Monday, October 26, 2009

Gay rights in Singapore and the double-edged sword of science

Nice interview by the SDP's Chia Ti Lik with Alex Au, blogger and activist.

I refer to Alex's view on gay rights, at 3:53 of the video.

He speaks about "recognition of known facts... scientifically deduced information."

And he also mentioned about the political landscape being in a state of fuck, I mean flux. (at 5:39). Not everyone is perfect when doing interviews (See criticism of Ris Low).

On the first level, scientific facts break apart wrongful stereotypes upheld by society. They directly confront ideas that homosexuality, for one, can be taught, learned and spread. Along this fear-inducing line of thought, people will naturally feel that homosexuality can be not taught, unlearned and be stopped from spreading.

Scientific facts challenge social mentality that equates homosexuality as a unchecked and undesirable social phenomenon. People think you can become homosexual through differential association, i.e. hanging out with gay friends. They see homosexuality not as personal sexual identity, but a behaviour you can pick up, just like other perceived ills like smoking, drug use, gambling and secret societies. And since these entities have their social remedies in the form of rehabilitation and resocialisation, they encourage religious organisations that feature reparative therapy.

I believe that people's prejudice against homosexuality or sexual diversity stem from the following reasons:
1) They do not recognise that different persons have unique sexual preferences; everyone is assumed to be heterosexual.
2) The inability to recognise (in point 1) is stemmed from socialisation, indoctrination, lack of information and contact with people of diverse sexualities.
3) Oweing to the factors mentioned in point 2, people make their prejudices a moral truth, and gladly have the endorsement of existing social and religious institutions, entities entrenched into our social fabric.

However, when we take the spotlight away from homosexuality, does heterosexuality, an identity so coveted by our society and religious institutions, exists as a homogeneous entity? For example, does an ordinary heterosexual Singaporean man fancy all the women in the world, regardless of aesthetics, beauty, physiology, biology, race, ideology, etc.? Are there some types of women he might not fancy at all? Does that qualify him as heterosexual then?

When we see heterosexuality not as a homogeneous entity but heterogeneous, it becomes threatening to many champions of straightness, who are also homophobic.

Individual taste is part of one's sexuality. Different folks have different emotional preferences, aesthetic tastes, preference as to how and with whom they would want to spend quality time, different fetishes and desires that turn them on, and so on. These factors, among many others, cause a person to have specific desires related to sex, whether he/she wants sex or not, how he/she wants sex, with whom and where, and so on.

From here, we see heterosexuality as a myth, loosely held together by simplistic and ignorant social hearsays.

That said, I feel that when we give science too much credit, we risk losing ourselves. Science will always play catch up with social phenomena. Science generalises and tries to break down complex realities into bite-size bits of digestible information. Science is that double-edged sword.

As far as my apprehension goes, I still believe - not sure if Alex personally feels this way too - that science, no matter how advanced or lagging, is the tool to engage the ignorant and/or hateful homophobe. As an advocate of ideas that takes a people out of their comfort zones, you cannot bring in your own tools to engage people. Everyone will be on different wavelengths. You speak the language people speak and you use the systems they have most faith in. People believe in the currency, truthfulness and objectivity of science, for a long time, and for the moment. And Alex is right in supporting the push for information to enter the public domain.

The hindrance to the entry of such information in the public domain is perplexing. The government holds the key, but chooses not to allow for such mainstream exposure to science. This scenario may be jarring for a large number of people, who have been fed religious doctrine and social stereotypes for a long time. And instead of adjusting and reconciling the information with their personhood, they bunker in and charge this as the "gay agenda".

The government, with a parliament overrepresented by Christians (maybe they saw a need to represent Christians who are rich, poor, liberal, fundamental, male, female, quiet, psychotic, born again, aborted, and so on), may see this is a conflict of interests. The backlash will be stronger, as anti-gay stereotypes are reinforced and the age-old weapon of using children comes into play. "What if my son/daughter grows up thinking gay is normal, or becomes gay himself/herself?" would the common ploy.

