Below is the speech by Mr Alex Au delivered for the Humanist of the Year event on 23 June 2012 when he was honoured by the Humanist Society (Singapore) with the award.
Thank you very much for the honour. I think it’s very generous of the Society, though I would understand if it had been a difficult decision since I am a gay man. Some of you may wonder why it is such a big deal that I would open with a sentence about my sexual orientation. It is a big deal because the world in which I am living now makes it so.
But it shouldn’t be so, and it wouldn’t be so if we applied reason upon empirical knowledge, which is the very essence of humanism. To be gay is now known to be a completely natural phenomenon, inherently harmless.
Yet I am almost certain that some among you in this room still trip over my sexual orientation. At the same time, I am also glad to see that this gathering is open to exploring the ethical issues, if any, that spring from difference.However, I have no answers to give. I can only share with you what the world has taught me to see, in the hope that my perspective can throw a bit more light into this and other burning questions of this age.
It strikes many people as somewhat strange that I, like many other gay men, foreground my gayness as one of the key defining characteristics as a person. Well, there’s a simple reason for it. Those who are heterosexual live in a world where heterosexuality is normative: social conventions, expectations, law and institutions are built upon assumptions of heterosexuality. It’s as comfortable as wearing a right glove on your right hand. After a while, you’d hardly notice you have one on. But gay people have to go through life wearing the left glove on our right hand. There is no moment when we are not conscious of the misfit.
For those of you in this room who are heterosexual men, imagine for the sake of argument that you are living in a society where homosexuality is normative. What would it feel like?
You would grow up under family expectations that you would eventually settle down and marry another man. And raise a family with him. All your teenage – and adult – fantasies about sex with a woman, pleasurable though they may be in body and mind, would fill you with guilt and anxiety. You’ve been taught that it’s wrong. You don’t want to be discovered thinking those thoughts, let alone caught acting on them.
The gait and mannerisms that are entirely natural to you are mocked. So all your life you have to watch how to walk, how you stand, how to talk. The slightest slip, even the accidental use of the wrong pronoun would give away your “perversion”, and you may be subject to teasing, bullying, possibly violent bashing.
Even when you successfully conceal your desires, you keep hearing others speak disparagingly of people like you. You get the message: you’re immoral, a danger to little girls and a threat to civilisation generally.
Movies and sitcoms nauseatingly have only boy-boy or girl-girl relationships, and those couples are the ones with the happily ever after. Occasionally there is a heterosexual character, but he is never part of the happy ending. He is the butt of jokes, the villain or the sad sack.
You take up a job, and you find yourself having to choose: either to continue the fiction that you are homosexual and hope that nobody ever discovers the truth, or to be who you are, but at the risk that your job evaluation and promotion prospects may be undermined by it. You will never know because people can quietly discriminate against you without telling you to your face. In any case, it won’t be long before you are expected to show up at company functions with a same-sex spouse in hand. If you don’t, rumours will soon spread.
And then, in Singapore, there’s the question of getting an HDB flat. Government subsidies are dangled before you, provided you are married. And the rules are such that even if you do without the subsidies, and you remain single, you still can’t buy a flat in your own name from the resale market until you are 35.
So you think about getting married, but you have no idea how to woo another man, and all the while you’re dreaming about how to get a good lay with a woman. Even if you manage to get hitched, you have to consummate the marriage. That’s right, have sex with another man. And forswear, on pain of divorce, shame, unemployment, social ostracism and jail time, ever having sex with, or romancing, or even looking too longingly at a woman – for the rest of your life.
Tell me, if that were the case and you lived in such a society, would not your sexual orientation be a very, very big deal? Would it not define you in everything you do? Would it not shape your perspective on the world?
And yet, I’m not claiming to be shaped entirely by it.
In other respects, I am part of a comfortable, even complacent, majority. I am English-speaking and Chinese in a society that valorises these attributes. My childhood and adult life have been lived in middle-class indulgence. I am male in a society that extends privileges to males.
Lately I’ve even come to realise, with not a little amusement, that I have reached a stage in life when others are oddly deferential to me simply on account of my age. They think my opinions are wiser and better-formed because I’ve been around longer than they have (so, thank you for inviting me to speak). Gosh, they have little idea how often I doubt my own views.
Ensconced in comfort and swooning in flattery, one loses sight of other perspectives. It doesn’t come naturally to me to know how it feels to be an ethnic minority, how it feels to be female or struggling with poverty, what it means to be physically disabled, nor what it feels like to be a stunning beauty. Or for that matter, to be transgendered. I have to work at it. And I don’t dare claim that I have succeeded.
By the same token, I don’t expect heterosexual people to understand instinctively what it feels like to gay or how the world looks to us. It takes effort, and I am always appreciative when people make that effort.
But some people prefer easy answers, and some branches of some religions offer them. Invariably, these easy answers tend to be homophobic and condemnatory. Simultaneously, there is a tendency to say that “all religions are against homosexuality”, perhaps in an effort to claim universality of their teachings in this regard.
