Section 377A: Putting children first
Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises acts of “gross indecency” between males “in public or private”, is one of the most controversial topics in Singapore today. Some consider the law to be outdated and discriminatory against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ), et cetera. Others who favour retaining Section 377A consider the law to be a critical symbol of Singapore’s mainstream values on marriage and family, as well as sexuality and gender.
Apart from law and policy, the debate also has implications on a wider question of social harmony: How can people with vastly differing viewpoints coexist side by side in Singapore society, without resulting in clashes or conflicts over deeply held values? With these issues in mind, we consider what the best way forward is.
Since we started reading and writing about this matter, we have realised that children and youth are the most vulnerable in this great tussle of value systems. Foreign news reports tell of young children being made to learn that mothers and fathers are completely interchangeable, that gender confusion (an often conflicting and painful experience) is not just normal, but should be celebrated and accompanied by irreversible treatment from a very young age.
These practices may be harmful to children. For example, Sweden has largely banned the use of puberty blockers to treat gender-confused children, owing to harmful side effects, and the United States authorities have recently warned of side effects such as symptoms of brain swelling. Children are also taught that mothers and fathers are completely interchangeable, and encouraged to be sexually experimental since all sexual behaviours are equal, despite the science showing that some behaviours are riskier than others.
In Singapore, we already have local examples of school-going children encouraged to use gender pronouns in controversial ways and young teenagers identifying as “pansexual” – and the alienating or bullying of those who disagree.
Marriage, family, children and societal values
So what has repealing Section 377A to do with this? As the only law that retains a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual behaviours, its existence, on principle, restrains advancing LGBTQ activism that contributes to a hyper-sexualised environment and a disproportionate focus on sexual and gender identities. Its non-enforcement allows our fellow LGBTQ citizens to engage in such sexual behaviours without government intervention.
But many activists have made clear their intent to go beyond repeal and push for, among other things, same-sex marriage and controversial sexuality education. However, to have fruitful and honest public debate on these other issues, it is crucial for those with contrary views to resist strong international pressure (such as through diversity policies in global multinational corporations) and the immense intimidation on social media. If Section 377A is repealed, the ground will only become further divided and civil dialogue harder to achieve.
Activists have called the threat to family a “myth”, saying that the repeal will not cause a breakdown of marriage in terms of divorces. However, while existing individual marriages may not break down, marriage and family as social institutions with public importance will be affected. It is critical that social policy continues to prioritise the best interests of children, whenever possible. Decades of social science show that the best conditions to raise a child are when the child grows up in a healthy family with both a biological father and mother, who are in a stable and lasting marriage.
At the level of state-wide policies, if the traditional family unit is weakened, society will be weakened as well, with implications for social policy, welfare spending and criminal justice.
We know how important it is to give children good homes to thrive in, and to involve both fathers and mothers in their children’s lives because each plays a unique and complementary role in the parenting of their children. Thus, one of us founded Dads for Life to reduce the adverse impact of fatherlessness (including physically or emotionally absent or abusive fathers) on children. The other continued his work in designing and delivering highly customised marriage and family development programmes for families at various stages of their life cycles, including helping former convicts to reintegrate into their families and society, as well as being a chief juror for an annual Exemplary Fathers award, which has gone a long way to inspire fathers in the community.
On the other hand, in a same-sex household, a child loses a connection with either a father or a mother. Given that half of a child’s DNA comes from the father, and the other half comes from the mother, to say that two fathers or two mothers make no difference to the child is to put adults’ desires before the needs and rights of the child. This is on top of the ethical difficulties surrounding the ways in which same-sex couples “obtain” children – such as surrogacy, which objectifies children, and women who are surrogates.
If there is no proper consideration of all these possible negative effects of same-sex marriages and family, we put children at risk by entering uncharted territory at the level of public policy.
The existing status quo on Section 377A is based on a careful balance and a political compromise adopted by Parliament in 2007 following an extensive debate. This “political package” – to use the words of our apex court – already achieves a precious and well-thought-out balance. It ensures that the norms and values on marriage and family will remain mainstream, while giving space for LGBTQ people to live freely and contribute to society.