Gays hail Singapore’s lifting of sex ban and see a long road to equality

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SINGAPORE (AP) — Singapore’s gay community on Monday hailed a plan to decriminalize sex between men as a “triumph of love over fear,” but warned there was still a long way to go for equality and new bans on same-sex unions would target discrimination against them could anchor.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong surprised many when, in his National Day speech on Sunday, he announced that the government would repeal Section 377A of the Criminal Code, a colonial-era law that would punish sex between men with up to two years in prison.

Since 2007, when Parliament last debated repealing Section 377A, its position has been to keep the law but not enforce it. But Lee said societal norms have shifted significantly and many Singaporeans are now accepting of decriminalization.

However, Lee promised the repeal would be limited and would not upset Singapore’s traditional family and society norms, including the definition of marriage, what children learn in schools, what is shown on television and general public behavior.

He said the government will amend the constitution to “protect the institution of marriage” and prevent any constitutional challenge to allowing same-sex partnerships.

The timing of the repeal or the constitutional amendment was not announced.

More than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups – including Pink Dot SG, which organizes an annual rally that draws thousands of supporters – said the repeal was long overdue to show that “state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore has”.

They called it a “hard-fought victory, a triumph of love over fear” that will finally allow victims of bullying, rejection and harassment to heal. But the repeal is just “the first step on a long journey towards full equality for LGBTQ people” amid other areas of discrimination they face at home, schools, workplaces, and housing and health systems, the groups said.

They expressed disappointment at the government’s plan to introduce further legislation or constitutional amendments to ban same-sex associations that signal LGBTQ people as unequal citizens.

Such a decision will “undermine the secular nature of our constitution, codify further discrimination in supreme law and tie the hands of future parliaments,” they warned.

Religious groups have been cautious in their response to Lee’s comments, saying the changes should not restrict their religious freedom to articulate their views on public morality, nor result in “reverse discrimination” against those who do not support homosexuality.

Christian and Muslim groups said heterosexual marriage must be protected in the constitution before Section 377A is repealed and that there should be no further liberalization of the policy.

“We seek government assurance that the religious freedom of churches will be protected while we continue to teach against and highlight same-sex sexual activity,” the National Council of Churches said in a statement. Pastors and church workers must be protected from accusations of “hate speech” and not forced to exclusively use “LGBTQ-affirmative” strategies in their counseling, it said.

The council raised concerns that the repeal could lead to an expansion of LGBTQ culture and called for redress for Christians facing “reverse discrimination”.

The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of Singapore, which represents over 80 local churches, was more outspoken, calling it an “extremely regrettable decision”.

“The decision to remove such a weighty moral marker as S377A signals a redefinition of acceptable sexual relationships and celebrates homosexuality as characteristic of mainstream social settings,” it says.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said the church does not seek to criminalize the LGBQT community, but rather to protect the family and marriage and their right to freely teach and practice such issues.

Singapore’s top Islamic leader, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, said the repeal was a “tough balancing act” and steps to preserve traditional values ​​were crucial.

“Even though we hold different values, aspirations and orientations, I don’t think we should let hatred and contempt for difference win,” he told Channel News Asia.

Section 377A was introduced under British colonial rule in the 1930s. Versions of the law remain in other former British colonies, including neighboring Malaysia.

But the laws have been liberalized in Asia in recent years. India’s top court decriminalized gay sex in a 2018 ruling. Taiwan became the first Asian government to legalize gay marriage in 2019, and Thailand recently approved plans allowing same-sex partnerships.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore said the repeal could set the framework for future challenges to the constitution.

“On the surface it looks like a step forward, two steps back, but I get the impression the repeal could be seen as a foot in the door that could pave the way for future challenges to the Constitution over the current definition of family and marriage,” Tan said.

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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