Despite my many misgivings, I decided last April to tell an older relative I was a gay rights advocate. After minutes of uncomfortable silence, he steadied himself and told me, "As long as you’re not gay, it doesn’t matter if you volunteer to help them."
My first thought was, "What’s wrong with being gay? What if I was? Does it really matter? Should it?" But then I remembered I should have been glad my relative did not react more strongly. We were, after all, living in conservative, albeit modern, Singapore
I had it somewhat easier than my fellow volunteers at Sayoni, the women's advocacy group I volunteer with. As a straight girl, I didn’t have much to fear — no one was going to tear me away from my girlfriend or punish me for being gay. But as we moved from cafe to cafe for our meetings to avoid unwanted attention, I realized I was actually breaking the law. It’s illegal in Singapore, under the Public Order Act, to gather in a public place "to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government," even if that gathering involves just a discussion or debate.
It’s not a law that’s enforced a lot — unless you begin to draw attention and gain influence. "It’s a matter of control for the government," said Sayoni’s founder Jean Chong, "and will most certainly be met with swift legal action if you try." Chong, 37, has known since she was five that she liked girls, and even back then, she was made to feel her thoughts were wrong.
"You hear people saying all kinds of nasty things," she told me via a Facebook interview.
I’ve heard many of these nasty things in my 24 years in Singapore. Last year I was working at a company in the far west of the island with some typically conservative Singaporeans. One day after lunch, a colleague brought up her concern that her then 12-year-old daughter was dressing like a "tomboy." Like vultures, my other then-colleagues swooped in with advice.
"You have to make her wear dresses," said the HR manager, a woman in her mid-forties. "Or else you don’t know what she will become." The conversation quickly turned to gay people. "I think they’re perverted," the junior clerk, a 26-year-old Malaysian from Sarawak, chimed in. "I think something must have gone wrong in their childhood.".
Stuck in a car back to the office with them, I seethed with quiet rage. I turned to the concerned mother and asked, "What if you found out your daughter really is gay?"
"I would fix her," she said passionately. "I would do whatever it takes to fix her."
I looked out the window at the passing buildings and trees, sickened by what I had just heard. Singapore is in many ways one of the most advanced nations in the world. Magnificent skyscrapers and beautiful, modern buildings line our streets, and almost the entire country is connected to the internet. But because of government and media policies, most people remain largely averse to homosexuality.
"Media law says that you can’t present homosexuality as being neutral nor positive," said Chong. So when people make nasty comments, they do so "using the law to justify their tirade that gay people deserve to be punished," she said. It is also illegal for men in Singapore to engage in gay sex, under Section 377a of the nation's penal code. As a result, gay people in Singapore are often subject to name-calling and shaming.
A 2012 survey of 450 individuals in Singapore found that 60 percent of gay respondents had experienced some form of sexual orientation-based discrimination and abuse. The most common form of abuse was verbal, with more than half the respondents having been called names or made fun of because of their sexual orientation.
Sadly, Singapore seems less likely than America to ever be able to accept queer people and respect their rights. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when asked in January whether potentially polarizing issues could be discussed in public forums, said, "It’s really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree. I think that’s the way Singapore will be for a long time."
It's hard to be an ally here, but I never forget how much harder it is to be a gay person.