Growing up in Singapore, 16-year-old Michelle Lee, like many Singaporean homosexual youth, struggled to come to terms with her identity in a society that made her feel like an unwelcome aberration. The labels “gay” and “lesbian” were pejoratives tossed around the playground, reinforcing cultural stigmas. Without positive role models in the media, Michelle lacked the exposure necessary to make sense of her sexual orientation.
Most media representation depicts LGBT behavior as a mental illness that requires treatment and correction. Unable to reconcile being a loyal daughter with her growing attraction to other women and concerned about the resulting implications for her future she spiraled into depression. There are few spaces in Singaporean society for people like Michelle. Facing rejection from family, friends, and the community at large, how do they survive?
Michelle Lee is just one of the many LGBT youths struggling in Singapore, in constant fear of their uncertain position in society. A survey conducted by Oogachaga Counselling and Support, a non-profit organization supporting the LGBTQ community, found that 60.2% of respondents have experienced discrimination and abuse due to their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. This discrimination and abuse has contributed to higher rates of suicidal thoughts or attempts among LGBT individuals in Singapore.
In Singapore, gay marriage is not legal. The state does not recognize same-sex civil partnerships, and there are no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression. Section 377A— a relic of the colonial-era law—in Singapore’s Penal Code criminalizes all sexual activity between men, punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. Despite pressure internationally and from LGBT advocates in Singapore, the archaic law remains for fear of “sending the wrong signal” to Singaporean society, although assurances were made that it would not be “proactively enforced.” In a recent ruling the Supreme Court stated that 377A did not violate articles 9 and 12 of the Constitution, which respectively guarantee the right to personal liberty and life, and equal protection before the law. The implication of the Court’s decisions was that the right to sexual equality of LGBT individuals was not a civil right of equality and non-discrimination protected under the constitution.
The presence of the law makes it enforceable, leaving LGBT persons vulnerable to discrimination, violence, stigmatization, arrest, and police intimidation. The existence of 377A deprives gay men—and by extension, the rest of the LGBT community—of equal protection before the law and before public opinion. Despite state assurances, between 2007 and 2013 nine people were convicted under 377A.
The government argues that the reason for not repealing 377A is that Singapore is a conservative society, still intolerant toward homosexuality. And indeed, most Singaporeans still oppose homosexual relationships. In 2014, a study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies found that 78.2 percent of Singaporeans perceived sexual relations between two same-sex adults as “always” or “almost always” wrong. In recent years, the WearWhite movement has urged members to wear white to counter the growing acceptance of LGBT individuals in Singapore, such as the effort Pink Dot,” a gay rights rally that attracted nearly 30,000 attendees in 2015.
LGBT organizations have appealed for more public platforms to discuss LGBT issues and foster understanding. Yet, the state continues to restrict positive portrayals and the public dissemination of information on LGBT issues with strict guidelines issued by the Media Development Authority. The guidelines limit a society’s understanding of urgent issues facing the community, reinforcing harmful tropes and perpetuating institutional discrimination. For example, access to healthcare information and service provisions of LGBT-specific healthcare services is routinely denied. In Singapore, more than 50 percent of the 6,000 HIV diagnosed individuals are gay men. Yet current laws prohibit the public education campaigns on HIV-AIDS directed to LGBT-communities.
Celebrated as a global city, Singapore must evolve its humanitarian world view and embrace the emerging consensus of global norms if it aspires to the ideal of true modernity. To engage the best and brightest, it must meet international standards on this front by protecting the rights of all its people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Singaporean government’s 377A is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes rights to non-discrimination, privacy, and freedom of expression.
The first step should the repeal of the law and the guarantee that the state will uphold our national pledge “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation.” Only by doing so and by encouraging open, humane discussion of sexuality will individuals like Michelle Lee realize their full potential as equal members of society and Singapore, as a country, realize its full potential globally.