“A National Coming Out”: 10 Years Since Repeal 377A

Update: Section 377a was repealed on 29 November 2022, but systemic discrimination continues and the fight for equality still goes on.

It’s been 10 years and Siew Kum Hong still remembers the walk from his seat to the Clerk of Parliament: “I was so worried I’d stumble and fall! I was relieved to get it done without messing up.”

Parliamentary sessions are usually important yet mundane events, but the petition Siew had in his hands was significant and unprecedented: it was the first time in Singapore that a parliamentary petition was being submitted with popular support.

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.
— Section 377A, Singapore Penal Code

The petition called for the repeal of Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code. The law criminalises sex between men, even if the act is consensual and occurs in private. Its existence has side-effects; by effectively criminalising gay men, 377A affects government policies and positions, such as the representation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community in the media, and the inclusion of LGBTQ issues in sex education in schools.

“An overt discrimination”

Following a comprehensive review of the Penal Code, the Ministry of Home Affairs tabled amendments in September 2007. Among the long list of suggested changes was the decriminalisation of oral and anal sex between heterosexual couples, as covered in Section 377. Section 377A, however, was left untouched.

The discrepancy leapt out at George Hwang. “This was an overt discrimination. And I thought that it went against the grain of the formation of Singapore,” he told New Naratif, referring to promises of equality enshrined in declarations such as the national pledge, which commits to building “a democratic society, based on justice and equality”.

Hwang, with the support of Stuart Koe—founder of the prominent LGBTQ website Fridae—approached then-Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong with the idea of submitting a parliamentary petition.

Independent of Hwang and Koe’s efforts, another group of LGBTQ activists were finding their way towards what would become the Repeal 377A campaign. According to campaigner Alan Seah, there was an indirect push from an unexpected source: “We were a little bit inspired by Sir Ian McKellen [who was touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company]… he did a whole thing on Channel News Asia where they asked him, ‘What do you hope to do in Singapore?’ and he said, ‘Well, I hope to go to a gay bar!’ They all didn’t know what to do, it was the morning show and [broadcast] live! I won’t say he’s the inspiration, but he definitely encouraged us to be a bit more mischievous.”

Seah and a couple of friends set up Repeal377A.com. The campaign took shape around the parliamentary petition and an open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Local celebrities appeared in a video, their calls for repeal set against a pop beat.

Seah remembers going around gay bars collecting signatures. “It’s always difficult to try and get people activated when you’re at a club!” he said with a laugh. “But I remember the response was generally pretty good.”

Some local businesses put up boxes where people could deposit their signatures; individuals with no direct connection to the campaign collected signatures from their peers. Hwang had set a target of 200 signatures, but the response exceeded his expectations tenfold. On 22 October, Siew submitted a petition with 2,341 signatures to Parliament. The open letter, submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office, had 8,120 signatures.

The struggle for equality. Credit: Otto Fong

Straws and noses 

In Parliament, Siew’s speech quoted comments left by signatories to the open letter, including one from a mother:

‪My son… came out to me when he was 22. And I was upset and I blamed myself for why my son is gay… I blamed myself all the time. But he is my son. … I love him for who he is, for what he is. It sickens me that people think… just because he is gay, our family is not what it is. We are a family… He does not know I am doing this but I support this repeal. He is my son and he is not a criminal. If I can accept him, his mother who gave birth to him, who are these people who so quickly judge him and condemn him?

Some Members of Parliament, including those from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), spoke supportively of repeal. But others argued strongly for 377A’s retention. Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li Ann gave the most memorable speech of the debate—still referenced by activists today—accusing “homosexual activists” of trying to “‪hijack human rights initiatives to serve their political agenda”. She likened anal sex to “‪shoving a straw up your nose to drink” and spoke approvingly of efforts to help gay people get rid of their same-sex attraction and “‪fulfill their heterosexual potential”.

“It was quite jaw-dropping,” Seah said. “And the fact that [other MPs] applauded her, that was really disturbing.”

“[T]he whole Section 377A saga in 2007 gave me a rude awakening that there is a segment of the Singapore population that is not only conservative but bigoted to the extent that they advocate imprisonment for sex between two consenting adult males in the privacy of their own home,” Hwang said.

“Out of the closet”

All the arguments, media coverage and celebrity videos weren’t enough to shift the law. There was resistance; a counter-petition urging the retention of 377A accumulated over 15,000 signatures. The government was reluctant to move, and Parliament voted to retain the law.

“If you try and force the issue and settle the matter definitively, one way or the other, we are never going to reach an agreement within Singapore society,” said PM Lee Hsien Loong.

