Singapore activists fail to overturn colonial-era LGBTQ criminalization law

The Singapore Court of Appeals, on Monday, declined to overturn a law that criminalizes gay male relationships. The High court decided that the case has no legal standing since the government pledged not to enforce the law.

The 1938 British colonial-era law that criminalizes gay male relationships has been challenged multiple times in the last eight years. Johnson Ong and his Lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam and activists Bryan Chee Hoong, former executive director of LGBTQ organization Oogachaga, and Roy Tan Seng Kee, a retired medical doctor filed a case against the Singapore government on Sept. 10, 2018 to overturn the archaic law, which failed again in 2020 before the latest appeal. 

“I am disappointed with the outcome but the ruling does not mean the end of the community’s pursuit for equality. I want to thank my fellow litigants, our respective legal counsels and everyone who has shown us overwhelming support over the years,” said Ong in a statement to GLAAD. “I want to reiterate the devastating impact of S377A on the mental and physical well-being of the LGBTQ+ community. It encourages discriminatory treatment towards queer people and denies the equal rights and protection that LGBTQ+ Singaporeans deserve.”

"Singapore's ruling upholding the discriminatory S377A is a great disappointment in a country and world that increasingly recognize that LGBTQ people are family, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens. That it will be legally unenforceable is a small consolation, but one that can be easily stripped away,” said Ross Murray, Vice President of the GLAAD Media Institute. “We will continue to stand with and support LGBTQ people in Singapore and everywhere around the world where LGBTQ people face criminalization, violence, and persecution.”

The law–S377A–states that acts of “gross indecency” between men are punishable for up to two years in jail with perpetuated discrimination of Singapore’s LGBTQ population. LGBTQ groups are not allowed to organize, there is a lack in media representation and positive portrayal of LGBTQ people in the world. Ong held hope that they could reverse the 2020 ruling.

A 2019 survey on Singaporeans’ acceptance of close LGBTQ family members showed that 39% of Singaporean families would react somewhat negatively to close family members coming out as LGBTQ versus 34% of Singaporeans who would react somewhat positively. Even more astounding, four-out-of-five or 80% of 887 Singaporeans surveyed by Blackbox believe that LGBTQ people face discrimination in Singapore.

Ong responded to Singapore's ruling in a video where he considers the ruling a step in the right direction. "Although the appeal was dismissed we did take a step in the right direction. That is 377A cannot be legally enforcable under any circumstance," said Ong in the video. However, the Attorney General can give reasonable notice to the public, if he decides to prosecute under the law

Even without strict enforcement, Singapore remains one of 71 countries that still criminalize LGBTQ people or activity. At least five countries impose the death penalty on LGBTQ people. LGBTQ persecution in Russia under the 2013 “Gay Propaganda Law” has been linked to a rise in violence against LGBTQ people in Russia along with legal prosecution of LGBTQ organizations. The federal law was enacted to diminish valuable conversation, education and issues regarding LGBTQ rights, considered “gay propaganda” and threatens out LGBTQ activist groups and people in the Ukraine. Groups like RUSA LGBTQ+ are working to support humanitarian efforts in the Ukraine, including raising money and resources for LGBTQ advocacy groups, providing protest information and aiding Ukraine's LGBTQ+ army fighting against Russia's invasion. 

Each year countries all over the world make strides to end the criminalization, violence, and persecution of LGBTQ people. 

Last year, Angola's President Joao Lourenco signed into law a revised penal code to allow same-sex relationships and to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In early 2021 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made a decision to call on Jamaica to repeal laws, such as the British colonial era 1864 Offences Against Person Act, prohibiting same-sex conduct. Guyana too is working toward decriminalization. In 2021 Guyana decriminalized cross-dressing, a law made during colonial era Summary Jurisdiction (Offenses) Act. 

"Although the non-enforcement of S377A offers a small step towards the LGBTQ+ community’s freedom from discrimination and oppression, it will take more time before the LGBTQ+ community finds full recognition and acceptance by policymakers and society. It has always been an uphill struggle for the community but we will not stop making progress in our fight for a genuinely open and inclusive Singapore,” said Ong. 

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