The Not-So Straight Story

Why there’s never been a better time to be gay in Singapore.

By I-S staff, Terry Ong | Jun 20, 2013

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  • The Not-So Straight Story
    Universal symbol for the LGBT community
  • The Not-So Straight Story
    Paerin Choa, spokesperson for Pink Dot 2013
  • The Not-So Straight Story
    Element Magazine
  • The Not-So Straight Story
    Gary Lim and Kennth Chee
  • The Not-So Straight Story
    Baey Yam Keng, MP from People's Action Party

Let’s not mince words: it ain’t always easy being gay in Singapore. It isn’t even easy writing about anything gay here. At times it seems as if everyone knows what’s going on, yet no-one’s quite sure what’ll happen if they come out and say it. A case of the Emperor’s—or better yet the Queen’s—New Clothes.

Recently, though, the chorus of people willing to say something has become, if not necessarily more vocal than their predecessors, then at least easier to hear. People partying, people protesting, people putting on empowering plays, people challenging long-standing laws—and not being shut down like perhaps they would have been before. Given that the long-received wisdom about Singapore has been that it’s anything but gay-friendly, that’s a truly astonishing turn-around.

So while there’s still a way to go, rather than turn in a term-paper on the battles fought and still to come, we thought a tour of the frontline was in order. How has this change come about? Why now? And what evidence is there for progress?

1. Pink Dot gets bigger and bigger every year.

Last year’s rally for inclusivity, Pink Dot, was—say the organizers— attended by more than 15,000 people (a huge leap from the inaugural edition in 2009 which pulled in just 2,500), with even more expected at this year’s edition, taking place this weekend (June 29) at Hong Lim Park. It’s sponsored by giants like Google, Barclays and—this year—J.P. Morgan, Park Royal Hotel and more. Now that’s mainstream.

Pink Dot spokesperson Paerin Choa thinks that all of this speaks to the fact “that things are changing, and that more and more open-minded Singaporeans are willing to speak up for issues that they care about”. He points out that, “Pink Dot has never been just a ‘gay thing’. It provides a platform for anyone who wants a more open-minded and inclusive Singapore to make a stand, regardless of his or her own sexual orientation.”

What to expect from this year’s event? Choa says that as well as “a community tent, where visitors can mingle with our many community and support groups,” there’ll be “performances from notable local names including acapella group Vocaluptuous, singers Joanna Dong and Wayne Sandosham, indie band Typewriter and dance group Vogeulicious."

2. Mainstream venues are putting on gay nights.

It was 30 years ago that landmark disco venue Niche opened here, allowing same sex dancing for the first time. And despite a bumpy ride along the way (it was as recently as 2005 that the Nation V open air dance parties were banned), it’s no longer unusual to find gay nights at mainstream venues. Uber-cool CBD club Kyo recently introduced a new gay night, which takes place every Sunday. "It's a night where everyone can just let their hair down, be themselves and just have fun," says Kyo's creative manager Sharmaine Khoo. That follows hot on the heels of Broadcast HQ’s popular Mercury Rising which launched late last year and was explicitly billed as “not a ‘friendly’ or ‘pink’ or ‘happy’ night—it’s a gay night”. (ƒThat was on Facebook, which has allowed venues to be far more forthright in their marketing than ever before.) Interestingly, one person convinced things are looking up is Stuart Koe, founder of pioneering personals website Fridae.com (which was behind the Nation V parties). He thinks that, “For the most part, it is good to be gay in Singapore. We’ve got options, we’ve got outlets, and we’ve got a community that is growing in size and diversity… I’d argue that the positives outweigh the negatives.”

3. Gay plays are selling out.

Got an evening free in July? Then head on over to LASALLE College of the Arts, where from 3-20 July you can watch a restaging of local playwright Alfian Sa’at’s early work Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1, a campy gaycentric comedy about “a goddess on a heroic mission to earth to save gay men from themselves” (and we’re just quoting the press release here!). ƒ That’s if you can get a ticket.

