Singapore’s LGBT community feels safer as end of ban brings change
SINGAPORE — Singapore drag performer Yeo Sam Jo has been feeling much more confident and safe heading off to shows in the full regalia of pink sequin dress, pearl necklace and heavy make-up.
Change is afoot in the conservative city state with a softening of attitudes and growing tolerance of gay issues, which some members of the LGBT community and academics attribute to the November lifting of a ban on sex between men.
“Some people will take photos and I’ll just let them. Whatever, I’m going for work, I’m going to perform,” said Yeo, or “JoJo Sam Clair” as he is known on stage.
“Sometimes the stares … from ‘Wow, you look interesting’ to ‘Oh, you look different’ … but nothing bad has been said or done,” Yeo said recently before jumping into a taxi on a balmy tropical evening on the way to a show.
Under a colonial-era law known as Section 377A, sex between men was illegal in the Southeast Asian island nation until parliament lifted the ban seven months ago after years of campaigning by activists. (Sex between women had not been covered under the law.)
Before the change, a man found to have committed an act of “gross indecency” with another man could be jailed for up to two years, though the government had said in 2007 it would not enforce the law. Authorities banned gay festivals and censored gay films, saying homosexuality should not be advocated as a lifestyle.
But the historic lifting of the ban was not all welcomed by LGBT people. At the same time, parliament amended the constitution to prevent court challenges that in other countries have led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Sociologist Laavanya Kathiravelu said changes in legislation can shift mindsets, especially in places such as Singapore, with its “strong government that has often directed the moral limits of what is acceptable or not”.
“The repeal of 377A could be interpreted as a top-down signal that the social and political landscape has changed. This means that even those who do not necessarily agree with the repeal must now respect and acknowledge these identities,” said Kathiravelu, of the Nanyang Technological University.
A government spokesperson did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The repeal of the gay sex ban was not universally welcomed. An alliance of churches decried it as an “extremely regrettable decision” that “celebrates homosexuality”.
The government stresses the need to maintain a balance in society, upholding traditional family values but allowing space for all to contribute.
‘Safer to talk’
Changes that until recently would have been unthinkable are evident.
LGBT issues are appearing in the typically conservative domestic media, known for toeing the government line.
Carol Soon, who researches society and culture at the Institute of Policy Studies, said the media had become more nuanced, “evident in their unpacking of tensions and differences in values and beliefs”.
Some traditionally conservative sectors of society are also reflecting the new spirit.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore this month advised teachers to “address socio-religious issues, including LGBT issues, with wisdom, kindness, compassion and mercy”.
An annual rally for LGBT rights known as Pink Dot drew big crowds this weekend, though under rules laid down by the government, foreigners may not attend and organisers may not accept sponsorship from foreign companies.
“Over the past year I am seeing more people dressing in the way they like, even if it identifies them as LGBTQ persons. I am seeing a lot more drag shows happening in Singapore,” said administrative executive Nishanthiy Balasamy, 34, a straight woman attending the Pink Dot rally on Saturday to support her gay brother.
“It is much more open nowadays. They are feeling more comfortable and confident about their identity.”
The new tolerance means more people are coming out.
Prominent women’s rights activist Corinna Lim this month told a policy conference of 950 people that she was lesbian.
“I think it is partly to do with the repeal of Section 377A. It somehow seems it is safer to talk about this,” Lim said on a conference panel with the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam.
Lesbian activists Cally Chia and Ching Chia recently announced on Instagram they were having a baby. Ching said society seemed ready to accept their family: “In some ways, we feel we’re braver because of the repeal.”
But the picture is not all rosy for LGBT people.
Activists say that because only parliament can change the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, the entrenched view of family as mother, father and children, means LGBT families suffer under public policies in areas such as housing.
Clement Tan, spokesperson for Pink Dot, hailed a “perceptible shift in social attitudes” but said more must be done.
“We’re still being sent a message that our families are not deserving of the same rights and protections as ‘ordinary’ Singaporeans,” Tan said.