FCC Sermon: Our Relationships in FCC by Su-Lin Ngiam

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dear God, thank you for today and this time together. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our Lord and Redeemer. Amen.

I would like to thank FCC for this opportunity to share with you today. It is with much nervousness that I am doing so having never stood before a congregation during this segment of the service. Being nervous, I tend to speak very fast so please slow me down if necessary, and please forgive me if I don’t look at you and instead stare intently at my paper and read what I have prepared. Please don’t take it personally.

As some of you may already know, I am currently studying Christian theology but am a very young student and much of what I have to share today stems more from my personal experiences, readings and observations.

I wasn’t quite sure what to talk about today – this being a series on Christian Living. I thought about whether there was anything I could use from my studies and expand on; a topic that would be close to my heart and perhaps to FCC. And so I have chosen to speak about the relationships between the gay men and lesbian women here at FCC.

I’ve noticed that there aren’t many women who come to FCC, and most of them stream in and out, or come once or twice and don’t return. Women have said they don’t feel included here, and feel like the minority; being surrounded mostly by gay men, in the congregation as well as leading the Sunday services. I have to admit I feel like that sometimes too, and often wonder where the women are, and how we can as a congregation make them come, and stay. Some say that lesbians are more closeted and that is why they don’t come. This is not true if you see the number of women who turn up for the lesbian parties, or the couples who hold hands along the street.

I recognize the huge potential FCC has in reconciling the GLBT community with God, being a catalyst in the process of real spiritual healing. I experienced this potential, and process personally when I stepped into a FCC service when it was still being held at Utterly Art. I remember being so overwhelmed with emotion that I more or less teared through the service. Here was a church that accepted me, and was affirming, and more importantly, I could worship God being honest with who I am, and with other GLBT brothers and sisters. It was very special, especially since I had stopped going to church regularly for a period of time because I was struggling with coming to terms with my sexuality and being Christian. It was like what the words on the FCC website say, “Welcome Home”. Maybe many of you here can identify with this too.

Other immediate thoughts and feelings during this first FCC experience was that I wanted to share it with my gay and lesbian friends. I wanted them to be there with me, worshipping God together, openly and loudly and with all our being. I visualized us standing together in the congregation, and being a part of this church. Unfortunately, life is seldom that simple .. I still hope though that more from our community will find FCC, and decide to stay and make it their family, that more women will come, and that the church will be more diverse.

So why are there more men than women at FCC? Why aren’t the women coming? Does the church see this as a problem? Show of hands:
- how many of us realize there aren’t many women who attend FCC?
- how many of us want more women to come and stay?
- how many of us think this is a problem for the existing women in church to tackle?
- how many of us think this is a problem for the church as a whole to tackle?
- how many of us don’t think there’s a problem?

I personally think it’s a problem that lesbians are not coming, and staying at FCC. It’s a problem because although an inclusive church, the women don’t feel included, and leave. Or they don’t come at all. When we say we’re a ‘free’ church, are we really liberated? Or are we consciously or subconsciously replicating structures, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that operate in the heterosexual, patriarchal world – within and outside of Christianity?

This means that a straight male has more legitimacy and power over the gay male and women as a whole, and down the line that the gay male still has more legitimacy and power over women in general.

Most biblical interpretation through the ages have been and continue to be done by straight men; some of whom are also anxious to keep their positions of power and authority in society. Hence the belief that wives should always listen to their husbands, that their sole or main place is at home. In this vein, people who don’t conform, such as GLBT people who threaten the power structures are hence seen as a threat. In a heteropatriarchal world, theirs is the dominant, majority view and there is little tolerance for diversity. It has taken the feminist movement, the queer movement and other liberation movements to really examine and question some of these assumptions and beliefs held. And this process continues today.

By saying all this, I don’t mean to blame anybody in particular. We are all born within existing structures and societies. However, we do have a responsibility to think about, and question them. As Christians, we have a mandate to seek out the oppressed, the marginalized, and empower, and free them. That was Jesus’ main mission on earth. In the case of women, he valued them highly and saw them as equals to men. Contrary to the heteropatriarchy of his time, Jesus invited the women to listen to him teach and preach; we know of Mary who sat at His feet listening to the Messiah, a practice very uncommon in those days; He even had women followers or disciples; something very revolutionary when a woman’s place was in a home; Jesus saw and met the needs of women, such as the Samaritan woman, and the woman who weeped while washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. He healed women, and appeared to them first after His resurrection. These but are some examples of Jesus seeking women out and affirming them, including them in His ministry and treating them as equals.

As Christians, as a church, we are called to do the same. But perhaps this is easier said than done.

There is already a divide between men and women (gay or straight) in general, and perhaps it’s more difficult for most gay men and women to bridge this because there is no strong impetus like sexual attraction to do so! Coupled with that, there is a general lack of understanding, tolerance and sensitivity towards difference in our society anyway. Even amongst us women! In a discussion with FCC women, some of us didn’t understand why some women didn’t feel like they fitted in or were welcomed. Why is it an issue that we are far outnumbered by men, and why can’t the women just fit in. We fail to realise that some women can’t just fit in with the guys (despite the fact that we’re all gay), that some of us might have had bad experiences with men, or that some just can’t connect and need time, and the other party to make an equal effort as well, or maybe some of us don’t want to just fit in, or rather we want to fit in on our terms too.

We need to appreciate the diversity of human experience. Lesbians don’t mean to be difficult; perhaps some of us just expect more .. especially of a gay affirmative, inclusive church. One which should be familiar with what being marginalized feels like, where being different is painful.

Perhaps some of the gay men here are thinking, “what is she going on about?” I didn’t marginalize any lesbian here what .. I’m very friendly ..” And that might be true. Sometimes we lesbian women are the unfriendly ones, overly suspicious of men. But the issue of gay men and women, or GLBT people communing together is more than just about being friendly. It’s about making steps to truly understand each other, each other’s culture, it’s about being inclusive, about communicating in real ways, and looking out for the other. Isn’t this what church is? As an ekklesia, a family of God, are we not supposed to look out for each other? To include everybody? To be aware of the other.

Ephesians 4: 6 states that God is “above all and through all, and in us all”. An important statement in the appreciation and importance of plurality and diversity. God is in you and me. Both men and women were created in His image. We can’t afford to leave the other behind.

As an inclusive and ‘free’ church then, we need to ensure we walk the talk. Inclusiveness starts with each and every one of us, and not just the church council, or welcoming committee. Each of us has a responsibility to examine ourselves, our biases, intolerance and ignorance, and find ways to overcome it. As a truly inclusive church, FCC can follow in the footsteps of Jesus who didn’t marginalize anyone and made it a point to really see the person in front of Him. Equality should be our buzzword; the realization that the other is equally important as yourself. Virginia Mollenkott, a lesbian feminist theologian calls this being “fully alive”; when we “transform our social structures from the dominator model of relating to a genuine partnership model of mutual egalitarian give-and-take”.

As an inclusive and ‘free’ church, as a church consisting mainly of people who are marginalized, as a predominantly queer church, we can, as Elizabeth Stuart, another prominent lesbian theologian says, “destabilize notions of what constitutes a Christian and offer a radically different model of what being a Christian is about”. This is a good thing. Because many mainstream churches being the majority have stopped deeply questioning or searching for answers, for truths. They are not becoming relevant enough to the times we are in. Many churches now have members who are happy to perpetuate what has gone on before – either out of ignorance or familiarity - traditions, beliefs and attitudes; even ones that believe only men should be at the forefront of church life, and homosexuality is a sin.

Because FCC is different from the mainstream, we are in a position to be prophetic, but only if we are willing to. Only if we are not in a hurry to become mainstream, only if we are willing to question the heteropatriarchy, even that which operates within Christianity itself. If ever you have questioned why you are GLBT like I have, then perhaps it is the opportunity to see things differently, to question more intently, to feel more deeply, to identity with the marginalized, and then to be positively different; just as we are called to be, as Christians.

