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3 Jun 2011

Gay equality helps fight HIV, but don't oversell it

Prominent Singapore gay activist and social commentator Alex Au draws on two recent news stories and cautions against over-focusing on the health benefits and/or the power of the pink dollar in arguing for the repeal of gay sex laws.

In his one-hour talk on 31 May 2011, Australian Justice Michael Kirby (retired) engaged the audience from the Singapore Law Society with three key issues as requested by Society president Michael Hwang: the advantages of a having a permanent Law Reform Commission, when and how to refer to evolving international jurisprudence in deciding domestic cases and the legacy of anti-gay statutes from the days of the British Empire. [Read Retired High Court judge: Gays in Singapore keep it ''quiet'' due to gay sex law here.]

Retired Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby

Kirby is perhaps Australia’s best-known judge from its apex court and is currently a member of the Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group looking into the future of the organisation.

With humour enlivening a lucid discussion of the issues, at many points grounded on specific cases he had decided in the course of his long career, the hour flew swiftly by. In the main, his very talk validated a point he made right at the beginning: that early in his own career, he surprised himself by learning a lot through taking time off to attend esoteric talks and seminars once in a while.

There was however one weak argument. It bothered me that  it alone could damage much of what he said in the third part — on anti-gay legislation. Referring to the fact that over forty of the 54 members of the Commonwealth have laws equivalent to our Section 377A  of the Penal Code or our old Section 377, whereas non-Commonwealth countries do not (except those from the Arab World, drawing their legal tradition from Islam), Kirby pointed out that two-thirds of the world’s HIV cases are found in Commonwealth countries, when the Commonwealth has one-third of the world’s population.

He expanded this argument  by explaining how criminalisation creates social conditions that compel gay people to remain invisible; this in turn makes it very hard for health information and services to reach them — and that is if governmental services are even prepared to try to do so. The world over, bureaucrats would not be keen to be seen condoning criminal behaviour. This is certainly a good description of the situation in Singapore and many other countries. This criticism of laws against homosexuality is not new; it has been made many times before by any number of organisations including UNAIDS.

The problem is that while anti-gay legislation does indeed have this adverse effect on the health of gay and transgendered communities, a cursory look at the pattern of the HIV epidemic in Commonwealth countries will reveal that most cases are transmitted heterosexually. Kirby did try to enlarge his point by saying that anti-gay laws are just one example of the kinds of laws and policies that marginalise people at risk, e.g. sex workers, or women generally, all blunting efforts at outreach to their respective segments of society, but this mention was so quick in passing, I was afraid people might not have digested it. And that all they were left with was the impression that he had claimed anti-gay laws were the cause of the much higher incidence of HIV in Commonwealth countries. In the general case, that claim does not stand, no matter how pertinent it is to HIV among gay and transgendered people.

* * * * *

I am always concerned about over-reaching when it comes to arguments for gay equality. In the years 2003 – 2005, many gay Singaporeans, heartened by the references that ministers and the (Singapore) Straits Times made about Richard Florida's book The rise of the creative class, began to adopt the same economic framework to argue for gay equality and the repeal of Section 377A.  The reduction of gay equality to a matter of economic benefit troubled me. Even worse were references to the Pink Dollar, with the unstated characterisation of gay people as better off than average (Where’s the evidence? I asked) and mindlessly consumerist.

Likewise, I am uncomfortable with too much focus on the health benefits of repeal. Firstly, the benefits can be limited because there are plenty of other factors that impact on the effectiveness of health services, and secondly, it misses the point. People who favour anti-gay legislation do so not because they primarily want to damage the health of gay people. There are a whole host of other reasons that still need addressing.

However difficult, we cannot shirk from the most fundamental reason for repeal of Section 377A and gay equality in general: Equality is a human right, and to impair equality for one group today would undermine the claim to equality for all other groups tomorrow.