They still question not their prejudices and predispositions, as to why they even moralise homosexuality in the first place. This is where religion comes in. Religion protects the institution of marriage and procreation, and in most monotheistic strains, they see homosexuality as an external threat to the institution. Religion locks you into its infrastructure and embeds moral mechanisms into your psyche and you begin to conform and to differentiate between what is right and wrong. It is not without religion that we come to rationalise and repackage specific acts and experiences as sinful or virtuous.

The problem science poses to religion is that it is less moralising, though not void of moralisation, than religion. Science is just a process, but you can either have a hippie or a Nazi steering it, with its objective results presented in a way aligned to a certain ideology, which either supports or challenges existing social systems.

I personally feel that sexual diversity should not be subjected to the realm of science. Personhood matters too. You don't need science to explain how gay or straight you are.

Unfortunately, science is our social gatekeeper. We could express our sexual identities in other ways, but when it comes to the public domain, we use science to represent (and distort or simplify) our experiences.

For me, heterosexuality and homosexuality are just general categories that do not account for the specificities of human experience, but these are necessary for the visibility of people who identify as queer.

It is both desirable and problematic when society finally accepts homosexuality as legitimate and not "wrong", as it makes acceptance for sexual diversity a lot more difficult - we won't be able to easily accommodate people of sexualities outside homosexuality and bisexuality. A step forward for some, a step backward for others.

The discourse of sexual diversity in Singapore is contingent on science, medicine, religion and economy. For the last bit that is economy, sexual minority rights often take a backseat when the economy is being discussed. Given our regime of pragmatism, we see it practical to put aside our sexual identity issues and focus on bread and butter issues. We are unwilling and afraid to see how sexual rights and diversity dovetail with the economy. Most of us work, earn and pay taxes any way.

Coming back to the topic, I feel that sex and sexual identity should not be exclusive to the domain of science. You do not give people the freedom to articulate their sexualities if science were to be the only lens through which sexuality is scrutinised.

We may have put an end to the pathologisation of non-heterosexual identities, but how have we dealt with the medicalisation?

Essentially, categories dilute experiences. Whether you believe that heterosexuality/homosexuality is natural or learned, you end up ignoring the grey in between, and how individuals personally rationalise their identities and feelings, sexual or not.

To play with categories, I feel that there are more queer people in this world than "straight" ones. The "straight" identity is a mystical one. It assumes you are sexually attracted to all the members of the opposite sex. If that doesn't happen, how less "straight" can you be? Take body shape and skin colour for example, are you more spontaneously attracted to certain types over others? How does that figure in your straightness?

If you are selectively straight, does that make you queer?

Labels and categories are for a society that has high levels of discomfort dealing with heterogeneity and exceptions. We just can't simply accept that people are a persons with different ideas. We have the economy, nation, religion, concepts of race and community, and others, just to keep us together. This reflects how uncomfortable we are in accepting difference as a reason for acceptance, respect and solidarity.

1 comment:

cy said...

The problem is people dispute over whether these scientific facts are reliable. Many scientific studies have been contradicting each other in this field for a long time. I personally don't see any conclusive evidence to support this one way or another.

You say that people are prejudiced against homosexuality because "They do not recognise that different persons have unique sexual preferences; everyone is assumed to be heterosexual." and claim that this "inability to recognise (in point 1) is stemmed from socialisation, indoctrination, lack of information and contact with people of diverse sexualities."

Yet this only goes to show how poorly you understand why people oppose homosexuality. No one's moral truth can be prejudiced on a lack of something, it can only be prejudiced on a belief of something that may be influenced by a lack of countervailing influences. Please do not attempt to ignore the basis of this moral truth -- the conscience for some and reference to religion for others. There are also many who oppose homosexuality on the secular grounds that it breaks up the family unit and is a health threat.

"From here, we see heterosexuality as a myth, loosely held together by simplistic and ignorant social hearsays."

You make all of societies beliefs sound like they were formed on a whim. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You have a very long article here. I shall not bother to address it in full, but I express my objection to what you claim to be indisputable scientific evidence. Perhaps you could show me some.