So how do we go about becoming a more inclusive church? How can we value diversity? And in the case of lesbian women, how do we attract them to FCC and make them stay? Here are some suggestions:
a) Have more women representation in leading roles during the Sunday services
b) Start avenues such as cell groups or meetings, or events and programmes that cater to women
- I know that some efforts have been made in the past but they have been infrequent, perhaps not wholehearted enough .. we are currently getting ourselves started again as a monthly cell group, and are planning some activities as well.
c) Use an inclusive lectionary that includes both male and female pronouns for God
- I read that it was found that churches which used such a lectionary that had God described as ‘she’ resulted in more men praying. Perhaps this has to do with the many strained relationships men have with their earthly fathers, victims also of patriarchy; which then affects relating to their heavenly Father. I’m sure this impacts on women too.
d) Involving women in the planning of the liturgy and other aspects of church life
e) Providing avenues such as talks, forums, etc. where gay men and women can communicate openly and honestly with each other, about each other, and roles in the church, working together etc.
 The feminist and men’s movements stress the importance of dialogue across the sexes in the journey to equality. Because it is not about men and women adopting each other’s roles or traits but an empowering partnership for both based on mutuality.
 It should also be said that we, women should rise to the occasion and actively participate in dialogue and leadership positions within the church. We should have the courage to break out of the “dominated” mould and claim our place. This is not to say we should become more like men, but to have an equal voice based on who we are

In fact, this issue of equal involvement and representation in church is found in other gay churches overseas too, such as MCC in the States, and LGCM in the UK which started out predominantly gay male centered. This changed over time with a conscious effort to involve others. Rev. Pat Bumgardner from MCC who was here earlier this year shared that whilst there were interest groups in her church, such as a women’s group, a Hispanic group, etc. who supported each other and had their concerns represented, they were still integrated and involved in the wider church.

Thus, from looking at bringing more women into FCC, the focus should also expand to include reaching out to others such as bisexuals, the transgendered, and so on. It is only when we are diverse then we can say we are truly inclusive, and it is only when we can recognize the other in ourselves that we are truly free.

To end, I’d like to share this affirming quote, from Elizabeth Stuart, one of the lesbian theologians I quoted earlier:
“GLBT people have a prophetic role to proclaim liberty to millions of captives, in the good news that there is something better than heterosexuality (and the homosexuality that is constructed in reaction to it).. We are a people of process, of clay which can be moulded differently when soaked with life-giving water.”

Let us pray:
We give thanks, dear God for making us who we are, for making us diverse, allowing us the opportunity to journey to self through journeying with others. Help us to love others as ourselves, and help us become more like you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Fridae.com: The challenge and the hope

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The challenge and the hope

By Ng Yi-Sheng
The 5th Singapore AIDS Conference was themed "HIV in Singapore: The Challenge and the Hope." Fittingly, speakers seized this opportunity to challenge the government and the public to liberalise laws and attitudes towards MSMs and the HIV-positive community. The 5th Singapore AIDS Conference, held on Saturday, 2 December 2006, was themed "HIV in Singapore: The Challenge and the Hope." Fittingly, speakers seized this opportunity to challenge the government and the public to liberalise laws and attitudes towards MSMs (men who have sex with men) and the HIV-positive community.

From left: Bryan Choong, Oogachaga; Paul Toh of Action for AIDS; Ho Lai Peng, a Medical Officer from Tan Tock Seng Hospital; Dr Stuart Koe, CEO of Fridae.com and gay activist Alex Au. This began with the Welcome Address by Co-Chair of the Conference and President of AfA (Action for AIDS) Dr Roy Chan. In front of the crowd of 600, he condemned Article 377A of the Penal Code, which makes acts of "gross indecency" between men illegal. "This legal barrier has made it impossible to target MSM (men having sex with men), and made us unable to address it within schools," said Dr Chan. "It is the main reason for stigma and pushes (the issue) into the closet. It is not surprising that more young gay men are getting infected."

Some believe these comments were directed at Guest-of-Honour Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts. In his previous capacity as Senior Minister for Health, Dr Balaji has professed support for AfA and is a third-time Guest-of-Honour to the Singapore AIDS Conference. He has been criticised, however, for his failure to support subsidies for HIV medicines or acceptance of homosexuality. In his speech as Guest-of-Honour, Dr Sadasivan gave a fairly formulaic response to Dr Chan, saying, "The committee will take this into consideration."

Yet the issue was not laid to rest. In the Keynote Address which followed, UNAIDS Regional Programme Advisor Dr Swarup Sarkar reiterated the position that "sodomy" laws should be repealed in both his native India and Singapore. These constituted "gaps in prevention," as they made it impossible to communicate a clear message from the government on safer sex. When interviewed, he elaborated that allowing such laws to remain nominally in the books was not an option, as future officials and governments would able to revive such laws as they pleased.

Such declarations of support for the repeal of sodomy laws were all the more remarkable considering the public nature of the biannual conference. Traditionally organised by the AfA and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, this year marked the first time the Health Promotion Board had joined as organiser. The event was held centrally in the Suntec Convention Centre with low registration fees, and the 600-strong audience was a varied group, consisting of activists, health workers, civil servants, volunteers and members of the concerned public, including several schoolchildren involved in the Red Cross.

Dr Chan also discussed the weight of social stigma associated with the disease, leading many HIV-positive individuals to only seek diagnosis and treatment when they had reached terminal stages of AIDS. The twin themes of challenges from institutions and challenges from public perceptions of HIV were to persist throughout the discussions of the day. One symposium dwelt specifically on problems encountered promoting HIV-awareness amongst women. This was illustrated by Chommad Manopaiboon from the Global AIDS Programme in an earlier plenary, noting that many young Thai women were more afraid of the risk of pregnancy than the risk of contracting HIV. Another speech by Lionel Lee of AfA dwelt on the problems of heterosexual male clients of sex workers, many of whom remain unwilling to associate themselves with the thought of HIV risk and are consequently prone to unsafe sex.

Thankfully, "Hope," the second half of the conference's theme, also received significant attention. Dr Patrick French of the Mortimer Market Centre, London, shared with the audience information on the effectiveness of HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy), which has radically increased life expectancies of HIV-positive individuals. Medical professionals appeared in force to discuss new advances and applications of HIV treatment. Many, however, noted the obstacle of convincing world governments that treatment programmes should receive government funding, making them affordable to all.

The 5th Singapore AIDS Conference also featured, for the third time, a symposium on men who have sex with men (MSM). A summary of papers presented at this symposium may be viewed on the next page.

The 5th Singapore AIDS Conference included a symposium on the MSM community. It focused on the MSM community with theme on Stigma and Discrimination, and was chaired by President of Singapore Psychological Society Clarence Singam and Associate Professor Khoo Hoon Eng.

2006 MSM KABP (Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices) Survey Results
Dr Stuart Koe, CEO of Fridae.com, began by presenting the results of his 2006 MSM KABP survey. The survey, conducted among Internet-savvy MSMs from Singapore, indicated extremely high awareness of HIV services in Singapore, as well as a very high proportion - 81% - of men having undergone HIV tests.

Condom usage is increasing, yet it remains inconsistent. Moreover, no correlation was shown between having had an HIV test and displaying consistent condom use; HIV+ individuals even displayed higher tendencies to practise unsafe sex. This counters the conventional wisdom that promoting HIV tests will also encourage safer sex practices. Dr Koe recommended a more focussed message on condom use and HIV prevention in public programmes.

AfA MSM Programme
Paul Toh of Action for AIDS summarised the work of the MSM Prevention Programmes. This includes outreach to saunas and bars, an MSM drop-in centre, interactive theatre, hotlines, campaigns and meetings and seminars with MSMs in English and Mandarin. New initiatives included Internet outreach, through the infiltration of gay chatrooms by MSM volunteers who explain safe sex queries online.

