TNP: We gave the word "gay" back to the gays (May 10)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

by Peter HL Lim

THERE was a time when a Singapore Cabinet minister persuaded the local English-language media not to use the word 'gay' as a synonym for homosexual.

'Gay', the minister told senior editors, was a happy word.

It conjured up a carefree spirit.

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According to the minister, it was regrettable that the word was being used in the West to refer to homosexuals.

He said that he was not issuing a directive on behalf of the Government.

But he strongly urged the Singapore media to call a homosexual a 'homosexual', and not to misuse the word 'gay'.

The minister was very concerned that the Singapore media should not, even unwittingly, promote or glorify homosexuality.

We tried to accommodate the minister's request concerning the use of the three-letter word.

It was not easy, especially when we were writing headlines. Headings almost always have a severely-limited word count. A word like 'homosexual' takes the space of three or more short ones.

So, after giving the request a fair go, we reverted to mainstream usage of gay as a socially acceptable, less in-your-face way of referring to homosexuals.

According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, the word's centuries-old meanings 'carefree' and 'bright and showy' have virtually dropped out of use.

Now that Singaporeans are engaged in what last Friday's The New Paper called a Gay Debate, I am happy to detect more acceptance of the fact that homosexuals are human beings like the rest of us.


The debate continues whether gays are people who have chosen or have been pushed into an alternative or undesirable lifestyle, or whether they are what nature intended them to be - born that way.

In other words, are they - using a tendentious term - normal like everyone else is 'normal' in the context of personal behaviour and sense of values or of morality?

No one in the Government seems to be bothered anymore by homosexuals co-opting the word 'gay' for their way of life.

Instead, the Government is taking what it calls a pragmatic approach.

It acknowledges that there is a place in Singapore for homosexual people, and also that there are those who strongly disapprove of homosexuality.

So it is not initiating any move to take sex between males out of the list of criminal acts. Yet sex between lesbians is not a crime.

There are no moral police out to hunt down homosexual acts between consenting adults.

But the law will punish any homosexual caught preying on children or making any inappropriate move on anyone.

The same applies to heterosexuals caught committing similar offences.

When I was 12 years old, I came very close to being raped by a gay friend of my father. When I was a young adult, another gay friend of my father held me in a crushing, unwanted embrace, kissing and groping me.

Despite those unpleasant experiences, I am close to a relative and have good friends - male and female - who are gay or bisexual.

Maybe because I have never married, I have been asked more than once, seriously, whether I was gay.

Those who know me, especially those who like to tease me about my mythical swinging bachelorhood, have not felt any need to ask me that question.

And I feel no need to take the word 'gay' back from homosexuals - even though they are now saying that 'happy' is the new 'gay'.