Getting the House in Order
People Like Us provides insight into the gay community
By Sheo S. Rai
People Like Us
This book is a much-needed ‘resource’. As much as the straight community has to understand the gay community, the latter has to understand itself first. This is probably the first book to deal with various issues facing the gay community in Singapore in a concise and straightforward manner, dealing with both the public and private spheres. It examines the self, the gay community and society as a whole.
“But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people. I mean we don’t harass anybody.” Significant comment indeed by SM Lee Kuan Yew. If laws are made out of precedents and comments of leaders, then this comment is worth quoting in any interaction with government officials.
The first hard fact people must realise is that homosexuality is not a phase that people can snap out of. It exists and has existed throughout the times. The second is that homophobia, not homosexuality, is the problem (Au, Chap 11).
Looking at the self and the gay community, the latter must get its house in order. Gays have to work out their self-identity, relationships and goals. Consciousness, respect, recognition and the like will follow only after confidence is built. Birch (Chap 1) puts it succinctly: to develop the cultural politics “is to actually limit our public sphere activity – not seeing change through activism publicly – until we have fully understood who we are and perhaps more importantly – sorting out what it is we want”.
What do gays want? Chay Yew (Chap 13) says that as a community, gays want “to have [their] own individuality but yet be a part of the larger society”. This is akin to me being an ethnic Indian and a Singaporean as well. Lo’s (Chap 18) wish list is for gays to be “able to live [their] life openly and honestly, without fear of discrimination, condemnation or ridicule”. Tall order? Equality is something the Singapore Constitution guarantees to all Singaporeans but then again, notice how sex/gender is missing in Article 12 and the important implications this omission has for both women and gays:
Except as expressly authorized by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding, or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.
Moving on to society as a whole, gays must address misconceptions people have about them and deal with them in a rational and peaceful way. Some oft-repeated myths are highlighted by Au (Chap 11). He asks a very pertinent question: “If the social environment is unfriendly to children from certain types of homes, what is our response? To try to improve the environment or to ban a whole class of people from having children?” For example, we have Muslim friends. If we have a party, do we cater for halal food or just not invite them at all? The latter is not an option if we want to build lasting friendships and a cohesive society. By not addressing an issue we become ostriches, burying our heads in the ground.
Gays must embark on a personal outreach programme to educate, albeit slowly, those who are ignorant and misinformed about the gay community. Lo (Chap 18) says that “we [the gay community] must make ourselves and our issues known to them”. In time and “with insight so gained, they may come to understand that the problem is actually an injustice of Man’s creation, not a flaw in Nature’s course”. Au’s (Chap 9) incisive six-question conclusion raises the fundamental issue of what and how much is enough for gays to feel accepted.
On the societal level, ministerial and societal ignorance does not help. To claim that Singaporeans are conservative and not deal with issues is playing ostrich again. The rejoinder to the conservatism as Au puts it, is “How can they be otherwise if they are not given the chance to become informed?” The aim here is not to have the floodgates open and inundate society with gay information and activities. Any change or education must be incremental. We need negotiations to take place. This book calls for consultation and working within the system (Lo, Chap 17). To tinker with the system, one must incorporate those in power and act with unison. Gays cannot go down the path of women’s group like AWARE that gives ordinary membership to only women when men (the powers that be in this system) can only be “Friends of AWARE”.
Legitimacy is sine qua non for any party that wants to negotiate with another. The parties in this instance are the Government and gays. The former is legitimate but the latter is not as it is weighed down by Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code (Ng, Chap 3). When the former apartheid government of South Africa and the Israelis wanted to negotiate for peace, they had to recognise the erstwhile terrorist organisations ANC and PLO. The government hence, must engage a group rather than disparate individuals. PLU makes an ideal organisation to give a voice to the community and also act as a support group. Laws need to be changed. In order to decriminalise homosexuality, there must be a clear separation between the public and the private when it comes to sexual intercourse between gays based on mutual consent.
Religion is also looked at in this book. I am picking this issue as religion is the main arbiter of what is ‘moral’ and what is not. Scriptures are quoted to put homosexuality down. Mark (Chap 16) hits the nail on its head when he says that religion must be seen and interpreted in context. What applied in the ages of yore may not apply now. Some questions to ponder upon: does the subservience of women apply now? Is natural contraception practical with unbridled population growth in some countries and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases? Is the caste system relevant? Do the conditions exist now as they did in the warring Middle East/Levant to necessitate four wives?
It has been said that change is the only constant. Things have been changing and one example can be seen in Peterson’s chapter (12) on gay theatre in Singapore. The gay community, the government and society must realise change has to be incremental and is inevitable. Years ago, singles (especially women) were frowned upon in Singapore politics. Now we have some single women MPs. As the demographics change so will the politics. There is an uneasy truce right now between the authorities and the gay community. The latter has to look over its shoulders constantly. This is not living. Gays exist and are an integral part of Singapore’s society – contributing in every aspect of Singaporean life. It is time for both parties to engage. The “labour today are the fruits of tomorrow” (Lo, Chap 18). The gay community and the government must work hand in hand.
Though this review has only dealt with some of the issues in the book, there are others in the book that make it a good read. Such issues include rights (Han, Chap 2), consciousness, identity and values (Sim, Chap 5 and Wee, Chap 7), ‘coming out’ (Low, Chap 6), religion (Tan, Chap 8), conversations with artistes (Drake, Chap 13 and Heng, Chap 14), and interracial relations (Leong, Chap 15). While some writers in this book are eloquent in putting their view across, there are some who stumble over their own logic. Overall this is a very good read – a window into the issues, thoughts and aspirations of the gay community.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003