But the activists and their allies don’t consider Repeal 377A a failure. “It might be hard to imagine today, but back then, there were a lot more people bashing LGBTQ folks in public than there were people defending their freedom to be who they were in public,” Siew said. “The debate around 377A in 2007 in and outside Parliament took place very publicly and openly, and a lot of people, especially straight allies, stood up in public to oppose anti-LGBT discrimination for the first time.”

“While we didn’t succeed, for the first time, we united and organised,” said Indulekshmi Rajeswari, project leader of a legal guidebook for LGBT families in Singapore. “Alliances and relationships were forged in that attempt which still have an impact on LGBTQ activism today.”

“It brought our community out of the closet at a national level,” Seah said. “And I do think—without taking anything away from previous efforts—it galvanised our community. I’m not sure Pink Dot would have happened the way it happened [without Repeal 377A].”

Pink Dot and beyond

10 years after Repeal 377A, Hong Lim Park—a modest green space next to Singapore’s Central Business District—was packed on July 1, 2017, a heaving sea of pink in the tropical heat.

In its ninth iteration, Pink Dot* had dancers, singers, community booths, celebrity ambassadors and over 100 Singaporean company sponsors; its organisers, Seah included, have been careful to present the event as a family-friendly festival, to better reach protest-phobic Singaporeans.

It’d come a long way from its inception in 2009. “They didn’t allow us to use the stage,” Hwang recalled. “[Actress and singer] Pam Oei brought a stool, stood on the stool and had a loudhailer. That was the first Pink Dot.”

Alan Seah: “…institutionally, 377A really chops off our hands and feet.” Credit: Otto Fong

The annual event’s astonishing growth might give the impression that much progress has been made for LGBTQ rights in Singapore, but the reality isn’t so simple. “There have been overtures [from the government], acknowledgement that we are valuable and that we shouldn’t be despised,” said Seah. “But institutionally, 377A really chops off our hands and feet. And makes it really hard.”

Constitutional challenges mounted against 377A were dismissed by the Court of Appeal in 2014. Pink Dot has also not been left alone; new rules introduced this year forbade foreign companies like Google or Barclays—companies that had been sponsors in previous years—from supporting the event, and required organisers to erect a barricade around the park so that only citizens and Permanent Residents would be allowed entry.

Although LGBTQ issues have gained visibility, the pushback has grown too. Groups like “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” and “Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family” have popped up online, monitoring and flagging any perceived move towards equality or “pro-LGBT” content, be it a brief same-sex peck in a touring production of Les Misérables or the existence of children’s books featuring different family types—including gay families, as represented by a couple of male penguins in And Tango Makes Three—in the National Library. The government has been accused of pandering to these groups: following complaints, the authorities demanded the kiss be excised from the musical, while the children’s books were only saved from being pulped after a public uproar, including a “read-in” where young parents read the books to their offspring outside the library building.

“We’re not free to do whatever we want to do; it’s just a matter of time before they use the laws against us”

“Once you’re given certain dog-whistles or certain cues to let that sort of speech… flow so freely, then it really does,” Seah said. “So definitely by the government not repealing 377A back then, the constitutional challenge being unsuccessful, the restrictions on Pink Dot, I think all those things embolden such speech. Hate speech; let’s call it for what it is.”

As with all movements, there are a variety of perspectives on strategy and advocacy, but the LGBTQ movement shows no signs of throwing in the towel. “I quite appreciated what happened this year with Pink Dot, because then it slaps [young Singaporeans] awake and they finally understand that Pink Dot is not about just coming and having a picnic,” said Eileena Lee, founder of LGBTQ community space Pelangi Pride Centre. “We really need protest! And we’re not free to do whatever we want to do; it’s just a matter of time before they use the laws against us.”

A new generation of LGBTQ activists is set to pick up the baton from the veterans. Observers say they’re more aware of the need for diversity, which is good news for those who have felt that Singapore’s LGBTQ movement has historically skewed too much towards Chinese gay men. “Things are changing in the younger generation of activists and students, who are a lot more open to diversity, who know what intersectionality means, and demand a lot more in terms of gender and sexual diversity inclusion,” said Indulekshmi.

There’s still no indication of 377A budging from Singaporean law; the prime minister continues to argue for status quo until society changes. This issue continues to lie at the heart of the struggle for LGBTQ equality in Singapore, challenging activists to continue searching for creative and courageous ways to fight for their freedom to love.

* NOTE: The writer of this piece was a speaker in Pink Dot 2017’s Community Voices segment.

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