* * * * *

For a brief 24 hours around the time Kirby was speaking inside the Supreme Court Auditorium, his own country, Australia, was providing an example of both the weakness and strength of his argument.

Australia, just in case some readers don’t know, does not have anything like our Section 377A that makes “gross indecency between two males” a criminal offence. In that sense, it is free from anti-gay legislation. Still, it is far from paradise. Homophobic groups continue to exist and to exert themselves.

The photo on the right is of an advertisement that was up on bus stops around Brisbane for barely a week before they were taken down.

HIV campaigners are outraged a safe sex promotion featuring a fully clothed, hugging gay couple has been pulled from Queensland bus shelters.

The Queensland Association for Healthy Communities launched its “Rip and Roll” advertisements a week ago and today learned they were being scrapped after about 30 complaints. The adverts feature a black and white image of a gay couple embracing, holding an unopened red condom packet.

It includes the website address and hotline for Healthy Communities, which has been receiving state government funding for sexual health promotion since 1988.

Adshel, the company that provides advertising for Brisbane’s bus shelters; Goa Billboards; and the Advertising Standards Bureau were targeted in an orchestrated campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Healthy Communities executive director Paul Martin said it was extremely disheartening that Adshel had buckled.

– Herald-Sun, 31 May 2011, HIV ads pulled from Brisbane bus shelters, by AAP. Link.











Adshel did not even consult the advertiser QAHC before removing the ads.

Some of the letters have now been posted on QAHC’s website. All it takes is a quick read of the first few to notice that certain phrases were common to them, strongly suggesting that they were based on a template or a few “talking points”. In Singapore we call such an attempt to mimic broadly-based sentiment “astroturfing”. Common phrases found in several letters include: “two homosexual men in an act of foreplay”, “a very high risk of serious disease”, “pre-sexualising my children”, “situated at a set of lights where parents are forced to stop with their children in the car.”

It wasn’t long before the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) owned up to organising the email campaign.

ACL Queensland director Wendy Francis said she objected to the sexual nature of the ads, not the fact the couple pictured were gay.

Ms Francis was last year forced to apologise publicly after a Tweet likening gay marriage to legalising child abuse.

Then a Family First candidate for the Senate, she claimed the Tweet was sent from her office, but not by her.

She said the decision by Adshel to remove the ads was a win for parents and children.

“They show two young homosexual men in some sort of act of foreplay,” Ms Francis said.

– ibid.>









HIV campaigners quickly organised to fight back. A protest was held outside Adshel’s headquarters.

Within a day, Adshel reversed its decision and began reinstating the ads. Explaining the move, the company issued a statement on its website: “Adshel earlier responded to a series of complaints by removing the campaign from its media panels yesterday.

“None of the complaints indicated any liaison with the ACL, so Adshel was made to believe that they originated from individual members of the public.”

After it became clear that it had been a co-ordinated ACL campaign, Adshel chief executive Steve McCarthy said that it “led us to review our decision to remove the campaign and we will therefore reinstate the campaign with immediate effect.”

Matthew Sini wrote a cutting commentary in The Drum Opinion:

Wendy Francis is Helen Lovejoy. Don’t know who Helen Lovejoy is? Don’t worry, Wendy probably doesn’t know either. Helen Lovejoy is a character from The Simpsons, the wife of the local pastor. She shrieks ‘somebody PLEASE think of the children!’ hysterically in the middle of discussions that has nothing to do with “the children.” That’s you, Wendy. You’re Helen Lovejoy. 

She was ‘thinking of the children’ when she and the organisation she represents in Queensland, the Australian Christian Lobby, pressured the advertising company Adshel to take down posters from bus shelters that promoted safe sex.








* * * * *

This incident weakened Kirby’s argument from the way homophobia was shown to be alive and well in his home country. Removing anti-gay laws does not remove anti-gay prejudice. But it strengthened his argument many times over in the quick reversal of the decision, and the demonstration by HIV groups and public bodies (Advertising Standards Bureau) of their commitment to equality when carrying out their missions.

