September 1999

CNA special assignment: sex education, part 2




Part 1 of this essay dealt with the first 20 minutes of the half-hour TV program Special Assignment: Sex Education, made by Channel News Asia. It was aired on 27 August 1999. The last 5 minutes touched on homosexuality, and this is my specific commentary on it. I suggest you read the transcript of the homosexuality segment before coming here.

One more example of incompetence

This program was just one more example of how ill-equipped our media are in dealing with homosexuality. Increasingly we see attempts to deal with the subject, because it's becoming visible and inescapable, but every time journalists open this issue, their incompetence is obvious to some extent or other. The quality of their output is affected by these problems which they themselves may not be cognisant of:

  1. The journalists themselves carry with them underlying assumptions which are stereotypical, and which show up in the questions they ask their interviewees, the voice-overs and supertitles, thereby giving their program a tone that sounds ignorant and prejudiced.
  2. The journalists have no contacts with the gay community -- or make no effort to contact the gay community -- and so do not present balancing views. They may, as in this instance, bring in a youngster cruising for sex, and present his statements as the "gay" point of view, but a little intelligence will tell you this is as absurd as getting hold of a straight teenage girl, found cruising for sex, and treating her as representative of all heterosexuals.


Immediate association: AIDS

Channel News Asia got hold of a 17-year-old whom they named "Damien". The first quote they got from him -- and which only indicates the line of questioning that Channel News Asia took -- was about unprotected sex.

In all the preceding 20 minutes when Channel News Asia ("CNA") spoke to other teenagers, they never asked any one of them whether they engaged in unprotected sex. Give CNA a gay teenager, and pop comes the question about unprotected sex. This indicates quite glaringly to me how the journalists associate homosexuality with HIV, one of the litany of uninformed, prejudiced ideas that discriminate against gay people. In Singapore, there is no strong correlation between gayness and HIV. The vast majority of HIV cases here are contracted through heterosex. CNA should be asking the straight teenagers whether they had unprotected sex.

Of course unprotected sex happens, and it is risky. But the selectivity of highlighting this in association with the gay teenager, and not raising it with the straight ones, is bias, pure and simple [1]. It is also injurious to society at large, because it feeds the illusion that straight sex is much safer compared to gay sex, and promoting a sense of complacency.

Gay and lesbian persons' homepages on the web are for cruising

The panning shot of the gay men's URL's was also used for prejudicial effect. By including this just after Damien said, "there's also another way to find something to have a one night stand", CNA implied that gay people's homepages are meant to serve this purpose.

Did CNA check this? Because it is largely false. Gay and lesbian homepages, like all other homepages, serve an infinite variety of purposes -- sharing their interests, an exercise in learning to design a webpage, affirming their existence in this world…. To impute that gay and lesbian homepages are mainly for sex is, firstly, plain wrong and secondly, hurtful and offensive. Slanderous, even [2].

In contrast, the President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, the Deputy Principal of St Joseph's Institution (an all-boys' school) and even the two St Joseph's boys interviewed, aged 14 and 16, came over as better informed and more mature than CNA.

You can attracted to the same sex, but this doesn't mean you gay -- SPPA president

John Vasavan, the President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, said, "young people can have a liking for their own gender … doesn't necessarily mean that they are homosexuals. And our advice to young people would be they have to explore themselves, find out themselves…" Fair enough.

Brother Michael, the Deputy Principal, said, "As part of education, we try to tell our boys not to prejudge people … your rugby captain could be a homosexual, and you do not know …"

And what he said next was a sort of milestone for Singapore television: "as a major issue, it's not a problem, but for the boys who have such a sexual orientation, it's always a problem, because they are always a minority group, and you got to salvage them from self-loathing or self-hate …. non-acceptance of themselves, of who they are."

