Gay equality helps fight HIV, but don’t oversell it

In his one-hour talk on 31 May 2011, Australian Justice Michael Kirby (retired) engaged the audience from the Law Society with three key issues as requested by Society president Michael Hwang: the advantages of a having a permanent Law Reform Commission, when and how to refer to evolving international jurisprudence in deciding domestic cases and the legacy of anti-gay statutes from the days of the British Empire.

Kirby is perhaps Australia’s best-known judge from its apex court and is currently a member of the Commonwealth of Nations’ Eminent Persons Group looking into the future of the organisation.

With humour enlivening a lucid discussion of the issues, at many points grounded on specific cases he had decided in the course of his long career, the hour flew swiftly by. In the main, his very talk validated a point he made right at the beginning: that early in his own career, he surprised himself by learning a lot through taking time off to attend esoteric talks and seminars once in a while.

There was however one weak argument. It bothered me that  it alone could damage much of what he said in the third part — on anti-gay legislation. Referring to the fact that over forty of the 54 members of the Commonwealth have laws equivalent to our Section 377A  of the Penal Code or our old Section 377, whereas non-Commonwealth countries do not (except those from the Arab World, drawing their legal tradition from Islam), Kirby pointed out that two-thirds of the world’s HIV cases are found in Commonwealth countries, when the Commonwealth has one-third of the world’s population.

He expanded this argument  by explaining how criminalisation creates social conditions that compel gay people to remain invisible; this in turn makes it very hard for health information and services to reach them — and that is if governmental services are even prepared to try to do so. The world over, bureaucrats would not be keen to be seen condoning criminal behaviour. This is certainly a good description of the situation in Singapore and many other countries. This criticism of laws against homosexuality is not new; it has been made many times before by any number of organisations including UNAids.

The problem is that while anti-gay legislation does indeed have this adverse effect on the health of gay and transgendered communities, a cursory look at the pattern of the HIV epidemic in Commonwealth countries will reveal that most cases are transmitted heterosexually. Kirby did try to enlarge his point by saying that anti-gay laws are just one example of the kinds of laws and policies that marginalise people at risk, e.g. sex workers, or women generally, all blunting efforts at outreach to their respective segments of society, but this mention was so quick in passing, I was afraid people might not have digested it. And that all they were left with was the impression that he had claimed anti-gay laws were the cause of the much higher incidence of HIV in Commonwealth countries. In the general case, that claim does not stand, no matter how pertinent it is to HIV among gay and transgendered people.

* * * * *

I am always concerned about over-reaching when it comes to arguments for gay equality. In the years 2003 – 2005, many gay Singaporeans, heartened by the references that ministers and the Straits Times made about Richard Florida’s book The rise of the creative class, began to adopt the same economic framework to argue for gay equality and the repeal of Section 377A.  The reduction of gay equality to a matter of economic benefit troubled me. Even worse were references to the Pink Dollar, with the unstated characterisation of gay people as better off than average (Where’s the evidence? I asked) and mindlessly consumerist.

Likewise, I am uncomfortable with too much focus on the health benefits of repeal. Firstly, the benefits can be limited because there are plenty of other factors that impact on the effectiveness of health services, and secondly, it misses the point. People who favour anti-gay legislation do so not because they primarily want to damage the health of gay people. There are a whole host of other reasons that still need addressing.

However difficult, we cannot shirk from the most fundamental reason for repeal of Section 377A and gay equality in general: Equality is a human right, and to impair equality for one group today would undermine the claim to equality for all other groups tomorrow.

* * * * *

For a brief 24 hours around the time Kirby was speaking inside the Supreme Court Auditorium, his own country, Australia, was providing an example of both the weakness and strength of his argument.

Australia, just in case some readers don’t know, does not have anything like our Section 377A that makes “gross indecency between two males” a criminal offence. In that sense, it is free from anti-gay legislation. Still, it is far from paradise. Homophobic groups continue to exist and to exert themselves.

The above photo is of an advertisement that was up on bus stops around Brisbane for barely a week before they were taken down.