Yet, if one looks at the source scriptures of, say, Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism, you will hardly find anything judgemental about homosexuality. Even the scriptural passages cited in the Abrahamic religions to support a stand against homosexuality are often contested by biblical scholars.
You may also be interested to know that in some belief systems, albeit in now-marginalised cultures, the transgendered person is given pride of place. Among the Bissu people of Sulawesi – just to cite one example – she, with an equal complement of male and female characteristics within the same body is seen as the truly complete person, worthy of being the priestly interlocutor between the divine and the temporal.
On the other hand, even ardent atheists can be homophobic. All this suggests to us that it would be misplaced to blame religion for antipathy to homosexuality.
In fact, when we reflect upon it, it is not religion that creates the antipathy, it is the antipathy that corrupts religions.
How is this so? I think there are multiple origins to the institutionalised antipathy we see, not least of which is an urge to defend patriarchy from challenge. But today I want to focus on something a bit more provocative. A bit more sexy.
From one perspective, one could say we homo sapiens are no more than bags of chemicals, hostage to our neuronal architecture.
One consequence of this is that for many heterosexual men, there is a “yuck” reflex when confronted with male-male sexuality. Interestingly, I have never heard reports of an equivalent yuck effect when confronted with female-female sexuality, which is consistent with the fact that typical forms of lesbian porn, for example, are not consumed by lesbians, but are very much made for the straight male market.
This yuck reflex in heterosexual men vis-a-vis male-male sexuality has been aggregated and elevated into a cultural prohibition. But think for a moment what exactly is happening here. What has essentially been a bodily reaction has been made into moral commandments. Another way of putting it is this: we are using our basal selves as a measure of worth, of right and wrong, of other things and other people in this world; in effect, we are placing ourselves at the centre of the universe and judging and imposing rules on others by how we subjectively feel: “This is disgusting to me, therefore it is forbidden to you.”
How does that sit alongside another innate human sense – the sense of fairness?
Perhaps you may not realise it, but gay men also have a yuck reflex. Personally, I find images of female breasts quite repulsive – the larger they are, the more intense my revulsion – while painted long fingernails instantly put me on guard.
I suspect it’s only because there are relatively few gay men around that our kind of yuck reflex has not been elevated into a general cultural prohibition. Some of you may be grateful for that.
As social animals, we are also moulded by our environment. We acquire the tastes and distastes of people around us. All it takes is for some powerful or influential members of society to stake out a position either based on their basal instincts, or what they themselves have acquired through socialisation, and the rest of us shape our own opinions accordingly.
This shaping however, is only within the bounds of our hard-wiring. Thus, gay men do not turn straight however much heterosexuality we see around us, however much pressure is applied. But straight men, even if they are free of the yuck reflex (as well as most bisexual men, in my opinion) are soon inducted into the social conventions of their generation, and they too come to believe there is something superior about heterosexuality and something abominable about homosexuality.
Amazingly, there are people on this earth who are quite satisfied just stopping there. To them, it is enough being the creatures that such reflexes produce; it is enough to hold fast to unquestioned attitudes.
At this point, I need to say that while I have used the specific example of homosexuality, my intention is to point to a far wider scope of differences: People are of different skin colours, born into different cultures. There are those whose lives are shaped by poverty or lack of education. There are ex-prisoners, the physically maimed, the spastic and the autistic. And don’t forget the geniuses, some of whom may appear to us to be mad.
In relating to all of them, we can either use our hard-wired reflexes with no further reflection, or rely on social conventions to guide our behaviour, conventions which may lack understanding and be discriminatory and prejudicial.
But I am sure you will agree with me that we can and ought to do better.
We can apply our minds to higher ends. Faced with the mysteries of difference, we can sail out and search for empirical evidence why things are the way they are. We can apply reason, make deductions, and arrive at higher abstractions, including principles of ethical behaviour to guide us by.
We also have consciousness. It would be grossly irresponsible if we did not apply it introspectively, for there is a thin, thin line between the objective evaluation of evidence and a subjective selection, between reason and self-serving rationalisation. It is self-awareness that helps guard against our own flaws, but self-awareness needs to be assiduously cultivated.
Then there is imagination. It is imagination that has given us progress; it has always taken someone to conceive of that which is unknown or does not yet exist, and say to others, ‘let’s go there’, thus delivering a better world. Imagination can also be employed for empathy; in fact expanding empathy is a measure of progress. Whilst the fact is that it is not possible to be totally the other person and experiencing the world in different circumstances, we can momentarily imagine ourselves in his or her place; to walk in others’ shoes.
Every one of us has flaws, inadequacies, blind spots and brittle pride. Every one of us has been inducted to some degree into the conventions, and implanted the attitudes, for better or worse, of our society. But every one of us possesses the means to surmount them. We have intelligence, we have consciousness, we have imagination. All we need is a still moment of reflection to see where we are and glimpse where we ought to be, and by the light of that transcendent awareness, kindle the humanity that is perhaps our species’ true calling.