However, I am a little concerned that due to his phrasing, he could be misunderstood. He certainly intended to say that homosexual orientation per se is not a major issue; it is the social burden of being a minority that is. I wished he had been a little more explicit, because uninformed people may have a problem grasping this subtle distinction. It was also unfortunate that he used the word "salvage", because some people might think in terms of dregs or garbage. In addition, I would have been happier if he had made it clear that "salvaging" from non-acceptance of themselves, does not equate with converting homosexual persons to heterosexual. Instilling awareness and self-esteem is what is to be done. The solution to "non-acceptance of themselves" is not the illusion of remaking the self, but progressing the non-acceptance to acceptance.

Brother Micheal's position is almost certainly a minority view among educators. Damien's indictment, "they will be totally turned off by you and freak out if you ever talk to them about all this stuff", was, I am sure, more accurate of the great majority of adults. The program should have explored why this was so, and what such a hysterical reaction from teachers would mean for the quality of sex education that they deliver, especially to the 5-10% of teenagers who are gay.

But sometimes painstaking work can be swept away by one stupid statement, and this program demonstrated it to the max!

Close on a right note: turn straight!

The closing frame of the program said this in text: 

"Damien has voluntarily sought counselling from the SPPA. He is trying to sort out his feelings for a girl who's expressed affections for him."

What a stupid, uncalled-for "redemption" statement!  By putting this in  as closure, CNA cast homosexuality as something to be redeemed from, in other words, that homosexuality is a "bad". This is prejudiced and offensive.

To be more specific, the closing statement had three implications. The three implications, all wrong, were:

  1. That counselling was the appropriate response to homosexuality. It is not. Damien might have sought counselling for whatever personal reasons he had, but as a general case, homosexual teenagers need counselling no more than heterosexual teenagers. To selectively highlight that Damien has sought counselling -- and positioning this statement as closure, thereby making it sound like an "all's well that ends well" remark -- is to deliberately push this wrongheaded idea.
  2. What counselling was about. Given the state of ignorance in Singapore regarding homosexuality, CNA should have known that many viewers might assume that counselling was a means of converting homosexuality to heterosexuality. Such attempts have caused more grief to homosexual persons than almost anything we know. Sexual orientation -- whether heterosexual or homosexual -- is largely fixed. To try vainly to change it is a waste of time, money and good mental health. Psychologists today do not advise "conversion therapy" which had never been anything more than brainwashing. By not taking care to be clear, 
  3. That just because a girl has expressed affections for the gay boy, it is somehow a factor for him turning straight! This is an infantile belief! And CNA is guilty of it! This is not the first time that I have encountered such a silly notion. Quite a few uninformed people take the position that if only a gay male could find a woman to love him, he could turn straight. And the corollary is that if he is did not, and spurned her advances, then he would be a demon for leaving her selfless love unrequited, for squandering the opportunity to "make good". The heterosexist angle is "what a pity he lets her down!", or "how can you do that to her?", "he's so horrible for playing with her feelings!", "given a chance to go straight, he still doesn't want it!".

    CNA's statement that Damien "is trying to sort out his feelings for a girl who's expressed affections for him" is along the same vein. Come on! This is Mills and Boon logic. Just because someone falls in love for you is no obligation to love her back. To imply (as in CNA's closure statement) that he should is an example of unthinking absurdity.

In sum, the closing statement by Channel News Asia reinforced the idea that the right thing to do would be to try to turn straight, through counselling and through the goodness of a woman's affection. By doing so, CNA entrenches the contemptuous marginalisation of gay people. It's as if they did a program about the Malay community, interviewed a Malay person, and ended the program by suggesting that the Malay guy is making an attempt, seeking professional help, to turn Chinese!

When it comes to gay issues, I think CNA needs professional help themselves.

© Yawning Bread 



  1. Consider this: Say a shop in America has 90% white customers and 10% black. It has a shoplifting problem. About 80% of the shoplifters are white. Yet its security guards, when stopping and searching suspicious-looking customers, always intercept black customers, hardly ever white. Would you say the shop is acting in a discriminatory manner?
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  2. Although Channel News Asia clearly knew about the People Like Us website, and filmed its content pages, CNA did not contact People Like Us in their research preceding the program.
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