HIV campaigners are outraged a safe sex promotion featuring a fully clothed, hugging gay couple has been pulled from Queensland bus shelters.

The Queensland Association for Healthy Communities launched its “Rip and Roll” advertisements a week ago and today learned they were being scrapped after about 30 complaints.

The adverts feature a black and white image of a gay couple embracing, holding an unopened red condom packet.

It includes the website address and hotline for Healthy Communities, which has been receiving state government funding for sexual health promotion since 1988.

Adshel, the company that provides advertising for Brisbane’s bus shelters; Goa Billboards; and the Advertising Standards Bureau were targeted in an orchestrated campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Healthy Communities executive director Paul Martin said it was extremely disheartening that Adshel had buckled.

— Herald-Sun, 31 May 2011, HIV ads pulled from Brisbane bus shelters, by AAP. Link.

Adshel did not even consult the advertiser QAHC before removing the ads.

Some of the letters have now been posted on QAHC’s website. All it takes is a quick read of the first few to notice that certain phrases were common to them, strongly suggesting that they were based on a template or a few “talking points”. In Singapore we call such an attempt to mimic broadly-based sentiment “astroturfing”. Common phrases found in several letters include: “two homosexual men in an act of foreplay”, “a very high risk of serious disease”, “pre-sexualising my children”, “situated at a set of lights where parents are forced to stop with their children in the car.”

It wasn’t long before the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) owned up to organising the email campaign.

ACL Queensland director Wendy Francis said she objected to the sexual nature of the ads, not the fact the couple pictured were gay.

Ms Francis was last year forced to apologise publicly after a Tweet likening gay marriage to legalising child abuse.

Then a Family First candidate for the Senate, she claimed the Tweet was sent from her office, but not by her.

She said the decision by Adshel to remove the ads was a win for parents and children.

“They show two young homosexual men in some sort of act of foreplay,” Ms Francis said.

— ibid.

HIV campaigners quickly organised to fight back. A protest was held outside Adshel’s headquarters.

Within a day, Adshel reversed its decision and began reinstating the ads. Explaining the move, the company issued a statement on its website: “Adshel earlier responded to a series of complaints by removing the campaign from its media panels yesterday.

“None of the complaints indicated any liaison with the ACL, so Adshel was made to believe that they originated from individual members of the public.”

After it became clear that it had been a co-ordinated ACL campaign, Adshel chief executive Steve McCarthy said that it “led us to review our decision to remove the campaign and we will therefore reinstate the campaign with immediate effect.”

Matthew Sini wrote a cutting commentary in The Drum Opinion:

Wendy Francis is Helen Lovejoy. Don’t know who Helen Lovejoy is? Don’t worry, Wendy probably doesn’t know either. Helen Lovejoy is a character from The Simpsons, the wife of the local pastor. She shrieks ‘somebody PLEASE think of the children!’ hysterically in the middle of discussions that has nothing to do with “the children.” That’s you, Wendy. You’re Helen Lovejoy.

She was ‘thinking of the children’ when she and the organisation she represents in Queensland, the Australian Christian Lobby, pressured the advertising company Adshel to take down posters from bus shelters that promoted safe sex.

* * * * *

This incident weakened Kirby’s argument from the way homophobia was shown to be alive and well in his home country. Removing anti-gay laws does not remove anti-gay prejudice. But it strengthened his argument many times over in the quick reversal of the decision, and the demonstration by HIV groups and public bodies (Advertising Standards Bureau) of their commitment to equality when carrying out their missions.

In Singapore, our public servants (and I dare say, most corporate chiefs) would not even dream of standing up to conservative Christian lobby groups should such an ad be proposed. And that difference, that reluctance to address sex openly (gay and straight), shows. On a per capita basis, Singapore has 2.6 times the number of new HIV cases annually compared to Australia.  In 2009, there were 463 new cases of HIV infection among Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents (3.77 million people), working out to a rate of 123 new cases per million population. In Australia, the same year, there were 1,050 new cases of HIV for a population of 22.6 million. That works out to a rate of 46 new cases per million population.