Counseling and Support for MSMs in Singapore
Bryan Choong, who oversees the Oogachaga MSM Hotline service, presented on the theme of counselling and supporting MSMs in Singapore. He noted the relevance of this theme to HIV as non-acceptance of sexual identity and low self-esteem is often correlated with unprotected sex behaviour in MSMs. Oogachaga's new phone counselling service now provides support for MSMs who desire to remain faceless. However, challenges to counselling remain, including difficulties in outreach to non-gay identified and less educated MSMs and distrust from the closeted gay community.

AIDS Related Stigma/Discrimination
Ho Lai Peng, a Medical Officer from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, spoke on HIV-related stigma and discrimination. She emphasised the problem of HIV existing as a social phenomenon as well as a physical disease, turning HIV+ individuals into social outcasts and discouraging them to lead healthy lives and seek treatment. Even educated professionals show high levels of misconceptions and irrational fear towards the HIV+. She noted that in order for HIV+ people to be accepted and gain equal rights in employment, more must go public, refusing to remain a faceless community.

Overcoming Barriers to HIV Prevention for MSM
Gay activist Alex Au shared the results on his online study amidst politically aware young people. Worryingly, the majority did not regard HIV as a serious issue for Singapore. HIV infection was also associated as stemming from the actions of others, not as the consequence of one's own behaviour. Heterosexuals also found it harder than gay men and women to understand how laws against homosexual acts have a direct bearing on HIV infection rates.

In a question-and-answer session, Alex Au and Dr Koe expressed concerns that the National AIDS Council includes no grassroots representation from at-risk communities like MSMs. They urged audience members to write in to schools and newspapers to correct misinformation on HIV prevention, such as misreported statistics on condom effectiveness. They concluded by asking those present to extend their acceptance to the HIV+ and to spread awareness of the issues by all means possible.

Fridae.com: What the MSM community can do to stop the spread of HIV

Friday, December 1, 2006

What the MSM community can do to stop the spread of HIV

by Dr Tan Chong Kee
HIV/AIDS is hitting Asia in a big way, and MSM are now bearing the brunt of it. Dr Tan Chong Kee urges all MSM to ask ourselves what we can do to stop the spread of HIV among the community. In July 2004, Dr Bates Gill, the Freeman Chair in China Studies from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, testified to the Asia and the Pacific subcommittee of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations. He entitled his testimony “The Coming ‘Second Wave’: HIV/AIDS in Asia.”

When Dr Gill sounded that alarm more than two years ago, HIV/AIDS among Asian MSM (men who have sex with men) was not considered a serious issue. He made no mention of it in his testimony. In just two short years, the situation has completely changed. HIV infections among MSM in many parts of Asia are now showing a sharp rise.

Dr Gill states that: “The center of gravity of the global epidemic is shifting perceptibly eastward from Africa and increasingly affects Eurasia.” This shift that Dr Gill noticed is now in full swing. The most recent update released by UNAIDS, published on 21 November 2006, show that South and Southeast Asia is now in second place behind only Africa with a total of 860,000 new infections in one year, and about 7.8 million persons living with HIV/AIDS. Let’s take the smaller figure of 860,000 and think what it means. It means almost one new infection every 36 seconds. By the time you’ve read this far, two more people have already become HIV+ somewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

The situations in some of the hardest hit countries are staggering. In India, 12.5% of MSM in Mumbai are HIV+ while in Andhra Pradesh it is 18.2%. In Phnom Penh Cambodia, HIV prevalence among MSM in 2003 was already estimated to be 14.4%. In Indonesia, 22% of transgender sex workers (Waria) are HIV+. In Bangkok Thailand, more than 1 in every 4 (28.3%) MSM you meet is likely to HIV+. MSM also contribute to a disproportionately large amount of new infections. Being no more than 5-10% of the total population, they contribute to 22% of new infections in Singapore. In Japan HIV infections among MSM has recently seen a 64% increase.

If we compare the prevalence rate among the general population and among MSM, the difference becomes even more stark. In Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam, a MSM is 20 times more likely to be HIV+ than his heterosexual counterpart. In Hong Kong, MSM are 25 times more likely to be HIV+. In Japan, 44 times more likely. In China, 46 times more.

An even more worrying trend is how hard new infections are now hitting MSM youths. In Thailand, prevalence among youths between 16-21 years old rose from 13% to 23%. In Myanmar, prevalence among adult is 1.3% but among young people 15-24 years old is 2.2%. In Singapore, STD and HIV prevalence among youths are also rising sharply.

These high prevalence rates are the result of low rates of condom use among MSM. In Myanmar, 60% of young men use condom consistently. In Singapore only 42% of MSM use condoms for anal sex. In Thailand only 20-30% of sexually active young Thais use condom consistently. In Shenzhen China, authorities report that less than 20% of MSM use condom consistently. In Siam Reap Cambodia, MSM condom use rate is only 16%. In Philippines, only 6% of sex workers use condom with all their clients. In Japan, MSM anal sex is so ignored by the Japanese government that there is no data on MSM condom use. As a rule of thumb, consistent condom use needs to be 80% or more to prevent the rapid spread of HIV in a population.

If that is not scary enough, many governments across Asia are still dragging their feet in facing up to these staggering numbers of MSM afflicted by HIV/AIDS. Deep seated prejudice and stigma are causing many governments to refuse launching full-scale outreach and safe-sex public education programs for MSM or to impede those launched by NGOs. For example, police raids on saunas in Malaysia have caused owners to ban outreach workers.

This is extremely shortsighted because the cost of prevention is several orders of magnitude less than the cost of caring for an HIV+ patient, even before taking the loss of productivity into consideration. Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS puts it very bluntly: “Asian nations face a choice. They can act now or pay later… There is no question about what needs to be done to fight AIDS in Asia. The only question is whether the governments and people of Asia will have the courage to do it.”

Government inaction on the one hand is exacerbated by the invisibility of MSM on the other. As the Therapeutics Research Education AIDS Training (TREAT) report on Asia (published Aug 2006) noted: “Safe sex practices are adopted and maintained only if they become normative behavior that is embraced by a community. But what if there is no MSM community to embrace them?”

In parts of Asia where MSM behaviours are still stigmatised, e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, etc., apart from a younger generation of gay identified men, many older MSM in rural areas are married and engage in sex with men surreptitiously. They do not identify as gay nor admit to their extra-marital sexual practices. They are also less likely to practice safe sex. And they cannot be targeted for MSM outreach in the conventional way because they blend into the general population. This means that the many lessons learned in the West for outreach to gay-identified men are not easily applicable in such regions.

The state of Andhra Pradesh in India is now the leader in the race to find an effective prevention strategy suitable for Asia. Hindustan Times reported in August 17, 2006 that: “People in Andhra Pradesh recently woke up to find that the morning paper wasn’t the only thing being slipped under their doors. Along with it was a message of safe sex, a free three-pack of condoms. Looking for ways to popularise condom use in the face of the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS in the state, health officials had the condoms delivered along with the daily paper to 50 villages and four towns in the backward Telengana district.”

This is a brilliant strategy because it is a cheap way to deliver safe-sex public education to large segments of the population. The public education message can include information on all forms of safe-sex practices. In that way, even MSM who are hidden among the general population can be reached.

As the experience of America shows, if we ignore the HIV/AIDS epidemic among MSM, the result is the spread of the virus into the general population. The same pattern has already happened in Asia. The TREAT Asia report notes: “Many countries that neglected MSM prevention efforts are now struggling to contain HIV everywhere.” Politicians and the general public are reluctant to face the reality that sex happens across class, education, race and all other social divides. No social class can be an island. When the “It cannot happen to me” syndrome is influencing public health policy, it puts the whole country at risk.