In Singapore, our public servants (and I dare say, most corporate chiefs) would not even dream of standing up to conservative Christian lobby groups should such an ad be proposed. And that difference, that reluctance to address sex openly (gay and straight), shows. On a per capita basis, Singapore has 2.6 times the number of new HIV cases annually compared to Australia. In 2009, there were 463 new cases of HIV infection among Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents (3.77 million people), working out to a rate of 123 new cases per million population. In Australia, the same year, there were 1,050 new cases of HIV for a population of 22.6 million. That works out to a rate of 46 new cases per million population.

Alex Au has been a gay activist and social commentator for 15 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us, Singapore. Alex is the author of the well-known Yawning Bread website.

Reader's Comments

1. 2011-06-03 17:56  
Much as I respect some of his commentaries, isn't Alex shooting himself in the foot here? Just like when he poo-poo'd the efforts to get a petition together to fight 377a, and when he opposed having an outdoor gay event in Hong Lim Park (now the hugely successful Pink Dot)? I do sometimes wonder if he only supports initiatives that he has proposed himself, and feels miffed when someone else does so.

Of course there are both moral reasons and practical reasons for getting rid of 377a. And when you are dealing with people and governments who cannot understand or are not prepared to act on the moral reasons, it is common sense to emphasise the practical benefits of decriminalisation.
2. 2011-06-03 18:59  
But isnt money and their health the only things that non gay singaporeans think about
3. 2011-06-03 20:05  
Gay Equality has nothing to do with hiv issues or diseases that are passed history........

Equality is based on the common knowledge that all people independant of sex, believe or race are having same rights and respect by law
Comment edited on 2011-06-03 20:06:43
4. 2011-06-03 23:39  
Also. I do not believe/think/feel that moral issues has anything to do with equality. Apart from cultures, religion plays a major role in defining moral. Therefore, if we want to build a society common to all, we will have to part out cultures and also religion.
5. 2011-06-04 12:13  
The repeal of gay sex laws should only be facilitated by way human rights and freedom of choice. These are powerful reasons, and the only reasons for the repeal of section 377A of the Singapore penal code.
6. 2011-06-04 12:15  
.....and religion does NOT play a major role in defining morals! There many non-religious people who have a far higher moral code than many religious folk.
7. 2011-06-04 19:47  
A correction to Alex's notes need to be made with his reference to the posters that were taken down from bus shelters by Adshel in Brisbane. They have since been put UP again by Adshel more than a week ago, AND... they Adshel have voluntarily ofered to allow them to sat up for an additional two weeks at no cost the the Queenslan Aids organisation. This turnaround occurred within about 2 days, as I recall, so it is IMPORTANT to always state the complete facts when making points such as the above. While the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) THINK they have considerable influence as a very minor group in our society, their campaign, together with the crazy woman who led this campaign, in this situation failed miserably and only highlighted how silly they were.
8. 2011-06-04 22:34  
this will never happen in Malaysia
9. 2011-06-05 01:28  
It is tragic that our sexuality and the expression of our love for others is dictated by religious idiology as interpreted by people who often have no understanding of true love. why is it so shameful to walk with your loved one (gay male or woman without burka) in any country?
10. 2011-06-05 01:32  
I think social factors are key to understanding the spread of AIDS/HIV in at risk communities. It is not a passed issue and should be seen, in my opinion, as a reflection of how people deemed unworthy of care/attention/protection are made unequally susceptible to harm. It's also important to remember that it is not only gays who are still at risk.

Understanding the significance of social constructions is also important when we deal with criticisms often thrown at us. There's a reason why it was known as the "Gay Plague." Dispelling these myths require admitting that AIDS/HIV is a central issue in our struggle.

