To mark the first day in New York state when same-sex marriages could be registered, the New York Times ran a portrait page, featuring twenty couples. See this link (if it still works). The picture I particularly liked was this:
Why? Because they were completely counter to the stereotypical image of a gay male couple. Michael Roberts (left) and Michael Johnson (right) have been together for thirty years, far longer than many heterosexual marriages. Why did they have to wait so long before they could get married?
Each portrait on the New York Times page came with a short audio file. The one by Michael Margolin and Michael Charles (thanks to Alan Seah for pointing it out) is particularly nice:
One of the Michaels said: “What really moved me today is, early in the morning, we got on the bus to go to church, dressed like this with our carnations, and a number of people asked us if we were getting married, and we said Yes. And the whole bus broke out in applause. Which was really, you know, made me feel Wow, New York is behind us. So all those things you hear about [how] this was forced on New Yorkers [and] wasn’t fair — the man on the street is very much in favour of it.”
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The carnationed pair of Michaels went to church, as you would have noticed.
Other Christians might get apoplectic about that. About a week ago, I was attending a seminar at a local university in which several students presented papers summarising their project work. A pair of students presented a paper on a topic they had chosen: social acceptance for gay people. In the audience was Augustine H H Tan, a professor of economics (retired?) and former People’s Action Party member of parliament. During question time, Tan expressed his disapproval of non-heterosexual orientation. The students made an attempt to defend their thesis, in the course of which mention was made about how New York has joined a growing list of countries and states that has legalised gay marriages.
What followed was a remarkable outburst by Tan. I cannot recall now the exact words, but it took the form: “Mark my words! New York will burn for disobeying the word of god.”
There was a stunned silence before another academic, herself in her eighties too, gently pointed out that scriptures are open to interpretation.
Perhaps that god is indeed attempting to burn New York down, though so far, not quite successfully. There’s been a heatwave with the thermometer reaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit ( 40 degrees Celsius) in New York City and 108 Fahrenheit (42 Celsius) in neighbouring Newark last Friday (22 July 2011).
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That was the day when the Singapore delegation led by Halimah Yacob, Minister of State in the Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports, and her delegation were in the hot seat at the United Nations. Singapore was being interrogated by international peers for compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). You can see a rough summary of the proceedings here.
The questions flew thick and fast over a whole range of gender-related issues, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on those that touched on sexual orientation, it being my primary area of interest.
As reported by Jean Chong, a member of the Sayoni team also attending the Cedaw meeting, and which team had just two-and-a-half minutes to speak to the session,
We spoke about the victims of violence we know of and the silence that surrounds invisible women. Or the many gay men and women we know that linger at the edge of existence. We tried to put a name to the shame and pain that tortures our community endlessly and the insistent ignorance of those who claimed that they understand but know nothing. And did nothing.
Then when it was the government’s turn to reply,
We were disappointed to see the ignorance of the government in full display when question after question on SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity] issues were placed upon them. Nothing was said except a weak denial or two on systemic discrimination. The answers if any were careless and displayed our invisibility to them for all to see.
– Sayoni.com, Our Cedaw journey, part 4, 25 July 2011.
(In the sections below, indented text is taken from the rough summary of the proceedings, the document hyperlinked above.)
Patricia Schulz from Switzerland pointed out that Singapore’s
Constitution prohibited and criminalized male homosexuality, she noted. How did that affect lesbians? Finally, the media were fined for “presenting lesbianism as acceptable”, she said, asking how Singapore could reconcile such activities with the principles of the Convention.
As far as I can see from the rough summary of the proceedings, the Singapore governmental delegation did not answer that question.
Silvia Pimentel from Brazil, chair of the relevant Cedaw committee, asked
if a general anti-discrimination law was being considered and if reform of censorship laws on homosexual matters was being considered. She also asked about laws to prevent domestic violence in the context of same-sex relationships.
Again the delegation appeared to evade the question, not addressing it in their verbal replies.
Schulz then reiterated her question, pointing out that
the delegation had not responded to the question about the status of lesbians. Could the delegation explain whether all employment discrimination cases could be brought to court, or if any exceptions existed?
Finally, the delegation responded:
There were no plans in place to repeal section 377(a) of the Penal Code. That had been vigorously debated in Parliament, resulting in divided views. The general approach, however, was that the provision would not be enforced unless a complaint was filed. There was no systemic discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, she emphasized. With regard to censorship, all movies, including those with such themes, were subjected to the same review by a board of censors as all other movies.
(I added the emphases because I will come back to them later).
Pimental too reiterated her question, this time making it more specific to healthcare. She asked
Would Singapore consider the recognition of same-sex partnerships in order to make health-care benefits more equitable?
A member of the delegation then whitewashed Singapore’s shameful record, replying:
Most of Singapore’s laws were gender neutral and did not consider the sexual orientation of a person in their application, he said. Therefore, all rights, services and mechanisms available were accessible by both hetero- and homosexual people alike.
Hold on a minute. “Most” is not all. The full, official name of CEDAW itself speaks of the elimination of all forms of discrimination; therefore the government is effectively conceding that they are failing to implement the convention that they signed, and for which they had agreed to submit to international peer review.
Coming to systemic discrimination (highlighted in bold earlier), there are so many examples, one hardly knows where to begin. What is important to note is that while Section 377A of the Penal Code superficially targets only men, it is seen by all government departments as a bedrock legitimising anti-gay discrimination. Civil servants read from the existence of this law the notion that in doing their jobs, they are expected to discriminate against gay people, male and female.
Thus we have policies that impose more restrictive censorship on gay-related media content, for example. To tell the world that gay-related content is “subjected to the same review by a board of censors”, as the Halimah delegation did in New York, is plain untrue. Untrue. The truth is that there are different, stricter standards applied. And what is that if not discrimination?
We have laws and policies that deny marriage to same-sex couples, which in turn means that when a woman needs healthcare to be paid for, her partner cannot help her with her Medisave savings unlike heterosexually-married couples. This financial impediment can hurt some women’s access to healthcare. You would have noticed that when Silvia Pimental asked a question about healthcare, the government said no discrimination existed. Untrue.
The same laws that deny marriage to same-sex couples have a huge financial impact on access to public housing. Only “family units” are considered eligible by the Housing and Development Board to buy new HDB flats. Young heterosexual couples can form family units by marriage, but gay couples cannot. They are then forced to go the HDB resale market, which we know is one where flats cost 50 – 100 percent more than new flats. If that is not grievous discrimination, what is?
The Education Ministry relies on Section 377A to deny sexuality education relevant to gay teenagers. The Home Affairs Ministry relies on it to deny event permits and foreign speaker permits. The Health Ministry relies on it to excuse themselves from conducting HIV-education targetted at and relevant to the gay community.
And there are still no mechanisms in place to provide effective recourse to anyone who feels discriminated against because of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, as required by CEDAW. A wide-ranging anti-discrimination law would be a good start.
What is not required by Cedaw is a bury-head-in-the-sand, dismissive attitude to real, systemic discrimination that gay people encounter every day of their lives.