ST: There are gays, and there are gays... (Nov 10)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Nov 10, 2007
There are gays, and there are gays...
By Andy Ho

PROFESSOR Thio Li-ann who spoke up in Parliament against the decriminalisation of homosexual sodomy has become the lightning rod that attracts the vilest attacks from the most militant gays here.

The Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) who teaches law at the National University of Singapore (NUS) just made her second police report in three months. The first was filed against a poet, Alfian Saat, who heaped abuse on her in an e-mail, the second after an anonymous letter-writer threatened her and her family members with bodily harm.

The fact that a fiery debate over the issue was held at all in Parliament might have been perceived by some as legitimising the identity politics of (homo)sexuality here.

Identity politics is made up of efforts to define and defend who you are, or hope to be, or hope to be seen to be. Gay identity politics means some citizens are mobilising as a group around their sexual orientation to shape or alter the exercise of power to benefit group members.

Since it is an enterprise motivated by the imagination of what is or ought to be mine or ours, some welcome it. After all, self-definition matters to everyone, they say.

Others counter that this is a bad development as it simply purveys differences rather than similarities and highlights grievances rather than bonds. As proof, they point to the gut-wrenching viciousness swirling around Prof Thio. Another NUS law professor, Yvonne Lee, has also made a police report after she was crudely flamed online, with threats made against her person after she wrote a column for these
pages that was not supportive of the gay cause.

In and of themselves, differences and grievances are fine for they drive political action among those who bear them. Contending with one's adversaries is not necessarily inconsistent with respect for one another. In a nation that is looking for its democratic legs, emotional interlocution that remains respectful can be woven into the patriotic fabric that binds us together.

But identity politics turns sick when grievances transmute into an all-consuming demonisation of one's opponents. For example, both law professors have been repeatedly asked online something to this effect: 'Are you stupid, a Christian, or both?' If 'conservatives' or 'Christians' are remorselessly assumed to be redneck hatemongers whom you can't respect as equals, then your politics has degenerated
into a pharisaic narcissism.

I don't know which is worse, this or those who lose in a confrontation claiming victimhood. Already, in the parliamentary debate, there were claims of 'minority' group status for homosexuals. I also have an e-mail - obviously from a legally trained mind - asserting that gays form a 'discrete, insular and disadvantaged

By self-identifying as 'a minority', the claim is that his group will inevitably be ignored or victimised by the (demonised) majority. This would suggest that his group will never be part of a winning majority coalition.

Yet all political majorities are coalitions whose composition can change, so losers can become winners somewhere down the line - if they are willing to modulate their interests to form a winning coalition with others.

But the gay lobby finds it difficult to do so for it tends to reduce complex human beings to one trait - homoerotism. That is, it regards all individuals who have this orientation as being, in essence, the same in (all) other respects.

This 'essentialist' thinking is less than coherent. For example, people who share race or religion can differ in many other ways, including being able to hurt others of the same race or religion. For example, I may be Chinese but that does not necessarily mean I champion the need to be fluent in Mandarin.

Or: Every woman has a race, so how she experiences her womanhood is informed by her race, and what race means to her is also inflected by her gender. What about being of the same race and gender but not the same religion? What about age? Should we not accord minority status to, say, 'aged Indian lesbians'?

So group definitions are problematic. The Catholics may claim you, but do you claim them? Group identities are too narrow to encompass what we share in common as humans but too broad to capture our specificities as individuals. The simplistic gay versus straight opposition obscures the fact that each of us stands alone at our own
unique conjuncture of the different groupings like race, gender, age, profession or religion to which we belong.

Because we move from one grouping to another fluidly as the situation demands, our personal group borders are never fixed. Because we are affiliated to so many groups, we may be more 'multicultural' individuals than a multicultural nation. But this fact is that which allows for non-conflictual give-and-take since our interest might
differ on one dimension but map onto one another on a different one. However, identity politics ignores this. Instead, it balkanises, promoting an obstreperous, rancorous self-pity about the 'tyrannical majority'.

For good reason, we give the identity politics of race and religion a wide berth. Formal procedure requires that a parliamentary petition - like the public petition over homosexual sodomy that NMP Siew Kum Hong submitted - be vetted in committee first.

The House agreed to waive the requirement and an angry debate ensued.

If Prof Thio's travails are anything to go by, setting that procedure aside appears to have been a mistake that has, regrettably, fostered the identity politics of sexual orientation here.