Like marriage is central in legitimizing same sex relations and promoting monogamy, so to is equality a means to offer equal protection against a virus that has devastated our community. My point is that we are called sluts/diseased and yet achieving these social goals would go a long way in fixing their criticisms. It would therefore be in their interest to promote these issues if that is what they really cared about. Cutting PPH which actually raises the instances of abortions anyone?

Anyways, without dragging on, the "don't oversell it" bit seems a bit ignorant to me in all honesty.
11. 2011-06-05 06:57  
The most important thing people can do to fight HIV is act responsible themselves.

That means not having sex when you're intoxicated. It means understanding that condoms won't work if you have cum on your hands when you put one on.

evensafersex.com is a blog about safer sex for those that want to reduce the chances that this will happen. It goes far beyond the overly simplistic "use a rubber" mantra.
12. 2011-06-05 17:09  
evensafersex.com, great I will check it out
Comment #13 was deleted by its author on 2011-06-06 03:08
Comment #14 was deleted by its author on 2011-06-06 03:09
15. 2011-06-06 03:09  
I regard Alex Au highly for his perceptive blog, Yawningbread.org. But I have to disagree with him this time. There are a few points that he misses. Also, I don't think it's right to pick on Justice Kirby's technical inaccuracy.

First, while it's true that, in the developed world, heterosexuals constitute the majority of new HIV cases, the MSM community still suffers the highest PER CAPITA HIV infection rate. This calls for continued prioritization on this segment, which was what Justice Michael Kirby argued for.

Second, the data that Alex Au refers to are derived from the RESPONSES of newly infected individuals. Many gays and bisexuals-- and particularly those in countries which remain very discriminative against homosexuality--may be reluctant to reveal their homosexual activities in such surveys. Often, they even have to cover up their homosexual tendencies with a heterosexual marriage, and engage in extramarital homosexual activities secretly. Would such masked up men be willing to reveal, if they have been diagnosed with HIV infection, that they had been infected with HIV by another man whom they had sex with behind their wife's or girlfriend's back when surveyed? Maybe not. And this is why anti-homosexual laws could contribute to higher HIV infection rates even among those HIV-positive persons who are categorized under heterosexual seroconversion. The stigma resulting from such laws creates an environment where many gays and bisexuals feel compelled to marry a woman, and which constrains safer sex education and regular testing.

Lastly, even though no amount of repeal of anti-gay laws or new laws to protect sexual minorities can eliminate social stigma, it paves the way for the root problem to be tackled effectively, through EDUCATION.

Already, psychologists, educators, psychiatrists and counselors, through extensive empirical research, have concluded that:
1) homosexuality is not a disease. it needs not be 'treated'
2) 'reparative therapy' which claims to be able to turn gays straight is unscientific, harmful and ineffective
3) social homophobia makes it harder for homosexuals to come to terms with their own sexual orientation, and may in turn result in homophobia and self-hatred to be developed in them. A university research revealed that homophobic men were highly likely to be homoerotic.
4) Sexual orientation isn't something we can choose or change like we can smoking habit.
5) HIV affects people of all sexual orientation, and homosexuals can remain HIV-negative just like straight people can
6) Homosexuality has been around since ancient times, and occurs in nature and all around the world
7) Homosexuals can contribute to the society like all other people.

Only if such facts are continually taught in schools and educated to the public via the mainstream media can we gradually reduce social homophobia; and, only if the legal barriers are removed can we realize this. Yes, even without anti-gay laws, anti-gay activists and fundamentalists are here to stay. But it doesn't mean that there isn't value in our fight for the removal of such laws. At the very least, it's now permissible, even if not fully implemented, to advertise on safer sex in Australia.

I commend Justice Kirby's endeavor to promote gay equality and fight HIV. With the recent commitment by the Singapore government to make meaningful change, I hope that it'd repeal or amend s377a by the next General Election, and thereby align Singapore's human rights progression to that of the Developed World.
Comment #16 was deleted by its author on 2011-06-06 07:53
Comment #17 was deleted by its author on 2011-06-06 07:58
18. 2011-06-06 07:57  
Let me continue on 2 specific points made by Alex Au: (1) "Likewise, I am uncomfortable with too much focus on the health benefits of repeal. "; (2) "The reduction of gay equality to a matter of economic benefit troubled me. Even worse were references to the Pink Dollar, with the unstated characterisation of gay people as better off than average (Where’s the evidence? I asked) and mindlessly consumerist."

