By Sujith Kumar Prankumar
Singapore is a multi-racial, secular immigrant state located in Southeast Asia. Its government prides itself on fostering harmony across various race and religious groups, and privileges meritocracy, profit, and law and order over all else. With its highly educated workforce, advanced infrastructure, immunity from natural disasters, stable government and low crime rates, it would seem that the sunny island-nation of Singapore—which measures 3.5 times the size of Washington, DC—is as close to paradise as one can imagine.
Recently, however, this image of utopia was shattered for one group of Singaporeans. On Oct. 29, 2014, Singapore’s Court of Appeal held that Section 377A, the country’s sodomy law, did not contravene the Constitution. Section 377A, a colonial-era import that continued to remain on the books even after the country’s independence from the British in 1963, forbids same-sex sexual activity between males. Lesbians, in the eyes of the law, simply do not exist.
One of the most unprecedented and positive manifestations of the hopes and energies of Singapore’s queer community is Pink Dot. Pink Dot is an annual carnival-like event held to recognize the LGBTQ+ community’s “freedom to love.” The event has repeatedly made history for being the largest public gatherings ever held at the Hong Lim Park.
First organized in 2009, it attracted more than 26,000 people last year, with international sponsors including Google, Barclays, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, BP and Cooper Vision. The event, which only allows Singaporeans to participate due to state regulations, ends with attendees forming a giant pink dot, and has proven so popular that it has spread to major cities all over the world, including London, Anchorage in Alaska, Montreal and Hong Kong. Utah, in the United States, held its first Pink Dot event in October 2011.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Pink Dot in Singapore is that the event has to work within the space constraints of Hong Lim Park, the only space in the country where public demonstrations are legal. The park has an area of 0.94 hectares, slightly smaller than London’s Trafalgar Square. While there are some concerns on the increasing commercialization of the event and how it privileges the “middle-class Chinese gay male” identity, feedback for the event is overwhelmingly positive. A 23-year-old Malay-Muslim informant of a year-long field study supported by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights said of this event:
“When I went to Pink Dot, I saw couples with children, with their best friends who are gay, and their children who have gay godparents, and...you have people openly being intimate and affectionate with each other...you know, it's just a nice feeling which happens only for a few hours once a year. And even if that is all we have at the moment, then sure, I'll take it. I'll take this sliver of happiness now rather than not have it at all.”
There has also been a proliferation of service and support groups over the past decade, such as Gay-Straight Alliances at the country’s major universities and community groups like The Purple Alliance, the T Project, Gay SG Confessions and The G Spot. These community groups now provide essential services such as free HIV testing, regular social gatherings, mental health counseling and support groups, a trans* shelter, discussion forums and diversity education. Many of their volunteers are youth who are frustrated with the status quo and who want to make a difference.
Singapore’s youth are speaking out. They are taking to social media to air their views, are working hard to set up—and volunteer in—support groups, and are coming out boldly. Young scholars appear to be engaging with topics of LGBTQ+ inclusion and human rights in larger numbers, and prominent individuals, such as former opposition politician Vincent Wijeysingha, theatre director Ivan Heng, and drag comedian Kumar, have publicly come out over the past five years.
While Singaporean society is seemingly getting more polarized, the prominent visibility of queer lives—including celebrities who have come out in other parts of the world—ensures that gay youth now have role models they can emulate.
The apex court’s decision may have come as a big disappointment, but the community continues to do what it has always done best: soldier on. LGBTQ+ Singaporeans and their allies are no longer willing to be bullied into silence and are hard at work at creating safe spaces where LGBTQ+ individuals can live with dignity. It will take time, but we hope the day will soon come where Singaporeans will say, “377A? Not in our town.”
Sujith Kumar Prankumar is currently an MTS candidate in Women, Gender, Sexuality and Religion. He has worked in education, journalism, public relations and the military. He holds an MA in Human Rights from Columbia University, and his research interests are in human sexuality, discrimination, melancholia, race, and youth. He comes from halfway across the world (from sunny, humid Singapore) and is excited to work towards dignity and inclusion for all.
This is part 2 in a short blog series about LGBTQ histories and experiences in different countries. Read the series introduction here.