ST Lifestyle: The gay debate (Nov 4)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Nov 4, 2007
The gay debate
For moderates like me, the vitriolic exchanges made me wonder: Why can't we just live and let live?
By Sumiko Tan

I DON'T think I was fully aware of what homosexuality was all about until I was in my 20s.

It wasn't a subject that ever cropped up at home. In the late 1970s when I was growing up, a cluster of houses was built in my neighbourhood and a sign on the wall outside read 'Gay Garden'. No one in the vicinity batted an eyelid.

Perhaps the contractor's surname was Gay, hence he named the development after himself. Or he just wanted a happy, alliterative name for the place.

In my all-girls secondary school, there were jokes about how boys from a certain all-boys Catholic school tended to be sissies. The word used was 'pondan', but I didn't understand what it meant. But I'd laugh if someone mimicked the boys by showing a limp wrist.

There were a lot of female crushes going around in my school, though. I had my fair share of them and was also the subject of a couple. Little presents, precious autograph book scribblings and happy sightings of the girls we hero-worshipped were all part of growing up.

In junior college, I studied next to boys for the first time. It did occur to me that there were some who were rather effeminate and not all that interested in us girls. Many were involved in drama activities.

There were also a few girls who gave off boisterous, boyish vibes and whom I found frightening, but my attention was trained elsewhere - on the football and swimming jocks.

When I was in university, I went out with a guy who had a 'gay' brother. That was when the other meaning of the word entered my vocabulary (and I started wondering how my neighbours living in Gay Garden felt).

The brother was good-looking, wore nice clothes and was a bit aloof.He didn't have girlfriends but a male friend of his would sometimes go over to the family home for dinner and they appeared close. I started piecing things together.

My friend's parents must have been in their 60s then but they seemed totally cool with that relationship. I took my cue from them.

Then I started work and learnt more about homosexuality.

The creative industries tend to attract gays and the media is no different. I've came to know many gays through work, especially over the last decade as I've been based in a section that deals with such lifestyle topics as the arts, entertainment and fashion. There is a larger proportion of gays in these areas.

Some have become good friends. At the risk of generalising or sounding patronising, gays make good company for women.

They often have discerning taste, interesting views and a zest for life. You also don't have to deal with the tiresome cross signals that can crop up in a man-woman relationship.

Some gays talk freely about their sexual orientation, others don't. Some keep it a secret but I know they are gay and they know I know, but we don't acknowledge it, and that's fine.

Some like to play up to stereotypes (adopting a campy tone for laughs,for example) while others would never dream of doing so.

The upshot is, homosexuality has become so commonplace for me, because of the environment I am in, that it has become a non-issue.

I know it exists and I accept it. I don't subscribe to it and I never ever will, but it is not a big deal for me. Certainly I don't feel I am in a position to judge the way they live their lives.

As a (straight) friend puts it and I agree, everyone is entitled to his individual space, and if that space doesn't encroach on somebody else's, especially in a harmful way, there is no reason to interfere with it.

BUT I am also acutely aware that not everyone is as relaxed as I am about homosexuality.

For the majority of Singaporeans, including my family and almost all my non-office friends, being gay is just not something on their radar screens, and they frown on it.

Statistics bear this out. A survey found that 69 per cent of Singaporeans have a negative view of homosexuality, 23 per cent are positive and 8 per cent neutral.

When confronted with the topic, the majority feel very uncomfortable, and I have learnt when to keep my mouth shut about it. Even my sister is leery of the topic.

In editing the Life! section of The Straits Times, too, I am aware that the majority of our readers disapprove of homosexuality, which is why we don't ever play it up.

As the recent parliamentary debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code showed, some people will use every moral and intellectual argument they can muster to put forward their case against homosexuality.

The result has been much mudslinging between them and the pro-gay camp, much of it played out on the Internet. It was fascinating to see how the debate raged and how arguments were posited with renewed vigour every day.

But it was also disturbing and sad for me because so much of what was said - from both sides - seemed grounded in anger and hate.

Still, one has to remember that these are views from very articulate polarised camps. What of the middle ground? Do they feel so strongly? Do they even care?

My guess is that while the majority of Singaporeans are anti-gay, they aren't into gay-bashing either, and were probably bewildered by the extremes of emotions displayed.

My mother, for example, disapproves of homosexuality but her view is that 'it's none of my business what others do'.

For folks like her, what she doesn't see, she doesn't know and doesn't care about, and she adopts a 'live and let live' attitude.

That is also a view I subscribe to, although I must also say I had no problems with Parliament choosing not to repeal Section 377A, which makes sex between men a crime.

If Singapore isn't ready to accept homosexuality, perhaps no change is required - at least not yet.

SOME good has come out of the vitriolic debate. Views have been aired and even if you don't agree with the other person, at least you now know where he is coming from.

A gay colleague said he was comforted to learn that not all Christians are into gay bashing, and that it would be wrong for him to tar all of
them with the same brush.

For me as a journalist, the biggest gain has been how some of Singapore's 'OB markers' have been redefined.

One year ago, I would not have dared write a column about homosexuality. But now that the issue has been aired so thoroughly, and in no less a forum than Parliament, the subject is no longer inside the closet, so to speak.

And it can't be bad for the country that we are freer to talk about once taboo topics.

You can never persuade those of extreme views to agree and as we go forward, it is perhaps up to the middle ground - which includes newspapers and, yes, people like me whom I like to think are the moderates - to ensure civility is maintained even while the gay debate continues.

P.S: Some years ago, the Gay Garden name was changed to one reflecting the road the houses sit on - a sign, too, of the changing times.