Friday, April 11, 2008

Homosexuality in Singapore: Only a case of religious-motivated homophobia?

Wrote an essay for one module recently. It could probably be considered a spin-off of my thesis, which focused on the newspaper representation of sexual minorities. This essay problematises homophobia and the criticism of homophobia in Singapore - it may not be purely motivated by religion, but a host of other factors too. Have a fun read. Hope it's not too dense because it's for a sociology class.

Homosexuality in Singapore: Only a case of religious-motivated homophobia?

In my 2005 interview with Joanna Hoe-Koh, vice-president of Focus on the Family Singapore, she said, “Homosexuality in any religion, not only Christianity, is a sin, and morally it is wrong,” and proceeds to say that this was congruent with the fundamental beliefs of her organisation. Is religion behind homophobia and the control of homosexuality in Singapore?

The attribution of “sin”, “unnatural”, “wrong” and “immoral” to an identifiable trait that is homosexuality, informs of the heterocentric language that resides within a socio-religious space. Saussurean structural linguistics would ascertain that these labels are just mere reconfigurations of a static system of language provided to a people at a point in time, wherein the heterocentric parole is crafted from the available langue. The sociological imagination (Mills, 1967) does not stop here. We have to analyse the structures, apparatuses and mechanisms that influence such a linguistic reconfiguration to acquire a heteronormative spin.

A preliminary understanding of deviance is firstly required. Homosexuality, existing within a heteronormative matrix, transgresses cultural norms and becomes socially ascribed with deviant meanings and properties. Through labels and social categorisation, society has found a way to deal with this form of liminality (Douglas, 1966). In this process, society comes to identify homosexuals as “outsiders” (Becker, 1963) or as subjects existing in the outer limits of the “charmed circle” (Rubin, 2002). Using Becker’s (1963) concept of deviance, homosexuality is a rule-breaker, flouting the rules which reflect certain social norms held by the majority of society. The perceived breaking of such rules will result in the labeling of deviance by persons in positions of power.

Davies (1997) has examined the establishment and sustenance of socio-religious boundaries for the maintenance of order, as however defined by religious leaders. Anthropological concepts figure extensively in his paper. It has to be noted that studies in linguistics influenced anthropology. Boundaries, according to him, help maintain the distinction between “fundamental categories of human experience” (p.40), such as human/animal and male/female, and also justify the condemnation and punishment for those who disobey. Such socio-religious boundaries are observed to be strongly maintained in communities which have undergone generations of ‘social inoculation’ (i.e. exile, persecution), such as the Jews and Parsees, who place great emphasis on keeping apart separate categories, for example, clean/unclean, insider/outsider, natural/unnatural. Mechanisms of discipline, cure, excommunication and punishment will act to deal with any threat to these boundaries and categories.

Max Weber will contend that human beings are rational meaning-seeking and meaning-creating creatures. Such rationality will justify the presence of boundaries, about which meaning and sense-making are circumscribed and enframed. The conceptualisation of sexual deviance is a form of sense-making that allows for the creation of some sense of social order.

Across various disciplines, there is a common understanding of the disciplinary nature of structure and society. Antonio Gramsci contends that hegemonic culture is sustained through coercion and consent of a people, and in this case, also involving their internalisation of dominant gender norms and sex roles. Louis Althusser notes the presence of ideological and repressive state apparatuses, mechanisms which seek to discipline society. The Freudian tradition asserts that society is the superego, which acts to regulate the id that is natural human desires. Structure does play a role in institutionalising homophobia and oppressing homosexuality.

Emile Durkheim (1915) sees religion as separating the sacred from the profane. In this perspective, religion crafts the socially desirable identity. Whichever attribute that falls outside the desirable, will find itself on the opposite end of the dichotomy. Religion serves to maintain an orderly distinction between the desirable self and the undesirable other – the heterosexual being and the homosexual deviant.

Religious leaders are important in maintaining the continuity of religious orthodoxy and societal observation of religious values. Religious leaders, being pious ‘vessels’ for their respective religious ideologies, will be most concerned to condemn deviant sexual practices, which basically are anything but a man-woman sexual relationship. The presence of leaders brings to light the notion of power relations and power disparity within the religious community, and also the issue of surveillance and discipline (see Foucault, 1975; Rabinow 1984). Wesolowski (1962) believes the unequal distribution of authority is a necessary condition for the regulation of social life in groups, and hence bringing about social order.

