“You know that Sunday night is gay night, right?”
My friend wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t, but no matter. Three Sundays ago, a group of Yalies and I proceeded to Clark Quay, Singapore’s premier nightlife district, and owned the dance floor in a club at least three-quarters full of gay men. For young Singaporeans, Sunday night is gay night.
A group of Yale professors has drafted a resolution demanding that Yale-NUS College “respect, protect, and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination and full political freedom.” Part of the debate has concerned Singapore’s climate toward homosexuality and its potential effects on Yale-NUS.
I applaud the Yale faculty for doing what any group of intellectuals ought to do in response to an undertaking as significant as Yale-NUS College: debate the merits, take positions and defend them. It’s disappointing, though, that the draftees’ defense and the ensuing dialogue in the News have mischaracterized Singapore as a place exceptionally intolerant of homosexuality. Moreover, the implication that the U.S. stands far ahead of Singapore in this regard reveals either blindness to — or denial of — the American reality.
Yes, section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code bans homosexual conduct between males. But let’s not forget that as of 1970, sodomy laws prohibited homosexual acts in every state in America except Illinois. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision overturned only nine years ago. And even today, The New York Times says Kansas Statute 21-3505, a criminal sodomy law, is “used as justification to harass and discriminate against people.”
Did these laws render 1960s, ’70s and ’80s America unfit for liberal arts education? No. Did the Yale faculty abandon its pursuit of light and truth in 1986, when our highest court ruled against its ideals of openness and tolerance? Of course not. Has Yale severed ties with Kansas? Why, then, should section 377A preclude liberal arts education in Singapore?
Perhaps some critics have conflated national policy and campus climate. The debate thus far has misleadingly compared Yale students’ and professors’ attitudes toward homosexuality with Singaporean law. Because the Singaporean government funds Yale-NUS, one may worry that, even beyond gay rights, national policies will dictate the campus climate at Yale-NUS. They won’t. Yale-NUS students, like the many NUS students who openly debate and criticize government and university policy in class and in publications such as the Kent Ridge Common, will make sure of that.
Just like America, Singapore has laws and norms of which I disapprove. A vibrant gay party scene doesn’t mean that gays have equal rights — they don’t. Yet Singapore has seen notable liberalizations over the past 10 years, including the launch of high-profile gay rights organizations and government approval for large-scale gay festivals and gatherings. Notwithstanding its historical restrictions on free speech and assembly, I applaud Singapore’s steps toward equality.
Now consider the American climate. I am proud that eight states have legalized gay marriage. But in recent months, millions of Americans have cast their Republican primary ballots for Rick Santorum, who says that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy … you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”
With this man as a serious contender for the presidency, how can anyone idealize the U.S. as a beacon of enlightenment? A vast swath of America remains deeply committed to intolerance. I’m not aware of a Singaporean politician who has campaigned for the nation’s highest office on the premise that homosexuality is wrong and that family values can fix the country’s ills.
In this respect, I cannot see how Singapore is any more regressive than America. Santorum’s bigotry does not justify intolerance in Singapore, but it does make clear that the liberal arts can thrive in environments sometimes hostile to their principles.
As a straight man who moved here only six months ago, I’m no expert on gay life in Singapore. But just as Yale promotes understanding and tolerance in America, Yale-NUS will do the same in Singapore. I support the ideals expressed in the professors’ resolution, but not the American exceptionalism and distortions of Singaporean society that have grown out of it.
Austin Shiner is 2011 graduate of Ezra Stiles College and an admissions officer at Yale-NUS College.