In my humble opinion, both points are concerned with dollars and CENTS, and it makes SENSE to argue for repeal of anti-gay laws using this approach. It's a fact that, using this line of arguments, the gay community in New Delhi, India had succeeded in repealing s377 at the New Delhi High Court.

In Singapore Inc., this line of argument should be even more effectual. What concerns the people on top and those on the ground most? Bread and butter issues. Dollars and cents. Not human rights. Certainly not human rights for a small segment of the society. That's the reason why the Prime Minister, when he declared that it's his government's policy to give gays some space, he acknowledged gays' ECONOMIC value in our society.

So it makes perfect sense to argue for the repeal from an economic angle, because that's THE main basis on which our policymakers make public policies. Beneath the public health implications of a higher HIV infection rate is the ECONOMIC price to the government: how many more millions of dollars must the government allocate to the health budget to deal with more HIV patients on subsidies; and, how many young, productive people turn from being taxpayers to being a liability.

Unfortunately, presently, such a link may not be that straightforward in uniquely Singapore. In an earlier article by Alex Au (http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/singapores-hiv-policy-neither-rational-nor-compassionate/), he reported that "The government refuses to subsidise the cost of medication. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that take this hardline position." It means that the government needs not pay the full price of its ill-conceived anti-gay policies, of keeping s377a, among others. It should.

The co-discoverer of HIV itself had cautioned that the stigma and discrimination in Singapore against HIV (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1042172/1/.html QUOTE "In Singapore's case, "the stigma, the fact that they (people) have to pay everything, it's the worst condition for stimulating people to be tested and treated", said Professor Barre-Sinoussi. ") could lead to higher infection rate (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1042325/1/.html "French expert says HIV infections in Singapore higher than France" ). Unfortunately, without a clearer link between the Health Budget and public policies that affect HIV infection rate (i.e. s377a), the Singapore government may be seeing an economic distortion, which does not motivate it to respond appropriately.

As such, one strategic approach to fight for repeal of anti-gay laws is to campaign for the Singapore government to provide First World-level support for HIV patients. It's only moral, as Alex Au argues in the above-quoted article, for the Singapore government to do this. And, only if it does this would the economic distortions be cleared. Only if the government can feel the pains would it be motivated enough to change its policies.
Comment #19 was deleted by an administrator on 2011-06-07 16:03
20. 2011-06-06 21:26  
Lots of foreign men here commenting. Where are the Singaporeans? Where are the lesbians? I think what is unspoken here is most powerful. Any young people out there?
21. 2011-08-25 21:44  
"In 2009, there were 463 new cases of HIV infection among Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents (3.77 million people), working out to a rate of 123 new cases per million population. In Australia, the same year, there were 1,050 new cases of HIV for a population of 22.6 million. That works out to a rate of 46 new cases per million population."

Please make yourself clear that there are at least 7 sets of criteria for a "positive" HIV Antibody test result around the World. Australia requires 4 bands to be positive, but Singapore only needs 2. No wonder it seems more HIV infection per million population in Singapore than in Australia !

Think logically, how on Earth can a "Confirmation Test" to a HIV infection have different sets of criteria to match in different countries in order to come out with the final test result? This means a Singaporean with HIV positive might be given a HIV negative result just by flying over to Sydney for another HIV Antibody test ! Vice versa a HIV negative Aussie could have a HIV positive result by having the test done in Singapore !! the biggest CRAP i've ever heard!
Comment edited on 2011-08-25 21:47:39
Comment #22 was deleted by an administrator on 2012-11-12 12:41

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