21 Responses to “Gay equality helps fight HIV, but don’t oversell it”


  1. 1 Caculon 2 June 2011 at 06:39

    Am I right to say prostitution is legal in Singapore and brothels exist, in comparsion, what is the statistic for STDs in both countries?

  2. 2 Hollie 2 June 2011 at 08:30

    I really enjoyed this article! The sentiments are right on point – anti-gay legislation change does not equate to anti-gay prejudice changes. For the many who say the issue is tiring, I say to them, reduce/ stop the prejudice and you’ll see the issue die out.

    Living in Brisbane I know many gay people here and can see they are still struggling with the balance between legal rights and social prejudices. Granted they and I would never prefer legal prejudice so we all feel sadness for Singaporeans. I hope that if more nations, especially Commonwealth, promote acceptance and normalize gay rights, then Singapore would follow. the only other hope is that new politicians will take over and think differently.

    I often educate people on the higher rate of HIV among uneducated and heterosexual groups. The ridiculous notion of HIV being a “gay” disease is just radical group propaganda and I hope more people can turn away from their own discomfort about sexuality to see the greater problem that is disease spread through unsafe sexual practices among ALL people.

  3. 3 wH 2 June 2011 at 10:32

    we have to think about how it would affect our country’s military and education circles. for e.g. allowing homosexuals to express themselves freely would definitely affect our soldiers, and also all-boys’ schools and the male gay teachers employed. i wouldnt go into details, but one wuld have an inkling what im talking about.

    • 4 Poker Player 2 June 2011 at 12:51

      Heterosexual men and women work in the military and education circles. Are they allowed to express themselves freely?

      Look up “strawman”.

    • 5 paul.g 2 June 2011 at 12:52

      If there’s any effect, it’ll be a good one. It’s called Tolerance and Acceptance of Diversity.

    • 6 jem 2 June 2011 at 14:50

      Countries around the world which allow gays in their armies haven’t fallen apart (e.g. Canada). Neither have their schools, either. So, you fail, basically.

      Also, you only seem to be concerned about males. Sounds like you belong to a certain group. I wouldn’t go into details, but one would have an inkling about what I’m talking about.

    • 7 Zhoux 2 June 2011 at 15:06

      “i wouldnt go into details, but one wuld have an inkling what im talking about.”

      This is a classic argumentative technique by radical conservatives. Refuse to go into specifics, knowing that spelling out your argument in full will only expose how laughably weak it is. So instead, you resort to innuendo and insinuation to make your point.

      Obviously you are trying to imply that allowing gay male teachers at boy schools will somehow lead to predatory behaviour? By the same logic, you should be against allowing heterosexual male teachers to teach at girl schools too.

  4. 8 Tasha 2 June 2011 at 11:39

    QLD Premier Anna Bligh spoke out today codemning the advertisers’ decision to pull down the bill boards. I think that it is completely hypocritical to advertise safe sex and a hotline for legitimate health concerns (regardless of the gender of the models used) when there are billboards in residential areas (and those big billboards, not the little bus shelter ones) advertising things like “LONGER LASTING SEX” and hotlines to scams that defraud people out of their money adn prey on their insecurities. They aren’t removed anytime soon. Nevermind the hypocrisy surrounding homosexuality, if it was a guy kissing a girl’s neck, it would be a LYNX advert. I also agree there is a misnomer about HIV still being the ‘gay man’s disease’, the kind of argument that should have been done and dusted many many decades ago. Unfortunately, it isnt ‘note-worthy’ to show a ‘normal’ couple – heterosexual – struggling with HIV. And it certainly isn’t glamorous to show someone getting HIV from stepping on a needle, getting a tattoo, sharing needles, or dodgy blood transfusions, or getting raped. Which is probably one of the surprisingly more common methods of transmission in the world.

