LGBTQ+ social movements in Singapore during Covid-19

Pink Dot is an LGBTQ+ movement in Singapore that holds an annual event supporting LGBTQ+ rights. The event is typically held in person at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, the only location in Singapore where events, demonstrations, and speeches may be held or made without a license, although it is still necessary to register any events beforehand. Participation in events at the Speakers’ Corner, however, is limited to Singaporean citizens and Permanent Residents. This rule limiting participation by immigration status was implemented alongside the relaxation of rules to allow public demonstrations at the Speakers’ Corner. It aimed to distinguish between the political rights held by different types of residents and to limit the pursuit of foreign agendas within Singapore’s borders. Related to the issue of LGBTQ+ rights, Singapore’s political elite has always held that the liberalisation of sexual norms and marriage as an imported, Western idea. As a result, immigrants such as Long-Term Pass holders, work pass and work permit holders, foreign students and visitors are excluded from participating in social movements and other events that take place in this space. 

The 2020 edition of Pink Dot, held on 27 June, was moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic which heavily restricted public gatherings. It featured live stream performances, a digital map with messages of support, and an appeal to participants to light up their homes and businesses with pink lights. While the livestream and light up mirrored previous events where live performances were held and participants physically lit up the Speakers’ Corner in pink lights, they also sought to achieve an aim unique to this year: to express and convey solidarity within the community and between the community and wider society despite pandemic restrictions limiting an in-person display of such sentiments. One of the key objectives of Pink Dot is also to build ‘a more equal and inclusive society’, which includes the repeal of Section 377A, the law that criminalises homosexual acts between male persons in Singapore.

377A.  Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.’ (my emphasis)

Section 377A criminalises homosexual acts between male persons, and categorises these acts as ‘Sexual offences’ alongside other crimes such as rape and sexual assault. In March 2020, Singapore’s High Court ‘dismissed three separated legal challenges against Section 377A of the Penal Code’. This was the second time in 10 years that attempts to repeal the law have been dismissed, with the prior instances being in March 2010. The Government’s official stance towards Section 377A is that it will not be enforced proactively. This seemingly contradictory position of maintaining but not enforcing the law stems from the Government’s desire to avoid increasing social divisions between groups advocating for and against repeal. It can also be attributed to a desire for legitimacy in an international society that, as pointed out by Jasbir Puar, Jon Binnie and Rahul Rao, increasingly measures modernity and development in terms of legal protections for sexual and gender minorities. This is supported by the Government’s stance that 377A and discrimination against queer communities, similar to the liberalisation of sexual norms, is an imported, and specifically British, concept and law. While the Government would suggest that lack of active enforcement means that the LGBTQ+ community is able to ‘live’ privately, the law continues to discriminate against men who have sex with men, and by extension, the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore.

In the realm of politics, issues of importance, or what is considered politics or political at all, tend to be public issues. While the divide between public and private issues is heavily contested, it is typically understood to be based on the division between the home and public spaces. The socially constructed, arbitrary, and contested line is drawn such that public, and therefore political, issues are subject to regulation by the Government and public authorities, such as through laws. Private, and seemingly non- or a-political issues appear, on the other hand, to be unregulated or less regulated

Sex is typically considered to be a private act, a practice that belongs to the domestic realm, as opposed to what is considered ‘public’, such as the economy, and the law. Part of the explanation resides in where the activity takes place: in homes and hotel rooms. However, sex and sexuality have also historically and contemporarily been regulated publicly by the state and laws for various reasons. As Phillip M. Ayoub, Melissa Murray, Rahul Rao, and V. Spike Peterson point out, sex, sexuality, and even gender have become regulated (more recently in permissive ways as well), and even depended on, by states to ensure economic and political stability, and to signal legitimacy and modernisation. This regulation can take place through institutions such as marriage, laws that criminalise non-normative sexual behaviour, and/or ‘civil sanctions’ of people employed in public or civil service. As highlighted above, Section 377A criminalises both public and private consensual sex between male adults. In Singapore, sex and sexuality are regulated as issues of ‘public morality’. Section 377A uses the term ‘gross indecency’ to represent sex acts that go against ‘public morality’ or ‘decency’. Before the inclusion of Section 377A in the Penal Code, the now amended Section 377 regulated sex by criminalising ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals’. Issues of sex and sexuality thus occupy a liminal space between the public and the private. 

Pink Dot, sex, sexuality, and the pandemic have the potential to problematise the divide between public and private issues and spaces. In doing so, it is possible to reveal how the public/private divide is a social construct disguised as ‘fact’ or natural through dominant discourses and practices, to serve certain political purposes such as economic growth and state power. This is evident in the designation of the ‘traditional family unit’ as the ‘bedrock of [Singaporean] society’, where the domestic, personal, and private family becomes the foundation and an issue of social and state stability. Similarly, the ‘public morality’ that is framed as threatened by queer social movements is grounded in the ‘traditional family unit’ and ‘family values’. Information campaigns supporting pandemic restrictions also emphasise the disease’s threat to seniors and grandparents – an appeal to the filial piety that forms much of Asian and Chinese ‘family values’.

