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Red, white, pink – a contest of space

By Howard Lee

The furore that erupted recently over the Pink Dot event organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the opposition it faced by certain religious groups have sideline a decent conversation, not about acceptance and dialogue, but about fair contest.

It might sound odd to you, to speak of contest when we should really be trying to achieve harmony. But I feel it is an important consideration, because without it, we will never understand the concerns that underpin the diverse groups involved in this issue. This lack of understanding also renders any conversation meaningless, because the terms of the conversation will always be at odds with each group, leading to adversarial positions that are based on absolute terms.

Physical space

At the very base of the argument, the LGBT issue is about physical space. This is most visible in the Pink Dot event at Hong Lim Park, where the LGBT community and its supporters make a very visible mark in Singapore.

The contest over physical space, while important, is a relatively inconsequential one. Hong Lim Park is not the only place for expression and for rallying support. The illusion of scarcity created by Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong and TOUCH Community Services, when they cried foul at the Ministry of Social and Family Development for denying them the use of the Padang for their Red Dot event, is unwarranted. Singapore, while small, is not lacking in space, unless you prefer to be picky about where you want to stage your (non-protest) event. Clearly, the Wear White campaign organisers have even taken their movement online, which offers another dimension of (cyber)space for use.

This does not mean, however, that the use of physical space to rally support for specific agendas can be done indiscriminately. For instance, while the organisers of Pink Dot can state that the event is about the freedom to love and in no way infringes on the right of others to believe otherwise, they need to understand that the visible presence at a physical space will have repercussions on others and how they are perceived to be pushing certain acceptable boundaries.

Indeed, through its annual event which is growing in participation every year, Pink Dot pushed beyond a physical gathering into the more debatable region of social space.

Social space

I describe social space as the boundaries of a set of beliefs and practices that members of a group can associate with. Social space defines a community, and in this instance, we have the social spaces that define the LGBT community, the Christian community, and the Muslim community.

Social space is less definite. Not all Christians align themselves with Pastor Khong, not all Muslims align themselves with Wear White, and definitely not all gays believe in Pink Dot and what it proposes to do. Nevertheless, there are certain leaders within these spaces that try to set the agenda for the group, and this is the image that represents each group, and in many ways determines how each group interacts with one another.

Communities use their social space to influence, gain support and widen their networks. The unfortunate issue we see with the recent controversy is that the Christian and Muslim groups appear to believe that the LGBT community is out on a recruitment drive, or at the least to normalise the “gay lifestyle” among their own members. This is perceived as a threat into their social spaces, and the response is thus to reclaim that space. The Wear White campaign, for instance, stated that it wishes for believers to “return to the natural disposition”.

The dynamics of social spaces are intense and can become combative. This contest is actually not a bad thing, as it helps a group identify itself. The problems we encounter today arise when the groups start to misrepresent what another group is really about – such as the assumption that religion and homosexuality are mutually exclusive.

Such misunderstandings also stand the groups in poor stead as they move on to the next contest – that of political space.

Political space

Each community will attempt to exert its influence on its immediate political surrounding, and by this I mean government policies, practices, laws and statements from government leaders that threaten or encourage the existence of communities. In this sense, we cannot deny that political space affects both social and physical spaces.

Any group has the right to push the government for its existence. For example, if the Christian community feels that their right to worship has been curtailed, they have the right to lobby the government. Their quarrel with other groups, however, should become an issue only if there is a clear bias in policy or law – for this example, if the government begins to reallocate sites for churches to mosques, due to Muslim leaders lobbying or threatening the government to do so.

Transgressions of space

In this light, we need to view the “political invocations” in the clear retaliation against the LGBT community as purely baseless and unnecessary. References have been drawn to national badges like SG50 to affirm that a certain group has a political right to denounce the right of existence of another. A forced definition of what the family means to Singapore has also been bandied about, a presumptions definition that clearly sidelines the realities of what families really are in Singapore.

There is also a certain discomfort to be felt when Pastor Khong accused the government of being more than tolerant of the LGBT community. This suggests that the government should be less so, and by implication more accommodating to the values proposed by Khong and his group. However, Khong's values do not conform to all religious groups, much less the vast diversity of communities in Singapore. Some have indeed taken note that his alliance with the Wear White campaign is little more than a marriage of convenience.

To suggest that the government should take greater heed of the values of a particular group is dangerous, as it risks ignoring the values of another. This is particularly troublesome given that there is no reason to believe that the government allowing the LGBT community to exist and push its social space is detrimental to the existence and social space of the Christian or Muslim community.

Rules of contests

In this perspective, once we have defined the spaces where such a contest can take place, we realise that it is perfectly fine that the LGBT-religious debate happens in the social space. In fact, it would be a healthy debate that would lead to positive outcomes, such as a greater acceptance of how individuals from both groups can co-exist in their own identities, because the social space is fundamentally about identity and interaction.

That said, the LGBT community must also be aware that it cannot claim Pink Dot only occupies either a physical or social space, and that its political inclinations are benign. Whether the organisers intend for it to be so or not, certain members or supporters are already pushing for greater political space – in effect, to abolish Section 377A. Because this is a law of the land, even if it affects only homosexuals, the effect that it has on the social spaces of the Christian and Muslim communities are real and need to be addressed. The accusations that repealing 377A would eventually lead to gay marriages is one such example.

The LGBT community and their supporters will do better to assure other communities that the results of such a political agenda will not harm them, either in their political or social sphere. Attacking the validity of their claims, or even pretending that Pink Dot is little more than an event, is actually counter-productive for the LGBT community and what it hopes to accomplish in the long term.

Indeed, this is the understanding that the different groups need to come to terms with first – the meaning of the spaces they are contesting in, and accepting the rules of contest in each space - before we can even come close to an understanding between groups.