General practitioner Roy Tan, 63, recalls the fear he felt in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s about being gay. Having consensual sex with another man was punishable by imprisonment. Plainclothes police accosted gays on beaches and parks, waited until they suggested sex, and then arrested them.
“There was a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, this risk of being caught by the police,” he says. “The ban on sex between men profoundly affected my life when I was young, as well as many other Singaporeans.”
Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered the words Tan and thousands of other gay men have waited decades to hear: he said the government would repeal Section 377A, a colonial-era law that prohibited consensual sex between men — it did not applied to women.
The moment was the fruit of years of activism and a growing acceptance of homosexuality. Officials had polled the opinion of religious bodies and the LGBTQIA+ community for months before the announcement. But not everyone saw the repeal as a reason to celebrate.
In his speech, Lee made it clear that Singapore will not become a bulwark of LGBT rights, noting that many social benefits will continue to be available only to heterosexual couples. He also said the government will amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as an agreement between a man and a woman and to prevent it from being challenged in court. Activists described the repeal as a small victory on the long road to full equality.
“It was weird, because we felt like we should be happy, but we weren’t,” says Mick Yang, 25, a transgender college student. The disappointment, he explains, is due to what he described as the government’s “normative ideal” around identity: “one man, one woman, cis, straight, non-transgender, non-queer.”
Singapore’s media regulator still bans the showing on public TV of films “that promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle”. Films with LGBTQ content are generally given a higher age rating. Organizations that defend the rights of this population are not allowed to register with the government, which limits the possibility of raising funds and requesting permits for events.
The Section 377A issue has divided progressives and conservatives in Singapore for years. Opponents of the repeal have called for the law to be maintained until “proper safeguards” of marriage and family are defined. The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches called the decision “extremely regrettable”.
In 2007 the government pledged to stop implementing the law against gay sex, but activists said that the mere fact that it remained in force contributed to discrimination. In a country where most are guided by official policies dictated by the government, the text was seen as a tacit endorsement of the idea that gays are sexual perverts.
Consultant Bryan Choong, 45, served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2008. At the time, he feared being exposed as gay and feared the effect it could have on his career. He says that during enlistment he was asked if he had ever had sex with another man. Since at 23 he had never had a boyfriend, he spoke the truth: “No.”
Choong was one of three plaintiffs, alongside Tan, who in 2018 and 2019 challenged the legality of Section 377A in court. In a ruling announced in February, Singapore’s Supreme Court declined to repeal the law. Faced with the pressures, some gay men simply chose to leave Singapore.
Jeremy Tiang, a writer married to an American, says he moved to New York because he could not be legally married in Singapore and his partner would not have been eligible for a spouse visa. “Every now and then we read in the newspaper that another gay man had been arrested,” he says. “It contributed to the oppression I felt when I was young.”
For the younger generation of gay Singaporeans, the repeal could lead to some of those stigmas diminishing. Today they will be able to hold their heads a little higher, according to Johnson Ong, who also challenged the law in court. “Gay people aren’t going to have to go through life thinking they’re second-class citizens,” says the DJ and co-founder of a digital marketing agency.
Tan is hopeful that the repeal will eventually lead to changes in other public policies that discriminate against gay people. He was unfazed by the government’s declaring that it would not budge on broader issues, saying the administration was “treading on very shaky ground”.
“People will question why, as gay Singaporeans are now seen as just as good as straight people. These discriminatory differences still remain.”
It is unclear when the repeal will take effect. Parliament will meet in September and October and may make a decision in the coming months. But many gays say what they want now is to get over the years of hardship caused by the law.
Along with his partner Kenneth Chee, Gary Lim, 54, challenged Section 377A in court in 2013. He claims the repeal means he no longer has to “feel like a criminal” if he shows affection in public. “It would be wonderful if I could walk hand in hand with him. We’ve been together for 25 years and I’ve never done that.”