Speaking at the Opening Session of the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in Aug 2006, Bill and Melinda Gates challenged the world’s politicians to see sex workers not as vectors of HIV infection but as essential allies and crucially well-placed educators. Similarly, instead of blaming MSM, seeing us as essential allies and crucially well-placed educators will go a long way in preventing the kind of tragedy in Africa from descending onto Asia.

The key question for MSM all across Asia now is to ask ourselves what we can do to stop the spread of HIV among my community. Each of us could contribute in our own ways. Some of us could put pressure on our government to learn from Andhra Pradesh and act. Others could volunteer in their local HIV/AIDS agencies. Still others could talk about it with their friends and family to engender a ground swell of awareness to galvanise action. But above all, every one of us must start practicing safer sex consistently, tell all our friends of our conviction, and advise them to do the same. Yes, talk about safer sex with all your gay or MSM friends as often as you can. They might not listen to an outreach worker, but they certainly will listen to you. Tell them, in your own words, why you think it is important and why you are now doing it. It is up to each one of us to drive the condom use rate in our countries up to 80% and beyond.

We all know what must be done to prevent the spread of AIDS from crippling our community. So now go and do it!

Dr Tan Chong Kee holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States and is one of Singapore's best-known figures in civil society activism.

Fridae.com: Singapore launches new HIV committee, keeps old mindset

Singapore launches new HIV committee, keeps old mindset

by Alex Au
Starting 1 Dec 2006, World AIDS Day, a new national policy committee - chaired by Dr Balaji Sadasivan - will work to combat a rise in the number of HIV cases and provide guidance on all policy matters related to HIV/AIDS. Alex Au questions if the absence of gay representation on the panel will prove to be a serious weakness. The Singapore government is forming a new National HIV/AIDS Policy Committee, starting 1 Dec 2006, to better co-ordinate the fight against the disease. Announcing this, the Health Ministry said the committee is meant to "provide guidance on all policy matters related to HIV/AIDS, including public health, legal, ethical, social and economic issues."

Dr Balaji Sadasivan (right), who already holds two portfolios as Senior Minister of State – in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts – will chair the new National HIV/AIDS Policy Committee. Chaired by Dr Balaji Sadasivan (right), who already holds two portfolios as Senior Minister of State – in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts – the committee is being touted as an inclusive, broad-based body.

Where HIV policy used to be a matter for health-care professionals, the Ministry said in its statement, the new committee will comprise representatives from seven ministries, three health-related government departments and two non-governmental bodies.

Just two.

One of them is Action for Aids and the other is the Aids Business Alliance. There are no representatives from the various communities that are most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS; there is no gay representation on the panel. The way the committee is structured, heavy with bureaucrats, it looks more like a vehicle for implementation than policy development, despite the stated intentions. Singapore bureaucrats are not known for thinking out of the box and speaking their minds, especially on social issues when the "Singaporeans are conservative" mantra has been given the weight of official dogma, but they can be very efficient in execution when they've been told what to do.

These representatives will come from ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, Youth and Sports, Manpower, Education and Information, beside the Ministry of Health. The three government departments are the Communicable Diseases Centre, the Health Promotion Board and the National Skin Centre (which also looks after other sexually transmitted diseases). There seems to be very little provision for bottom-up voices from affected segments of the population, such as the gay community. Out of 149 new HIV-positives reported in the first half of this year, 39 (26%) were homosexual, 88 (59%) were heterosexual and 6 (4%) bisexual. Seven cases were infected through intravenous drug use, while nine cases were of uncertain transmission route.

This lack of representation from the community is likely to prove a serious weakness, because it is often non-governmental groups that have novel perspectives on issues, with the guts to say so. If they don't have a voice, then the committee will suffer from both a lack of fresh ideas as well as a real feel of the ground. For example, gay sauna owners are right there at the frontline in the battle. The way they provide or not provide condoms, lube and information can make a critical difference. What are their difficulties in doing so? What are their concerns?

Do we know whether they remain concerned about whether the police will use the presence of condoms on premises as evidence that homosexual activity is taking place there, something that remains illegal under Singapore law? And there's the rub: Because the law remains in place, it will be very difficult for ministers and bureaucrats, however well-intentioned, to engage with people who either provide for, or do homosexual sex. Engaging would put them at variance with policy laid down by their political masters, surely not the best career move a bureaucrat can make.

On the other side, the law disincentivises gay people and sex-related businesses from wanting to dialogue with the committee and the government generally, for they may perceive that doing so would either be a waste of time, or even put them at risk of prosecution. It's hard to imagine how the committee can really "provide guidance" to policy if they remain disconnected from the ground. In any case, Dr Balaji seems to have made up his mind as to the strategy to be implemented. He wants to treat HIV/AIDS as an infectious epidemiological problem like any other, with an emphasis on testing and contact tracing. He told The Straits Times that people are waking up to the fact that standard disease control methods have to be applied to AIDS to bring it under control.

"Imagine we had SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome]," he explained, "and... we mustn't know who has SARS, we can't contact trace how SARS is spread... and you try to control SARS; you will not control it." He was referring to how people have been extra-sensitive about HIV testing and disclosure in the past. He realises that for his pet strategy to work, he must combat stigmatisation of People With Aids which may explain the fact that the Aids Business Alliance has been invited to be on the committee.

Its representative, Mr Zulkifli Baharuddin, said his role would be to look at how to reduce discrimination against Aids sufferers in the workplace, and to find ways for the authorities to help businesses with afflicted workers cope. Yet, before that, at the prevention stage, there is also the question of the stigmatisation of gay people. This is what makes the community hard to reach in terms of educational efforts, hard to persuade to come forward for testing, and hard to do contact tracing, should that be necessary.

Why? Because societal homophobia imposes a cost on gay people should they identify themselves as gay; thus they avoid revealing their identities when socialising sexually – so no plan for contact tracing can work – and they may even think that testing puts their privacy in jeopardy. This is especially as the government has just signalled its intention to keep homosexual sex between men a crime. So here we have a Minister that wants to destigmatise issues relating to HIV/AIDS, even as his own government is making a deliberate decision to keep it on the law books, thus giving support to a homophobic climate.

This is one of the many conundrums that the committee charged with policy development must sort out, yet the chances are that, without gay representation on board, they won't even know of the problem.

Straight Singaporeans do not make the connection between the anti-gay law and HIV-prevention efforts. They do not see how repeal can be any help in the latter. This is one of the key findings I will be presenting at the upcoming Singapore AIDS Conference. In a way, this is not surprising because with the relative invisibility of gay characters in media due to censorship, Singaporeans generally have no idea of what it feels like to be gay. Without any opportunity to see life through a gay perspective, they do not have any clue what it feels like to be discriminated against sexually, or to live in the closet.

So when gay Singaporeans say the law is one of the hurdles to a more effective HIV policy, it is met with disbelief. And without a gay voice in the Dr Balaji's committee, this uncomprehending attitude is likely to persist.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of gay advocacy group People Like Us. Alex is also the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site. He will also be speaking at the Singapore AIDS Conference on Dec 2.

AP: Singapore forms HIV policy panel

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Singapore forms HIV policy panel

published Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Singapore has formed a national policy committee to combat a rise in the number of HIV cases, local media reported Monday.

The announcement came with the news that 137 HIV cases had been reported from July through October, bringing the total of new cases this year to 286, Channel NewsAsia quoted the Health Ministry as saying.

The small island nation has a population of 4.4 million.

"I think the biggest issue and the most important thing is testing and I think we'll be talking more about that over the next few months," said senior state minister Balaji Sadasivan, who will chair the committee. "The fight against AIDS will be a long-drawn fight."

The television station said the new committee would start work Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

The Health Ministry said that of the 149 cases in the first six months of 2006, 94 percent were males. Most contracted the disease through sexual transmission from casual sex and sex with prostitutes in Singapore and overseas, the report said.

