March 1999

When homosexuality is not wrong, but shameful




This essay was foreshadowed by a little something I said in "Foam Party in Parliament". I said of a Member of Parliament that he "belongs to the school of thought that says people's lives are meant to be lived within prescribed social roles. Women must be "women" (i.e. a certain type of women, dressed in a certain way, behaving in a certain way) and men must be "men". By the same token, the same school of thought easily extends to saying that Chinese must be Chinese (e.g. must speak Mandarin), low-caste must be low-caste (i.e. never touch a Brahmin), girls cannot aspire to be engineers (a very unfeminine profession), and so on and that the "community" can enforce the prescribed role upon you."

For a few years now, I have been making mental notes of the various kinds of objections raised by heterosexuals to homosexuality. Generally, they fall into two broad categories, "Homosexuality is Wrong" and "Homosexuality is Shameful". The former is more obvious, especially to readers from the West, but I find the second more interesting, and more relevant to the Asian context. 

Homosexuality is wrong

The first kind feels that homosexuality is wrong. For these persons, the issue is one of right and wrong, and somehow homosexuality is on the wrong side. The bases for their feeling so can be divided into (a) the emotional reaction, and (b) the justification. The emotional reaction is a simple one. They have been conditioned to feel it is wrong. In them is a certain sense of horror, of distaste, of contagion, whenever they encounter homosexuality. The intensity of this emotional response varies from one person to the next. For some it is quite intense; for others, it is just a vague feeling of unease. Whatever the degree, since this emotional response is an irrational one, it does not suffice as a good explanation. When they are asked why it is wrong, the justification is usually a religious or creationist one. Reference is made to scriptural or koranic authority, or else to a more general, "all religions say it is wrong" (which is not true, by the way). Another version is what I call the "creationist" justification, which usually goes along the lines of "why else is there man and woman?"

These are justifications, used to rationalise their inherent emotional distaste for homosexuality, and not the real reasons for their distaste, because when probed further, their justifications can go no further than quoting scriptural authority and the "why else is there man and woman?" argument. These defences do not stand up to analysis and logic and are ultimately unconvincing in themselves. These anti-gay persons can't have been convinced themselves by such superficial arguments. Their views were not shaped by them. Their views were shaped by their conditioning, and then they use these arguments as justification.

In Singapore, this "Homosexuality is Wrong" group is largely found among the Christian and the Muslim minorities. These religions instruct them about a world divided into right and wrong, virtuous and sinful.

In my experience, they are very difficult to convince otherwise. Firstly, what we are dealing with is emotional conditioning within them; no amount of debate and facts can change that. Secondly, once they have employed the defence of scriptural authority, it is extremely difficult to get them to question it. To do so would open, for them, a pandora's box. If scriptural authority is wrong in this respect, where else might it be wrong? Their whole worldview might come crashing down.

There are exceptions. I have known people who initially employ this justification for saying homosexuality is wrong, but later on I find they have moderated their position a lot. My guess is that firstly, their conditioned distaste was not that strong in the first place, so it could be overcome through knowing gay people personally, and secondly, their religiosity was more spiritual than the by-the-book kind. It is less destabilising to their worldview to ignore the official preachings of their religion in one area. 

Homosexuality is shameful

What may not be obvious to many is that, in Asia at least, a bigger body of objections come from a different angle, the angle of shame, although there is a lot of overlap between the "Homosexuality is Wrong" school and the "Homosexuality is Shameful" school. Many readers may find it hard to distinguish 'wrong' from 'shameful'; I suspect readers from the West would have a harder time making this distinction than readers from Asia. In Western culture, sin and shame are closely related -- if it's wrong, it ought to be shameful -- and the "Homosexuality is Wrong" school more or less covers all the usual objections to homosexuality in Western countries.

Without a Christian or Muslim tradition in many Asian countries, the "Homosexuality is Wrong" arguments are not as often used. Yet there can be considerable homophobia among traditional families.

