“You know that Sunday night is gay night, right?”
My friend wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t, but no matter. Three Sundays ago, a group of Yalies and I proceeded to Clarke Quay, Singapore’s premier nightlife district, and owned the dance floor in a club at least three-quarters full of gay men. For young Singaporeans, Sunday night is gay night.
A group of Yale professors has drafted a resolution demanding that Yale-NUS College “respect, protect, and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination and full political freedom.” Part of the debate has concerned Singapore’s climate toward homosexuality and its potential effects on Yale-NUS.
I applaud the Yale faculty for doing what any group of intellectuals ought to do in response to an undertaking as significant as Yale-NUS College: debate the merits, take positions, and defend them. It’s disappointing, though, that the draftees’ defense and ensuing dialogue in the Yale Daily News have mischaracterized Singapore as a place exceptionally intolerant of homosexuality. Moreover, the implication that the US stands far ahead of Singapore in this regard reveals either blindness to, or denial of, the American reality.
Yes, section 377A of the Penal Code in Singapore bans homosexual conduct between males. But let’s not forget that as of 1970, sodomy laws prohibited homosexual acts in every state in America except Illinois. In 1986 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision overturned only nine years ago. And even today, Kansas Statute 21-3505 is “used as justification to harass and discriminate against people…” Did these laws render 1960s, 70s, and 80s America unfit for liberal arts education? No. Did the Yale faculty abandon its pursuit of light and truth in 1986, when our highest court ruled against its ideals of openness and tolerance? Of course not. Has Yale severed ties with Kansas? Why, then, should section 377A preclude liberal arts education in Singapore?
Perhaps some critics have conflated national policy and campus climate. The debate thus far has misleadingly compared Yale students’ and professors’ attitudes toward homosexuality with Singapore law. Because the Singapore government funds Yale-NUS, one may worry that, even beyond gay rights, national policies will dictate the campus climate at Yale-NUS College. They won’t. Our students, like the many NUS students who openly debate and criticize government and university policy, will make sure of that.
Singapore has seen notable liberalizations over the past ten years, as the following attest:
Pink Dot SG
Singapore gays in first public rally
Singapore is Asia’s new gay capital
Singapore – the new mecca for Asia’s pink dollar
This is the dynamic, increasingly expressive, change-is-in-the-air Singapore that I see every day. Not everything here is emblematic of my values or Yale’s: just like America, Singapore has laws and norms of which I disapprove. A vibrant gay party scene doesn’t mean that gays have equal rights – they don’t. Yet Singapore’s social liberalizations are real and, notwithstanding its historical restrictions on free speech and assembly, I applaud Singapore’s steps toward equality.
I am not aware of a prominent Singaporean politician who has campaigned for the nation’s highest office on the premise that homosexuality is wrong and that family values can fix the country’s ills. Now consider the American climate. I am proud that eight states have legalized gay marriage. But in recent months, millions of Americans have cast their Republican primary ballots for Rick Santorum, who says that, “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.” With this man as a serious contender for the presidency, how can anyone idealize the U.S. as a beacon of enlightenment? A vast swath of America remains deeply committed to intolerance. In this respect, I cannot see how Singapore is any more regressive than America. Santorum’s bigotry doesn’t justify intolerance in Singapore, but it does make clear that the liberal arts can thrive in environments sometimes hostile to their principles.
As a straight man who moved here only six months ago, I’m no expert on gay life in Singapore. But just as Yale promotes understanding and tolerance in America, Yale-NUS will do the same here. I support the ideals expressed in the professors’ resolution, but not the American exceptionalism and distortions of Singaporean society that have grown out of it.