This seems to suggest two trends: first, an increasingly determined and assertive LGBT community, the product of more of its members shedding the layers of fear and self-doubt engendered by anachronistic societal attitudes; and second, growing (if still relatively weak) acceptance by the wider public. Indeed, a survey by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2010 indicated that there had been a slight increase in those harbouring “positive” attitudes towards LGBT compared with five years before (though it has to be said that this change was statistically non-significant after controlling for demographic changes) as well as the number of those who think that being gay is “acceptable” outnumbering those that do not.
However, such weakish trends are not irreversible. First, the NTU survey confirmed what was already known in other parts of the world - that people who had more contact with the LGBT community were likely to be less prejudiced, and that religiosity was likely to be the biggest factor colouring negative attitudes towards homosexuality. These two factors are at odds with each other in Singapore, as despite the fact that the number of interactions between straight people and the LGBT community is increasing, religiosity is also on the rise, given the fast growing Christian as well as the Malay-Muslim populations.
Second, despite official assurances that the government will not enforce the notorious 377A article of the Penal Code criminalising homosexual acts, fears that its hand might someday be forced were reinforced by the legal establishment's worrying affinity of late for a literalist interpretation of the statutes. If the courts and the police were to maintain the strict approach they took in the prosecution of the recent under-aged prostitution case, a single complaint or investigation related to 377A could similarly result in the mass prosecution of scores of members from the LGBT community. Even the implied threat of this is likely to have a chilling effect on the community.
The government should do better. Its ambiguous stance over 377A is not – as many have rightly pointed out – tenable, but nevertheless in taking such a position, it has already conceded that criminalising homosexuality is outdated. It should go further and give up the discredited notion that underpins the retention of 377A: the idea that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, a notion which the NTU survey has pointed out is a significant factor inveighing against wider acceptance of the LGBT community. (This is not to mention another equally valid reason, which is that the government has no business to intrude on the privacy of the bedchamber.)
The justifications the government has for its current stance are weak. Its stated reason – that it is afraid of getting too far ahead of sentiment – does not justify a supposedly rational and technocratic government defending a fallacious notion (that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice) which is shaded more by prejudice than fact. Its probable unstated reason – that this may lead to a slippery state of having to grant more gay "rights" – is a red herring: the question of what sort of rights the LGBT community should have, such as the right to marriage or civil unions, is still a contested one even in countries that have accepted their LGBT minorities. However, what is fundamentally not in question in such countries is the right of the minorities to embrace their sexual orientation without fear of persecution.
As a first step, the government could commission an official inquiry to examine the case for retaining 377A. At an analogous period in the UK during the 1950s, when attitudes towards homosexuality were still largely negative but when nevertheless a sense of uneasiness had already crept in, the British government commissioned the celebrated Wolfenden report to look into reforming its statutes. This eventually led to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967, a decade-long process that changed law and public opinion for the better along the way. The Singapore government should try to find it within itself to take that first step towards creating a level playing field for sexual minorities – which is a moral obligation that it owes to any minority group at risk of being treated unfairly.
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