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Decriminalizing Same-Sex Relationships To Remain A Small Step For LGBTQ Rights In Singapore

Singapore repealed gay sex ban, but opposed gay marriage.

Last Monday, Singapore's Prime Minister announced that his government would repeal the colonial-era ban on same-sex relationships, a move welcomed by LGBTQ rights activists and community members. But don't be too quick to rejoice because everything about the announcement was far from positive. 

Repeal Of Section 377A Of The Penal Code, It's About Time

The decision to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code was widely seen as a victory for LGBTQ+ rights in the city-state of Singapore. Although the colonial-era law had not been enforced for decades, its continued presence in legislation not only sent a message that same-sex relationships are not tolerated in Singapore, but for many LGBTQ+ people, it was a source of discrimination.

LGBTQ+ activists, who called it a "hard-won victory" and a "triumph of love over fear," widely celebrated the repeal. However, they cautioned that there is still more work to be done to fully protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Singapore. 

"Some people do feel that a lot more can be done," said Bryan Choong, the Chair of LGBTQ advocacy group Oogachaga, adding that the 377A repeal was "long overdue."

Prime Minister Wants To Ban Same-Sex Marriage In The Constitution 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore)

But while announcing the decriminalization of same-sex relationships, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government would stand firm on the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and protect it from constitutional challenge in the courts. He even proposed to enshrine the marriage equality ban in the constitution.

The Human Rights Watch organization has called the move "a mixed message." 

"[We're] noting real progress that revoking article 377A will bring, but raising serious concerns about discrimination if Constitutional amendment on marriage is passed. Eliminating anti-LGBT discrimination is needed across the board," said Phil Robertson, the NGO's Deputy Asia Director.

Bryan Choong makes a strong case when he said that "the doors to this opportunity should not be closed" regarding same-sex couples being allowed to marry.

After all, marriage is an important step for many couples, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Many negative consequences can also result from a marriage ban. For example, same-sex couples are not eligible for government grants and benefits that heterosexual couples receive. This can lead to financial insecurity and difficulty in accessing basic services like healthcare.

Additionally, it can also make it difficult for same-sex couples to resolve joint property and child custody disputes.

Loong's proposal to amend the constitution to ban marriage equality has disappointed the coalition of Singapore's LGBTQ+ groups, who said the move "will undermine the secular character of our constitution, codify further discrimination into supreme law, and tie the hands of future parliaments." 

LGBTQ+ Content Restriction To Continue 

In a disappointing turn of events, the Singapore government has also announced that it will continue to restrict and classify LGBTQ+ media content.

In its statement, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) confirmed that its hard line on LGBTQ+ content would remain in place.

It stated that the repeal of Section 377A did not mean that "we are changing the tone of society" and that LGBTQ+ content would remain banned under 21. 

"We will continue to take reference from prevailing norms. LGBTQ media content will continue to warrant higher age ratings," the MCI said in a statement of clarification.

The current norms mentioned state that "films that center on alternative sexualities may be classified at the highest rating of R21 (viewing is permitted only to adults over 21)" and that "non-explicit depictions of sexual activity between persons of the same gender may be featured at R21 rating."

Sometimes, a lower rating of M18 (viewing is permitted only to adults over 18) applies to films that feature homosexual themes or content as a subplot if "discreet in treatment and not gratuitous."

In response to this announcement, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has stated that it will continue to refer to existing norms when deciding about what content is appropriate for sale.

For years, Section 377A was used as a pretext for police raids on gay businesses and arrests on the street. However, since 2010, the law was rarely enforced but continued to negatively impact LGBTQ representation in media and entertainment.

For example, when Pixar and Disney released the animated film "Lightyear," which featured a kiss between two female characters, it was restricted to ages 16 and up by the country's classification board.

Similarly, the National Library Board removed a children's book that featured a same-sex penguin couple. Although the ban was later rescinded, they placed it on the adult book list.

The recent statement by the Ministry of Communications and Information is a disappointing reminder that even after the repeal of Section 377A, LGBTQ+ media content will still be treated as if it is inappropriate for a young audience. This is even though there is nothing inherently sexual or offensive about the content.

The reality is that many LGBTQ+ youth rely on media for representation and validation, and subjecting this content to higher age classifications only further marginalizes and ostracizes them. It also sends the message that LGBTQ+ stories are not worthy of being told, which is deeply harmful.

Singapore Takes A Small Step Forward For LGBTQ Rights 

The repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalized same-sex relationships, was a significant step forward for LGBTQ rights in in the Southeast Asian country.

However, continued media restrictions and a proposed new hurdle on the road to legitimizing legal same-sex marriages pushed many in Singapore to view the new repeal as a small step forward. The fight for equality in Singapore is far from over.  

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Monday, 03 October 2022