Speech for Humanist of the Year 2012

Below is the speech delivered for the event on 23 June 2012 when yours truly was honoured by the Humanist Society (Singapore)  with the Humanist of the Year award. I was asked for something touching on “gay-rights issues/humanism/religiosity”.

Thank you very much for the honour. I think it’s very generous of the Society, though I would understand if it had been a difficult decision since I am a gay man. Some of you may wonder why it is such a big deal that I would open with a sentence about my sexual orientation. It is a big deal because the world in which I am living now makes it so.

But it shouldn’t be so, and it wouldn’t be so if we applied reason upon empirical knowledge, which is the very essence of humanism. To be gay is now known to be a completely natural phenomenon, inherently harmless.

Yet I am almost certain that some among you in this room still trip over my sexual orientation. At the same time, I am also glad to see that this gathering is open to exploring the ethical issues, if any, that spring from difference.However, I have no answers to give. I can only share with you what the world has taught me to see, in the hope that my perspective can throw a bit more light into this and other burning questions of this age.

* * * * *

It strikes many people as somewhat strange that I, like many other gay men, foreground my gayness as one of the key defining characteristics as a person. Well, there’s a simple reason for it. Those who are heterosexual live in a world where heterosexuality is normative: social conventions, expectations, law and institutions are built upon assumptions of heterosexuality. It’s as comfortable as wearing a right glove on your right hand. After a while, you’d hardly notice you have one on. But gay people have to go through life wearing the left glove on our right hand. There is no moment when we are not conscious of the misfit.

For those of you in this room who are heterosexual men, imagine for the sake of argument that you are living in a society where homosexuality is normative. What would it feel like?

You would grow up under family expectations that you would eventually settle down and marry another man. And raise a family with him. All your teenage – and adult – fantasies about sex with a woman, pleasurable though they may be in body and mind, would fill you with guilt and anxiety. You’ve been taught that it’s wrong. You don’t want to be discovered thinking those thoughts, let alone caught acting on them.

The gait and mannerisms that are entirely natural to you are mocked. So all your life you have to watch how to walk, how you stand, how to talk. The slightest slip, even the accidental use of the wrong pronoun would give away your “perversion”, and you may be subject to teasing, bullying, possibly violent bashing.

Even when you successfully conceal your desires, you keep hearing others speak disparagingly of people like you. You get the message: you’re immoral, a danger to little girls and a threat to civilisation generally.

Movies and sitcoms nauseatingly have only boy-boy or girl-girl relationships, and those couples are the ones with the happily ever after. Occasionally there is a heterosexual character, but he is never part of the happy ending. He is the butt of jokes, the villain or the sad sack.

You take up a job, and you find yourself having to choose: either to continue the fiction that you are homosexual and hope that nobody ever discovers the truth, or to be who you are, but at the risk that your job evaluation and promotion prospects may be undermined by it. You will never know because people can quietly discriminate against you without telling you to your face. In any case, it won’t be long before you are expected to show up at company functions with a same-sex spouse in hand. If you don’t, rumours will soon spread.

And then, in Singapore, there’s the question of getting an HDB flat. Government subsidies are dangled before you, provided you are married. And the rules are such that even if you do without the subsidies, and you remain single, you still can’t buy a flat in your own name from the resale market until you are 35.

So you think about getting married, but you have no idea how to woo another man, and all the while you’re dreaming about how to get a good lay with a woman. Even if you manage to get hitched, you have to consummate the marriage. That’s right, have sex with another man. And forswear, on pain of divorce, shame, unemployment, social ostracism and jail time, ever having sex with, or romancing, or even looking too longingly at a woman – for the rest of your life.

Tell me, if that were the case and you lived in such a society, would not your sexual orientation be a very, very big deal? Would it not define you in everything you do? Would it not shape your perspective on the world?

* * * * *

And yet, I’m not claiming to be shaped entirely by it.

In other respects, I am part of a comfortable, even complacent, majority. I am English-speaking and Chinese in a society that valorises these attributes. My childhood and adult life have been lived in middle-class indulgence. I am male in a society that extends privileges to males.

Lately I’ve even come to realise, with not a little amusement, that I have reached a stage in life when others are oddly deferential to me simply on account of my age. They think my opinions are wiser and better-formed because I’ve been around longer than they have (so, thank you for inviting me to speak). Gosh, they have little idea how often I doubt my own views.

Ensconced in comfort and swooning in flattery, one loses sight of other perspectives. It doesn’t come naturally to me to know how it feels to be an ethnic minority, how it feels to be female or struggling with poverty, what it means to be physically disabled, nor what it feels like to be a stunning beauty. Or for that matter, to be transgendered. I have to work at it. And I don’t dare claim that I have succeeded.

