For Pride Month, we will take a look at how Singapore media tackled the issues of LGBTQ 50 years ago. In 1972, the English-language evening tabloid New Nation published two 4-part series on homosexuality in Singapore. One was on the gay male society titled “They are Different” and another one on lesbians titled “Outsiders”. This series was the result of a 4-month-long study of homosexuality in Singapore.
Historian Dhevarajan Devadas brought these articles to light, giving us insights to how LGBT issues were viewed back in the day. The report also highlighted how “homosexuality is as old as ancient Greece”. Have these views changed, or have they always been the same?
“They are Different” – the media on gay men
Part One teased a “major discovery.” A photo caption mentioned how “the homosexuals unerringly spot their kind and strike up what they call a sincere friendship.”
The paragraph opened with “there are more gay people in Singapore than we realised,” and listed the types of people who are “not normally suspected of being inclined this way.” These include public figures, clerks, blue-collar workers, and secret society toughs. They also included “family men, or people with wives and children.”
The went on to allege that having a family is a cover-up of their homosexual tendencies, with many of them being “effectively bisexual.”
They also categorised homosexuals into: Transvestites, Effeminate, and Normal.
Part Two – “Those Who Live in the Twilight Zone” – tried to find out how people “became” gay. The paper explored how these men think of societal attitudes and how they felt about their different sexual preferences.
They also claimed that many homosexuals have a sense of guilt about their condition.
The prevalent thought at the time was that homosexuals were “sick people” or abnormal or unnatural. However, they found that most individuals were well-adjusted, and “not unlike heterosexual people in many ways.”
Part Three examined the legal aspects of homosexuality in Singapore. Their “Law Lays Down a Hard Line on Homosexuals” article claimed to have revealed some “startling facts.” They also claimed that most sociologists, psychiatrists, and the clergy knew little about the subject.
In this segment, doctors and psychiatrists explained how they “treated” the issue. One doctor recounted coming across cases at institutions of higher learning. He also explained how a new student may be inducted into homosexual practices by an older student.
Meanwhile, the police told the interviewers about how they cracked down on trans prostitution.
The final part explored the global history of homosexuality, including feedback from readers on the series. Readers actually phoned in to discuss their problems; most talked about “a total aloneness.”
“Outsiders” – how Singapore perceived lesbians
“Outsiders” kicks off with a look a the “lonely world” of Singapore lesbians in “Facing Up to the Problem.” This segment dealt with how lesbians received far less scrutiny and persecution than gay or trans individuals.
For Part Two, the paper interviewed “Jan”, a reader who contacted the paper after the series came out. Her exclusive in-depth interview, titled “A girl fully committed to the lesbian cause” took up an entire page. In it, she revealed her personal feelings on being a lesbian. However, her aim was to bring some understanding on the genuine emotional relationships between lesbians.
The next segment about lifting the veil of prejudice gave the global context of “lesbianism”. It concluded that “the time has still not come when a woman can proclaim herself a lesbian and not be subject to the contempt of intolerant people in society”.
The series ends with pieces on what lesbians could do to come to terms with the society they lived in. The paper explored many issues, from understanding the difficulties facing lesbians to evaluating its situation in Singapore. They also mentioned that sociologists have made no studies on lesbianism in the country.
Learning about LGBT issues in Singapore media
Have the sentiments about the LGBTQ population in Singapore changed over the decades? The New Nation exposé caused a stir, and raised mainstream awareness of the existence of gay people who weren’t transgender.
Homosexuality and transvestism were visible as a street scene in the 1970s, and Singapore became a centre of gender-reassignment surgery. The growing popularity of travel to Thailand and Japan in the late 1970s also introduced Singaporeans to traditional Asian societies that were more accepting of homosexuals.
Fast forward to this decade, and the sentiment is mixed at best. We’ve seen some negative reactions to the community in recent years, and one only needs to look at Facebook comments to feel the current temperature.