Gay community in Singapore wants to be heard

31 Jul 06

The city-state’s gay and lesbian community begins its second annual pride festival on Tuesday in the face of what organizers describe as continued discrimination.

Scheduled around Singapore’s independence day on August 9, the month-long IndigNation 2006 will include poetry recitals, art exhibitions, sessions in which gays share their experiences, as well as parties at “gay-friendly” establishments, organizers said.

“IndigNation is the gay and lesbian pride season in Singapore, reaffirming our participation in the intellectual and cultural life of this country, reminding all that we are as much a part of Singapore as anyone else,” organizers said on the festival website.

They complained that “the state still gives short shrift” to the gay community.

“Through law, administrative policies, censorship and homophobic remarks by ministers, Singapore continues to discriminate against some of its most productive citizens.”

Homosexual acts are still outlawed in Singapore under laws dating back to British colonial days, despite the city-state’s being one of Asia’s most advanced economies.

Singapore’s penal code states that anyone who “voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals,” is liable to a possible life prison term and a fine.

Organizers said IndigNation evolved last year after the government banned an annual beach party organised by gay portal The party moved to the Thai resort island of Phuket in November.

Singapore’s ban on the party came three months after Senior Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan said the festival may be behind a sharp rise in the number of new HIV infections in Singapore.

He said an epidemiologist had suggested that the party “allows gays from high prevalence societies to fraternise with local gay men, seeding the infection in the local community.”

The IndigNation festival hopes to challenge the state’s definition of Singaporean identity which has no room for gays and lesbians, said prominent gay rights activist Alex Au, an organizer of the event.

As Singapore celebrates its 41st anniversary, “we have our contesting ideas of what a nation should be as well, and it includes people who have been marginalised and criminalised by the state,” he said.

On the festival’s first day, Au will host a discussion about the May general election and its impact on gays. The ruling People’s Action Party won the ballot, maintaining its 47-year hold on power.

Local playwright Russell Heng, an IndigNation organizer and founding member of gay advocacy group People Like Us (PLU), says one of the festival’s aims is to raise public awareness about the homosexual community’s contribution to society.

“There is a tremendous amount of energy and creativity among gays and lesbians,” Heng said.

“The pity is that Singapore doesn’t realise the contribution made by gay and lesbian Singaporeans unless one organizes a festival like this to showcase it,” he said.

Au said the government has a contradictory attitude toward gays.

While homosexual acts are outlawed, gay pubs and saunas are largely tolerated but advocacy groups including PLU have repeatedly been denied official registration.

“You get these inconsistent actions and decisions… it’s just gone very cloudy. They are not making a stand,” Au said.

Singapore has a population of about 4.4 million but it is unclear how many of those are gay.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Foreign Correspondents Association last year that Singapore must evolve into a more “inclusive” society.

But gay-pride parades will not work in the city-state “because I think it would be offensive to a large number of Singaporeans and it will be very divisive,” he said.

“I don’t think we are homophobic.”

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