Last Septmeber, India’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India that Section 377 – the law that criminalised gay sex – was unconstitutional. What followed was a huge debate in Singapore, which still retains a similar law inherited from its British colonisers.
Ever since, I’ve seen many recurring arguments being floated around in defense of this law. While I do not agree with them, perhaps the biggest failing of the discourse we have had about this issue has been the tendency to put down ideas we do not agree with without the dignity of any proper explanation. Maybe these already exist and I just haven’t really come across them. Regardless, I’ve collated some of these arguments and want to offer my two cents on each.
1. Compromising Religious Institutions
One of the main arguments coming from the pro-377A camp is the risk posed towards freedom of religion. The argument is a compelling one. Homosexuality isn’t only about the private sexual behaviour of consenting adults. The repeal of 377A might potentially affect third parties and society as a whole in the future. Specifically, if the government becomes more accommodating of homosexuality, religious citizens might not be able to exercise their religious rights. The video below nicely encapsulates the argument.
An older version of the video alleges that the following things will happen when 377A is repealed.
If a homosexual couple wants to get married in a religious institution, like a Mosque or a Church, religious leaders must obey even if homosexual unions are specifically prohibited in their religion… Refuse and (they) will be arrested.
If you’re a baker or florist who does not want to be involved in gay weddings because it goes against your personal beliefs, you will pay a price (be arrested).
If you express your views on homosexuality you will be called a hater and a bigot. It’ll be a crime to say that homosexuality is wrong. Today’s holy book will become tomorrow’s hate speech. The public reading of these texts will now be against the law.
A speech by NMP Thio Li-Ann also brings up this argument.
To protect homosexuals, some countries have criminalized not sodomy but opposition to sodomy, making it a ‘hate crime’ to criticize homosexuality. This violates freedom of speech and religion; will sacred texts that declare homosexuality morally deviant, like the Bible and Koran, be criminalized?…
Given how important religion is to the lives of many here, the concern is definitely a legitimate one. But perhaps it is also misplaced.
Firstly, it is important to note that the legalisation of homosexuality will not translate into religious institutions being forced to perform same-sex marriages. Even in America, with gay marriage being legalised in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, clergy and institutions have significant protection under the First Amendment from being forced to facilitate these marriages. Likewise, it’s a constitutional right in Singapore for persons “to profess and practice [their] religion and to propagate it”. Presently, religious institutions do already have the autonomy to refuse to marry people even if they are in a heterosexual relationship, for instance when one of the parties is not of the same faith or from a different church. This autonomy does not disappear just because homosexual relationships are recognised by the state. Rather, the repeal of 377A and a potential legalisation of gay marriage is only binding on state registration of marriages (ROMs).
Secondly, allowing 377A to fall doesn’t automatically mean that anti-discrimination laws in employment, the provision of goods and services and in speech will be passed. A manifestation of these laws would be the bakers and florists in the video, who are forced to cater for gay weddings. Singapore being a deeply religious, superstitious and conservative society, might not ever adopt these laws. In fact, even in the western-liberal context, these laws are extremely contentious and are being furiously debated on. The US has no federal law that outlaws discrimination against the LGBTQ community and only 22 states have statewide protection.
Even in the scenario that such laws are created, let’s consider whether or not that is such a bad thing. Faiths often fundamentally contradict each other, for instance in terms of whom each thinks should be worshiped and how this worship should manifest. The ability of an employer to reject a prospective employee for a non-religious position or not bake a cake for someone on the basis that they worship the ‘wrong’ god in Singapore probably sounds ludicrous, and is prohibited under Article 12 of the Constitution. There is already a social consensus that discrimination against a person on the basis of his personal choices is not something that should be tolerated in Singapore, even if those choices are ones that others vehemently disagree with, so long as they don’t cause objective 3rd party harm. I think it’s fair to say that so personal a choice as having a homosexual relationship should be held to a similar standard and protected in a similar way by the state.
Third, to address NMP Thio’s theological concerns, changes within legality and what is deemed to be socially acceptable have hardly ever, if at all, been a premise for banning scripture in Singapore. We’ve seen this in the fact that religious groups are still able to use texts that condemn acts like premarital sex or even getting a divorce despite these acts not being criminal.
In essence, there is no creeping, pernicious agenda to try to abolish religion. There is only a quest to find a middle ground that is more accommodating for both the LGBTQ community and religions. They are definitely not mutually exclusive.
2. On Morality
Recently, a friend told me something along these lines:
If I move into a new house, I want to move into a street with good people. Not with thieves and criminals. I rather live in a society that aligns with my ideas of morality
While likening people with a different personal preference to “thieves and criminals” is inherently problematic for various reasons, he had a point. Morally, many Singaporeans feel that homosexuality is wrong. And of course, our favourite NMP, Thio Li-Ann, agrees with him. Albeit in a more fluffy and rhetorically sound way.
The ‘argument from consent’ says the state should keep out of the bedroom, to safeguard ‘sexual autonomy’. While we cherish racial and religious diversity, sexual diversity is a different kettle of fish. Diversity is not license for perversity. This radical liberal argument is pernicious, a leftist philosophy based on radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. It is unworkable because every viable moral theory has limits to consent.
She later adds:
...Decriminalizing sodomy is only the tip of the iceberg which is 1/8 of an ice mass – we must see what lies beneath the water to avoid a Titanic fate.