This year already has seen packed stalls for W!ld Rice’s version ofƒ The Importance of Being Earnest back in April, which featured an all-male cast and was filled with subtle homosexual innuendo. Indeed, theater company W!ld Rice (where Sa’at is Resident Playwright), and its Founding Artistic Director Ivan Heng, have been behind some of the boldest and most provocative works here; including a performance of the famously camp La Cage Aux Folles at the Esplanade Theatre last summer.

It’s not all plain sailing, however. Heng (who’s also a spokesperson for this year’s Pink Dot), came out in an interview with the Straits Times last month, but believes he’s had it easier than others. “I am lucky to work in theater where there is an understanding and acceptance of difference. But I know of many creative and talented people who have left Singapore, carrying the burden of being in the closet,” he says.

4. You can buy a gay magazine.

Well, so long as you have your iPad, that is. Gay-themed online magazine Element, which published its first issue in April of this year and is billed as the “voice of gay Asia,” is the city’s first since Manazine ceased publication in 2005 and suggests the open-mindedness encouraged by the likes of Pink Dot and Wild Rice might be taking root. “Our vision for the publication is to challenge the negative stereotypical perception towards the LGBT community as well as LGBT lifestyle publications by creating inspiring, healthy and intellectual content that will address the social issues facing the community,” says Managing Director Hiro Mizuhara. ƒ

There’s still a degree to which they’re hedging their bets. Although Mizuhura insists, “ƒThere is no nudity… but only stories promoting the various social issues which are in the agenda of the Media Development Authority (MDA) or other governmental organizations,” the magazine is hosted on a US server and is available only in digital form (from the Apple App Store and Google Play), not in print. A spokesperson for the MDA confirms that in recognition of the “borderless nature of the internet” they have “opted for a pragmatic and light-touch approach to Internet regulation” and that “online magazines like Element do not need to be licensed under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.” ƒ

The magazine now has over 9,000 local subscribers, with its second issue just out, and has attracted advertisers including local superclub Avalon and menswear label Paul Smith. However you cut it, that’s progress.

5. There’s some serious queer literary talent (even if you don’t know it).

Independent publishers like Math Paper Press have put out an impressive array of gay literature in recent years, among them Leow Yangfa’s I Will Survive, which features real-life accounts of LGBT experiences and was launched last month at the Books Actually store.

“The response has been fantastic,” says publisher Kenny Leck. “What we observed is that casual browsers and regular readers understand that a good book has been published, and want to read it and are buying it. We’d like to print even more copies, and sell even more of it. Make it the bestseller of all bestsellers. The idea is to share the stories, ideas and perspectives.”

Leow himself sounds a note of caution. “Although it is possible to publish works with LGBT content here, it is still hard to get government funding or mainstream media coverage,” he says. “For example, you will never see a LGBT segment at the Singapore Writers Festival, even though there are plenty of openly queer writers with queer sensibilities featured every year writing queer stuff . Similarly, none of the people in the mainstream media even want to talk to me about the book.” To which we say, thank goodness for non-mainstream media!

6. Even (some) politicians think the laws are out of date.

Legal analysis? Don’t switch off just yet—we’ll keep it brief. ƒThe biggest sticking point in any debate about “progress” is the continued existence of Section 377A of the Penal Code (a colonial legacy, which prohibits any form of sexual activity between two men, both in public or private spaces). ƒThe hetero equivalent—banning “unusual sex”—was repealed in 2007.

Critics, unsurprisingly, argue keeping it on the books is discriminatory. Among them, perhaps more surprisingly, MP Baey Yam Keng, from the People’s Action Party, who thinks it ought to be changed. “While almost all Western countries do not have similar laws, we will argue that it is not relevant for us to take reference from them. However, we are also choosing not to benchmark Singapore against countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines which do not have laws that criminalize male sexual activity,” he says. Although he adds that there is no real urgency yet for the government to repeal it right away.

So although the social line may be rather non-committal (in January, PM Lee was also quoted as saying, “Why is that law on the books? Because it's always been there and I think we just leave it") it’s not a stretch to think change might be coming. “If it takes another 20 years or so, it might be too long, so hopefully within the decade,” says Baey.