By the same token, I don’t expect heterosexual people to understand instinctively what it feels like to gay or how the world looks to us. It takes effort, and I am always appreciative when people make that effort.

* * * * *

But some people prefer easy answers, and some branches of some religions offer them. Invariably, these easy answers tend to be homophobic and condemnatory. Simultaneously, there is a tendency to say that “all religions are against homosexuality”, perhaps in an effort to claim universality of their teachings in this regard.

Yet, if one looks at the source scriptures of, say, Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism, you will hardly find anything judgemental about homosexuality. Even the scriptural passages cited in the Abrahamic religions to support a stand against homosexuality are often contested by biblical scholars.

You may also be interested to know that in some belief systems, albeit in now-marginalised cultures, the transgendered person is given pride of place. Among the Bissu people of Sulawesi – just to cite one example – she, with an equal complement of male and female characteristics within the same body is seen as the truly complete person, worthy of being the priestly interlocutor between the divine and the temporal.

On the other hand, even ardent atheists can be homophobic. All this suggests to us that it would be misplaced to blame religion for antipathy to homosexuality.

In fact, when we reflect upon it, it is not religion that creates the antipathy, it is the antipathy that corrupts religions.

* * * * *

How is this so? I think there are multiple origins to the institutionalised antipathy we see, not least of which is an urge to defend patriarchy from challenge. But today I want to focus on something a bit more provocative. A bit more sexy.

From one perspective, one could say we homo sapiens are no more than bags of chemicals, hostage to our neuronal architecture.

One consequence of this is that for many heterosexual men, there is a “yuck” reflex when confronted with male-male sexuality. Interestingly, I have never heard reports of an equivalent yuck effect when confronted with female-female sexuality, which is consistent with the fact that typical forms of lesbian porn, for example, are not consumed by lesbians, but are very much made for the straight male market.

This yuck reflex in heterosexual men vis-a-vis male-male sexuality has been aggregated and elevated into a cultural prohibition. But think for a moment what exactly is happening here. What has essentially been a bodily reaction has been made into moral commandments. Another way of putting it is this: we are using our basal selves as a measure of worth, of right and wrong, of other things and other people in this world; in effect, we are placing ourselves at the centre of the universe and judging and imposing rules on others by how we subjectively feel: “This is disgusting to me, therefore it is forbidden to you.”

How does that sit alongside another innate human sense – the sense of fairness?

Perhaps you may not realise it, but gay men also have a yuck reflex. Personally, I find images of female breasts quite repulsive – the larger they are, the more intense my revulsion – while painted long fingernails instantly put me on guard.

I suspect it’s only because there are relatively few gay men around that our kind of yuck reflex has not been elevated into a general cultural prohibition. Some of you may be grateful for that.

* * * * *

As social animals, we are also moulded by our environment. We acquire the tastes and distastes of people around us. All it takes is for some powerful or influential members of society to stake out a position either based on their basal instincts, or what they themselves have acquired through socialisation, and the rest of us shape our own opinions accordingly.

This shaping however, is only within the bounds of our hard-wiring. Thus, gay men do not turn straight however much heterosexuality we see around us, however much pressure is applied. But straight men, even if they are free of the yuck reflex (as well as most bisexual men, in my opinion) are soon inducted into the social conventions of their generation, and they too come to believe there is something superior about heterosexuality and something abominable about homosexuality.

Amazingly, there are people on this earth who are quite satisfied just stopping there. To them, it is enough being the creatures that such reflexes produce; it is enough to hold fast to unquestioned attitudes.

* * * * *

At this point, I need to say that while I have used the specific example of homosexuality, my intention is to point to a far wider scope of differences: People are of different skin colours, born into different cultures. There are those whose lives are shaped by poverty or lack of education. There are ex-prisoners, the physically maimed, the spastic and the autistic. And don’t forget the geniuses, some of whom may appear to us to be mad.

In relating to all of them, we can either use our hard-wired reflexes with no further reflection, or rely on social conventions to guide our behaviour, conventions which may lack understanding and be discriminatory and prejudicial.

But I am sure you will agree with me that we can and ought to do better.

We can apply our minds to higher ends. Faced with the mysteries of difference, we can sail out and search for empirical evidence why things are the way they are. We can apply reason, make deductions, and arrive at higher abstractions, including principles of ethical behaviour to guide us by.

We also have consciousness. It would be grossly irresponsible if we did not apply it introspectively, for there is a thin, thin line between the objective evaluation of evidence and a subjective selection, between reason and self-serving rationalisation. It is self-awareness that helps guard against our own flaws, but self-awareness needs to be assiduously cultivated.