Socio-religious institutions and boundaries provide the necessary markers and definitions for episteme and morality, contributing to a creation of a natural order and its maintenance. Silverstein (2006) have found that with the “foundation of conservative religion to support the window out of which one looks upon the development of lust” (pp. 253), mental health professionals have resorted to following techniques: Surgically transplanting testicular cells from a heterosexual man into the testes of a gay man (Schmidt, 1984; Wolff, 1986); castration of gay men (Bremer, 1959); implanting stereotaxic leads into the brain of a gay man (Moan and Heath, 1972); cerebral ablation of “sexual deviants” (Rieber and Sigusch, 1979; Schmidt and Schorsch, 1981); androgen replacement (Tennent, Bancroft and Cass, 1974); aversive conditioning, including electrical, chemical and covert (Cautela, 1967; McConaghy, 1969; Bancroft, 1974); hypnosis (Freund, 1977); and psychoanalysis (Bergler, 1956). Treating and curing a society ridden with the illness of homosexuality is an aim toward restoring a sense of social order.

The concept of illness, as ascribed upon homosexuality, is one major component in the values system of the homophobic religious institution. Medical and scientific truths become intertwined with religious doctrine, and internalised by devotees. Homosexuality is thus still seen as reversible and treatable through reparative therapy, a move encouraged by Liberty League, Exodus and the religious right. The medicalisation of homosexuality diverts away attention from the institutions and structures which discipline it.

The socio-religious institutions and boundaries have mechanisms which avert any suspicion of their complicity in treating homosexuality as a reversible trait. In viewing sexual deviance as a choice and lifestyle, members of moral communities residing within these boundaries see homosexuality as a ‘repent’-able sin, a temporary state of confusion, a lapse in moral vigilance or an erroneous transgression of established moral boundaries, remediable through submission to the dominant moral authority and conformance with dominant group values and norms. This is how structure comes to influence group relations, wherein the problem that is homosexualism becomes depoliticised and individualised, and it is the obligation of the moral community to rectify it.

The increase in visibility of and debate on homosexuality in Singapore is a result of a host of reasons. Among them is the economic imperative of the PAP government as articulated in a release by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2003 on the non-discriminatory employment policies of the civil service. The post-independence nation-building rhetoric of pragmatism and ‘the need to survive’ still resonates in such discourses.

Internet technology and media savviness have loosened the state’s iron grip on political discourses, necessitating a shift from Lee Kuan Yew’s high-handed draconian censorship policies and Goh Chok Tong’s “kinder and gentler Singapore” (see Heng, 2001) with “OB markers”, towards an “open society” as championed by the Lee Hsien Loong administration. Civil participation and discourses, components of the rhetoric that is an “open society” are now allowed. The educated and articulate are now able to vocalise their views in the domains of mainstream and internet media.

At the same time, increased literacy and media savviness, although playing a part in the greater awareness of sexual minority issues, created an environment in which Christianity is embraced to be true, objective and rational (Tong, 2004). Tong observes an increase in the proportion of Christian devotees, made up mostly by middle-class English-educated Chinese. Interestingly, those who advocate gay rights are also mostly middle-class English-educated Chinese. There is thus a polarisation of views on homosexuality in Singapore, one side often evoking Christian morality as a benchmark for sexual morality policing, and the other side making secular claims for tolerance as critical to sustaining diversity in the island-state.

The deviancy of sexual orientation is thus seen a middle-class contestation, which occasionally breaks into the domain of the mainstream media and the internet. With the moral theme of homosexuality thrust into mainstream media debate, Curran (2002), in observing studies of media moral panics, discovers a common argument which states “stereotypical and misleading portrayals of ‘outsider’ groups in the media helped to deflect wider social conflict and help reinforce dominant social and political norms” (p. 109).

‘Asian values’, a term derived in the wake of China’s economic ascension (Rodan, 2006; Xu, 2005) and later intertwined into the PAP government’s nation-building agenda (Lazar, 2001; Hill, 2000), is also complicit in the institutionalisation of homophobia when it acquired a sexual moralistic dimension. This allowed the rhetoric of ‘Asian values’, one that posed a moral binary opposite to the perceived decadence of the “foreign devil” that is Westernisation (Leong, 1997, p. 139), to fit hand-in-glove with the heterocentric norms and values of religious doctrine.

With a moral conglomerate, held up by a Christian spine, homosexuality is labelled as deviant. Becker (1963) says that there is no intrinsic or inherent deviance in an act until a socially powerful group labels it. Moral entrepreneurs, in the form of rule creators and rule enforcers, seek to maintain dominant norms and values in the community. Their access to various social institutions, such as education, religion and the workplace, allow for the continuity of transmission and sustenance of homophobia. Homosexuality is seen as deriving from the liberal individualist West, coming to threaten the conservative collectivist Asian values of Singaporeans; hence homosexuality is made “paradigmatic of otherness” (see Barry, 1996). The demonisation of Westernisation on the one hand and on the other, the consideration of Western and Victorian socio-religious values that influence and exacerbate homophobia in Singapore, present a paradox.

