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Gay culture gaining momentum in Singapore

Although homosexuality is against the law, the gay community in this city-state has become more prominent recently.

Last Modified: 03 Jun 2013 16:22
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'Night Pink Dot' aims to increase awareness and understanding of the LGBT community in Singapore [Getty Images]

Singapore - Homosexuality in this Southeast Asian city-state has been illegal here for more than a century, dating back to law under colonial British rule. In a country that still lashes convicted criminals with a cane, sexual contact between men is punishable by up to two years in jail.

But in recent years the country has become ambivalent about enforcing its homosexuality laws, and as a result, gay culture is slowly emerging here in ways that seemed unimaginable just a decade ago.

"Pink Dot Sg" - a play on words on Singapore's nickname, Little Red Dot - is an open-air event where thousands dress in pink and gather to form a giant dot in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) causes. The festival marks its fifth year on June 29, and the organisers say they expect turnout to be enormous.

Attendance estimates for the first Pink Dot event in 2009 ranged from 500 to 2,500, while last year's event drew a record 15,000 people.

Major corporations have begun to sponsor the event, including Google, JP Morgan, and Barclays.

"The growing number of companies who are coming out and supporting social movements like Pink Dot is humbling," says Paerin Choa, spokesperson for Pink Dot Sg. "Increasingly, corporate entities are recognising the importance of values like inclusiveness and diversity, not just in the creation of a good working environment for employees, but also as a gesture of goodwill to clients and customers."

Last year, more than 15,000 people attended the Pink Dot festival [Getty Images]

The theme for this year's Pink Dot event is "Home". A campaign video launched on May 22 shows three protagonists in search of acceptance: an older gay man barred from visiting his partner in the hospital, a transgender teen bullied at school, and a young woman getting the silent treatment from her parents when they find out about her same-sex relationship.

First gay magazine

In conjunction with the festival, the nation's first-ever gay lifestyle magazine - only available in electronic formats, and hosted by an Internet server in the US to bypass Singapore's restrictions on print publications - is publishing its second issue in June. 

The magazine, named Element, bills itself as "The Voice of Gay Asia" and targets the tech-savvy "pink dollar" market.

The magazine's features include listings on gay films with live links to movie trailers, gay-friendly resorts, and an interactive map of gay-themed events around the world. The publication stresses it is a lifestyle magazine, not a skin magazine. Singapore bans the sale of pornographic magazines and blocks sexually explicit websites.

"There are people who would read a lifestyle magazine that really covers different aspects of their life," says Hirokazu Mizuhara, the managing director and creative force behind Element. "It's not just about nudity or hot guys." 

Meanwhile, two court cases are seeking the overturn of Section 377A of Singapore's penal code, which forbids consensual sex between adult men.

"Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years," the article states.

After reviewing the penal code, the government in 2007 declared oral and anal sex to be legal for heterosexuals and lesbians, but not for gay men. The government assured the remaining ban on consensual sex between men would not be "proactively enforced", striking a middle ground between gay rights advocates and religious and social conservatives.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated that position in January, saying: "Why is that law on the books? Because it's always been there and I think we just leave it."

The Singaporean newspaper Today also quoted Lee as saying: "These are not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it's really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree. I think that's the way Singapore will be for a long time."

But "agreeing to disagree" is not enough for Singapore's gay citizens and their supporters. Gay nightlife is thriving, and public displays of affection, however discreet, are becoming more visible. The founders of Pink Dot Sg say maintaining a law on the books outlawing homosexuality keeps the door open to sexual discrimination and harassment.

'Breakdown of the family'

But as Singapore's gay community has become more visible, Christian conservatives have vowed to fight against what they see as a threat to the traditional Singaporean family. Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church has fervently preached against the repeal of the law.

"We see a looming threat to this basic building block by homosexual activists seeking to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code," Khong told his congregation.

"Examples from around the world have shown that the repeal of similar laws have led to negative social changes, especially the breakdown of the family as a basic building block and foundation of the society. It takes away the rights of parents over what their children are taught in schools, especially sex education. It attacks religious freedom and eventually denies free speech to those who, because of their moral convictions, uphold a different view from that championed by increasingly aggressive homosexual activists."

The latest legal challenge to Singapore's law was struck a blow in April, when a judge ruled that any change to the law had to come from Singapore's parliament, as opposed to the country's judiciary. Most observers say it will be more difficult for the parliament to change the law than it would have been for the judiciary.

In one indication of how much energy the issue generates, a campaign to raise funds for an appeal garnered more than $50,000 in 24 hours. 

Follow Tom Benner on Twitter: @tgbenner

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Al Jazeera
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