    Unfortuantely, as for the anti-gay groups, they are on the bandwagon about anything that goes against conservative ideologies and unfortunately, people will often listen to what they have to say without considering it themselves.

    I am glad that Australia (as an Australian) does not criminalise homosexuality but I think that we have a very long way to go as a country to remove some of our more dark social ills including homophobia, hypocrisy on the treatment of men and women (including domestic and sexual violence), racism and religious-racism (where the religion overrides the ethnicity). *Sigh* there is a long long long way to go…

  5. 9 wH 2 June 2011 at 21:38

    my sincere apologies, im not trolling nor am i seeking to antagonise and provoke anybody.

    what i meant in the military context was actually relevant towards sg in general. one has to take into account that most of sg’s army is made up of young men ranging from 19-22 who spend only 2 years with the army. there are strict rules which restrict self-pleasuring and pornography. bringing this point into perspective, i am afraid that we young men may not be welcome to the idea of sharing showers and bunks with homosexual buddies. moreover, i know of many peers who have declared their homosexuality and prefer to a lifestyle of a non-combatant for the rest of their 2 years. my point being is that, being more of a militia part-time conscripted army, it may not be viable for homosexuals to work in sg’s army.

    • 10 Brendan 3 June 2011 at 02:08

      I might be off topic here but I would like to give my 2 cents worth since we are down this path so here I go babbling….

      I think the issue here is not so much about serving openly in the military, but rather the discrimination by asking people whether they are gay or not before enlisting.

      I agree with the commenter that all forms of homosexuality should be off limits in the military (esp. during oficial duty), and penpetrators should be discharged, or in the case of a conscript army like us – demoted or transferred out.

      But at the same time I feel that no military should voluntarily ask their servicemen if they are homosexual as this tentamounts to discrimination.

      In fact, the US Army model of Don’t Ask, Dont Tell very law strives to protect gays themselves from discrimination of coming out. IMHO, it’s wrong for Americans to ask for it’s repeal.

      But gays are not satisfied and would like to ask for a mile, given an inch. That is probably waht some conservatives here are concerned about. If we repeal 377A, then what’s next ? Will it be allowing such behavior in public ?

      • 11 yawningbread 3 June 2011 at 12:24

        The US’ Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy has been scrapped. After a series of adverse court judgements, the Obama administration earlier this year abandoned the policy of discharging openly gay servicemen and women from the military. After a few more implementation directives expected over the next few months, the US military will be a fully integrated force sexual-orientation-wise.

      • 12 Gard 3 June 2011 at 14:26

        I might be off topic here but I would like to give my 2 cents worth since we are down this path so here I go babbling….

        I think the issue here is not so much about discriminating flagrantly in the military, but rather the implicit prejudice by assuming and expecting everyone to be heterosexist during enlistment.

        I agree with the commenter that all forms of discrimination should be off limits in the military (esp. during official duty), and perpetrators should be discharged, or in the case of a conscript army like us – demoted or transferred out.

        At the same time I feel that no military should voluntarily ask their service personnel to hide their sexual orientation as this tantamount to discrimination.

        In fact, the US Army model of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell very law strives to shroud heterosexists themselves from public recognition and outcry against latent discrimination. IMHO, it’s correct for Americans to ask for its repeal.

        That is probably what some heterosexists here are concerned about. If we fail to repeal 377A, what’s next? Will it be mean the death of heterosexism?

      • 13 Tryathlete 3 June 2011 at 14:39

        Brendan, what is ‘such behaviour’? Could you please specify with some precision what it is you think that is so dangerous that lies down that oh so awful slippery slope?

        Also, you think dadt was a good thing by trapping gay servicemen in their closets. Think about why the closet exists at all.

      • 14 Poker Player 3 June 2011 at 18:08

        “But gays are not satisfied and would like to ask for a mile, given an inch. ”

        This argument can be used against any form of moral progress.

        Maybe you won’t understand it unless you yourself are a victim.

