Monday, August 06, 2007

Indignation 2007: Pride Season in Singapore

Here's a link to the calendar of events. If you can't be there, you can still get a taste of what's in store for the island. Ian McKellen, who performed in King Lear and The Seagull in Singapore, left a video message in support of Indignation. He also spoke in support of gay rights in interviews on Singapore TV and radio. The government banned a lecture (a lecture!) on same-sex legislative trends in Asia, and a same-sex kissing photographic exhibition. You may read about those bans on Talking Bread too.

The bans are intellectually inconsistent and indefensible. The common thread, from the accounts in Talking Bread, is that the homophobic campaign, which includes letters to the press, is being waged by conservative Christians in Singapore, many of whom are influential in the government. Religious fundamentalism is the issue of the twenty-first century, and I am not referring only to the Islamic variant. One letter, written by a self-identified Christian, said, ""Even if a 'homosexual' gene was discovered, this does not change the Christian perspective on the issue. Christian theology considers death, sicknesses, cancers, genetic mutation and even an eventual finding of a 'homosexual' gene (or genetic defect) as the results of sin and flouting of God's moral order." The writer, and the Christians she represents, have not left the medieval age.

I am also reproducing in full a letter sent by a gay Singaporean man to the main newspaper. When the newspaper failed to publish it, he sent it to Talking Bread. The name John Toh is a pseudonym. Though he is fully out in his newly adopted country, he used a pseudonym because his mother has many friends in the Methodist church. His concern is that she could suffer from ostracism and vilification should it be known that her son wrote the letter.

I am a homosexual Singaporean who has been in a loving and committed same-sex relationship for almost ten years. My partner and I currently live overseas because we sought for ourselves a better life in a progressive society more accepting of us. Despite the pain of losing direct access to our dear friends and family, and the continued revulsion of our "chosen" lifestyle by the conservative religious community who also exist here, we have nevertheless found a new and happier existence in this foreign land. If nothing else, we are comforted by laws here that affirm our right to exist as equals, regardless of skin colour, creed or sexual orientation.

I have therefore been following with keen interest the on-going, healthy and civilised debate on the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Singapore. I am drawn, in particular, to the article entitled "MP Baey all for repealing anti-gay law" dated 16 Jul 07 and the ensuing letter from Bishop Dr Robert Solomon dated 19 Jul 07 clarifying the stand of the Methodist Church of Singapore (MCS) against homosexuality.

As directed by Bishop Solomon, I took a closer look at the MCS’ website and its explanation for its opposition towards homosexuality. While admiring the attempt to use "reason" to justify its position, I cannot resist pointing out the flaws in their thinking. Surely, if any religious group wants to apply its distinct moral standards across society, the basis for such standards must withstand public scrutiny.

I have not read the book by Robert Gagnon, quoted by the MCS as providing an excellent scholarly study on the subject. According to some reviews, it seems to be a work of merit that challenges any dissenting view that the Bible and homosexuality are compatible. I have come across others, criticising Gagnon’s work for his "views on the authorship of the Bible, downplaying of Jesus’ condemnation of divorce, reliance on Paul Cameron’s thoroughly discredited sociological research, failure to address the question of ‘intersexed’ persons, insistence that same-sex relationships are unknown in the animal world (an idea that Bruce Bagemihl destroys in his exhaustive work)", etc. Amidst such concerns, how can we presume Gagnon’s work to be definitive on the subject? Perhaps only by unquestioning minds determined to preserve their Church’s prescribed views on the matter.

We are told by the MCS to distinguish between what is "normal" and "normative". The MCS claims that homosexuality, as condemned by God’s revelation through Scripture, should never be condoned even if it has been "normalised" by science or general social acceptance. By this argument then, abominable un-Christian practices such as adultery must remain criminalised. Likewise, divorce and the eating of pork and sea creatures without fins/scales should not be allowed. And misogynistic values and slavery should continue to be defended. Yet, in an ever-evolving "moral zeitgeist", to borrow a term popularised by Richard Dawkins in his recent bestseller "The God Delusion", we have seen a gradual acceptance, decriminalisation in some instances, of behavioural practices firmly condemned by Scripture and, conversely, the abolition of practices condoned by it.

On the matter of science, can we even contemplate that, by a similar refusal to give in to an updated understanding of a biological condition, sufferers of epilepsy should continue to be treated as victims of demonic possession? How are we expected to conveniently overlook such glaring inconsistencies, unless we fully concede that Scripture is inherently contradictory, trapped in an ancient social context and, ultimately, fallible?

For the benefit of those who remain unclear, Biblical objections to homosexuality mainly stem from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which, in slightly varying translations, assert, "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads". Several other passages in both the Old and New Testaments are often also quoted. However, these quite arguably really refer to non-consensual and therefore oppressive sexual behaviour (e.g. paedophilia or bestiality) which I, and any other reasonable thinking and socially-conscious person, would whole-heartedly agree we must continue to revile. While other laws in the Penal Code would remain to ensure such socially unacceptable transgressions remain criminalised, a repeal of Section 377A merely seeks to legitimise consensual and, therefore, mutually-respectful male-to-male sexual relationships.