Step 2 is to equalize the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sex; in some countries, this is as low as 13. Do we want to expose Sec 1 boys to adult sexual predators? To be sexually creative?
Step 3 is to prohibit discrimination based on ‘sexual orientation’. But would this not include all sexual behaviour? “Sex before 8 or else it’s too late” is the motto of the North American Man Boy Love Association. Should we judge pedophilia or be relativist and promote “anything goes” sexual experimentation?
Wait. ‘Radical’ for whom though? ‘Perverse’ under what moral code? Based on judeo-christian and Islamic values? Because Hinduism and Buddhism have varying views on the LGBTQ community. There is largely no stigma attached to homosexual relations in Buddhism, and Hindus even recognise a third gender. Even among Christians, there are multiple denominations that affirm LGBTQs.
The point I’m trying to make here is that no one group should have a monopoly over morality without having to rationally justify these standards beyond preexisting belief. This is especially true in a country like Singapore – which isn’t only diverse in its religious attitudes, but is also secular. While Singaporean society can continue to be conservative, the government, which is founded on the principle of “accommodative secularism” has a duty to separate religion from state. This renders most morality arguments moot, considering that there are little to no third party harms to legalising same-sex behaviour.
NMP Thio’s argument with regards to pedophilia and sexual predators personally angers me a little because it seems to assume that for some reason, homosexuals are inherently more sex-crazed than heterosexuals and therefore care less about consent. Many heterosexuals commit rape. Many homosexuals have never done this and care heavily about gaining a meaningful ‘yes’ before engaging in physical intimacy. If her criticism of equalizing the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual relations is that 13 is too young for a person to agree to have homosexual relations, then the debate should instead be about raising the age of majority, or retaining it at 16 in the context of Singapore, because having sex is just as big a decision for heterosexuals as it is for homosexuals.
Her assertion that this would make pedophilia more acceptable is also rather problematic. Pedophilia isn’t wrong because it’s ‘weird’. It’s wrong because one of the parties involved cannot meaningfully give consent. Repealing 377A is not about letting people pressure others into non-heterosexual sex. Rape, statutory or otherwise, will still be rape.
No one’s fighting to erase the notion of consent from the law.
3. Public Health
Anal-penetrative sex is inherently damaging to the body and a misuse of organs, like shoving a straw up your nose to drink. The anus is designed to expel waste; when something is forcibly inserted into it, the muscles contract and cause tearing; fecal waste, viruses carried by sperm and blood thus congregate, with adverse health implications like ‘gay bowel syndrome’, anal cancer.
Medical literature indicates that gays have disproportionately higher STDs rates, which puts them in a different category from the general public, warranting different treatment.
I don’t know whether Ms. Li-Ann has heard of condoms and lube, but they do in fact exist. I’m no doctor, but from little research that I was able to do, it was clear that a lot of these health issues can be negated with safe sex.
But let’s take her at her best case scenario — that anal sex does pose a health risk to homosexuals. Still, I reckon that the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The gay community is well aware of the risks that surround anal penetrative sex and its members exercise informed choice when they have sex. And Singapore is no welfare state — we don’t have free healthcare and subsidies are relatively low. So, if any member of the gay community gets gay bowel syndrome, anal cancer or STDs, they are mostly paying for their own treatment. They aren’t using up taxpayer dollars. Once again, there is little to no third party harm.
Let’s take this argument one step further. Approximately 13.3% of Singapore’s population of 5.6 million are smokers. The economic cost of smoking in Singapore amounts to 3.1 billion Singapore dollars — due to the loss of productivity and healthcare costs. Smoking also kills approximately 2,500 smokers and 250 non smokers each year. Considering that smoking too is a public health issue, should we ban it all together? I’m almost certain that the gay community causes way less trouble fiscally.
Further, let’s also not forget that sodomy isn’t an exclusively homosexual act. In 2007, it was legalised in Singapore for heterosexuals and women. Clearly the state does not see a large enough problem with the health risks associated to place a blanket ban on the activity for most of the population. I don’t know why they should intervene more just because it’s a man on the receiving end.
If we really want to talk about public health issues, let’s talk about the mental health issues that the LGBTQ community faces. It is said that LGBTQ teenagers are twice as likely to commit suicide than heterosexual ones in the US. At home, a survey by Oogachaga showed that 60.2% of respondents indicated having experienced abuse and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The problems they face are often couched by skeptics as ones stemming from them merely being unwilling to abide by social norms. Let’s just practice some empathy for a moment. An extremely straight heterosexual cannot be expected to turn homosexual. Why shouldn’t the converse also be assumed to be true?
On a completely unrelated note, if by genetic predisposition, I had my mouth shut and was forced to “shove a straw up” my nose to drink, I would do it, rather than not drink at all.
When we are raised to adhere to certain beliefs and standards of morality, it is definitely no easy feat to reject them later in life. But this is no excuse to not critically reexamine our preexisting stances, especially when failing to do so translates into someone else’s suffering. The call to repeal 377A is not one that aims to undermine society, nor is it to give the gay community extensive privileges. Rather, it is an attempt to allow our fellow Singaporeans access to basic rights that many of us take for granted.
I really do hope that I get to see Singapore live up to its promise of equality, even with regards to sexual orientation, within my lifetime. I’m confident that it will happen — sooner rather than later.