Tolerance beyond one’s faith

By Ng Yi-Sheng

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about religion and gay folks. The recent remarks of Lawrence Khong, Assoc Prof Khairudin Aljunied and the Fellowship of Muslim Students have stirred up angry arguments between the people who defend them on the grounds of faith and the LGBT people and straight allies who view their words as hate speech.

However, I’d like to make it clear, once and for all: this conflict is not one of LGBT people versus religion. It’s about tolerance and intolerance. No one is asking Christians to stop being Christians, or Muslims to stop being Muslims – in fact, most of us are really proud of the fact that we live in a society in which people of different religions can play a part. We just want to be accepted as members of society too.

This brings me to a huge issue that’s been neglected during these arguments. It’s the fact that there are an awful lot of LGBT Singaporeans who are religious.

I’m friends with a lot of them. I’ve dated a gay man who punctually attended Friday prayers at the mosque. I’ve interviewed lesbians, Christian converts, who held a secret wedding ceremony for themselves in St Andrew’s Cathedral. And I’ve chatted with people who were active in the now-disbanded Singapore branch of Al-Fatiha, an LGBT Muslim group, as well as many who remain active in the Free Community Church, an LGBT-inclusive non-denominational Christian community.

It’s not easy to be queer and Christian, or queer and Muslim. For some, it’s a terrible struggle. One of my bisexual friends sat in a restaurant and told me, weeping, that she couldn’t understand why she loved God so much and yet he had made her fall in love with women. Several friends have told me they considered suicide before they managed to accept themselves as gay.

Of course, some of them choose to leave their religion. It’s a comfortable, convenient choice – they no longer have to deal with the heartache of knowing that some members of their faith want them dead. And it is, honestly, easier to change one’s religion than to change one’s sexuality. The survivors of ex-gay therapy can attest to that.

Still, thousands of LGBT Singaporeans choose to remain Christian and Muslim. And it’s they who end up suffering the most when their fellow believers say their love is “abnormal” and “unnatural”, or call them “cancers” and the “Neo-Sodom-Gomorrah”.

What’s heartening is that many religious groups and leaders across the world have come forward to support better protections for the rights and welfare of LGBTs. The Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches are all willing to ordain gay priests, and even Pope Francis is considering accepting civil unions in the Catholic Church. There are gay imams in South Africa, France and the US, while in Indonesia, transgender communities regularly hold Quran recital competitions and donate money to the poor during Ramadan. Intolerance of LGBTs is something that religious sects have a problem with – not the religion as a whole.

In Singapore, we’re actually a fairly harmonious people. We place our houses of worship next to each other without fear of discord – after all, we haven’t experienced interreligious violence for half a century. This recent conflict has taken place almost exclusively online – and while cyber-harassment does cause family breakdowns and loss of jobs or scholarships, I’d say it’s preferable to physical confrontation.

I believe there are grounds for optimism. One day, the majority of Christians and Muslims will believe – like many do – that LGBT people have a right to live in this country without feeling like criminals. After all, we aren’t enemies. And often, we’re praying in the very same room.