However one chooses to view homosexuality – whether as a product of a biological predisposition, a genetic variation, a mental state to be re-conditioned or a purely alternative lifestyle choice – homosexuals are also human beings with the same capacity to love and be loved, to form loving committed relationships and to live as responsible members of society, albeit with an innate sexual attraction for members of the same sex. And, like their heterosexual counterparts, they are also subject to the same human impulse for lust and perversity.

One must also question the wisdom of the MCS’ defence of Scripture’s absolute inerrancy when it is a document comprising books that were humanly written and originally assembled by the Roman Catholic Church, whose legacy the MCS no longer associates itself with or even respects from the perspective of dogma.

History shows that Methodism, which originated in the 18th Century when John Wesley and his followers broke away from the mainstream Anglican Church in Britain on the basis of a differing theology, flourished and appealed to agricultural workers and slaves during its initial spread to the US. Slavery, sanctioned by Scripture, was abetted by churches until it was legally abolished (the UK in 1833 and the US in 1865). A sensible secular law thus over-rode Scripture. The Methodist movement in the US suffered a massive split over conflicting views on the matter during the early 1800s but eventually reunited in 1939, long after the issue had been resolved by law, then went on to form the present United Methodist Church in 1968. Scripture’s endorsement and the Church’s defence of slavery have conveniently and mysteriously been forgotten. Is Rev Dr Yap perhaps truly well ahead of his time (and his own church) on this particular issue of homosexuality?

The Methodist Church also condemns capital punishment, opposes gambling and advocates "temperance" regarding alcohol consumption (to the extent that unfermented grape juice replaces wine in its modified version of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, again selectively departing from Scripture). It also opposes conscription and regards war as incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Yet, members of the MCS accept that, as Singaporeans, they must abide by secular laws and national policies that compromise their religious beliefs. The moral markers and penal codes that guide our society in Singapore are not governed by Scripture alone. If it were, how do we account for so many discrepancies?

MP Baey suggests a viable solution to this conundrum by advocating the clear "distinction between what the Government wants to encourage, and what it wants to criminalise". Adultery, while providing legal grounds for granting a divorce – mainly for its violation of the social agreement/contract that binds a marriage in the eyes of civil society (and not necessarily the Church or God) – is a non-criminal behaviour.

Fornication and adultery, as long as they are consensual between any man and woman, are not illegal, regardless of the latter being equally abominable in Scripture as homosexuality. So, by all means, continue to regard homosexuals as "sinners", as you do fornicators and adulterers. But is it right to selectively criminalise homosexuals?

Six years ago, before leaving Singapore, my partner and I held a private commitment ceremony. We decided that even if society there at the time was unable and unwilling to legally sanction our union, we would seek that recognition from friends and family. Devoid of any religious or legal motives, we merely wished to "publicly" declare our commitment to each other and, as in any conventional civil marriage, to seek the support of those in attendance to help nurture our relationship henceforth. Surely, our choice to affirm such a committed relationship can only reinforce the positive values that the social institution of marriage stands for, rather than to diminish them. But same-sex marriage, as we know, is an entirely separate debate.

If there is to be a genuine debate on the moral dilemmas we face today, why not instead devote ourselves to other more pressing issues – such as the unhealthy obsession with personal wealth-building, religious ignorance/intolerance that constantly threatens world peace, our obligation to respect and protect our environment for our future generations – all of which Scripture understandably fails to illuminate, given its stagnant, ancient context. Just looking at how the references to poverty far outnumber those on sexual activity in Scripture, one simply cannot fathom why Christians would choose to focus on the latter in their quest to seek a closer relationship with their God.

MM Lee has paved the way for this debate at a time when Singapore seeks to legitimise its place in the First World. This is opportune, given the prevailing air of optimism that accompanies an envisioned economic and social renaissance for the country. I can only hope that the Singaporean Government will see fit to address, beyond the economic imperatives that motivate this current discourse, the underlying humanitarian issue that threatens to be hijacked by both a regressive and aggressive religious viewpoint.

As Singaporeans, we constantly recite a pledge to uphold ourselves as "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion". With the Women’s Charter having already been enacted by the time this pledge was composed in 1966 and the issue of sexual orientation yet to surface, additional dividers of egalitarian ideals such as gender, sexual orientation and physical ability were omitted, perhaps deemed unnecessary then. But 40 years later, they remain as valid in any mature society around the world.

I want to believe that the Government and people of Singapore will become enlightened enough to provide homosexuals like myself with not just a place in its richly diverse, forward-looking, multi-faceted and humane society but also a legitimate and dignified existence.


Greg said...

Thank you for this post Jee Leong. I'm glad to be able to learn a little about your response to these events.

good wishes,

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for alerting me to the events.