Singapore to decriminalize sex between men, but amend constitution to ban equality
Thousands of people gathered at a park for the annual Pink Dot gay pride event on Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Singapore

It’s one step forward and two steps back for Singapore’s LGBTQ community. Activists are rejoicing after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to decriminalize sex between men, but they are disappointed by a concurrent move to permanently inscribe inequality into the constitution.

The PM made the surprise announcement in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday. He said that the government would repeal section 377A of the Penal Code, a law dating back to Singapore’s time as a British colony that made sex between men punishable by up to two years in prison.

“I believe this is the right thing to do and something that most Singaporeans will now accept,” Lee said. The law was last debated in 2007 when Parliament decided it would neither repeal the law nor enforce it, but it has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, all of which have been rejected by courts seen as largely government-controlled.

Lee said that the new reform will be limited and that his ruling People’s Action Party would amend the constitution to “safeguard the institution of marriage” and prevent same-sex unions. There will be no changes to what children are taught in schools or general public conduct, he said. Furthermore, censorship measures forbidding positive portrayals of LGBTQ people in the media will stay in place.

He gave no indication of when the changes would happen. Nonetheless, LGBTQ groups welcomed the overturning of the colonial criminal code.

“The repeal of section 377A, while long overdue, is a significant milestone and a powerful statement that state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore,” a coalition of more than 20 groups said in a statement. They described the repeal as a “hard-won victory, a triumph of love over fear” and urged all Singaporeans to reject hate and stigma. “It must be the beginning of us finding common ground and having open conversations about our collective futures,” they said.

Singaporean LGBTQ groups have previously said they have no imminent plans to campaign for same-sex marriage. They said: “Our immediate priorities in the wake of section 377A will be to tackle the areas of discrimination that we continue to face at home, in schools, workplaces, and in housing and health systems.”

Religious groups were less enthusiastic, saying the changes mustn’t hinder their religious freedom to oppose same-sex relationships nor cause any “reverse discrimination” on those who don’t support homosexuality. “We seek the government’s assurance that the religious freedom of churches will be protected as we continue to teach against same-sex sexual acts and highlight such acts,” said the National Council of Churches.

This article features material from Morning Star and other sources.