BLACK-and-white photographs in the foyer of an arts cinema are filled with smiling, pouting and laughing faces—young and old, of various races. The portraits are of members of Singapore’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The fact that those pictured are willing to be identified publicly, in such a conservative country, is part of what makes the display striking. A grandson of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s modern founder, is among them, as is a Paralympian medallist and a policewoman. Leslie Kee, a Singaporean photographer who lives in Japan, took the 150-odd pictures for the exhibition, called “Out in Singapore”. It is one event of many which comprise a festival linked to Pink Dot, a rally on July 21st which thousands are expected to attend.
Pink Dot has been held annually since 2009. It is the city-state’s version of a pride celebration and is tightly regulated (participants in last year’s event are pictured). Foreigners are banned from attending. Organisers must spend heavily on barricades and guards to meet the government’s security requirements, which were tightened two years ago. Foreign firms such as Google and Barclays are no longer allowed to sponsor it. About 100 local companies have offered to back this year’s Pink Dot, down from 120 last year. But this is the first year that involves a cultural festival, with talks, film screenings and even a job fair in the build-up to the rally. Activists say it is creating enormous excitement. More than twice as many people applied to have their pictures taken as were needed for the photography display, says Alan Seah, an advertising executive involved in organising both the exhibition and the Pink Dot rally. “Ten years ago it would have been a lot harder for people to come forward.”
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Among the portraits is one of Mr Seah and Laurindo Garcia, whom he plans to marry in Australia later this year. Their union will not be officially recognised in Singapore. Under section 377(A) of the country’s penal code—introduced in the 1930s by British colonial administrators—a man convicted of committing “any act of gross indecency” (ie, sex) with another man is liable to two years in prison.
In practice, the law is not actively enforced. But its existence helps to explain entrenched discrimination in Singapore. For example, the Registrar of Societies refuses registration of LGBT groups (including a homeless shelter for transgender people). Mainstream media shun positive portrayals of LGBT folk. There is no legislation to prevent discrimination against them at work. Same-sex couples find it difficult to gain access to public housing. Their children are deemed illegitimate, which means they are not entitled to welfare benefits. An “unwritten policy” bars gay couples from adopting children in Singapore. Treatments purporting to turn people straight are legal.
The government tries to balance the demands of rainbow activists on the one hand, and of mainly Christian and Islamic conservative groups on the other. Its vague statements muddle matters still further. When asked about his own views on section 377(A) last year, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, was typically non-committal. He said his view involved an “uneasy compromise” that he was prepared to live with “until social attitudes change”. Polling on the issue is infrequent, but a survey conducted five years ago found that 53% of Singaporeans “accept gay lifestyles” but that 55% reject same-sex marriage. Younger Singaporeans tend to be more understanding than their elders. In America, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2015, polls suggest 62% of adults approve of it. In Britain, where it has been permitted since 2014, support is even higher.
Singapore’s competitive instincts may help to change attitudes. Its status as a financial centre depends on its ability to attract big banks and other large international companies. Talented LGBT employees of such firms, especially those who are married, are put off by Singapore’s strictures. Hong Kong, Singapore’s rival as a financial hub, is more appealing. This month, after years of legal battling, its highest court ordered immigration officials to award spousal visas to same-sex expatriate couples. Singaporean companies are becoming a little bolder on the issue too. Old Chang Kee, a Singaporean street-food chain, dared to support London’s pride event this year. And Poh Heng Jewellery, a local brand, received praise recently for using a gay couple in its shopfront advertising.
Despite Singapore’s illiberal reputation, its LGBT community has a vibrant history. Becca D’Bus, a local drag performer, points out that for decades Bugis Street, a busy shopping area, was famous for the artistry of its drag shows. That came to an end in the 1980s after a government clampdown. But Ms D’Bus’s comedy and wild outfits—sometimes involving netting, spandex and wigs made of luminous plastic tubing—attract huge audiences at festivals and film nights. She also appears at events such as Pink Dot and other, more private, gatherings. Ms D’Bus says, however, that many young drag performers in Singapore still cannot imagine telling their families what they do. Her advice to them on coming out suggests the hazards they face. “If it’s not safe for you, don’t do it,” she says. “If you’re going to lose a roof over your head, or not have food to eat, don’t do it.”