Fifty-nine percent of those infected were heterosexuals and 26 percent were gay, the rest being bisexuals and intravenous drug users, the ministry said.

The Health Ministry said the 137 new infections between June and October are still undergoing investigation.

As of the end of June, a total of 2,852 Singaporeans have been infected with HIV since 1985. More than 1,000 people have died.(AP)

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Fridae.com: Singapore to legalise anal, oral sex - but only for heterosexuals

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Singapore to legalise anal, oral sex - but only for heterosexuals

by News Editor
As part of Singapore's first major penal code amendments in 22 years, anal and oral sex in private among between consenting heterosexual adults will soon be decriminalised but the law criminalising sexual acts between men will remain.

Anal and oral sex will no longer be a criminal offence in Singapore but this will only apply to consenting heterosexual adults while sexual acts between men will remain a crime, the government said on Wednesday.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said it has conducted a detailed review of sexual offences in the penal code. The review was first announced in November 2003 after a huge public outcry erupted over the injustice of convicting a police constable for consensual oral sex with a teenager who was thought to be of legal age until later.

A relic of British colonial rule, Section 377 - which criminalises sexual acts 'against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals' and provides for life imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment and a fine - will be repealed while Section 377A, which criminalises "gross indecency" between males whether in public or in private and prescribes up to two years' imprisonment, will be left as is.

Britain, Hong Kong and Australia have since repealed laws prohibiting sex between men in 1967, 1991 and 1997 (in the state of Tasmania, the last Australian state to do so) respectively.

An "explanatory note" issued by MHA to official newsrooms after office hours on Tuesday, which was obtained by Fridae, read: "The law on sexual offences deals with sexual relationships and embodies what society considers acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.

"When it comes to homosexual acts, the issue is whether Singaporeans are ready to change laws to bring them in line with heterosexual acts. Singapore remains, by and large, a conservative society. Many do not tolerate homosexuality, and consider such acts abhorrent and deviant. Many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts. This is why the Government is neither encouraging nor endorsing a homosexual lifestyle and presenting it as part of the mainstream way of life."

The news has enraged the local gay community. Miak, who is an active member of several gay groups, said: "What is the arguement for the decriminalising of non-vaginal sex between heterosexuals but not for homosexuals? Is it about how conservative Singapore society is, and how some people find homosexual sex deviant, offensive, repugnant? I think that the same people might also find non-vaginal - meaning oral/anal sex which will soon be legalised - deviant, offensive and repugnant too!"

"The law hasn't been used to prosecute in recent times - so what is the point of retaining it? To maintain a facade of moral standards?"

While welcoming the repeal of Section 377, gay and lesbian advocacy group People Like Us (PLU) said that the "assurance" that it "will not be proactive in enforcing the section against adult males engaging in consensual sex with each other in private" is inadequate as it cannot be relied upon legally.

In a statement issued on Wednesday to call on the government to repeal both Section 377 and 377A, PLU said: "The retention of s.377A, even if not enforced, will signal to many that homophobia is justifiable and acceptable and has the support of the State.

"If the government aims for an open, inclusive society, it should be doing all it can to overturn prejudice and discrimination, rather than give people reason to remain closed-minded through retaining s.377A for symbolic purposes."

Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore, questioned the rationale for not repealing Section 377A in a Channelnewsasia interview: "If you are a homosexual or a lesbian, I think you can get into trouble. We are talking about an inclusive society and being more broad-minded. Why do we want to keep these people away, out of the circle? I think we should be more broad-minded, more sympathetic and allow these people to be included in our society."

Other proposed amendments include new laws to combat child prostitution, sex tourism, strengthened prosecution of credit card fraud and the extension of several offences to the electronic media including the Internet as well as a clarification of the definition of an unlawful assembly. In total, the proposed changes would add 19 new ones, affect 19 existing offences, and review penalties, and will now be open to public feedback for a month via reach.gov.sg.

CNA: Penal Code review to add protection for minors, flexibility for judges

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

SINGAPORE : The Singapore government is proposing new laws to better protect young people and those with mental illness from being sexually exploited.

But it is also leaving sexual conduct between consenting adults private.

As part of an extensive review of Singapore's primary criminal legislation, the new Penal Code proposes to de-criminalise anal and oral sex, as long as it's done 'in private between a consenting adult heterosexual couple, aged 16 years and above'.

Some 600 men go to Batam every week for sex with under-aged girls, and most of them are Singaporean men, according to a study conducted earlier this year.

To send a message that all children should be protected from sexual exploitation, the Home Affairs Ministry is proposing new laws to punish those who operate, promote, or go on child sex tours.

But the State wants to stay off private bedroom matters.

Anal and oral sex will no longer be illegal unless the person is forced to perform the act without his or her consent, or if the person is under 16 years of age.

Strict liability will also be extended for those who engage in sexual activities with minors under 14 years of age.

Tougher penalties will also be introduced for outraging the modesty of a minor under 14 years of age.

And in line with the Restricted 21 (R21) film classification, the offence for a person to sell, hire, distribute, exhibit or circulate any obscene object to persons under 20 years old, will be raised to 21 years of age.

The Ministry also wants to change the scope of offences under incest and rape.

Current laws do not allow for prosecution against a husband for raping his wife because he enjoys marital immunity.

The new Penal Code aims to remove this legal protection, on the condition that the wife is legally separated from her husband, or has taken a Personal Protection Order to prevent her husband from having sex with her.

But some say it doesn't go far enough.

Associate Professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam, a law lecturer with the Faculty of Law at NUS says: "I think we should move ahead and get rid of the immunity in its entirety. Yes, there may be difficulties in the area of enforcement but it's no different from any other area of criminal law. It's difficult to prove but we'll leave it to the criminal system.

"If we have a good prosecutor and good judicial system, then the truth should surface. And I don't think we need to maintain this immunity.

"One example of domestic violence is sexual abuse of the spouse. And to deny the spouse of prosecution of rape seems to be a fundamental violation of the person's rights. Marital rape cannot be condoned, and there should not be an immunity. What the government is doing now is a welcoming step but I think it can go a little bit further."

On sex between homosexuals, the Ministry has plans to keep the status quo.

"These should essentially be seen as private matters within the home. One of the bigger issues is whether this is a signal by the government of greater acceptance of homosexuality in Singapore," says Associate Prof Kumaralingam Amirthalingam.

"I don't think the government is prepared to make a statement on this. But if you look at the history of prosecution under Section 377, which is the relevant provision here, I don't think you'll find any prosecutions of homosexual sexual activity between consenting adults within the home."

"So in that sense, it's a typical Singapore way of managing this issue without getting embroiled in the political and social problems that we're not ready to face," adds the law lecturer.

"I think the general feel is that we're still not ready to introduce major changes in these areas. I think the major changes would be what the government has said a few years ago, that it's all right to have homosexuals working in government departments. I think that's the major change," says Ellen Lee, member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law. She is also the former president of Singapore Association of Women Lawyers.

Still, not everyone agrees.

"If you are a homosexual or a lesbian, I think you can get into trouble. We are talking about an inclusive society and being more broad-minded. Why do we want to keep these people away, out of the circle? I think we should be more broad-minded, more sympathetic and allow these people to be included in our society," says Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore.

"It's not necessarily for major legislative change to signal changes. But the legislation will only be changed when there is sufficient justification to warrant it, because the larger section of society think that it's time for those changes to take place," says Ellen Lee.

"With the introduction of the changes, we can expect that judges will be given more leeway. And taking into account the changes of people's behaviour, the different situations, I think now we've got a wider range of circumstances that may justify a more lenient sentence, a more community-based approach that we may really be in sync with society."

The Ministry is also proposing to repeal four laws which have become irrelevant or archaic.

It's also re-defining words like 'sexual', 'touching', 'penetration', and 'obscene' and elaborate on the concept of consent.

