I recently attended a lecture/workshop a fortnight ago titled “Being Transgender in the Netherlands”. The title itself was enough to pique my interest, nevermind the synopsis of the talk. This would be the first time I attended such an event. The two speakers, who were transgender, emphasized how the gender binary characteristic of modern society needed to be done away with as some people did not espouse the heteronormative norm. The speakers were passionate and sometimes emotional, recalling their transformation from a man to a woman and what it meant. Confusion among their friends was certainly one such outcome. In fact, one of them was told that they were better off dead. That was harsh. Later on however, the same speaker proudly explained how she had been invited on national television for interviews, how she had been consulted by people in the fashion industry to do model shoots, and lastly how her face was virtually broadcast throughout Holland. All this publicity was not to shame her but rather to explain her story. Her parents were right next to her throughout the talk, beaming with pride.
A ten-part series on LGBT rights in Southeast Asia that was published last year showed that Southeast Asia was not beaming with the same pride. The series sought to uncover the challenges facing the LGBT community while highlighting the change LGBT activists strove to bring in terms of gaining acceptance. Chilling accounts of discrimination against LGBTs were not limited to mere stigmatization but to lives being lost. In Brunei, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Malaysia, it is punishable by imprisonment and lashing. Although such harsh punishments are not applicable to LGBTs in Singapore, sex between males is still illegal according to section 377A of the penal code. This law certainly reflects a low level of acceptance for individuals who do not fit the constructed heteronormative ideal. I wonder, do these laws reflect the changing values of our society with regards to homosexuality?
Or is Singapore a conservative society imbued with conservative values? Are we not ready to accept individuals who deviate from the heterosexual ideal? The NLB Books saga in 2014 illustrated this dilemma. Two years ago, the title of a children’s story book, “And Tango Makes Three”, drew flak from conservative Singaporeans who were against teaching their children about alternative or non-conventional families. The book was about two male penguins raising a female chick together. The book was withdrawn from the library, along with two other books of similar content. The National Library Board’s decision to pull the books from the shelves was further supported by Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim. This highlighted the government’s stance vis-a-vis family forms in Singapore; families should be formed on the basis of a heterosexual union.
While it may be understandable that homosexuality is a sexual orientation difficult to come to terms with for conservative Singaporeans, the question is when will it not become difficult anymore? Pink Dot SG, a non-profit movement initiated by a group of individuals advocating acceptance of all sexual orientations, will have its annual rally on the 4th of June for the 8th time to continue championing their initiative. This initiative is commendable as Pink Dot chooses to respond to the controversy surrounding alternative lifestyles with a message of peace. Members of the LGBT community may not fit a heterosexual norm but that doesn’t mean they have no place in Singapore’s artistic landscape, as the NLB saga showed. I commend our educational curriculum in teaching the importance of racial and religious harmony. In addition, the importance of accepting members of a third gender could also be included. Hence, a message of sexual inclusivity could be emphasized in social studies classes. It is only through the medium of education that we as a society will become more concerned about accepting the LGBT community rather than criminalizing their lifestyle.