7. Plenty of people seem to agree.

In fact, local couple Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee are currently challenging the constitutionality of 377A; though their case won’t be heard in the Court of Appeal till the end of the year. ƒ This isn’t the first time such a challenge has been lodged (in 2010 another was—rather ironically—dismissed for “lack of a real controversy”), but social media could make this one a game changer. ƒThe couple has already raised more than US$100,000 for their cause through crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, twice the amount that they had hoped for.


“We have faced discrimination in school, the army and at the workplace,” says Lim. “People can’t understand what they don’t know and the status quo here is that LGBT issues are not frankly discussed and portrayed. However, globalization and the advent of digital and social media have fostered a shift in societal perceptions."

“ƒThe city loses a lot of face internationally by dint of having these anti-gay laws,” says local playwright Ng Yi-Sheng, author of gay poetry anthology Last Boy. “Some gay people are scared to work or travel here just because they've heard about the anti-gay laws.”

Others, including Fridae.com’s Stuart Koe, think it’s only a matter of time before the law is repealed. “I believe most of the government considers it a dead law, save a few conservative individuals. It’s not a question of if it will happen, but rather when.”

8. And the government is adopting a lighter approach.

Exactly what the government thinks of all this is hard to discern; though the fact that it’s happening at all speaks volumes. Lee Kuan Yew has himself questioned why we criminalize what is simply a “genetic variation”. But the laissez-faire approach makes it hard to point to concrete advances.

Almost everyone we spoke to cited the MDA’s guidelines regarding representations of homosexuality in the media as a big stumbling block. “[ƒThey] only allow for negative portrayals of LGBT people to be shown in mainstream media, so Singaporeans don’t get to see us as the regular folk that we are,” says Alan Seah, LGBT activist and member of Pink Dot. Sam Ho, a straight activist for the transgender community in Singapore, who formed the LGBT ally group SinQSA, finds it frustrating that “we have celebrations of straightness being blasted on all of our media platforms” with far fewer positive representations of gay life. He goes on, “Heck, even the National Day Parade, probably the most watched local production, is a celebration of straightness.”

The regulations, though, are not what they once were. In the past, content guidelines grouped “alternative lifestyles,” including homosexuality, alongside some rather wild practices (“worship of the occult or the devil” anyone?). Small wonder they had a bad rep. But an MDA spokesperson tells us that they “regularly review” their policies to ensure they are “in line with… community standards and mores” and they will not “seek to defend a status quo when the community has moved past it.” ƒ That approach is reflected in their new TV content guidelines, which came into effect in December. Now homosexuality is treated as “mature content” which will “generally attract an NC16 or M18 rating.” By contrast, the guidelines for imported publications (in force since 2009) still prohibit magazines that “encourage, promote or glamorize sexually permissive and alternative lifestyles” (defined as including sexual activity involving persons of the same gender). Local magazines meanwhile—including this one—are largely self-regulated (this story hasn’t been pre-vetted, for example); we’re instead expected to be “responsible in [our] reporting and… [take] into consideration societal norms and cultural sensitivities.”

So, while there’s a whiff of self-contradiction across the various policies, there’s no doubt the situation is evolving and it’s unrealistic to expect blanket change over night. On balance, we think credit is due to the government for the moves it has made of late in this direction.

9. There’s more to come.

Pink Dot is just the icing on the cake. The team from Element will also be holding its first Asia Pink Awards later this year, honoring F&B, travel and fashion players across Asia that are “truly gay-friendly and contributed to the community,” says Managing Director Hiro Mizuhara, and the annual Indignation will also be taking place Aug 3-31 across various venues like theater space 72-13 and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, featuring live music performances, talks and film screenings including Gen Silent, about ageing LGBTs in the US.

And as for clubbing beyond Kyo’s new night, veteran DJ George Leong is still packing in the crowds with his new Sunday gay nights Salvation at Dream, which appeals not just to the gay community, as well as new gay bar OUT Bar, which features live cabaret performances. “ƒThese events are testament that LGBTs should just be themselves and walk with their heads held high,” says Kyo's Sharmaine Khoo. "Integrate and contribute to society. Fall in love in the sunlight, not the shadows."

But that's not all. See a brief timeline of Singapore's gay movement, the groups behind them, and books that have made a difference.

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