By Teng Kie Zin Scott & Rachel Lim
The repeal of the law against gay sex is not only about gays, as AIDS prevention programs and families of homosexual men are affected too, said the organizers of the group petitioning to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code on Monday.
The existing law, which criminalises men who have sex with men (MSM) hampers effective AIDS prevention and education efforts among this target group which is often being regarded as a high-risk group, said organiser Dr Stuart Koe at a press conference held by the group on Monday.
Section 377A of the Penal Code outlaws sex between males in Singapore, whether in private or public. If convicted, an offender can be jailed up to two years.
“377A negatively impacts how we deliver HIV treatment and prevention messages to MSM,” said Koe who is also the CEO of Fridae.com, a gay and lesbian media company.
Criminalisation of gay sex an obstacle to effective HIV control and awareness
Koe said that Singapore-based non-profit AIDS/HIV awareness and support group, Action For Aids (AFA) was unable to target the MSM community effectively because it would be seen as “abetting a crime”.
“Because of 377A, the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Board are unable to target the MSM…The police have actually stopped Action For Aids from distributing safe-sex information on the grounds that the pamphlets were advocating gay sex.”
Citing a research paper by Associate Professor Roy Chan, Director of Department of Sexually Transmitted Infection Control, Dr Koe told reporters that the existence of laws like 377A which criminalises sex between gay men are obstacles to effective AIDS prevention efforts.
Dr Koe also quoted Dr Peter Piot, executive director of the joint United Nations Programmes on HIV/AIDS, who has identified stigma against AIDS and homophobia as two major barriers to the solution.
The group had earlier called for support for a nation-wide petition to Parliament urging for the repeal of Penal Code Section 377A. A total of 2341 valid signatories were collected over three days.
In a seperate open letter to the prime minister, the group collected more than 8200 signatures, according to Koe. The petition was hand-delivered to the Istana on Monday.
The Parliamentary petition has been submitted to Parliament by Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong. (See here)
377a and the family
Aside from the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention, another issue that took centre stage was that of the family members of gay men.
Ms Tan Joo Hymn, another organizer, said, “I have a gay brother and I do not for one moment accept that he is a criminal.”
“A lot of comments we have from parents, siblings, grandparents profess love for their gay male relatives are no less strong because someone in their family is gay,”
Ms Tan, a mother-to-be, spoke about a 69-year-old mother of a gay son who signed and left detailed comments in the open letter to the prime minister.
Tan read: “I’m 69 years old, a mother of a gay son who is in his 40s. He and his partner has been living with me under the same roof for more than 13 years, they are the best thing that happen to me in all my 69 years in Singapore. Please tell me Mr Prime Minister, why are you teaching me to be ashamed of them? If this country doesn’t want them, where can they go?”
She also gave another example of the open letter signatory, a mother who used to blame herself for her son’s homosexuality.
“I love him for who he is, for what he is… people think/suggest that just because he is gay, our family isn’t what it is supposed to be. We are family, what people do in their private lives shouldn’t be an issue to anyone as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else… who are these people who so quickly judge him to be a bad man?” wrote the mother.
Ms Tan refuted the argument that repealing 377A would destroy the family unit, arguing that instead retaining it will split families apart.
She said: “There’s a constant worry and stress that a gay male family member has committed a crime and might be arrested.”
“If he’s a boy and is gay, I sure hope this is repealed before he grows up,” Tan told reporters.
The petition was debated as part of the Parliamentary debate on the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill.
377A debate highlights unprecedented level of public discourse
Interest in Parliamentary proceedings has also been unprecedented. Parliament’s viewing gallery was full for most of the first day of debate as both supporters and opponents of repeal turned out in full force.
Prominent anti-repeal activists Thio Su Mien and Yvonne Lee were in the public gallery, as was pro-repeal activists like Dr Stuart Koe.
The organisers welcomed the healthy debate from those want to retain Section 377A, including the organisers of keep377a.com who are pushing to keep the gay sex ban, saying it is a sign of “maturing democracy” in Singapore.
“We feel this is a healthy debate. We have been in touch with the organizers of keep 377A. And together we have jointly released a statement that says we mutually respect each other’s opinions, so long as it doesn’t degrade into personal attacks,” said Koe.
Keep377.com has gathered 15,560 signatures as of Monday night.
Scott and Rachel are undergraduate students at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information. Scott is in his third year while Rachel is in her final year of study.