On the day before Pink Dot 2013, I posted a Facebook status update saying I would be attending. I also ‘came out’, as the expression is, and suggested, tongue in cheek, that, notwithstanding, I do not have a gay agenda. This is a reference to the 2013 General Elections when my opponents in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC suggested that because I spoke at a forum on Section 377a, I had an ulterior agenda underlying my entry into politics and my bid for a parliamentary seat.
Before most meaningful events at Hong Lim Park, I often publicise the event on my Facebook page, sometimes setting out the reasons why people should attend, and encouraging them to do so. With most events, the call to attend is generally innocuous and tends to reflect my value position on the issue being commemorated. With Pink Dot, however, it is somewhat different. It could be seen as being in sympathy with the LGBT equal rights position. Or it could be construed as an acknowledgment that I count myself in the group that the position affects. Therefore, a neutral stance was somewhat problematic.
Growing up homosexual can be an incredibly isolating experience. As a child enters the sexual phase of life, he or she looks around for signs, symbols and stories to verify and validate the experiences being encountered. For a child tending towards heterosexuality this is a natural process since most societies are hetero-oriented, meaning that the discourse, the framework of symbols and the value base of the community tend towards hetero-normality. The child grows in an atmosphere that validates her basic experience; she is normal.
For the homosexual child, the reverse is the case. Every – and I mean every – element of the society in which they exist tends in the opposite direction from those which form the building blocks of their life. The homosexual child finds no home in which to habituate himself, find value models and, most importantly, friends with whom the experiences and insights he is accumulating can be analysed, moralised and normalised. The homosexual child begins to encounter a basic element that conduces to poor mental health: alienation. His isolation and estrangement from the theatre of his lived world weakens the processes that lead to integrated, functioning adulthood.
The religious principles that were largely responsible for the antagonism towards homosexuality developed in an ancient time when knowledge of psychosomatic functioning was almost non-existent. The Bible books that contain references to homosexuality were written between the sixth century BCE and the first century CE. The Quranic references date to the seventh century CE. (The religions of India and China tend to be less unequivocal on the subject.)
During those centuries, no one knew anything of the basic framework of life that caused differences in the human genetic make-up. No one understood physical laws that caused the weather and the seasons. No one understood human psychology or brain functioning. All problems were explained by reference to the supernatural. In fact, our scientific inheritance is largely the product of only the last three centuries, about 0.2% of the entire duration of human dwelling on earth.
I mention this basic history not to rebuke religion for its role in the moral determination of homosexuality. Indeed, on the flip side, religion has been responsible for some of the highest flights of human endeavour and achievement, art and music. I have a deep regard for the transcendent; I believe that human beings run on only half-tank if they live without a sense of, and recourse to, the transcendent.
No, my purpose in my little history lesson is simply to identify that moral views on homosexuality were formed at a time when we had an almost total lack of systematic data with which to understand the phenomenon. Today, although to be sure conflicting views still exist in the scientific community, by and large there is a strong body of knowledge in favour of a biological basis for homosexuality as well as data that homosexuality is widespread in other species. The experience of LGBT people everywhere confirms that our sexuality is neither a preference nor a lifestyle but a fundamental part of our genetic coding.
I do not expect or demand that everyone should accept my views. I respect the right of those who wish to take an opposing position, whether based on the contested scientific data or their deeply-held religious views. I could not claim to be committed to equal rights if I deny those whose views do not coincide with mine.
I ask merely that they acknowledge that the position is indeed contested and, given this, that data no longer serves as the handmaiden of morality so far as mine, and the sexuality of millions of others, is concerned. I ask, in short, that they suspend their desire to act against homosexuality and homosexual people and acknowledge, much less commit to, the basic proposition, that insofar as no harm is committed – the very Golden Rule – that homosexual people be granted equal rights under the Constitution.
Because the absence of constitutional equality does not lead to a mere legal settlement on which we should, in the words of the Prime Minister, “agree to differ”. They lead, in fact, to an experience of growing up that renders young gay and lesbian children so susceptible to mental health disturbances as to destroy the potential of many of them, all of whom it should be the sacred goal of every society to nurture.
Across the world today, at a distance of between 100 and 250 thousand years of homo sapiens sapiens, the question of homosexuality is returning to the barricades, largely midwifed by fundamentalist forms of religion that seek to return the holy books to literal interpretation. When I attended a conference in Peru last year, I met activists from African nations who were campaigning to prevent the death penalty, already applied in some cases, from being extended across the spectrum of homosexual ‘crimes’. Through the internet, I have learnt of stories of men and women who have been imprisoned, tortured and executed for their sexuality.
Therefore, the issue of homosexuality, regardless of the vast amount of current data which, at least, contests the moral positions, is neither obsolete nor irrelevant. Well, certainly not irrelevant to those of my fellow LGBTs who experience the denial of housing or being sacked from their jobs or bullied while in them, denied next-of-kin and inheritance rights, all the way through to the death penalty. And what more the struggles of transgendered people.
In our own country, the LGBT community is fortunate. We do not have to fight against torture and death. Public housing is available to us albeit the criteria are more stringent that for heterosexuals. Gay-related bullying at the workplace is not, as far as the anecdotal evidence suggests, widespread. The riot police, armed with machine guns, do not come to Pink Dot. Gay-themed bars and cafes are not systematically raided. The legislature itself, although almost inert as far as the repeal of Section 377a is concerned, does not contain crusading parliamentarians bent on maintaining and widening anti-gay laws.
I am confident that, pragmatic as our government is, it will gradually weaken its resistance to the tide against homophobia in the months and years to come, particularly as the status quo continues to be challenged through constitutional applications against Section 377a, the vocal efforts of our more gifted commentators such as Alex Au, and the work of LGBT organisations.
But I have one concern in mind that cannot wait for history to take its course. In the time it takes for our government and society to come to terms with the scientific data and the moral insights of the present age, countless isolated teenagers will continue to suffer in silence, ploughing a disorientated path through a largely hostile and perplexing world that offers them no haven in which to rest a while, to be nurtured and built up into the best individuals they can be.
I was one such teenager. I also experienced a disoriented and perplexing childhood. My one recourse as I grew into adulthood was contact with people to whom my worldview, my experiences, my loneliness, were not a moral issue to be corrected or an illness to be cured but an intrinsic and real aspect of my personality which they helped to nurture and protect and heal.
After the fifth Pink Dot – and may I congratulate the organisers on what was yet another spectacularly affirming moment – I ask you, my fellow Singaporeans, to reflect on one question. Despite your deeply-held moral views or your preferred scientific explanation, could you allow your heart to open just a little bit to consider the soul-sapping estrangement that is the daily diet of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered young people, who may even at this very moment be contemplating suicide as the only way out of a life that holds no promise, a life that has no light?