For gay people in Singapore, repeal of sex ban brings hope after years of pain
Dr Roy Tan recalls the fear of being a gay man in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s. Having consensual sex with another man was punishable by imprisonment. Undercover police would chat with unsuspecting gay men in quiet parks and beaches, wait for them to suggest sex, then step in and make an arrest.
“There was always this Sword of Damocles hanging over my head that I would be grabbed by the police,” said Tan, 63, a part-time GP. “So it affected my life a lot growing up in my early adulthood, as it did for many other gay Singaporeans.”
Last week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke the words Tan and thousands of other gay men have been waiting to hear for decades: The government would repeal Section 377A, a colonial-era law prohibiting consensual sex between men. (The law does not apply to women.)
The moment was the result of years of activism and growing acceptance of homosexuality in Singapore. Officials had surveyed the views of religious groups and the LGBTQ community for months before making the announcement. But not everyone saw the repeal as cause for celebration.
In his speech, Lee made it clear that Singapore would not become a bastion of rights for lesbian, gay and transgender people, stressing that many social benefits will remain available only to heterosexual married couples. He also said the government would amend the constitution to protect the definition of marriage as an agreement between a man and a woman, and prevent it from being challenged in court. Activists said the repeal was a small victory on a long road to full equality.
“We felt so weird because we felt we should be happy, and yet we weren’t,” said Mick Yang, a 25-year-old Singaporean university student who is transgender. The disappointment, Yang said, stems from what he called the government’s “normative ideal” of identity: “one man, one woman, cis, straight, non-transgender, non-queer.”
Singapore’s media regulator still prohibits the broadcast on public television of films that “promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle”. Movies with LGBTQ content are regularly slapped with higher age ratings. Organizations affiliated with gay rights are not allowed to register with the government, which limits their ability to fundraise and apply for licenses to hold events.
The issue of Section 377A – which subjects men who engage in “any act of gross indecency” with other men to two years in prison – has long divided liberals and religious conservatives in Singapore. Those opposing the repeal had previously called for the law to stand until there were “adequate safeguards” for marriages and families. The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches in Singapore said the repeal was “an extremely regrettable decision”.
The day after the prime minister’s announcement, his justice minister, K. Shanmugam, clarified that the constitutional amendment would guarantee parliament’s right to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
The government pledged in 2007 to stop enforcing the law against gay sex, but campaigners said just having it on the books contributed to discrimination. In a country where the majority follows official government policy, the law was seen as a tacit endorsement of the idea that gay people were sexual deviants.
Bryan Choong, 45, a management consultant, served in the Singapore Air Force from 2000 to 2008. At the time, he was worried about being portrayed as gay and how it might affect his career. As part of the enlistment process, he said, he was asked if he had had sex with other men. He was only 23 and had never had a boyfriend. So he told the truth: No.
Choong was one of three plaintiffs, along with Tan, who challenged the constitutionality of Section 377A in 2018 and 2019. In a February ruling, Singapore’s top court declined to strike down the law, acknowledging that it was already “inapplicable”.
Faced with these pressures, some homosexuals simply chose to leave Singapore. Jeremy Tiang, an author who is married to an American, said he moved to New York because he could not legally marry in Singapore and his partner would not have qualified for a spousal visa.
“Once in a while, you would see in the newspaper that another gay person had been arrested,” Tiang said, referring to when Section 377A was actively enforced. “It contributed to the oppression I felt growing up.”
For Singapore’s younger generation of gay men, repeal could lead to some relief from some of these stigmas. They can now “hold their heads a little higher,” said Johnson Ong, who challenged the law in court alongside Choong and Tan.
“They don’t have to go through life thinking they’re second-class citizens,” said Ong, co-founder of a digital marketing agency and DJ.
Many Singaporeans said they first heard of Section 377A in 2007, when the country’s penal code was revised. Parliament voted to repeal the original law, which banned oral and anal sex between consenting adults, but left Section 377A on the books, a move that has galvanized gay rights campaigners.
The government has come under increasing pressure to be one of 69 countries that criminalize consensual same-sex sex. Its insistence on maintaining the ban has made it appear out of step with much of the rest of the world, including other former British colonies that have overturned similar colonial-era laws. India got rid of its law in 2018, an example that inspired Ong and Choong to sue.
These cases were “important in demonstrating how legally bankrupt a law like 377A has become,” said Remy Choo, a lawyer who has represented several clients who challenged Section 377A in Singapore. “It forced those who wanted to continue upholding the law to hold up a mirror and wonder if they could do it with a straight face anymore.”
In explaining his decision, Lee acknowledged that the attorney general and his attorney general had both indicated there was a “significant risk” that section 377A would be struck down in future legal challenges because it violated the equal rights protections in the constitution.
Tan hopes the repeal will eventually lead to changes in other policies that discriminate against gay people. He was not fazed by the government’s insistence on standing still on the broader issues, saying officials are standing “on very shaky ground”.
“People will wonder why, since gay Singaporeans are now considered as moral as their straight counterparts, these discriminatory differences persist,” Tan said.
In recent years, polls in Singapore have shown that attitudes towards homosexuality have changed, especially among young people. Over the past decade, Singapore’s “Pink Dot” Pride rallies have attracted tens of thousands of attendees.
A June study by research firm Ipsos found that 45% of all respondents said they were more accepting of same-sex relationships than they were three years ago.
It is unclear when the repeal will take effect. The Parliament, which meets in September and October, could take a decision in the coming months. But many gay men say they are now focused on healing from the years of pain caused by the law.
Gary Lim, who along with his partner Kenneth Chee sued Section 377A in 2013, said the repeal meant he no longer had to ‘feel like a criminal’ he showed Chee affection in public.
“Certainly, I think it would be great if I could hold his hand,” Lim, 54, said. “After all, we’ve been together for 25 years. I’ve never done that in public.”