Virtually hosting the Pink Dot mattered because it shifted the location of the event from the public space of the Speakers’ Corner to private homes and businesses. This blurred the boundary between public and private spaces as private spaces of homes and businesses became part of a public movement. Previous Pink Dot events, held at the Speakers’ Corner, were primarily located in a public space. To be present at Pink Dot, one had to ‘come out’ physically to the public venue. The virtual Pink Dot, however, enabled individuals to participate from private spaces such as homes. Restrictions on public gatherings also moved and dispersed Pink Dot’s previous pink light up of Hong Lim Park to the pink light up of homes and businesses instead.

The shift also increased the accessibility to the Pink Dot. In previous years, security officers regulated access to the event through barriers and identity checks. In comparison, no such barriers existed to the 2020 edition as it was situated in the relatively unrestricted and public virtual space of the Internet. While there is censorship of the internet in Singapore to a certain extent, it tends to be imposed in response to complaints by members of the public or government bodies. In comparison to an in-person event, the virtual Pink Dot was able to reach a larger audience. This was striking as the Pink Dot event was historically restricted to only to Singaporean citizens and Permanent Residents, while the virtual Pink Dot was open to all, including foreigners, who would usually be excluded from participating in public assemblies, and Singaporeans situated overseas. Having such an open and accessible event was contested by certain members of civil society who initiated petitions to restrict the live stream to those above 18 years old and to keep it ‘out of homes and workplaces’. Yet, the Ministry of Social and Family Development stated that the event did not contravene any existing laws. 

The virtual event also affected the level of privacy afforded to individuals who chose to participate in Pink Dot. Previously, one could hardly be anonymous as physical presence presented the risk of being recognised. The virtual event facilitated, but did not guarantee, the anonymity of viewers and participants. For some, the virtual event offered an opportunity to participate that a physical event might pose obstacles to. Non-residents, those living abroad, those with handicaps that make attending an in-person event difficult, and those wishing to remain anonymous were able to tune in to the live stream and post messages of support. However, for others in hostile living situations, such as with homophobic parents, anonymity at home was not guaranteed. Participation in the virtual event might have been even more difficult under pandemic restrictions.  

Additionally, with the physical light up, anonymity in the private space was not guaranteed. The call to light up one’s home in pink created a binary between those who wanted or were able to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, and those who did not or were not able to support the community. One could find and identify both support for the LGBTQ+ community and the lack of it. During the live stream itself, the emcees frequently highlighted how Tiong Bahru, a neighbourhood in Singapore, was lit up extensively in pink as evidence of support for Pink Dot and the LGBTQ+ community. Although it was acknowledged during the live stream that LGBTQ+ persons and allies might be inhibited from lighting up by external factors, the lack of lights was largely interpreted as a lack of support. Commenters on the live stream expressed happiness at the pink lights and support by neighbours, residents and businesses in their immediate vicinity, and disappointment where they found little or no lights.

The event’s blurring of the boundary between the public and private realm reflected the grey area that sex, sexuality, and their regulation occupy in the state, governance and social life. It also parallels the management of the pandemic, where restrictions and laws passed focused largely on protecting public health, but had repercussions for the private, domestic and family realms.

The construction of a public/private divide serves several political functions in Singapore. First and foremost, the designation of certain issues and spaces as ‘public’ allows for explicit state regulation. This is the case for race and religion, where the right to non-discrimination is enshrined in the Constitution. The designation of ‘private’ issues allows for a more implicit type of regulation, where certain norms are disguised as natural and/or factual, and where institutions and practices stem from these norms and reinforce them. Such is the case with Section 377A and Pink Dot, where heterosexuality and the ‘traditional family unit’ presented, upheld, and even disguised as natural and normal, and where non-normative sexualities are presented as abnormal, experimental, and a threat to social stability. For the issue of sexuality, which is heavily entangled with social and public norms, but simultaneously presented as a private and personal matter, the Singapore government has continued to maintain the position of letting society lead. Section 377A is not repealed or overturned on the basis that society is ‘not ready’ and that to do so would increase social divisions. However, institutional and state powers remaining passive on the issue is not the same neutrality. Rather, passivity in this situation serves to support the norm of discrimination, and to allow discrimination to be (re)produced and reinforced in society, education, law, and behaviour. Simultaneously, the regulation of sex through Section 377A allows state intervention into what is typically a ‘private’ affair. Susan B. Boyd, for example, highlights a similar example of legal disputes in child custody in lesbian parents. 

Given that pandemic restrictions are unlikely to ease sufficiently to allow a large in-person event by mid-year, when Pink Dot is typically held, the event will likely be held virtually in a similar fashion. One of the key objectives in 2020 was to engage with LGBTQ+ persons living in hostile situations or isolation during the pandemic. We can expect similar messages of solidarity to continue, along with a more insistent appeal to wider society and the Government for greater support for the community, especially in light of the disproportionate impact on the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore in terms of employment, access to health and mental health care, and the ability to care for their loved ones.

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