ST: Homosexuality : Older Youth more open and better informed (26 Sept)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Differences noted in age groups - in ST poll of 284 youth - could be a result of higher education and life experience, says experts.

By Tessa Wong

GENERAL attitudes towards homosexuality may be conservative - but that depends on who you ask.

A Nanyang Technological University (NTU) survey which was reported last week found most Singaporeans uncomfortable with the subject.

Meanwhile, a separate Straits Times survey of 284 youth, aged from 12 to 25, found them more open-minded than their elders.

Three in 10 respondents from secondary schools, junior colleges, Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities, felt homosexuality was wrong. In contrast, the NTU survey had found seven in 10 of the general population had negative attitudes, although it similarly noted that younger people were more tolerant.

The Straits Times poll had 11 questions looking at students' comfort level with displays of homosexual behaviour; their knowledge about sexual orientation; and their reaction if they found out a classmate, good friend or family member was gay.

The poll found younger respondents were more conservative. They were also more likely to subscribe to misconceptions. Older youth were more tolerant and better informed.

Of the 187 secondary school respondents, about 33 per cent felt homosexuality was wrong. More than 35 per cent also believed homosexuals were largely responsible for the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. About 42 per cent of them blamed gay people for paedophilia.

But, of the 97 students from junior colleges and tertiary institutions polled, a lower proportion - 27 per cent - felt homosexuality was wrong. The figures were even lower when it came to the HIV and paedophile misconceptions: 22 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

This difference in mindset towards the issue may be the result of higher education, and could indicate a shift towards more tolerance in the future, experts say.

While he acknowledged that even some well-educated people remain conservative, Dr Terence Chong, a sociologist with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), said the poll indicated this: 'Broadly speaking, people who are more educated generally tend to be more open to alternative lifestyles.'

Professor Kwok Kian Woon of NTU's sociology department - who is independent of the NTU survey - also pointed out that youth would re-think previous prejudices with age and life experience.

'As they get on with their education, they could have the opportunity to question the prevailing attitudes which they were brought up with,' he said. 'There is also the possibility for prejudices to be revised upon encounters with homosexual people.'

Responses among those polled by The Straits Times bear out this point.

National University of Singapore sociology student Abdullah Luqman Hussin, 24, believes education has made him think critically about his beliefs.

'After entering university, I started thinking more rationally, and realised that a lot of my preconceived notions about homosexuals, like they were more promiscuous and had looser morals, were unfounded,' he said.

Ms Chua Peixuan, 17, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic mass communication student, used to think homosexuals were 'weird and gross', until she befriended a lesbian classmate in polytechnic.

'My mindset began to change. I saw that homosexuality is just a way of life, that homosexuals are still people and shouldn't be ostracised,' she said.

Of the minority of respondents who felt uncomfortable about homosexuality, Erma Dzalin, 14, a Secondary 2 student from North Vista Secondary, said she 'will never accept it' for religious reasons. 'It's just not natural. I don't think I will ever change my mind, and I don't see why I should,' she said.

Yet the poll also raises the issue of whether there is enough frank talk about homosexuality among younger students.

Gay activist Alex Au, in fact, feels 'our schools do a very poor job of educating our students about sexuality and sexual orientation'.

But the Health Promotion Board says students are taught in Aids education that Aids is not just a 'gay disease', and that the main mode of transmission is via heterosexual contact.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry's Growing Years sexuality education programme in schools is clear cut.

It offers basic information, including definitions and theories about homo-sexuality. Teachers are told to stress that there have been cases of successful correction of homosexual behaviour.

But how discussions are carried out is left to educators, and that remains unclear. Rameza Khan, 15, a Secondary 3 student, said: 'Right now, we hardly talk about it in school. There should be more information for us, or else in the long run, students won't really understand it.'

Discussions at home will help too, said Ms Braema Mathi, a visiting Iseas fellow researching gender issues. 'There needs to be more factual information that one can share... without being seen as promoting any lifestyle,' she said.

As it is, experts say the large number of 'neutral' responses to crucial questions in the Straits Times poll is troubling - it could indicate a lack of knowledge to make judgments.

Said Prof Kwok: 'The issue is not just about acquiring more knowledge, but also about making good judgment, and that needs to be cultivated when you're young.' sg