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Monday, October 08, 2007

Why we shouldn't campaign for 377A's repeal

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is stoned to death." - Joan D. Vinge


Why we shouldn't campaign for 377A's repeal

I have come to the conclusion that we should not campaign to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises homosexual sex.

At first glance, it is truly shocking that I would espouse such a seemingly regressive view. After all, does not Section 377A read:

"Unnatural offences.

Outrages on decency.
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."?

Such a law is startling in a place which, in the early 21st century, aspires to be serious competition for the title of Asia's World City.

Yet, it seems that in Alabama it is against the law for a man to seduce "a chaste woman by means of temptation, deception, arts, flattery or a promise of marriage" (I tried to verify this, but Singapore is the only state I know of that puts its laws online in full). While no one would call Alabama the most enlightened place in the world (or even the US), this law nonetheless is shocking and regressive. More such examples of archaic and antediluvian laws can be found in other US states, and indeed around the world.

Closer to home, we have Section 294 of the Penal Code:

"Obscene songs.

294. Whoever, to the annoyance of others —

(a) does any obscene act in any public place; or
(b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words in or near any public place,

shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 months, or with fine, or with both."

Clearly, all SAF camps must be shut down forthwith.

Of course, what this and the Alabama law have in common is that neither is enforced. All countries have stupid laws - what matters is if the police and judiciary are stupid enough to enforce them.

In the case of 377A, there have been proclamations that the law will not be enforced. Even if one is suspicious about the claim that it will not be enforced proactively, a look at cases from November 1988 to January 2003 shows that in this time period, it was only used in cases involving minors, non-consensual sexual activity and public play (similar conclusions can be drawn about the cases under Section 377).

In other words, just like the symbolic list of 100 banned Internet websites, it remains as a signpost and a declaration of societal morals. Assuming that the proclamations about non-enforcement are credible (and any prosecutions carried out from now onwards would seriously dent governmental credibility), there really is no reason for practising homosexuals to fear for their (sex) lives.

Of course, in an ideal world I would like Section 377A to be repealed, but as it is repealing 377A has purely symbolic value; if you leave it there you keep the homophobes happy while homosexuals don't suffer. In reality, time, political capital and activists' energy are all limited, so instead of wasting time on symbolic measures, we should focus instead on changing things that matter.

Some examples of better directions for activists' efforts would include the laws on Illegal Assembly, allowing protests without permits (or even granting such permits in the first place, since I don't know of any applications which have ever succeeded), having a rolling age of consent, having more sensible and clearly demarcated laws on racial/religious discussion and not selling weapons and landmines to Burma (so Burmese, like gays here, will not have to fear for their lives or liberties).

On the other hand, campaigning for 377A's repeal gives the lie to claims that there is no gay agenda (it may be a good agenda, but it is an agenda nonetheless). It makes it easy to portray the gay community as some Fifth Column bent on undermining the moral fibre of society and invites reactionary forces to press down harder on it. As the Dear Leader himself noted, "we will not reach consensus however much we discuss it. The views are passionately held on both sides. The more you discuss it, the angrier they become. The subject will not go away". A parallel may be drawn with Gay Marriage in the US - the public backlash against this in the 2004 elections resulted in 11 states voting to ban Gay Marriage (even if an attempt to extend it on a federal level was shot down). Lastly, the very act of repeatedly drawing attention to Section 377A reminds homosexuals and homophobes alike of its existence, intensifying the former's sense of persecution and discrimination and the latter's homophobia.

Of course, we are left with the symbolic value of having Section 377A on the books. I am usually skeptical of arguments about symbolism, because it is very easy to assign improbably large weights to the value of symbolism, due to its unquantifiable nature. Indeed, sometimes the effects of 'symbolism' may not even exist - I think even many feminists would agree that the Constitution's failure to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender does not result in discrimination on said grounds. There is also the legal technicality that it might be better for people to be charged under existing laws covering underage sex, public play and the like, but I will leave this minor point for legal academics to fight over.

All in all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and there is no point risking a conservative backlash for gains of negligible utility. A better path of action would probably be to reach out to people on the ground to change hearts and minds, and wait for globalisation, education and rising living standards to make Singaporeans more tolerant.
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