ST: Debate on Homosexuality: It's not a big deal for most Singaporeans (Nov 3)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Nov 3, 2007
It's not a big deal for most Singaporeans
By Andy Ho

IN THE recent debate over the decriminalisation of homosexual sodomy, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed, in passing, that HDB heartlanders weren't too concerned about the issue.

Mr Jeffrey Tan, a teaching fellow in the China division at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), nuances the picture somewhat.

First, there is the Chinese intelligentsia here who are 'quite pro-gay', he said. These are the Nantah graduates and those who have gone to Taiwan or China to study, whose world views are coloured by their media and literature, which they continue to consume and which have become very libertarian in the 1990s in so far as same sex issues are concerned.

Secondly, there are non-cosmopolitan Chinese here who are non-confrontational when it comes to sexuality because their culture is suffused with Taoist and Buddhist values, wherein there is no concept of God or sin.

They would be like their compatriots in China and Taiwan, where 'most people do not find same sex attraction sinful or deserving of punishment, even when expressed physically', according to Dr Wu Cuncun who teaches at the University of New England in Australia.

Some might feel sad that a son or daughter might not grow up like 'other boys and girls', but the behaviour would not lead to disgust or them being disowned - unless someone deliberately set out to offend, she added.

Sexuality in traditional Chinese culture was regarded as part of life and not as something that spoke to some essence in one's personality. It did not define one's identity in society. That is, no one thought of a male who had sex with another as a homosexual - in the way Western activists push gay identity politics today, pitting
conservatives against liberals today.

Dr Wu said: 'In China, historically, homoeroticism had little to do with being conservative or liberal. Instead, standards of conduct were based on a world view encompassing the complementary forces of yin and yang.

'But yin and yang were never absolutely separate, so women and men fulfilled complementary roles and shared complementary places,' she added. Thus, there was no sense of sin if a man found another 'erotically attractive'. Such a male was just seen to be indulging in one possible form of sexuality.

Many emperors engaged in sex with both women and men, Dr Wu noted. Yet this guiltless relaxation towards same sex eroticism - famously depicted in Hongloumeng or Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four great classics in pre-modern Chinese fiction - was largely something to be found within the upper classes. These dominated and used the
lower classes in the form of compliant bodies, male or female, for purposes both sexual and nonsexual.

Outside of the aristocracy and literati, for much of Chinese history, a man of commoner status was 'probably more likely to offend another man if he was incautious in approaching him with erotic intentions, and such a situation would usually be bereft of...romance', said Dr Mark Stevenson of Victoria University in Australia .

Yet, by the 19th century, more than any other time in Chinese history,in Beijing's world of theatre, at least, both young and old males from outside the scholar-official class, particularly merchants, were indulging in sex with young men quite openly.

Dr Stevenson thought that 'so many men felt unashamed about (this because there was) no Godhead in Chinese culture, so that the population as a whole was relatively free of hang-ups' around questions of sin in the forms that sexuality took.

Dr Wu agreed: 'In Chinese moral thought there is an absence of concern with God or sin.' Perhaps our immigrant forefathers brought with them this worldview which continues to animate the HDB heartlander.

In practice, everyone in the family knows about the homosexual son but no one talks about it. Mr Tan observed: 'In fact, it is the gays who are left behind to take care of ageing parents as their siblings get married and move out to start their own families.'

In such cases, it is 'very common in Singapore', Mr Tan said anecdotally, for gays to move in and stay with their boyfriends and their aged parents, who just accept the whole deal quietly.

This is reminiscent of Lee Ang's 1993 movie, The Wedding Banquet, in which a gay Chinese man who has a live-in white boyfriend fakes a wedding with a woman friend to please his ageing parents. Later on he 'outs' himself to his mother but not his father, who realises quietly that his son is homosexual.

The old man later invites his son's white boyfriend to go with him for a private stroll, during which he gives him an angbao as a gesture of accepting him as his 'child-in-law'.

This is perhaps the practical way in which many heartlanders deal with homosexuality in the family (which would be statistically rare at any rate) - a 'don't ask, don't tell; don't reject but don't promote' approach.

Finally, there are the heartlanders who are Christianised who reject homosexuality in the family vigorously, Mr Tan observed. These are the 'horror stories, where the gay son is hauled off to church to be exorcised and so on', he said.

Linking Christianisation to colonialism, Mr Tan lays it all down at the feet of the British, who brought in Section 377A of the Penal Code anyway. Dr Wu agrees that it is more likely to be Singapore's colonial legacy that explains any anti-gay attitude that may be found here.

But since there are more non-Christians than Christians in Singapore in general, the non- confrontational model is probably more widespread. For these folks, rice bowl concerns are paramount, added Mr Tan, which is why 'they don't give two hoots' for (any confrontation over) homosexuality.