Censorship, threats and book-burning: Christians vs. Gays in Singapore

Censorship, threats and book-burning: Christians vs. Gays in Singapore July 21, 2014

On Friday I got this in a longtime valued commenter on this blog, a gay citizen of Singapore who online goes by the name Anakin:

Hi John,

Not sure if you’ve heard about this, but it’s been raging all over my country for the past few weeks. Basically a group of concerned Christian parents wrote to the National Library Board to get three children’s books banned (including And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of gay penguins at the New York Zoo that raised a young penguin together), saying that they were not “pro-family” (which of course is code for anti-gay).

The library responded promptly, thanked them for bringing the matter to their attention, took the books out, and later proudly announced at a press conference that the books would be destroyed for not being in line with the library’s pro-family values. Lots of people cheered them on, with scary comments in social media suggesting things like how we should burn the gays along with the books, people applauding the library for protecting our (presumably-straight) children from the perverted gay agenda, and more of the usual homophobia. Plus all the fear-mongering about how reading books with gay people will apparently turn kids gay (when the opposite has never turned gay kids straight), presumably because heterosexuality is that fragile.

Background coverage: Singapore Provokes Outrage by Pulping Kids’ Books About Gay Families.

It’s come to light that a few other books have previously been banned or are in the process of review for potential banning because they portray LGBT people/relationships in a positive light (those that do so in a negative light are generally allowed, but restricted to the adult lending section). The latest is a volume of Archie comics that features a gay marriage and has been banned by a large bookstore chain here for contravening media content guidelines on sexuality.

The government has been censoring LGBT material from TV and films for ages (kids here can be surprised to learn that Glee featured any gay characters, which shows just how far they go with the censorship). But somehow the actual destruction of children’s books feels worse, particularly with the implication, often explicitly stated, that LGBT people should be kept away from children because we have no business being around anything that innocent, lest we taint that innocence.

So everything is heating up like never before. Newspaper forum pages are filled with letters about this every day, at least one library has newly created a bin for people to put books with ‘unsuitable content’ for review, social media is filled with graphically violent hate speech against LGBT people, and Christian churches are picking up the anti-gay frenzy—a lot of which is imported wholesale from the American Christian Right—in a way that’s getting disturbing. The ex-gay movement is growing in fervor. A lot of LGBT kids, closeted or otherwise, are getting hurt by the stuff their parents are saying. For a movement that claims to be pro-family, it’s sad and ironic how many families the Christian right is pulling apart.

But on the bright side, all this has gotten a lot of publicity for the books in question. It also led a group of 77 Christian parents who were part of the large anti-LGBT group headed by prominent and vehemently anti-gay Christian pastor Lawrence Khong (who has been enthusiastically spearheading all of this) to leave Khong’s group, saying that they were still against the ‘gay lifestyle,’ but even more against the destruction of books, and were deeply disturbed by the way things were going overall.

Others have expressed similar views, which gives me hope that this might be what finally changes things. A few local writers–some LGBT–have pulled out of writing events hosted by the library, or resigned from library-related positions in protest. And given the literary nature of all this, there’s been such an amazingly beautiful outpouring of creativity in response–poetry, comics, passionate pleas for the freedom of knowledge and imagination and reading, and one local gay writer penning haikus in response to individual homophobic comments.

So yeah… there’s always light in the darkness. And the hope that God will take all this pain and malice and turn it around into something good. But right now it kind of sucks.

Thanks, again, for the work that you do, with NALT and your other reminders that people can still come around. Because if that change can happen in the US, it can happen here too.

I thought this such a fine account of what’s going on in Singapore around the Christian/LGBT issue that I asked Anakin if I could here publish what he’d written me. His response:

In the latest update from today, the library announced that they’ll be reinstating two of the books (the third has been destroyed)–but, as a compromise, will be putting them in the adult section. So the protests did have some effect!

I have mixed feelings about whether my letter to you should be posted, especially on a site as popular as yours. Earlier I would have agreed to do it, but with the latest development I’m now afraid that it might upset the uneasy truce that’s emerged from the compromise. :/

In particular, one of the rallying calls of the anti-LGBT groups is the idea that “foreign values”–especially those of the US, and its LGBT activism–have been seeping into and corrupting our traditional Asian culture, and the international coverage/condemnation of this has only further convinced them this is true. This has added a degree of patriotism to their cause.