So much so is the institutionalisation and pervasiveness of homophobia that the phenomenon is depoliticised. Attention is focused on how homosexuality in society can be curbed, treated and disincentivised, rather than on how the conservative political groups and the educated elite continue to advocate the agenda of moral conservatism. It is observed most letters written against acceptance and integration of sexual minorities come from persons with religious affiliations, in this case Christianity, for example Thio Su Mien (2003, 2004) and her daughter Thio Li-Ann (2004, 2005, 2007a, 2007b), plus Claire (2007) and Boaz Nazar (2007), who both penned online articles for Cornerstone Community Church. Like Soh Chai Lih (2007), Yvonne Lee (2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2007d), who is Thio Li-Ann’s colleague at the National University of Singapore Law Faculty, and Angela Thiang Pei Yun (2007), whose senior essay was supervised by Thio Li-Ann, all the abovementioned are legally trained and members of the intellectual elite. Persons from the legal and medical profession offering homophobic views are seen by Becker (1963) as legitimising the moral creed espoused by moral crusaders.

The issue of homosexuality is an elite contestation. The conservative elite are engaged in a semiotic war, carving moral boundaries within their circumscribed socio-religious boundaries. Olson and Cadge (2002) discover that while homosexuality is the most divisive topic in churches in general, the clergy, pastors and religious leaders are more concerned about denominational struggle, split and membership loss and choose not to discuss such a topic. The educated and articulate take it into their hands to suppress and oppress homosexuality in Singapore, evoking the rhetoric of public and sexual morality as well as playing on the concept of a ‘moral majority’. Not only is deviancy produced here through the labelling, otherisation and demonisation of homosexuality, mechanisms for its control and containment are also created.

With recent state and civil initiatives to integrate religious diversity into the Singaporean social fabric, it remains to be seen if such inter-faith solidarity would lean on the commonness of homophobia. After all, religious fundamentalism has been studied to be a predictor of prejudice and homophobia (Laythe, Finkel & Kirkpatrick, 2001).

However, we must not be too quick to prime religion as the motivating factor of homophobia and the disciplining of homosexuality. In a society like Singapore, patriarchal values permeate every social strata and division, whether of monotheistic religion, usually more authoritarian and sexually ascetic (Davies, 1997), or of polytheistic religion. It is in patriarchy that gender roles and expectations are embedded and reproduced in the daily lives of Singaporeans. Confucian values, common among the Chinese and also reproduced through institutions of education, is one vessel through which patriarchal norms and values are transmitted.

Insitutionalised patriarchy in the school and military systems reproduces gender stereotypes and expectations. While the visible disciplining of homosexuality may almost be exclusive to the domain of the middle class, we should also appreciate the internalisation of homophobia by the working class, and moreover among them those who are neither Christian nor Muslim. Religious-motivated homophobia may enter the mainstream media and education system given the access the middle-class are privileged to have, and such homophobic norms and values are also in agreement with those of the working class; hence many are able to see and agree that homosexuality as deviant.

It is more than just religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism that contribute to a heterocentric division of society, but also the internalisation of patriarchal norms and values through Confucianism and institutional indoctrination. These provide a very accessible framework for the identification and labelling of sexual deviance. Certain labels will legitimise disciplinary mechanisms to contain deviance. In that sense, a person like Joanna Hoe-Koh, in embodying the sexual conservativism of her Christian organisation, will be open to sanctions against homosexuality in Singapore; and that is not only because homosexuality is just wrong in the eyes of the religious institution, its tag of sexual deviance continue to be sustained by structures other than religion.


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Various Ramblings of A Random Mind said...

Hey Sam,

Your blog makes happy reading, happy enough to forgive blogger for making me sign up for a google id. I liked this post a lot. I read something some time ago, could be Foucault, i cant remember, but it proposes that homosexuality is not a single "sexuality" that can be conveniently grouped together, for example, the sexuality of an "apparently heterosexual" man who regularly penetrates boys is not the same as that of an adolescent who enjoys being penetrated, etc etc. I think this is when my memory fails me. lol.

Sam Ho said...

thank you very much.

foucault talked about the fluidity of sexuality. but it is power, as reproduced in discourses, that establish conventional wisdom and knowledge.

other studies also look at homosexuality as a behaviour and identity. for example, some people who engage in homosexual acts, do not identify as homosexual. it's pretty interest. we need not actually know the names, for the names will eventually want us to remember what was said and critiqued.