Saturday, April 25, 2015

Family, values and lifestyle

There have been quite a lot of opinions aired on IKEA Singapore’s decision to continue its tie-up with a magic show headlined by Pastor Lawrence Khong.

Some folks feel it is no big deal because, after all, it is just some harmless (and a very well-produced) magic show. Based on that argument, it really isn’t a big deal. Even if Pastor Khong decides to evangelise in any way during that magic show, it still isn’t a big deal. People pay to be entertained and they have the right not to do so.

The issue here is that Pastor Khong, being a prominent socio-religious leader with a noted history of homophobic speech, is being supported in some way by a business that has taken considerable steps internationally to be LGBT-affirming.

So IKEA is either blindsided by this or just plain hypocritical.

I wrote to Mediacorp TODAY, knowing that this would be a very complex situation. A lot of people will simply see it as an innocuous magic show by a pretty good team of entertainers; that it should be separate from the influential figure in one Christian segment of Singapore. There’s the risk of being seen as petty.

I'll now focus on another related issue. Let’s take a step back and look at the semantics.

Pastor Khong has reasoned that he hires LGBT performers although he disagrees with their “lifestyle”. Now imagine an employer known for his racist or sexist opinions claiming he still hires other ethnicities and women – this was an example shared by another person who was trying to make that same point I would like to make.

But of course, in this case, the prevailing mindset (that some socio-religious communities want to preserve) is that sexual orientation and identity are downplayed, denaturalised and trivialised, rationalised in a way to be deemed morally wrong, unnatural, a treatable sickness, an adoptable-thus-discardable trait. And to further demonise non-heterosexual identities, you have camps that use the notion of “family”, a low-hanging secular fruit ripe for steeplejacking, and create this siege mentality that the family is being threatened – now that can invoke some strong emotional reactions.

We need to recognise that inequality exists. And there are people in the wrong end of the divide trying to get everyone else to understand that we need to work together to address this inequality. There’s marginalisation and stigmatism, and this is not helped by mindsets that are rigidly heterocentric and at the same time firmly rooted in the belief that homosexuality is wrong, sinful, unnatural and whatever your Constitutionally-protected brand of religious speech impresses upon you.

There are some who claim that Pastor Khong is being victimised here, being denied the freedom to express his opinions or work a magic show. Again, look at the inequality that exists. Look at the various domains of the lived daily realities of straight people versus homosexual people in Singapore – healthcare, welfare, NS, social attitudes, media policy, etc., heck, even the right to marriage.

I feel this rationalisation of “lifestyle” has been one of the most effective rhetoric used against LGBT persons. It sways opinions as quickly as it denaturalises queer identity. Even in surveys and news reports, it is used.

“Do you approve of the gay lifestyle?” How do you even answer this loaded question if you are LGBT-affirming?

Same goes for “Asian values” and how it evolved from an Asian politico-economic reaction to Western criticism to something that took on a whole new dimension that is sexual (or rather heterosexist) morality.

Throw in “lifestyle” and it immediately destabilises and trivialises all the experiences, feelings, history and relationships any queer-identified person has. Back that up with Constitutionally-protected religious speech and you have communities that believe that this is the only way to rationalising non-heterosexual identities, I mean, “lifestyles”.

It stems from the belief that queer-ness is not natural because according to the laws of “nature”, that we are all meant to be straight, that marriage, procreative heterosexual sex and reproduction are endorsed and mandated in that particular sequence, and that anything else we adopt deemed to deviate from this prescribed course is something that can be corrected.

This reminds me of the term “confused” when it’s used on people who do not fit the labels available to them, and later end up seeing themselves as confused. On the contrary, they know who they are not. But in using “confused”, the labelers trivialise and stigmatise, and the labelled risk internalising them. Just like how you’ll call yourself “pro-choice” as opposed to “pro-abortionist” (and “pro-life” vs “anti-choice”).

Throw in “lifestyle”, “family” and “values” and you have concocted a robust plan to sway opinion and policy. These are terms with which the ordinary person on the street can – and at times, rather emotionally – identify. At the same time, it delegitimises queer identities.

You can see it in the mainstream media and in social media, when you've homophobes using these words to justify maintaining this divide and inequality. Is there any way we can better protect LGBT Singaporeans?

If the Singaporean government has the moral fortitude, it would put gender identity and sexual orientation in the Constitution, and implement coherent laws and policies that align with it. That way, “lifestyle” will remain where it originated – within specific socio-religious circles.