... it is not that the courts do not have any role to play in defining moral issues when such issues are at stake. However, the courts’ power to intervene can only be exercised with established principles. The issue in the present case no doubt is challenging and important, but it is not one which, in my view, justifies heavy-handed judicial intervention ahead of democratic change.
- Singapore High Court Justice Quentin Loh
When Mathew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming in 1998, I was 17. I got the news from a close friend who had recently relocated to the US to pursue her education. She was in the process of coming out and wept over the phone, after having attended a candlelight vigil her school had held.
The crime affected me deeply. Shepard, 21, was killed because he was gay. He was driven to a deserted field by two men, tied to a fence, and beaten unconscious with a handgun. When he was spotted the next day by a passerby, he was still unconscious - so badly beaten that he was initially mistaken for a scarecrow. His injuries were too serious to be operated on. He died in hospital.
The violence of the crime shook me with a ferocity that I have never quite forgotten. Shepard and I had been almost the same age at the time. And while I'd never hidden the fact that I was gay, the urgent realisation that such hatred for queer people exists, is what pushed me, unequivocally, out of the closet for good. The image of Shepard that I stared at online for hours remains embedded in my memory today; it reminds of why I must exist, visibly, as a queer person: because there are simply too many of us who can’t.
Tonight’s (April 9) judgment upholding 377A has not just made me angry; it has literally and justifiably, distressed me. I am distressed about what this judgment says about our courts, about what it implies for my friends who are gay and male, about what it says about this country and about how it affects my relationship to my country-of-birth.
The lead-up to this court case was nothing new: religious leaders encroaching upon secular society, political leaders hurting their behinds on fences, slippery-slope arguments pivoting the fate of an entire nation’s moral fabric upon whether or not the sex lives of homosexual men continue to remain criminalized – a claim so baseless that it would be laughable if the inanity of its constant regurgitation was not so mind-numbing. Oh, and let’s not forget the 377A-suporters who petitioned the government to invest taxpayer money into “conducting a comprehensive study into the ill-effects of promoting homosexuality in culture”. Er. Right. Because honest socio-cultural inquiry involves conducting a “comprehensive study” based on conclusions one has already come to.
If this is the level of discourse Singapore is leaning towards, then our aspirations to become a first-world nation –a nation of compassionate hearts, critical minds and progressive debate– is doomed.
And if the ill-will and ignorance propagated against queer people online prior to this court case, is not reason enough to repeal 377A, I don’t know what is. The fact that a senior pastor responded to the debate with what sounded pretty much like a battle-cry, set alarm bells off in many heads: He told his church that “we must not be oblivious to our responsibility as an army to push back the powers of darkness”, that the church “must get herself into battle footing, and be battle-ready”, that “the first salvo was fired”, that “churches are beginning to mobilise themselves”, that “the war will be winnable” and that “the church will arise victorious”.
If one religious community had raised this "war-cry" against another, I am pretty sure that the law would have intervened in half the time it took him to take the incriminating evidence of his own violent imagination out of his post. But because it was a rally-cry against equal rights for homosexuals, no action has been taken and his “apology” has seemed to suffice. Double-standards, much?
During the Shepard case, the murderers’ lawyers claimed “gay panic” in defense of the crime, as if it was a justifiable reason to torture and murder someone. Even after they were found guilty, it took a decade of politics following Shepard's tragic death for Wyoming to finally pass a hate crime bill pertaining to sexual orientation. Even in those final proceedings, Republican Party member Virginia Foxx, in an effort to block it, claimed that Shepard’s death being called a “hate crime” was a hoax.
Does Singapore need a similar tragedy to occur for our court to understand the importance and role of the law in relation to minority communities? Does Singapore need a similar tragedy to occur in order for us to abolish laws that actively and/or tangentially persecute specific groups of people?
If all people are not afforded equality under the law, then the law exists solely to serve the ideologies of a select few. By retaining this law on grounds that “the courts’ power to intervene can only be exercised with established principles” and that the issues in this present case “is not one which… justifies heavy-handed judicial intervention”, what the court is essentially saying is that its job encompasses waiting for tides to change before it officiates any “difficult” decisions… even if it believes in the fairness of those decisions. Is it therefore adopting the role of an administrator of the status quo rather than the role of an institution that stands for justice? If this is the case, I am not sure what the courts are there for, because from my experience, the status quo tends to take care of itself just fine.
One of the repeated arguments reiterated by supporters of the status quo, was the idea that repealing 377A will lead to the destruction of the basic family unit and the moral fabric of society. That is where conservatives and I have someone in common: The idea of family is important to me. And I believe that anything powerful enough to destroy families or demean the moral fabric of society, needs to be dealt with. Let me give you a few examples:
I have a friend who was beaten up by his father when he came out as gay, and subsequently sent to another country. I have another who was dragged across the floor by her hair and thrown out of the house. Late last year, the media covered a story about a group of public bus-drivers in uniform hurled derogatory words at a transgendered woman for simply existing in a public space. A few months ago, the papers covered a story about a woman who was gang-raped in an effort to "correct" her sexuality.
This is what breaks up family units and destroys the moral fabric of our society; beliefs – cultural or otherwise - that demonise, stigmatise, alienate and harm fellow human beings. Not people fighting to repeal an archaic colonial statute that labels people criminals based on who they have consensual sex with. Take it from first-hand experience, if you must: When I was twelve, I was “exorcised” against my will; a seven-hour-long ordeal intended to cast “lesbian demons” out of my body. Four years later, when my mother found out I was dating a girl, she informed me that I was going to hell.
These stories are all around us. If you have not seen or heard them, then you are going out of your way to not see or hear them. And if the court is telling us that legally-induced stigma does not add to already rampant culturally-induced stigma, then it is it is practising denial, and not justice.
The trouble is that 377A is not just about criminalisation of homosexual sex. It is a symbol that says, yeah, it's legitimate, based on sexual orientation, to deny a graduate a teaching job, to deny a teenager a role model on television, to tell someone that they are less of a legitimate human being. It is sends a message to the public, telling them that it is ok to label someone else, not of your sexual orientation a faggot, dyke, ah qua, sinner, deviant, sick because technically, they should be in jail anyway. It is a symbol that says it is legitimate for religious leaders to position satire as fact and demonise an entire community by claiming that gay men want to "sodomise your sons". It validates and is rooted in the very same violence that drive gay teens to suicide, drives wedges between parents and children, leads to pretend marriages that end in shambles. It is a statute that effectively institutionalises inequality.
Dear High Court: I would like my male, gay friends to not be criminalized under my country’s “justice” system. I would like to dispense with a law that institutionalises discrimination against LGBT people in secular society. I would like the homophobia that 337A helps perpetuate to not end in me or anyone I love being bullied, beat up, called names, sexually assaulted, dismissed from their jobs. I would like to live in a country that values families, children and general humanity enough to understand that the discrimination 377A perpetuates does not sit well in a society “based on justice and equality”.
Dear High Court: I would like for all this to happen before it takes a tragedy to open our eyes to the fact that discrimination against homosexual people is not the mark of a “kinder and gentler society” and not at all a symbolic gesture of “My Singapore”.
Dear High Court: I am not prepared to wait for "democratic change" to occur at such a cost. And when it comes to justice, I am not prepared to wait at all.
Tania is a Singaporean artist, writer, curator and co-founder of EtiquetteSG (www.etiquette.sg), Singapore's first annual arts event focused on feminist issues. This essay was first published by the writer on her Facebook page and is republished with permission.