SINGAPORE–A record turnout for the weekend’s Pink Dot gathering promoting gay and lesbian rights in Singapore offers the latest evidence that social attitudes toward gay residents are easing in the city state, even though the government still criminalizes homosexuality.
In addition to attracting a record crowd of 15,000 people to Hong Lim Park – the only venue in the city-state where demonstrations are allowed – the fourth annual Pink Dot gathering also drew heavier local media coverage than in past years and more high-profile corporate sponsors, including Barclays bank, which was a sponsor for the first time this year.
Pink Dot – which is billed as a gathering to celebrate “freedom to love” irrespective of gender, rather than an overt political protest – has been growing in size and prominence in recent years. Attendance has swelled six-fold since the its inaugural installment in 2009, according to organizers, and it also boasts corporate sponsors such as Google Inc., which signed on last year as the first multi-national to sponsor the event.
“There has definitely been increased visibility” for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Singapore, said Leow Yangfa, a social worker. “In the early days, coverage was very limited but now [the local press] cannot avoid covering an event with 15,000 people,” he added.
Mr. Leow, who is gay, has edited an anthology of “coming-out” stories. He notes that while initial Pink Dot gatherings were generally attended by the “same faces” – local activists who are well-known in the lesbian and gay community – he now sees people from more varied backgrounds, including many straight Singaporeans and their children, at the yearly gathering.
“It is an indication that as a community, we are finally empowered, and that what we are doing is getting noticed,” he said.
Some activists, however, have argued that the widening support should embolden lesbian and gay residents to begin pressing harder to alter institutional barriers against being gay in Singapore. That includes pushing to repeal Section 377A of the penal code – a holdover from British colonial rule that criminalizes sexual relations between two men (and which was long ago repealed in the U.K.).
“Pink Dot is a sign in terms of shifting public opinion” as Singaporeans grow more open and accepting of the gay community, said George Hwang, a human rights lawyer. “The next step for Pink Dot would be to galvanize the support it has garnered to concrete action.”
Singaporean authorities considered repealing Section 377A in 2007 as part of a broad review of the country’s penal code, but stopped short, saying public opinion was still against such a move. Although sex between men is still criminalized in Singapore, the rule is not enforced.
“At this time, our society is not ready for us to say we will pass legislation which says homosexuality is no longer an offense,” said Minister of Law K. Shanmugam back in 2007, according to a report from the Straits Times.
The issue keeps surfacing, though, including recently in debates surrounding the establishment of a joint Yale-NUS college in Singapore. Critics of the new school, including some professors at Yale’s home campus in the U.S., have pointed to Singapore’s restrictive laws against homosexuals as a sign that the country should not play host to a world-class liberal arts college. Some large foreign investors in the country also have records of speaking out in favor of gay rights.
Activists, meanwhile, have argued that the existence of restrictions – even if they’re not enforced – has impeded HIV outreach.
“The health agencies in Singapore are caught in a double bind, where they cannot be seen as promoting an illegal ‘lifestyle’ while still realizing the importance of reaching out to a high risk population,” Mr. Hwang, also a community activist, said.
Surveys also show that significant discrimination against the gay, lesbian and transgender community still exists in Singapore. It is felt particularly among transgender females, 94.4% of whom have faced discrimination or abuse according to a survey released in May this year by Oogachaga, a non-governmental organization that provides counseling to gay and lesbian individuals. The survey showed that more than 60% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have faced some forms of discrimination in the city-state, the most common of which are homophobic jokes and derogatory labels.
Only 9% of respondents felt they could speak to their family members about such discrimination, meaning they often had to turn to community-based organizations or friends instead.
Though activists argue that gay and lesbian freedoms are more limited in some other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, countries like Thailand and the Philippines have long hosted boisterous gay pride parades and are generally viewed as more open to gay lifestyles. Similar gatherings thrive in Hong Kong and Taiwan, though even in these countries gay and lesbian individuals have complained of widespread discrimination in the workplace.
“I think if you look at places like Hong Kong and Taiwan you see that although they are both Asian cultures with similar political structures, they are way more advanced in terms of protecting minority rights,” said Mr. Hwang. “The excuse that we are Asian and conservative does not hold water any longer.”