Race also gets involved, with people here (including LGBT ones) being (rightfully?) offended at the idea of white people trying to tell us what to do. And it gets further complicated by the fact there are so many intersecting factors involved in the homophobia here, unlike in the U.S., where the opposition to LGBT equality is mostly religion-driven.

And, heck, I still love my country, even though things like this make it hard sometimes, and I’ve also been unhappy with reading comments from foreigners insulting my country and its people as a whole because of this issue. Because there are good people here too, and so much of the homophobia is driven by fear and ignorance rather than malice or explicit bigotry; when the censorship does such a great job of preventing people from knowing what homosexuality is, it’s easy to convince people that, say, gay people are all pedophiles out to abuse their children. And it’s only reasonable that they then want to do all they can to protect their children. It’s what makes this sadder–a lot of them are good people honestly trying to do the right thing. I know some of those people.

So I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable with reposting most of my report wholesale, because it could potentially cause more harm than good. It might just further deepen an us-vs-them divide that shouldn’t even exist.

When I wrote the previous email I was tired and upset and angry with all the stuff going on, and I might have been harsher than I meant. But right now with things more settled down, I’m just sad, and I can’t be angry at those people, no matter what they’ve said. And I don’t want to make them out to be the enemy. At the end of the day everyone’s just scared, and trying their best to do what they think is right. And sometimes that fear makes us hurt other people.

I responded to Anakin that I thought his two letters together captured … so much of what’s vital to say on this issue right now relative to Singapore. He agreed, and happily gave me permission to publish what he so thoughtfully took to time to write me.

Here’s to the gay people of Singapore–and to gay people the world over, who daily yearn for the time when no one takes seriously the sadly ignorant and deeply destructive idea that God in any way naturally favors straight people over them.

As far as I know the image above is available as a T-shirt here.

I’m the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question:

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  • James Walker

    Wow. To know, as I do, that we still have so much work to do here in the US to eliminate anti-LGBT+ bias and then to see through another person’s eyes what conditions are like in another country as technically advanced as Singapore.. I don’t have the words to describe the complicated emotions roused in me by reading Anakin’s letters.

    Anakin, I’m so sorry you face so much ignorance and yet so proud that you do it with so much grace and that I’ve had the privilege of interacting with you here on these pages.

  • Leslie Marbach

    Yes. That’s exactly what I was thinking, James.

    Anakin, your bravery is inspiring.

  • BarbaraR

    Anakin, I don’t know a whole lot about Singapore other than the restrictive and draconian laws that make news (like the chewing gum thing). But what you’ve written here sounds so much like the US not that long ago – and in a smaller way continues today. (Though I have to say the angry Christians who still are against the “gay lifestyle” but hate the destruction of books even more must be a Singapore thing. Here in the US they’d hate the “gay lifestyle” AND gladly burn books because, you know, those books are a bad influence and turn kids gay. Or something.)

    For what it’s worth, it sounds like you could be on the verge of change – real, meaningful change. You know the dynamics better than the rest of us, so you’re the best judge of how it would all go down – but the us-versus-them divide is probably an inevitable part of those changes. Some people will proudly embrace that divide. (Here in the US, some people are still fighting the Civil War that ended in 1865.)

    I can only imagine that this does make you sad to see happening. As you say, these are good people but they are driven by fear & ignorance.

    I hope you’ll write more.

  • Matt

    Anakin, I didn’t get the impression you were too harsh at all in your first letter. I was surprised that you characterized it that way–it read to me as a straightforward description of what’s going on. The fear of speaking out can make it very difficult to actually say what’s on your mind, but you did it skillfully and more than reasonably. Well done.

    Please don’t feel bad about loving your country. That’s your home; how could you feel differently? There are many US states that would be far less difficult for me to live in, but Missouri is where I grew up and I feel about it the same way that you do about Singapore.

    If it’s ignorance, then people will learn in time. You always approach the hatred with grace and maturity, even when I can feel my own patience wearing thin. I’m immensely proud to call you my transgender brother and a fellow human being. Keep writing!

  • (I know! I felt the same way when I read his reply to … my reply. I thought, “Wait. Did I miss the part where he was being harsh?” So I went back to reread what he’d written, and I was, like, “Um. Nicest guy ever.”)