Lawyers say the proposed changes are in line with Singapore's push for a more open, compassionate society. - CNA /ls

Asia Sentinel: Asia's biggest gay circuit party takes a final bow (Oct 30)

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dinah Gardner
30 October 2006
Asia’s biggest gay circuit party takes a final bow

“Fundoshi are still used as traditional sports underwear; like a Jock strap the rokushaku fundoshi is tight on the scrotum and lifts the penis to the side upwards positions.”
- Wikipedia

The Japanese dancer at the Phuket Hilton wasn’t getting much scrotal support from his fundoshi. He had teased them down over his buttocks, and, back to the crowd, was wiggling his well-shaped rear. The audience of semi-naked men roared their approval. A girl reached up and tucked 100 baht into his loincloth.

The dancer and his white fundoshi were part of the show at Nation, Asia's biggest gay circuit party, now in its sixth and final year. Gay men and women from all over the world, but mostly from Asia, paid $180 for a three-day pass to dance to international DJ's, party around the pool and watch Japanese go-go boys and drag shows at the luxury hotel. The organizers even hired a flagger, a man in shiny tights and a handlebar moustache, who made a whirling dervish of color around his head by spinning tie-dyed cloth hemmed with glow sticks through a laser show backdrop.

“The venue is great; the DJ's are fantastic,” says Stuart Koe, the Singaporean founder and chief executive officer of Fridae, the party organizer. The Singapore-based firm also runs Asia’s largest gay web portal at fridae.com and two other annual gay circuit parties – Snowball and Squirt.

All of this outrageousness seems decidedly un-Singaporean but Koe started Nation six years ago because he thought it would be “cheeky to call it Nation and have this big gay party on the eve of Singapore’s national day. It was all about being cheeky.”

The first party was held in a warehouse in Sentosa in Singapore and attracted more than 1,000 partygoers. “We made it into something that outgrew all our expectations,” he adds. “At its peak in 2004, we had 8,000 people partying in Sentosa.”

After four years in Singapore, Koe was forced to relocate after the government of then Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong began refusing the organization permission to hold their parties on the island. The government's move was seen as an end to its relatively liberal policy towards gays. For four years previously it had appeared to be courting the pink dollar. The official line for the nanny state ban was that large gay parties were against the public interest.

So in 2005, Koe moved the party to Phuket, Thailand, where there is greater tolerance to homosexuality. But now, Koe says, this is it. “We have limited resources and we can't afford to commit this level of human resources to organizing big events anymore,” he says.

For good bye it was a swirl, flirty and flamboyant. At the welcome Military Ball, party men clubbed in army fatigues. A group slung leather holsters across their bared chests, another donned a gas mask. One man sported a t-shirt which invited the reader to “enjoy the extra inches”; tattoos were definitely in. Other nights, partygoers covered themselves in gold leaf or twined themselves in light sticks, while the majority just took their shirts off. One clubber partied in his wheelchair.

Headline acts included New York DJ Tony Moran – currently producing and mixing for Janet Jackson and Deborah Cox -- lesbian DJ Kate Monroe from Australia and artists from London, Taiwan and Japan.

“Saturday night was fabulous. Tony Moran is a miracle,” says James, a Taiwanese thirty-something who would only give his first name.

“I don't come here just to party, but also to show support and hang out with my friends,” adds James, who is a regular at Fridae-hosted parties. This year, he notes, there are definitely more Caucasians. “Nation is the biggest single gay event in Asia, and so of course all those Caucasians come here to find Asian boys.”

Londoner Marck Hill says he bought his Nation ticket because he had so much fun at a similar event last December in Taipei. It wasn’t so much to do with the pursuit of Asian boys, he insists. “We spent the afternoon having botox and now we’re here to party,” he laughs, adding that at 38 he’s already a grandfather.

“I’m here for the hot men,” winks his American friend, who wouldn’t give his name as he eyed a Thai boy in tight, tiny shorts and a sailor cap mincing by. “Is it a man? Is it a woman?” the man laughs. “We want real men.”

This year, says Koe, between 1,500 and 2,000 people partied at Nation. Last year’s event attracted 2,000 revelers.

This year the numbers also got a boost from W@Nation, a concurrent event with sponsored Singapore-based lesbian party organizer Twoqueensparty. The 50-odd girls – mainly from the Island nation – got to party with the boys and have their own events, including girls-only pool parties.

Says Twoqueensparty founder Irene Ang: “We have the same vision for gays and lesbians. We want to create a space, a family for gays and lesbians to get together and be themselves.”

But why so few women? The question elicits responses that underscore differing cultures at play.

“You girls just want to shack up together and raise cats,” laughs Hill. “Guys want to go out and party. Girls want to stay home and cook and knit.”

“Our parties are driven by men wanting to meet men,” says Koe. “It’s not just for sex, but when you get down to it, it is driven by that. Women like to socialize – say with dinner parties with their close-knit friends. They are more laidback, there’s more depth to their friendships. Men are more hedonistic.”

Although their numbers were small and despite a possible tendency to stay home and knit, the girls clubbed as hard as the guys, dancing and stripping down to their bras.

Looking back on Nation, Koe is satisfied that something a bit more than just fun and cruising has been accomplished. “Our mission is to empower gay Asia. We want gays to feel good about themselves. To not have any self doubt, to feel like they belong. In some ways our parties are preaching to the already converted. The crowd that come are a niche group (from within the gay community),” says Koe, who is also active on AIDs issues and is a consultant on HIV for both the Hong Kong and Singapore governments. “I think we can reach more people by doing our website and advocacy work behind the scenes.”

If this really is the last of Nation it will likely mark an end – at least for a while – to large scale gay circuit parties in Asia. Although there are several party organizers around they are likely too localized to take over from Nation. Gay circuit parties are big business, particularly in the States, and it takes a big organization to pull one off.

Back at the Hilton, meanwhile, gay men stroll around the resort hand in hand or tug at each other's shorts. The thump of house music reverberates around the elegant resort while regular holidaymakers look a little bemused at what they have stumbled into.

“I feel sorry for the families," grins James. "They come here expecting a nice quiet holiday and they go to the pool with their kids and it's full of semi-naked muscle men.

“On the other hand it's a great chance to educate your kids, show them what being gay is in a really friendly atmosphere… For once straight people are in the unusual position of being in the minority. And look, all the gays are very accepting!”

TNP: S'pore gay returns, says 'Things have changed' (Oct 19)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

S'pore gay returns, says 'Things have changed'

SHE left Singapore at 18 as a gay asylum seeker. Mary (not her real name), 32, was granted asylum in Canada in 1995 but has since returned to Singapore.

19 October 2006

SHE left Singapore at 18 as a gay asylum seeker. Mary (not her real name), 32, was granted asylum in Canada in 1995 but has since returned to Singapore.

She left for Toronto in 1993 after being beaten up by a group of men who saw her and her then-girlfriend holding hands.

She told The New Paper: 'Those were different times - we were still being beaten up, harassed - it wasn't like how it is now. There was a sense of fear - but things have changed.'

With whatever savings she had, Mary bought a plane ticket to Toronto. She initially lived in hostels. Then she found a more permanent accommodation.

To pay for school and living expenses, she worked part-time.

One of her few Singaporean friends was a gay male who shared the same immigration lawyer. She had nearly no contact with her family back home throughout her stay there.

She moved back to Singapore in 1998 after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue, which rendered her unable to work.

As her savings were dwindling, her family paid for her plane ticket home.

But Mary said her homecoming was joyful.

'I found that the (gay) community had grown, that it wasn't so underground anymore,' she said.

'The moment I realised that Singapore was opening up, I wanted to be here, to be a part of it.

'Most of us don't want to go - I didn't.'

Now, Mary works as a counsellor, dealing mainly with young women in similar circumstances.

She does not plan to return to Canada.

'At that time, I had to be where I wasn't going to be living in fear. I was scared - but it was a learning experience.'

