected.
A quote from civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on my coffee mug reminds me every day of the power of love: “Power at its best is love, implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love, correcting everything that stands against love.”
Simply put, love is love.
*Chirag Agarwal, a former Singaporean diplomat, writes about socio-political issues in Singapore. He is currently a public policy consultant in Australia.