        Look up “Chinese Exclusion Act”. Continue the thought experiment with:

        A white congressman says:
        “But Chinese are not satisfied and would like to ask for a mile, given an inch.” So no repeal. Not because the law itself is fair or unfair, but because Chinese people may ask for more after you give in to this one.

        BTW, I keep seeing this kind of argument over and over again. What do Singaporeans learn in University? Surely they have sat in a class discussing logical fallacies.

    • 15 jem 3 June 2011 at 08:54

      But you already ARE sharing showers and bunks with homosexual buddies. You just don’t know it. Do you really think every single gay person declares?

      Anyway, nowadays declaring doesn’t automatically mean you get assigned a non-combatant role. Or that our ‘combatants’ actually go into wars…

    • 16 laïcité 5 June 2011 at 03:30

      Basically, your point is that it is a bad idea for homosexuals to work in the army because majority of Singapore’s young men are not comfortable with sharing showers and bunks with homosexuals?

      Well then that is *their* problem, isn’t it? Homophobia is something for homophobes to get over, not something for homosexuals to compromise to.

      Going by that logic, if I am uncomfortable with working and living alongside Indians or Muslims, the answer is to prevent them from interacting with me? Isn’t it better to force me to get over my own bigoted self?

      Moreover, I am quite sick of the stereotypical “straight man” argument that they fear being leered at by homosexuals. It is quite egotistical to assume that just because someone is gay, he will immediately lust after you, of all people. I highly doubt a majority of men would be attractive enough to legitimately make that argument, and I highly doubt every scenario (even in a shower) must immediately be a sexual situation simply because a homosexual man is present.

  6. 17 wH 2 June 2011 at 21:46

    what i meant about education mainly revolved how heterosexual and homosexual teachers may impart relationship knowledge differently. personally, i feel that a teacher would be more inclined to teach someone the basics and fundamentals of relationships via their own experiences and views. again, not trying to provoke anyone, but not all parents would be open to children receiving to that.

    • 18 Tryathlete 3 June 2011 at 02:35

      Because you think homosexuality is a choice? Because homophobes’ right to avoid being exposed to uncomfortable ideas or situations trumps a human being’s rights to be free of unjustified discrimination? Come on, out with it. And don’t hide behind your ‘many peers’, or ‘not all parents’. Own your own opinions!

    • 19 jem 3 June 2011 at 08:51

      When I was in school, many of my heterosexual teachers tried to teach us the basics and fundamentals of relationships in a heterosexual manner. Of course, this was irrelevant to me.

      Based on this, can I demand that we do not have any heterosexual teachers?

      • 20 Tasha 3 June 2011 at 15:16

        It might depend on the people teaching more than anything, our year 9 biology teacher taught a co-ed class about using condoms and basic sex-ed, and he was bright red for teaching 14 year olds how to roll a condom down a zucchini. This is someone who had 2 kids and was married, but was still embarrassed about imparting the information.

        I can’t comment directly on teaching ‘relationships’ because I attended an Anglican school, where we had a group come speak to us about the values of abstinence in the eyes of God (I think there is a Family Guy episode parodying this particular type of traveling performing group), but on a slightly related note, I had a devout Christian creationist (who might have even been a young-earther) teaching evolution in year 11 because it was in the state (secular) curriculum, he openly stated at the beginning of the semester – “i don’t believe in evolution of man from apes, but I am obliged to teach it, so I will teach it to the best of my abilities” I respected his openness and willing to be so professional about something that he truly didn’t believe in.

    • 21 Gard 3 June 2011 at 09:36

      1) Could you specify the differences between the homosexual teacher and the heterosexual teacher in teaching relationships to students?

      2) Do you see the teacher in having a role in offering the students alternative ways of looking and thinking about things, which may not necessarily agree with the parents’ position? Say, evolution vs creationism? Relationship with money?

      3) Finally, I agree with you that there are hurdles to overcome in allowing homosexuals to serve openly; but if your concern is directed at the minority homosexuals who might face discrimination or bullying by the majority heterosexuals in the army or in the schools, would you stand up to the bullies and speak out against injustice like a real army man?


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