365Gay,com: It’s a Crime to Be Gay but Singapore Wants Our Money

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Singapore—Homosexuality in Singapore is punishable by up to two years in prison, but, a government run bank says it is going after the pink buck.

The DBS Bank announced this week it is looking into issuing a special credit card targeting the gay market. The bank points to studies showing that gays are “affluent” and that they support brands that touch them personally.

“If the market is big enough, we will consider it,” said Edmund Koh, head of consumer banking at DBS.

The Singapore government’s investment arm, Temasek Holdings, owns 28.8% of DBS.

Singapore’s government has recently refused to let the country’s largest gay rights group register as a society. Last month the government ordered Singapore’s only gay rights organization to disband.

Nevertheless, several mainstream Singapore businesses have begun chasing gay market and are pitching their services and products to homosexual customers.

The island’s Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong said that despite the official line, his administration would hire openly gay people.

PRWeb: World's First Guide to Gay and Lesbian Life in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Apr 22)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

World's First Guide to Gay and Lesbian Life in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia

Landmark publication unzips the thriving gay scene in three of Southeast Asia's most conservative countries.

(PRWEB) April 22, 2006 -- Which country is home to Asia's fastest growing openly homosexual sub-culture? Would you believe tiny Singapore? With more than 30 openly gay businesses in the tourist-friendly Chinatown neighborhood alone, Singaporean entrepreneurs are feeling free enough to fuel a huge boom in the city-state's pink economy.

But which country do gay Singaporean's think has the hottest scene going? They point to their neighbor, Malaysia. Indeed, though still largely underground, Malaysia's gays and lesbians have a steadily growing number of restaurants, clubs, spas and gyms that openly welcome them and world-class venues are popping up in even small cities like Penang and Kota Kinabalu.

Singapore's other neighbor, Indonesia, while commonly known as having the world's largest Muslim population, also has some of Asia's longest-running homosexual activist groups and a wide variety of traditional alternative sexualities that are an integral part of Indonesia's cultural mosaic.

The Utopia Guide to Singapore, Malaysia & Indonesia reveals for the first time in print the fascinating and variegated queer lifestyle of these countries in one hefty volume filled with a surprising wealth of information. Listed within are contact details for organizations and businesses that are popular with both local and visiting homosexuals, including accommodation, bars, discos, spas, and restaurants. A special section of the book highlights groups, clubs, and spaces that are especially welcoming for women. Hundreds of tips and warnings from locals and visitors provide first hand insights for both frequent visitors and armchair explorers.

Commenting on the surprising abundance of gay life in a very conservative region, Singaporean gay activist, Alex Au, writes in the book's preface, "The reason for this contradiction may be because, despite the political or religious rhetoric, at the social level, the people of these countries are tolerant and hospitable."

Indonesia's first gay pride celebration took place in Surabaya, on June 25, 1999. Singapore's first public festival, Indignation, took place during the month of Aug in 2005 and is set to repeat this year with expanded activities and a higher profile.

But despite growing advances in personal freedoms, activists in all three countries continue to encounter official obstacles. In 2006 Singapore government officials awarded a large grant of public money to a homophobic Christian group that attempts to straighten out gays. In March this year Kuala Lumpur police tried to crack down on businesses that cater to gay customers by fining owners for petty license violations, bringing criticism from local AIDS/HIV educators.

The Utopia Guide to Singapore, Malaysia & Indonesia provides a remarkable insider's glimpse at the vibrant, everyday life enjoyed by gays and lesbians in Southeast Asia.

The book is available for sale now in printed and electronic form at www.utopia-asia.com/utopiaguide/ and will also be available in bookstores internationally and from popular online book resellers in May.

A pioneer on the Internet, Utopia has been Asia's most popular resource for gays and lesbians since 1994. Utopia's website is located at www.utopia-asia.com and more information about Utopia may be found at www.utopia-asia.com/utopiais.htm

"These fun pages dish out the spice on even the most buttoned-up spots in Asia." -- TIME Magazine TIME Traveler

"A really good place to start looking for information... excellent coverage of gay and lesbian events and activities across Asia." -- Lonely Planet

FDA inches toward easing gay blood donation ban

Thursday, March 16, 2006

FDA inches toward easing gay blood donation ban

The lifetime ban on gay men donating blood may be eased to a 12-month deferral if scientific evidence presented at a March 8 workshop in Bethesda, Maryland is turned into policy guidance by the Food and Drug Administration. All of the major players in the blood products industry now support that position.

The FDA policy adopted in 1985 recommended deferral of blood donations by populations based upon their risk behaviors for the transmission of HIV. Little was known about HIV at the time and the test to screen blood for the presence of HIV was new and of questionable accuracy. Excluding the highest risk individuals, then gay men, made sense.

Blood screening tests have been improved over the years so that they detect the actual virus itself, not just the antibody to it, which takes longer to develop. There is only a very brief period of 10-21 days after initial infection when the virus might not be detected.

Men who have sex with men currently are banned for life from donating blood, even if they are in a monogamous relationship. Injection drug users and commercial sex workers can donate blood once they had abstained from those activities for at least a year.

The FDA revisited the policy in September 2000, suggesting that increased knowledge of HIV and improved technologies for screening blood for the virus had made it possible to modify the gay exclusion from a lifetime ban to a 12-month exclusion, in line with other high risk groups.

The American Association of Blood Banks, the association of transfusion medicine professionals, and America's Blood Centers, representing local organizations that collect nearly half of all blood in the U.S., both supported the modification. Only the American Red Cross testified against the change, and that was sufficient for the advisory committee to vote 7-6 not to support changing the guidelines in 2000.

This time around the Red Cross fell into line and in a joint statement presented by AABB senior medical adviser Steven Kleinman, the three organizations called the lifetime ban for gay men "medically and scientifically unwarranted." It recommended making the deferral criteria the same for all high-risk groups.

They also warned the FDA, "The continued requirement for a deferral standard seen as scientifically marginal and unfair or discriminatory by individuals with identified characteristics may motivate them to actively ignore the prohibition and provide blood collection facilities with less accurate information."

An additional concern is that grassroots opposition to the ban has arisen in high schools and on college campuses across the country over what many see as a discriminatory policy. That has made it more difficult to conduct blood drives among younger volunteers and establish patterns of regular donations that can last a lifetime.

To help ease any remaining qualms about changing the policy, the groups offered to assist in gathering data on its impact, should it become advisable to revisit the proposed change.

The FDA Blood Products Advisory Committee was briefed on the workshop when it met the following day, but it was not asked to comment. The FDA may propose revising its donation guidelines later in the year.

The advisory committee also discussed the FDA's proposed procedures to review and approve over the counter sales of tests for HIV. The company that makes the OraQuick saliva test to detect antibodies to HIV has said that it will seek such approval, and after the meeting said it would move forward with the types of trials outlined by the FDA.

The OraQuick test is widely used by public health agencies to screen for the virus both within clinics and at mobile sites. Some HIV agencies say that making the test more easily available runs the risk of inadequate counseling to what the test means and linking those who test positive to services, while others support wider access under appropriate safeguards.


BBC News: Singapore censor passes Brokeback

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Brokeback Mountain has been passed in its entirety by the film censors in Singapore, in spite of the country's stringent laws against homosexuality.

The Oscar-nominated film will be restricted to cinema-goers over the age of 21 and will carry a "mature theme, sexual scenes" warning.

Singapore's media content director said Ang Lee's film was passed as it did not "promote or glamorise the lifestyle".

Gay sex is punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment in the country.

"As the entire film focuses on and revolves round the issue of homosexuality, the Board of Film Censors decided to rate it R21," said Amy Hua from the Media Development Authority.

Singaporean film critic Wong Lung Hsiang said that Brokeback Mountain is "not very controversial".


"The two characters suffer a lot, the film is very tragic, it wins sympathy from the audience," he said.