  • “Lots of people cheered them on, with scary comments in social media
    suggesting things like how we should burn the gays along with the books,
    people applauding the library for protecting our (presumably-straight)
    children from the perverted gay agenda, and more of the usual homophobia.”

    I am reminded of the chilling and prophetic words of Heinrich Heine, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”, which he wrote in Germany in 1821. I think it’s time to reread Fahrenheit 451.

  • On a completely unrelated note because I’m stuck in a coffee shop waiting for my car to get fixed and am officially bored nearly unto death, doesn’t this post totally make it seem like every time someone writes me an email, my knee-jerk reaction is, “Oh! Oh! Let me publish this on my blog!” I was cracking up as I was pasting this together, thinking of that. Like a friend would write me, telling me something real and personal going on in his life, and four seconds later he gets an email from me going, “Cool story! So gut-wrenching! How’z about I publish it on my blog?

    I dunno. Seemed kind of funny. Of course I’d had four cups of coffee by then.

  • Matt

    Well, Anakin’s report is very…thorough. It wouldn’t be out of place (with a few tweaks) being read off a teleprompter on the evening news. That’s what I liked so much about it. So your reaction is natural.

  • James Walker

    ok. we can stop panicking now. that high-pitched sound emanating from the San Diego-ish direction was merely John vibrating to the tune of “four-cups-of-regular-brewed”. 😉

  • Second Mouse

    Singapore is a horrible country. It has elevated its homophobia into a national virtue and its citizens get their rocks off demonising gay people day in and day out. Plus they hate America even though their bigotry comes straight out of the fundamentalist playbook. They are the Nazis of Asia and any attempt to whitewash their behaviour is the result of Anakin Not Acually Having To Live There.

  • anakinmcfly

    Oh, it’s you again. Please take your unsubstantiated rants against my country elsewhere, thank you. Reading your (often virulently racist and xenophobic) posts that day managed to offend me far more than any local homophobia, which is saying something.

  • anakinmcfly

    heh, thanks. Yeah, I guess ‘harsh’ wasn’t quite the right word, and a lot of it was due more to my emotional state while writing that letter than what actually ended up being written. I think I felt like I was making things out to be worse than they were, because in the midst of the hatred it was easy to forget the support and the love that was also emerging as a response.

  • anakinmcfly

    Thanks! Chewing gum actually isn’t banned here, as commonly thought – it’s just the sale of chewing gum that is. So if you bring some in from another country, it’s fine! The law was enacted as a way to reduce incidences of people sticking used gum all over the place, and it worked. I’ve never seen used gum anywhere around here, vs when I was in the US and it seemed like that stuff was everywhere…

    Only 18% of Singaporeans are Christian, plus 14% Muslim, while (as of 2013, I think) 76% of the population thinks homosexuality is wrong. So it’s led to a lot of… interesting rationalisations for homophobia, given that a lot of those people either don’t have a religion (16%) or come from religious traditions that AFAIK have nothing to say against homosexuality (Buddhists = 34%). So the arguments here are markedly different from the Bible-based ones that dominate US spaces, and a depressing amount of it clearly shows that they have no idea what homosexuality *is*. A lot of them also end up effectively outing themselves, like the ones who argue very angrily about how if we decriminalise homosexuality, everybody would only have gay sex and the population would die out. Which isn’t a very heterosexual thing to believe.

  • anakinmcfly

    Thanks! It’s ironic that a lot of people here nonetheless believe that we have it really good compared to others, partly because we’re bordered by the Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, which are far stricter on homosexuality than we are. And even those countries aren’t as bad as, say, Uganda, where homosexuality gets you years in jail and/or a life sentence, and LGBT people are regularly assaulted and killed in the streets.

    So compared to that… yeah, we’re extremely fortunate. Some people actually consider Singapore to be the most liberal in the region when it comes to LGBT rights. We also have one of the lowest crime rates, and I definitely feel a lot more physically safe here than when I was in the US, even while I felt more emotionally safe in the US. Most of the homophobia and transphobia here is psychological rather than physical. While (male) homosexuality is technically supposed to get you 2 years in jail, (lesbians are totally legal, which some people are trying to change) it’s not an actively enforced law, but its existence means that things like gay book banning are hard to argue against from a legal standpoint, because they could be seen as supporting criminal activity, and LGBT rights organisations are limited in what they can do within the confines of the law.