Then there is imagination. It is imagination that has given us progress; it has always taken someone to conceive of that which is unknown or does not yet exist, and say to others, ‘let’s go there’, thus delivering a better world. Imagination can also be employed for empathy; in fact expanding empathy is a measure of progress. Whilst the fact is that it is not possible to be totally the other person and experiencing the world in different circumstances, we can momentarily imagine ourselves in his or her place; to walk in others’ shoes.

Every one of us has flaws, inadequacies, blind spots and brittle pride. Every one of us has been inducted to some degree into the conventions, and implanted the attitudes, for better or worse, of our society. But every one of us possesses the means to surmount them. We have intelligence, we have consciousness, we have imagination. All we need is a still moment of reflection to see where we are and glimpse where we ought to be, and by the light of that transcendent awareness, kindle the humanity that is perhaps our species’ true calling.

22 Responses to “Speech for Humanist of the Year 2012”

  1. 1 Civil Serpent 24 June 2012 at 11:47

    Bravo, really well said!

  2. 3 navydog 24 June 2012 at 13:12

    About the yuck reflex, thanks for bringing this up. I’ve never known how to discuss this without sounding homophobic which I am not. One of my best friends is gay and a few years ago I had to stay a few nights on his couch (long story here). Problem was his place had lots of pictures of nude men (very artistic though) on the walls and plenty of gay magazines, including porn lying around. I’ve known before that he collected such magazines and pictures but somehow knowing that as abstract information and having to live there a while is very different. I felt uncomfortable, but of course i had no right to start packing things up for him. Worst of all was the huge poster of a nude in the bathroom. It made it very hard for me to concentrate on whatever I was supposed to be doing. On the one hand, I knew these were only pictures, and carefully posed ones for that matter. I don’t have to look at them. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling a little icky about them, even a tiny sense of threat. It was so wierd, the conflict between my rational and emotional self.

    But it also made me wonder about the reverse situation: how imposed upon gay men must be with all those pictures and magazine covers featuring half-nude women all over the city!

    • 4 twasher 27 June 2012 at 07:03

      It is likely that you feel uncomfortable about the nudes because you are uncomfortable about the idea of men (“people like you”) being sexual objects. You are unused to being viewed through a primarily sexual lens. By the same logic, female nudes would make women who do not think of themselves as primarily sexual objects uncomfortable. The only reason why female nudes in the public realm are better tolerated is that there is a tendency in society to accept the treatment of women as primarily sexual objects, but not the treatment of men as primarily sexual objects. I highly doubt gay men feel uncomfortable about female nudes in the way you suppose.

  3. 5 S 24 June 2012 at 13:39

    So, I just wrote an extremely long response and lost it! I am very frustrated. I’ll try and repeat it below.

    Dear Alex,

    Firstly, as a longtime reader but not a commenter, I want to thank you for your work on this blog and elsewhere. You have helped make the world a little bit kinder, more empathic and more responsive to the needs of the underprivileged.

    That said, I was disturbed by your suggestion that straight men are innately disgusted by homosexuality, and conversely that gay men are ‘revolted’ by female bodies. It’s certainly possible that you have some kind of hardwired propensity to find breasts horrible. I’d like to ask you to consider, however, the (to my mind much stronger) probability that this is a response to cultural conditioning. Media and advertising are constantly pushing the message that the female form is inherently sexual, that the proper response of a man to a woman’s body is arousal, and that if he doesn’t feel that way, there’s something wrong with him.

    Might your feelings arise from your resistance to this sexual brainwashing, as opposed to women’s bodies being just plain awful? In my experience, once the hate and discrimination go away, the supposedly hardwired ‘yuck’ response goes as well.

    A bit about me: I don’t live in Singapore although I was born there, so perhaps I’m not well placed to comment on the particularities of that society. I’m female and somewhere in the middle of the Kinsey scale (have been in love with/sexually involved with women before but am currently with a man). Until recently, I lived in a sharehouse with a mix of openly gay and straight people, male and female. We were…er…not the most modest group, and often did things like wandering round half clothed, or spanking each other’s arses at unexpected moments (come on, it’s funny!). I frequently spanked, or was spanked by, my gay male housemate (also a dear friend) who himself was often found spanking and being spanked by the straight guy who lived with us. No disgust, no revulsion.

    From my point of view, saying that ‘gay men find women revolting’ is somewhat hurtful, although I know it’s not intentional. Women’s bodies, in the media and elsewhere, are always being criticised, sexualised and commodified – either you’re sexually desirable to men or you are disgusting, there’s no middle ground. I understand that gay men, in Singapore particularly, are often oppressed by awful people who want to ban gay sex because they think it’s ‘yuck’, but passing on this oppression to women is not the answer.

    I hope that you take this comment in the spirit of helpful discussion in which it is intended. Thank you again for all the work you do, and for a speech that apart from the aforementioned bits I found thoughtful and moving.