Singaporean gay rights activists are hailing the decision as a sign that censorship is being relaxed.

"This shows they are willing to give more scope for homosexuality to be examined as an issue in popular culture," said Russell Heng, founder of gay support group People Like Us.

Singapore has attempted to relax controls in an effort to market itself as an arts and media centre.

But in 2004, Taiwanese film Formula 17, which was about two teenage boys falling in love, was banned because it portrayed homosexuality as "normal, and a natural progression of society".

In 2002, a scene in The Hours, which depicted two women kissing, was cut.

New cinema ratings were introduced in 2004 in a bid to relax film censorship in Singapore and give adults greater choice over what they were able to watch.

AP: Transsexual drug dealer spared the cane (Jan 22)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Transsexual drug dealer spared the cane
Associated Press
published Sunday, January 22, 2006

SINGAPORE -- A court has spared a Thai transsexual drug dealer from caning because Singaporean law does not allow women to be sentenced to that punishment, a newspaper reported Friday.

Thai prostitute Mongkon Pusuwan, who underwent a sex change from male to female a decade ago, was instead sentenced on Wednesday to six years in jail after a medical report concluded that she was a woman, The Straits Times reported.

District Judge Bala Reddy handed down the sentence after the long-haired Mongkon, 37, pleaded guilty to charges including trafficking in cocaine and tablets containing ketamine, the report said.

The amount of drugs in her possession was too small for her to qualify for Singapore's mandatory death penalty for some drug cases.

Mongkon, whose passport identified her as a male, was arrested in December.

Men who commit similar crimes can be sentenced to caning. Offenders are strapped to a wooden frame and lashed across the bare buttocks with a rattan rod.

The punishment drew international attention in 1994 when American teenager Michael Fay was caned for spray-painting cars, despite objections from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Fridae.com: Singapore government awards S$100,000 grant to group with ex-gay affiliation

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Singapore government awards S$100,000 grant to group with ex-gay affiliation

by Sylvia Tan
A group which plans to help gays and lesbians "understand" their sexual identity has received a S$100,000 (US$61,500) grant from the Singapore government. Fridae has however uncovered that the group is an advocate of reparative therapy and is linked to an international Christian group which dedicates itself to "correcting" homosexuality.

Twenty-five-year-old John Yeo was happy and felt a sense of comfort when he heard on the news that the government is funding a non-profit group to “help gays and lesbians understand their sexual identity.”

Leslie Lung, the founder and executive director of the group, has been featured several times in various newspapers as an ex-transsexual who changed his mind three days before his sex-change operation in 1984 after having a spiritual encounter. He is also the author of Freedom of Choice, a collection of 20 essays about how people ''overcame'' their struggles including homosexuality.

According to a Channel News Asia (CNA) report last Friday, Liberty League (LL), has received a S$100,000 (US$61,500) grant from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre which is funded by the Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports. The group which aims to “promote gender and sexual health for the individual, family and society” as stated on its web site, hopes to conduct sexuality talks in schools, organise support groups for parents of homosexuals and to work with organisations such as the Girls' Brigade to educate teenagers on sexuality and biology.

It also reported that 70 per cent of LL's “clients” are gays, lesbians and transsexuals who are “grappling with their gender identities.”
It is the first time a grant and public “recognition” has been given to a non-profit group for its work in this area.

Yeo’s initial thoughts that gays and lesbians might have finally been accepted came to an end after he learnt from an Internet discussion group that the founder and executive director of the group, Leslie Lung, is an advocate of reparative therapy.

Observers were quick to point out that Lung, 41, has been featured several times in various newspapers as an ex-transsexual who changed his mind three days before his sex-change operation in 1984. He claimed that he had a spiritual encounter despite being professionally diagnosed as being a transsexual and having lived as a woman for four years prior to his scheduled surgery. He said in a 2003 interview in the Straits Times about the turning point: “One of the key thoughts of the Bible is that a man shouldn't put on woman's clothes. I've always thought that ridiculous but suddenly I saw the principle behind the commandment. God is telling us not to do the opposite. Suddenly I knew that the operation would not be right.”

He also cited attending a self-help group after meeting Sinclair Rogers, a Singapore-based American pastor who himself “came out of transsexualism” and later founded Choices, an ex-gay ministry directly affiliated to Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organisation in the world.

Lung is also the author of Freedom of Choice, a collection of 20 essays about how people “overcame” their struggles including homosexuality, transsexuality and masturbation. When asked if the group “champions gay and lesbian rights,” Lung told CNA that they “champion human rights really.”

“It's about people being able to say, I'm human and sexual orientation is so wide. Being gay and lesbian is part of it; coming out of it is part of it as well."

Some in the gay community have however highlighted that being a former transsexual does not qualify one to counsel others about their homosexuality. He is a “former transgender person, who now claims to be ex-gay… transgender doesn't equal homosexual. I can buy that he used to live as a woman, and now lives as an effeminate man, gender can be fluid like that, but that has nothing to do with homosexuality.” One wrote in an Internet discussion group.

Lung said in the interview, "This is very much based on the Alcoholic Anonymous self-help principles. So people come; it's an environment that is friendly, warm, based on friendship, encouraging people to take small steps to talk about the issues, recognise why they are doing certain things, find resolutions."

Fridae.com: Perspectival shift: How can gays and lesbians be accepted as "regular" people and not as subversives?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Perspectival shift: How can gays and lesbians be accepted as "regular" people and not as subversives?

by Alex Au
How can gays and lesbians be accepted as "regular" people and not as subversives?

Alex Au delves into how a perspectival shift can help even as we hope for Asian societies to "get used to" gay people without having to be too confrontational.

In an extraordinarily erudite article in the New York Times, January 1, 2006, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher teaching at Princeton University, said the sea change in the way Western societies have come to regard homosexual persons is not a "story about reasons." It is a "perspectival shift."

If there is truth to the belief that many Asian cultures place a high value on discretion and privacy, are gay men and lesbians in this region more likely to remain in the closet and avoid the topic of sexuality in any conversation? If so, do the public in these countries get less opportunity to ''get used to'' gay people?

" Over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people."

In effect, telling people why they should accept gay people in their midst had less to do with the outcome than just having gay people in their midst. "I don't deny," he wrote, "that all the time, at every stage, people were talking, giving one another reasons to do things: accept their children, stop treating homosexuality as a medical disorder, disagree with their churches, come out. "Still, the short version of the story is basically this: People got used to lesbians and gay men."

One can quibble with some of the finer points he made, but he is essentially right. However, let's get the quibbling out of the way first. It's true that almost all homophobia against gay males, on closer inspection, is an outgrowth of heterosexual distaste for the very thought of homosexual intercourse, but it also arguable that homophobia against lesbians sprout from different roots. One seldom sees the same, visceral distaste for lesbian sex as for gay male sex. Instead, I would suggest that lesbians are subconsciously seen as disobedient to male superiority and the submission that is expected.

The other tiny thing some readers may have noticed is that talking about coming out was included among the less important reasons for the attitudinal change. This may strike some people as odd, for if gays and lesbians had not come out, how could the getting used to them have taken place?

Yet, he's also right. Very few gays and lesbians came out because they weighed the reasons for and against and then decided to do so. They came out when they themselves became used to being gay and lesbian, when they themselves got used to seeing other, happily out, gay people.

The foregoing aside, there are two questions that spring to mind from Professor Appiah's comments.

Avoiding Confrontation
If there is truth to the belief that many Asian cultures place a high value on discretion and privacy, are gay men and lesbians in this region more likely to remain in the closet and avoid the topic of sexuality in any conversation? If so, do the public in these countries get less opportunity to "get used to" gay people?

Indeed, many have remarked that Asian cultures put a premium on avoiding confrontation and this induces a certain degree of self-censorship. Western societies, particularly American, are less tortured about being frank and on occasion, "in your face."