SINGAPORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Homosexuality is banned in Singapore and arts are strictly censored - yet performers say the tough line helps foment a thriving, LGBT+ cultural scene in this conservative city state.
Drag artists stage sellout shows at upmarket bars, gay performance poets are in demand and singers use rap to come out.
Gay sex remains illegal - even in private - but LGBT+ artists feel they now have a firm foothold in popular culture.
The tiny island plays host to three LGBT+ arts festivals a year and performers say their work stands in resistance to the government as they weave past censors to reach a wider audience.
“It is our way of pointing at the world we live in and saying it’s ridiculous and wrong,” said drag queen Becca D’Bus, whose shows attract a young, prosperous and professional crowd in some of the city’s busiest downtown bars.
LGBT+ artists - creating everything from movies to music - say state censorship, far from a deterrent, acts as a muse.
“The harshness of the government ... increases the ingenuity of artists in staging events without actually using words like ‘queer’ or ‘gay’,” said poet and author Cyril Wong.
“A word such as ‘gender’ is used instead.”
Gay sex between men – though not women – is a crime in the Southeast Asian city state, a state governed on strict lines and conservative values.
“In terms of laws, our rights for gay and bi men are bad. Gay sex is still a jailable offence. This is worse than many other neighbouring countries where gay sex is not illegal,” said writer Ng Yi-Sheng. “But again, we haven’t had crackdowns on gay men such as in Malaysia and Indonesia.”
Lawmakers are cautious on social reform, citing the rich ethnic and religious mix in Singapore’s 5.6 million inhabitants.
Activists are increasingly pushing back against the ban on gay sex, aiming for change in the courts and an end to discrimination across their young and modern society.
“From theatre to performance and visual art exhibitions, LGBT+ artists in Singapore have slowly carved out space and pushed the comfort zone for dialogue around gay counterculture,” said Tristan Cai, a Singaporean, who teaches art and Asian studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the United States.
LGBT+ festivals such as Pink Dot, Queer Zinefest and Love and Pride Film Festival have sprung up as a form of resistance against state restrictions on LGBT+ art and culture.
In July, popular musician Joshua Su came out to his parents by releasing a new track on which he raps: “G-A-Y-B-O-Y OK.”
Academics say the high-profile arts scene helps the wider push for LGBT+ rights.
“The LGBTQ community has been working hard for inclusion and against discrimination over the past decade....Their efforts have contributed to a level of greater acceptance in Singapore society,” says Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore.
The National Arts Council, a government funding body, said art had “the power to bring people in our diverse, multicultural society together” and reflected the many voices of Singapore.
“I talk a lot about queerness in my comedy, trying to debunk myths and stereotypes people may have about me,” 32-year-old bisexual poet and stand-up comedian Stephanie Chan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Film-makers have learnt to use the internet to get round the state censors of their LGBT+ output.
“If we were to make a film to show in cinemas, we will have to get a classification rating and some scenes may get cut,” said filmmaker Leon Cheo.
“Queer festivals make us feel less alone since social discrimination never goes away,” said 42-year-old poet and author Cyril Wong, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize.
Yet Singapore has liberal credentials compared to some countries in the region.
Brunei sparked outcry this year over plans to impose the death penalty for gay sex, then backtracked after intense global criticism. In neighbouring Malaysia, the authorities caned two women last year after they were convicted of same-sex relations.
Popular opinion in Singapore appears divided.
Last year, an Ipsos survey revealed 55% of Singaporeans support the ban on gay sex. Yet a study by the Singapore-based Institute of Policy Studies found six in 10 people aged 18-25 believe same-sex marriage is not wrong.
Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong says his country occupies a middle ground on LGBT+ rights.
“We are not like San Francisco, neither are we like certain countries in the Middle East,” Lee told a conference in June.
“It’s something in between. It’s the way this society is.”
All plays and public performances – including poetry readings – must be screened and approved by the government’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).
There are no official statistics on how much content is banned each year and the IMDA declined to comment.
In 2007, Ng was banned from reading a short story at a Pride event as it described a civil servant who turned gay after reading a piece of erotica.
“I felt indignant and frustrated, but it was also funny. By banning my story about a banned story, they were fulfilling this image of Singapore as a censor-happy nation,” Ng said, noting the irony of the government banning a story about censorship.
The National Arts Council (NAC) said it had regularly supported Ng’s projects.
Yet many gay artists and writers say their projects are rejected by the NAC and complain of missing out on teaching jobs at public universities.
A spokesman for the NAC said the body supported all artists and arts groups “according to our strategic priorities”.
The situation has improved immeasurably since the 1990s, Wong said, when LGBT+ art was limited to independent galleries or low-key informal events for fear of police persecution.
Now, there is more of a spirit of openness with local companies sponsoring festivals since as PinkDot, he added.
“This freedom cannot be underestimated,” Wong said.
Mainstream media, such as digital sites Today and Nylon Magazine, also prominently feature drag queens, added D’Bus.
The other visible change is that people – from both the straight and LGBT+ communities – flock to her shows.
“I find fun, glamour, frivolity, beauty and pleasure productive,” she said.
“They bring people together.”
Reporting by Sonia Sarkar @sonia_26; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org
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