The source of that homophobia lies in the greater emphasis placed in living up to one's social role. Partly it has to do with the fact that modernisation has been very recent in our societies, thus many attitudes from a feudal or socially stratified past are still with us today. For example, all across Asia, social inferiors show considerable deference to their superiors: schoolkids to teachers, junior employees to their bosses, wives to husbands. It can be frustrating to teachers who want more spontaneity from their classes, to employers who want more bottom-up suggestions from the factory floor, to feminist activists who wish aggrieved women would speak up more.

But it's symptomatic of the cultures here, that people are taught to be highly conscious of their social role and that any departure from it is improper. The traditional tools for ensuring that people play their role in life are family pressure, peer pressure, public shame and ostracism. The latter two are particularly acute in Japanese culture, but are important components of Chinese, Indian, Malay and other Asian cultures.

Focussing on gender, Asian societies place great distinction on the divide between masculine and feminine. There is proof enough of that in the obvious inequality of women in their cultures, and in the pronounced preference for baby boys. But I would be very careful not to leave you with the idea that there are two social roles in play: male and female. I think it is more complex than that and it varies from culture to culture. In the Chinese culture, there are a cluster of masculine roles, and a cluster of feminine roles. On the masculine side, the roles are Boy, Young Man, Father and Patriarch/Grandfather, each richly subdivided by social class and generational standing. On the feminine side, there is Girl, Young Woman (or more appropriately called Young Bride), Mother and Matriarch/Grandmother.

Interestingly, in nearly all Asian societies, within the feminine cluster of social roles is one for the transvestite. It's usually of low social status, but it is acknowledged. This feminised male has a place in Indian culture, in Thai (the famous katoeys), in Javanese society, and in Chinese and Japanese, where they even have a lauded place in high opera. [1]

Social stability requires that people play their appropriate roles through various stages of life. You can't have a Boy questioning a Teacher. You can't have a Male Servant speaking rudely to a Matriarch. If a male is past 30 years old, he should be playing, within the context of his family, the role of Father, not of a perpetual Young Man -- and here you see the seed of the problem.

In the past, homosexuality was beside the point. Asian societies have always been aware that some among them were keener on same-sex rather than opposite sex. By the way, love was also beside the point. The point was very clear: get married, play your social role, or else there would be disorder under heaven. So long as one moved smoothly from Young Man to Father to Patriarch, as one went through life, it really didn't matter a hell of a lot what one did in one's spare time.

The trouble with modern gayness is that there is an insistence on living honestly. I will not marry someone I do not love. By that dictum, gay men never move on from Young Men to Fathers. Gay women never move on from Young Women to becoming Mothers (at least not the nuclear family mother, that is). This is extremely disturbing to those, e.g. their families, whose sense of social standing is largely dependent on their playing their part in the order of things. The mother of the 30-ish gay man is distressed for her son that he is choosing to be an outcast, but is also filled with shame herself, because by this stage of life, she should be a Grandmother, but so long as he is unmarried and therefore childless, she is not a Grandmother. In the eyes of society, she herself failed to graduate. She is seen as a kind of barren woman. It is an excruciating loss of face!

When the face of the whole damn family depends on your living up to your role, the pressure to conform can be immense. But homophobia also comes from outside the family. Other people, who may not even know a single homosexual person, can hold strong attitudes against homosexuality too. This is when they hold a more traditional view of social order: that there are certain predefined social roles that fit properly to make society work. Modern gay men and women are very upsetting to that order. By our very existence, we rebel against those pigeonholes, we are like loose fireworks blowing up the house. Mothers can't face the world when they do not graduate into Grandmothers. Teachers feel themselves judged to be failures when they do not produce "upright" citizens. Everybody else's sense of purpose in life is destroyed when we insist on being gay. Our presence engenders a sense of chaos in society.

Against that danger, Asian societies traditionally think it right and proper to use tools like ostracism and even legal compulsion to enforce majoritarian attitudes. Individual liberty is a relatively new concept, so in the minds of the more traditional Asian elders, it is perfectly justifiable that they go public with their homophobia and pressure governments to come down hard on gay people.

