The LGBTQ+ community in Singapore deal with mixed emotions as the government repeals Section 377A of the Penal Code but also plans to amend its Constitution to prevent same-sex marriage.
“The government repeals Section 377A of the Penal Code”. I was at a wedding when I received this ping on my phone. I scanned through the notification and did a double take – I couldn’t believe my eyes. After decades of championing change, all the hard work from support group leaders, activists, allies and stakeholders has come to fruition.
“H would’ve been so proud”, I thought to myself. H was a close friend during my polytechnic days. He was out, proud and always vocal about gay rights. H taught me all about the LGBTQ+ community and the battles they’ve fought for basic human rights. He even brought me to my first Pink Dot event in 2010. He’s the reason why I’m an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and why I go off when bigots shoot ignorant statements.
Unfortunately, he passed on in 2018. I made sure to play some Madonna hits ‘cos that’s exactly what he’d do after hearing news of the Section 377A repeal.
Section 377A repealed: A cause for celebration
During Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally address on 21 August 2022, he announced that the government will repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code and decriminalise sex between men.
It was a momentous event for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore (way overdue, in fact). We witnessed allies cheering upon hearing the announcement and sharing many heartfelt posts on their social media pages. In a joint statement released by Pink Dot SG and other LGBTQ+ groups in Singapore, they shared that the demise of Section 377A represents something different to everyone.
Friends and allies of the LGBTQ+ community also expressed their happiness. “It’s a good step forward and something I didn’t think I’d see for another 50 years or so. Change is coming, but there’s more to fight for equal rights with cishet people,” says Lauren (not her real name), 30, queer.
“It’s a long time coming but I’m glad to witness this momentous change in my lifetime. It means progress. It means that we’re no longer in the shadows and we’re seen by the country,” says Taylor (not their real name), 31, gay.
Mag (not her real name), a 25-year-old lesbian, also stressed the challenge of making a decision in a predominantly traditionalist nation. “It’s a long-awaited step in the right direction and a huge relief. I’m grateful that we’re finally making progress, which I acknowledge is very difficult in a conservative, Asian and diverse country.”
Section 377A is repealed but the battle isn’t over
I had an inkling there was more to the announcement as it felt too good to be true. Just as I predicted, during the same address, PM Lee added that “even as [the government] repeals 377A, they will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage.”
“Under the law, only marriages between one man and one woman are recognised in Singapore. Many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage – including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification.”
“… It will also keep what I believe most Singaporeans still want, and that is to retain the basic family structure of marriage between a man and a woman, within which we have and raise our children,” he said.
This was also a recurring statement from religious groups, where some expressed disappointment about the repeal.
“Safeguard the institution of marriage from… what?” I thought out loud. “Is a heterosexual marriage or relationship so fragile that people need reaffirmation for it to be “protected” from a community that just wants the same rights?”
As much as I shrugged at government leaders who stressed the point of safeguarding the institution of marriage, I also recognised the rationale – to appease and reassure the conservatives in Singapore and the anti-repeal crowd. “We’re proposing a very careful package of amendments to strike the right balance for Singapore,” Minister Edwin Tong said so himself in an interview with CNA.
As PM Lee shared, many national policies rely on this definition of marriage. If that is challenged, policies related to public housing, education and adoption rules will have to be updated too.
But if we’re so stuck on a primitive notion of a “conventional” lifestyle, how are we going to evolve and pave way for policy changes? I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again: agreeing to policies and practices that include the LGBTQ+ community will never dilute or belittle the societal norms of straight or cis-gendered people. Is finding a middle ground wishful thinking?
One step forward, two steps back
The government’s decision to amend Singapore’s Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman strips away this “win” for the LGBTQ+ community and encourages a heteronormative society.
PM Lee further added that Singaporeans don’t want the repeal of 377A to trigger a drastic shift in societal norms. That includes how Singapore defines marriage, what’s taught to children in schools, what’s shown on free-to-air television and in cinemas, and what’s generally acceptable conduct in public.
“It’s rather ridiculous that, for decades, this law has been justified as one to “keep the peace”, because if we truly live in a secular society, basic human rights should’ve never interfered with personal beliefs,” Mag chimes in on the “slippery slope” argument.
“If we were genuinely committed to equality, we wouldn’t be appeasing and babying clashing views. When you’ve been continually assured that your beliefs will be protected over others, instead of being taught how to (at the very least) co-exist and progress with society, I can see why, in their minds, they think society is going to snowball into decay when they ‘don’t get their way’. I imagine this will only further feed the slippery slope.”
Some also expressed that these policies are basic human rights. “We got rid of an archaic law – something that should’ve been repealed years ago – but now we face bigger and higher challenges: getting married, BTO bidding with our partner, advocating for safe sex in schools, and so on. But we have to take the win as a win and continue to move forward as a community and country,” Lauren says.
Celebrating the small wins and focusing on the next steps
Polarising views aside, some focused on celebrating small wins. In a heartfelt LinkedIn post, influencer and co-founder of Kampung Collective Andee Chua shares that, while long overdue, this is an important milestone for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore, and we should be celebrating this win.
For now, he urges all to “acknowledge the progress, celebrate the win, check in with our LGBTQ+ peers and families around us (some might need more time to process), stay hydrated, and look out for one another as one community.”
So, what’s next? The battle has only begun.
Many want the same rights as their straight friends and family. “I think the next milestone should be advocating for same-sex marriage. But realistically I think a civil union is more attainable,” Lauren says.
“As an ally, it’s good to remember that while we (the LGBTQ+ community) fight for equal rights, we’re not saying you have no or diminished rights. We just want the same for our community: the ability to ballot for a BTO and enjoy the privileges of being a Singaporean.”
“On an individual level, I feel that not much is going to happen. We’re still going to love, and there will still be plenty of hurdles. We can only hope that acceptance of our community grows,” Mag says. “On a community level, I’m optimistic because more resources can now be channelled to helping LGBTQ individuals through their struggles and through discrimination. A weight is off our shoulders and we can focus more on the wellbeing of our community.”
How can we show our support as allies?
As queer brand Heckin’ Unicorn shares in an Instagram post, the days leading up to the repeal of 377A in Parliament might be a challenging time for the queer community.
So, how can we help? Here are some suggestions from the LGBTQ+ community:
“Use the right pronouns, have open conversations with people who see differently, and learn to agree to disagree.”
“It will be helpful for allies to understand and recognise their privilege.”
“Be vocal. The simple act of sharing a post on social – it creates a ripple effect. Stand up and educate people, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations with your family at the dinner table.”
“As both allies and members, education is key. Spend some time learning about the history of LGBTQ discrimination and why it is not okay. In your day-to-day life, spread kindness and take the initiative to stand up for what isn’t right.”
“Help dispel myths and rumours that others have of the community.”
I’ve played the tiniest role in being an ally but we can all be catalysts to a more inclusive Singapore in the future.
Like how I was at a wedding when I received news about the repeal, I hope to witness gay marriage in Singapore in my lifetime. For now, let’s celebrate the small wins now that Section 377A is repealed, spread positivity and manifest a future where we can find a middle ground.