  4. 6 Erica 24 June 2012 at 17:35

    Congratulations Alex. Excellent speech, enabling others, through reason and compassion, to see the world through your eyes.

  5. 7 timebomber 24 June 2012 at 22:09

    Great speech, Alex. You truly deserve the award.

  6. 8 silvakandiah 24 June 2012 at 22:23

    How do we handle the fact that the penis or tongue are not designed for the anus nor does it lead to life?

    • 9 lobo76 25 June 2012 at 10:38

      I would say the same way you handled the ‘fact’ that the ridge of noses were not designed to support spectacles (for the short/long sighted)? nor ears for them to be hooked around?

      We DESIGNED the spectacles so that they fit. That’s all there is to it.

    • 10 walkie talkie 25 June 2012 at 12:34

      Dear Silvakandiah,

      The penis is designed for anything that one can practically put it to use. Same for the tongue. Same for the mouth.

      For example, the mouth’s use is not limited to eating, drinking and talking. It can be used to hold a paint brush to draw (some handicap artist do use their mouth to hold a brush to produce nice paintings).

      Even your tee-shirt, in certain appropriate situations, is used as a rag. Or used as a tool to put out an accidental fire that threatens to burn down your house if you do not act fast enough.

      Nothing morally wrong with using your penis in a way such as it does not produce life. Nothing morally wrong with using your mouth in a way such that goes far beyond eating, drinking and talking.

      Nothing wrong morally with sex done orally.

    • 11 Poker Player 25 June 2012 at 13:33

      Do your concerns extend to cases where the penis or tongue is attached to a man and the anus belongs to a woman?

    • 12 The 26 June 2012 at 10:33

      Well, silva, the condom is designed to fit the penis (or in your thinking, the penis was designed to fit the condom) and does it lead to life?

  7. 13 Anonymous 24 June 2012 at 23:21

    Congratulations. Thank you is all we can say.

  8. 14 dargen 25 June 2012 at 09:02

    Sibeh inspiring… thanks.

  9. 15 Dédé Oetomo 25 June 2012 at 09:23

    Great speech, Alex! Heartiest congratulations. Dédé Oetomo

  10. 16 dazzakoh (@dazzakoh) 25 June 2012 at 10:25

    And hence why he deserves the award… Thanks for voicing ideas I may have yet reached!

  11. 17 Poker Player 25 June 2012 at 14:11

    “Perhaps you may not realise it, but gay men also have a yuck reflex. Personally, I find images of female breasts quite repulsive – the larger they are, the more intense my revulsion – while painted long fingernails instantly put me on guard.”

    At the risk of sounding like a boor, aren’t many fashion designers gay men? I get the impression that far from being repulsive, women’s bodies are aesthetic objects to them (as opposed to being triggers for a biological response in most heterosexual men).

    • 18 Anon 115f 11 July 2012 at 16:22

      I believe everyone is made different. He finds boobs repulsive and I might find pussy repulsive. You might be okay with both. So it’s really different. I believe he only used that example to bring out a point..

  12. 19 VL 25 June 2012 at 19:07

    Dear Alex,

    I really enjoyed this piece 😉 however, although your imaginary society where homosexuality is the norm though compelling but alas, is just that. In the Singapore context, 377a has made you almost a second class citizen and for that reason, although I am an old fashion bible-believing guy ~ would stand with you to repeal this penal code.

  13. 20 Kilff 26 June 2012 at 12:25

    Congratulations and thank you for that wonderful speech!

    I really agree on the part where we as a modern society have to move beyond primitive “yuck” responses and outdated social conventions, but there is still a long way to go for Singapore. I can still remember the sexuality education (which was of course given by an outside vendor) I had in my JC school a few years back. When I saw that homosexuality was one of the topics that they were going to ‘discuss’ on, I thought it would be something of open for discussion. Instead, to my disgust, the speaker appealed to the students’ “yuck” response to indirectly imply that homosexuality is “unnatural”. Being a nation that boasts a world class education in science and maths, that encourages students to do critical thinking and solve problems, we are still backwards in tackling or even just discussing social issues in the classroom. However, I remain optimistic for the future as regardless of such sexuality education I have much friends who are open-minded and accepting of others. Hopefully as the next generation take the helm, we will be steering in the right direction.

  14. 21 Piggy 27 June 2012 at 12:24

    Hi, I like this part of the speech….”We also have consciousness. It would be grossly irresponsible if we did not apply it introspectively, for there is a thin, thin line between the objective evaluation of evidence and a subjective selection, between reason and self-serving rationalisation. It is self-awareness that helps guard against our own flaws, but self-awareness needs to be assiduously cultivated.”

  15. 22 chasbelov 1 July 2012 at 17:27

    Congratulations, Alex, and a fine speech.

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