Gay community looks ahead as it signals a new focus

By Li Xueying

THE dialogue has been started, and it will continue.

While disappointed that Section 377A – which criminialises sex between men – has not been repealed after two days of parliamentary debate, Singapore’s gay community is determined to keep the conversation going.

As media company executive Stuart Koe put it: ‘We’ve started a dialogue which we don’t intend to stop.’

His group, which collected 2,341 signatures for a petition to Parliament to repeal the law, also issued a statement On Wednesday: ‘The beginning of the end of the discrimination of one group of Singaporeans has begun and there is no turning back.’

Reaction from the gay community a day after the end of the Parliament debate, also indicate a new focus.

For now, petitions and active lobbying are not on the table, said six gay activists interviewed on Wednesday.

Instead, they will look towards heightening the visibility of the gay community through efforts such as volunteer work, support groups and events like IndigNation which hosts, for instance, arts exhibitions and poetry readings.

This will help Singaporeans understand gays better, and be more comfortable among them, they said.

Said former teacher Dominic Chua, who runs a support group for gay teachers: ‘What makes this so divisive is that many of those who are against gays, do not have gay friends, and do not understand them.’

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who joined the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, said Singapore had to maintain a balance between upholding a stable society with traditional, heterosexual family values and giving gays space to live their lives.

He also cautioned that ‘as a matter of reality, the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society’.

Mr Koe said on Wednesday: ‘We’re taking that to heart. I don’t think we’re going to be knocking our heads against the wall this way.

‘Rather, to foster understanding, we will work with the community to be more visible such as through volunteer work, so they are comfortable with us.’

Added Mr Kelvin Wong, who heads a support group for Buddhist gays: ‘We will move on. We will do what we have been doing – IndigNation, the support groups, increase our visibility and get people to understand us.’

But, academic Russell Heng said, the gay community must be given its right to ‘try to change minds’ and educate Singaporeans on gay issues.

‘I expect the Government to be fair and not obstruct those organisations that might invite me to speak, while my opponents have every right to spread their anti-gay message.’

As for whether the debate polarises society, Mr Chua said: ‘It is, if the debate is one-sided and couched in uncivil terms. Otherwise, genuine dialogue is a sign of a mature society.’

Even as the gay community look upon that as a silver lining, groups that opposed repealing 377A applauded the Government’s decision.

In a statement, Muslim organisation Pergas said that whatever the reason for homosexuality, ‘Islam clearly states that Man can assert his power of reasoning over his negative desires if he so wishes’.

Executive director Martin Tan, 30, who co-organised a counter-petition to keep the law, said: ‘The feedback we got supporting the retention of 377A has been overwhelming, and I’m sure most Singaporeans are happy with the decision.’

Overall, the gay activists interviewed hailed the two days of debate as a ‘milestone’. A community, hitherto ‘kept in the shadows’, had been heard, they said.

Ms Eileena Lee, who runs a resource centre on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, added: ‘As a gay woman, I felt affirmed and acknowledged, especially with the Prime Minister’s speech.”

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