Ten years ago, I would have been quick to write, with great agitation, about letters such as the one by a Josephine Tay, published in the Straits Times on 26 November 2011. She took issue with naming an orchid after Elton John, suggesting that the move signalled open encouragement and endorsement by the government.
Now, I am still annoyed with battle-axes like her, but no longer greatly. My pouncing reflexes are not what they used to be. Perhaps I am mellower with age, but mostly, it’s a sense that the crest of the mountain has been crossed. There’s still much rough ground to cover before we reach the end of the journey, if indeed we even know what “end” means, but the incline is such that the risk of sliding backwards just because someone is pushing against us is much smaller.
First, let’s see what she wrote:
I read with great disappointment that Elton John has been given the honour of having an orchid named after him (Orchid Named After Elton John, Prime, Nov 19). I am dismayed that his partner David Furnish and their adopted son Zachary (both right with John) were also publicised to ‘share his honour’.
There are other celebrities and dignitaries more deserving than this pair. Singapore would be seen in a much better light on the world stage if, for example, recent F1 champion Sebastian Vettel had been accorded this privilege instead.
Is homosexuality to be openly encouraged and endorsed by the Government?
— Straits Times Life! (mailbag), 26 Nov 2011
Actually, she destroyed her own message by the third sentence. Does she really think that Sebastian Vettel, a race car driver, is a more prominent and worthy person than Elton John? Racing cars is a sport for the rich, but Elton John, through his life’s work, has given much sweet happiness to hundreds of millions. As someone said on Facebook, there’s a reason why Elton John has been knighted. It speaks volumes about her judgement.
Ten years ago, I would have responded to Josephine Tay’s last question by pointing out that sexual orientation is not a choice; it can neither be encouraged or spread. Today, I am rather inclined to say Yes. Not quite Yes, it is to be openly encouraged and endorsed by the government, but Yes, ordinary people from all walks of life are actually beginning to do little things in their own way, to promote acceptance and even celebration of diversity.
More importantly, increasing numbers of other people, including civil servants, when faced with suggestions that so-and-so be nominated for this-or-that, say Why not? even though they all know that he or she is gay or lesbian. It is a non-issue in their minds.
A decision to name an orchid after Elton John would have gone through a process, though how many people it involved and how high up it went I don’t know. That it went through a process with different people involved, tells you that we are looking at the effects of broad attitudinal change.
What is happening in Singapore parallels, though with considerable lag, what has happened in the UK and US.
Surveys of social attitudes by NatCen in Britain have included this question every two or three years: Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are (a) always/mostly wrong, (b) sometimes wrong, (c) rarely wrong, (d) not wrong at all.
In 1983, 62 percent said it was “always/mostly wrong”. Only 16 percent said it was “not wrong at all”. Fourteen years on, in the 2007 survey, only 36 percent said it was “always/mostly wrong” and 39 percent said it was “not wrong at all”. Another 10 percent in 2007 said it was “rarely wrong”.
In the United States,
The rise in support for same-sex marriage has been especially dramatic over the last two decades. It went from 11 percent approval in 1988 to 46 percent in 2010, compared to 40 percent who were opposed, producing a narrow plurality in favor for the first time. The report is based on findings of the latest General Social Survey, conducted in 2010 with a cross sample of more than 2,000 people.
“There is a large generation gap on the issue [of same-sex marriage],” Smith said. While 64 percent of those under 30 back same-sex marriage, only 27 percent of those 70 and older support it.
Acceptance of homosexuality in general also reflects the generational difference in opinion. In 2010, 26 percent of the people surveyed who were under 30 said they felt homosexual behavior is “always wrong,” while 63 percent of the people aged 70 and older held that opinion.
As a result of the generational division, public attitudes are sharply divided on the issue. Although 44 percent of the people surveyed felt that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, another 41 percent thought such relations were “not wrong at all.”
— UChicagoNews, 28 Sept 2011, Americans move dramatically toward acceptance of homosexuality, survey finds. Link
We have an added problem in Singapore — the government. We have a government that draws its parliamentary members disproportionately from Christian ranks — and churches have been at the vanguard of anti-gay hate spreading — but is also one that no longer knows how to lead, especially on social issues. Complicating the situation is the government’s general antipathy to advancement of human rights in Singapore. So long as the government sees strengthening human rights as a threat to its dominance, it is going to try to close off avenues provided by such arguments for any cause.
That said, there is a glimmer of hope from the constitutional challenge being mounted by M Ravi against Section 377A of the Penal Code. We’re still waiting for a decision by the Court of Appeal on a procedural question, but from various reports, the counsel for the Attorney-General’s Office was verbally manhandled by the judge during the most recent hearing. Was it a sign of the judge’s thinking?
It’s only a glimmer precisely because of the point I made above — that human rights (or even constitutional rights, in this case) are seen as threatening to the political order. Judges, for all their intellect and independence, are necessarily conscious of the political context, and not just in Singapore, but even in the US. Ultimately, they are being asked to interpret, and it is impossible to divorce interpretation from the wider social and political context.
Ah, “social context”. To the extent that it is evolving, it too will figure in judicial decisions. Can one calculate that, just like how a proposal to name an orchid after Elton John, or publish a photo in the Straits Times showing the entire family together are indicative of a general shrugging of shoulders, so if the Supreme Court ultimately rules that Section 377A is unconstitutional, the cabinet would shrug its shoulders too?
Coming back to orchids, Elton John is not the first gay person to have an orchid named after him in Singapore. There is at least Ricky Martin, who in 2003 posed with a pot of Renaglottis Ricky Martin (see photo at right). Does anyone have a close-up of the flower?
At the time, the hip-thrusting latino superstar was not yet publicly out, though even then rumours were circulating. But now that he is out and a father of twin boys (announced August 2008) via surrogate pregnancy, what does Josephine Tay think? Is she going to hire a lawyer to demand that Martin surrender the orchid?
Oh, and since the above photo of Ricky Martin is most uncharacteristic of him, here’s a better one: