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.