Not quite modern, not quite traditional

Many Asian societies stand at a unique point, coming out of the past, but not yet modern. Even the traditionalists are not really traditional. The old order did not require love in marriage. Young men and young women were married to partners arranged for them. If he were homosexually inclined, he could freely decide never to sleep with her again after the first child. He could treat her no better than a maidservant for the rest of his life, while continuing his liaisons with other men. These were not grounds for divorce. So long as they both performed their social role as a married couple, even a sexless and loveless one, everybody around would be pleased. (However, if she were lesbian, it would be a far more tortured existence for her)

The trouble is that our so-called traditionalists now expect heterosexual love in marriage, and our laws have been modernised to let the sexually-ignored wife sue for divorce and the family home. Once these changes have been introduced, the social structure could no longer accommodate homosexual men within marriage.

Furthermore, the influence from Western societies cannot simply be wished away. Modern gayness is here to stay. It is absurd to insist that people live up to the traditional social roles when the world has changed, and when "traditional" has been redefined in a heterosexist way.

Most people do not have that perspective on things. They don't see themselves as midway on a continuum of change, not quite here, not quite there. They think they know, they represent, a better order, and they see it as perfectly justified to demand that others conform to that order.

Social conformity in other areas

This is so not just in terms of gender roles. We have people who demand that we live up to expected roles in terms of our race, our religion, and any number of aspects. An argument that never seems to go away is the requirement that those who are racially Chinese must learn and speak Mandarin Chinese. They require that people "live up" to the colour of their skin, just as they require gay men to "live up" to the imagined destiny of their genitals. Both demands are ultimately the same: the insistence that people should live their lives according to prescribed social roles, based on some biological determinant.

These expectations are translated into official policy that set unachievably high standards for Chinese language in Singapore schools; and should a child fail Chinese, he is denied admission into university no matter how good his other grades are -- in other words, social and economic ostracism for life, for failing to live up to the "Chinese" role.

I have a similar, and yet very different story about the Malay side. Our Minister for Community Development is Malay. He is concurrently expected to be the leader of the Malay voice within the cabinet. I once asked around some Malay friends, what, in their opinion, the Malay community really thought of him. Almost all said the community didn't think highly of him. When asked why, a common reason was that some years ago, he moved a bill through Parliament that legalised marriage for persons who have had sex-change. He did so in his capacity as the Minister for Community Development, acting in the interest of all Singaporeans, as a cabinet minister of a secular State. But legalisation of marriage for sex-changed persons was not a popular move among the Malay-Muslim minority, who held less progressive views about gender roles. I remember the minister took pains to explain even then that he had to act as a minister for all Singaporeans in this regard, and get the law through Parliament. Yet, it seems that even until now, the Malays hold it against him for betraying his role as a Malay person.

The irony is that the same minister, on a separate occasion, argued the other side in Parliament. Singapore's divorce laws are not symmetrical. A wife can sue her ex-husband for maintenance and alimony, but no man can sue his ex-wife, even if she earns lots more than he does. The minister had to defend this asymmetrical law. The gist of his defence was that Asian family values are incompatible with a man claiming support from an ex-wife. In other words, even if a man is battered by an aggressive wife, divorces her, is homeless and unable to support himself, he must still stoically live up to his gender role as prescribed by the State.

As you can see, I will have no truck with such ideas. I think that people who require that others live up to their idea of social roles have no respect for the inherent dignity and liberty of others. As you can see from the instances I have quoted, whether it is about the chance of marriage for sex-changed persons, or about the future prospects of a child who somehow cannot manage Chinese, or about a husband unable to claim support from a higher-income ex-wife, there is neither good sense nor compassion in being "traditional". Every time somebody else expects us to live our lives the way they want us to, rather than the way we want to, we would be mere puppets in a puppet show.

Yawning Bread 



  1. See the article about how a Muslim society in Indonesia recognises not 2 genders, male and female, but five: Sulawesi's fifth gender   
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