Fifty shades of pink

Some countries consider gay marriage, but elsewhere attitudes harden

On the last Saturday in June the centre of Singapore’s very sober business district turned distinctly pink. Lesbians, gay men and others converged there for the annual celebration of what organisers call the “Freedom to Love”, also known as the “Pink Dot”, in honour of the “little red dot” that Singaporeans like to call their city-state. It was the fifth such event, and the biggest so far; at 21,000 people it was in fact the largest ever civil-society gathering in the well-policed country.

Activists were heartened by the turnout. This year the Pink Dot also boasted multinational sponsors such as Google and Barclays bank, and was tacitly endorsed by the government. Yet if the day’s popularity provides evidence that attitudes towards homosexuality are changing in this generally conservative part of the world, in other respects many South-East Asian societies remain as prejudiced against gays as ever. As some countries take the first hesitant steps towards legalising gay marriage, the final endorsement of gay rights, others seem to be growing less tolerant.

The two countries in the vanguard of liberalisation are Thailand and (more surprisingly) Vietnam, both largely Buddhist. Thailand has long been known for its sexual freedoms, decriminalising homosexuality in 1956. Now a bill is being debated to overturn the ban on gay marriage. It would be the first country in Asia to do so.

Vietnam is notorious for squashing individual rights. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the ruling Communist Party is much more relaxed. Le Quang Binh, a prominent gay activist, says that the gay-rights movement has been the country’s most successful organised social movement in the past few years. The justice ministry is now proposing a modification to the law on marriage and family that would overturn a ban on same-sex marriage. The national assembly is due to debate the new proposals in October. Still, activists point out that the government’s position is not black-and-white. It is chiefly motivated by a desire to guarantee property and child-custody rights for cohabiting homosexual couples. The government is unlikely to go the whole way and legalise gay marriage.

This reflects an official ambivalence about gay rights that can be found across South-East Asia. Take Singapore. For all Pink Dot’s success, and a general openness about homosexuality among many, especially younger, Singaporeans, the government still keeps one of the most draconian, colonial-era laws against homosexuality on the statute books. Section 377A of the penal code criminalises sexual acts between men, in private or public.

The law was upheld after a debate in parliament in 2007, and as recently as April in the High Court, after two gay men challenged it as unconstitutional. Defenders of Section 377A argue that it reflects the feelings of the majority of Singaporeans—although they also point out that it is never actually enforced. Maybe, but Corrina Lim, a rights activist, argues that it still has a chilling effect on “any mention or discussion” of homosexuality in schools and other public institutions. Censorship guidelines also exist for the media, in order to prevent the promotion of homosexuality. Overall, Ms Lim argues, “the atmosphere is not tolerant here”.

Pushing back against frequent calls to repeal Section 377A are Singapore’s growing evangelical mega-churches. Some of them have formed an alliance called “Love Singapore”, which campaigns against any further relaxation of the law in favour of gay and lesbian rights. Their big congregations are influential in forming mainstream opinion in the city-state.

Religion has also long dictated attitudes towards gay and lesbian rights in neighbouring Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority and outlaws homosexuality. The signs are that, if anything, the country is becoming less tolerant. Last year the education ministry published guidelines for helping parents spot any “symptoms” of homosexuality in their children. These included, for boys, wearing V-neck and sleeveless shirts, as well as “hanging out” with “big handbags, similar to those used by women”. The guidelines provoked anger and derision in equal measure. Didn’t the Malaysian authorities know that large handbags were out?

Indonesia, which has the world’s biggest Muslim population, also shows marks of growing intolerance. The country has a secular constitution, and homosexuality is legal in every province bar Aceh. Yet a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 93% of Indonesians surveyed felt that homosexual people “should not be accepted”. In sum, even if Thailand pioneers the legalisation of gay marriage, few of its Asian neighbours will be eager to follow suit

Source – The Economist