  • Jeff Preuss

    See, and I had no preconceived notions about Singapore at ALL……well, now I have that gum law thing, which seems weird to me.

  • Guy Norred

    It may not be a very heterosexual thing to think, but that doesn’t stop it from being verbalized by plenty of supposedly straight people in the US as well.

  • Second Mouse

    {Homophobic commente deleted}

  • Second Mouse

    There are no LGBT rights in Singapore. Nada. The reason why Singapore begrudgingly decided not to enforce its draconian anti-gay laws is because it knows that Google, Barclays and Goldman Sachs would kick up a fuss. If there is one thing Singaporeans love more than oppressing gay people, it’s money. So there you have it – Singaporeans oppress gay people enough to make them feel like worthless crap, but not so much that multinational corporations pull out of the country. It’s a cynical Faustian bargain and one that is quite easy to see through.

  • BarbaraR

    Sorry, but you don’t get to talk trash to Anakin. You’re out of here.

  • Right? It’s so completely … complete. Which makes me wonder: Why is this post so dead?

  • anakinmcfly

    I’m curious about your specific obsession with insulting my country and its people all over the internet. There are so many other countries with way worse treatment of LGBT people, and yet I don’t see you talking about them.

    Plus, those laws were both challenged and unenforced long before Google et al came out in support of LGBT rights.

  • Fahrenheit 451…fantastic story, powerful message.

  • OH its more than just Google, Barclays and Goldman Sachs, Its also Expedia, and Levi Straus, JC Penney, Marriot International, Cisco, Starbucks, Burger King (who introduced a rainbow whopper wrapper in limited markets recently), Orbits, the maker of Oreos, Johnson & Johnson, Instagram, Mastercard, Microsoft and more. Many of these have international presence. All of these companies recognize that their employees, and their customers are diverse in so many ways, and completely accept and embrace that diversity. Yes profit margins matter, for any business, but allowing staff and customers feel appreciated, respected and welcome, matters as well.

  • Jeff Preuss

    Why? Because it’s not the USA, so the ‘God and Country’ folks aren’t as concerned. For the most part (except Uganda), super-fundamentalist conservatives who equate gay rights advancement with a simultaneous display of anti-patriotism and losing of their religious freedoms don’t exactly care what happens to gay people or FOR gay people in other countries. (Again, oddly and abhorrently enough, except for Uganda.)

    It’s not exactly threatening their perceived freedom to only practice their beliefs if it’s a hemisphere away.

    (Now, perhaps there are some super-anti-LGBT folks on Patheos who hail from anakin’s continent, and we’ve just not seen them yet, but by and large, the more rabidly intolerant folks seem to come from USA! USA! USA!)

  • Ah, the good old fashioned “well its not in my backyard, so who cares?” syndrome, as if the USA was the ONLY important nation on this planet.

  • Jeff Preuss

    Well, gosh, look how many people are so upset about the invasion of diseased criminal children, now that they’re in our backyard. Now that they’re within our borders, it’s an INVASION! That MUST BE STOPPED!

    (Seriously, the number of people I’ve seen actually saying the reason we should completely block the immigrant children because they’re “diseased” is sickening to me.)

  • It makes me deeply sad and angrier than I like to be. The whole concept of, and one very compatible with Christianity, is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Who is our neighbor? Everyone. To have so little compassion for one’s neighbor is a plague on our faith and our society. It makes me feel helpless, but yet…

    I know I’m emulating Don Quixote, but I want to find a cure. I can either hide from it all, being unable or unwilling to read,see or hear about other’s pain at the hands of humanity, or I can charge full ahead at those windmills of bigotry, pride, apathy, ignorance and hate with my itty bitty lance, hoping I can at least make a dent.

  • Oh. I thought it was just because I’d chosen a lame title for the piece (which I changed!). But … what you said. I guess. Probably. I hope not cuz that’s sad…

  • Jeff Preuss

    Why the penguin hate, dude? I would think you’d get MORE clicks with penguins in the title. ERRYBODY loves penguins.

    Yes, it is sad if that’s the case, but Western evangelical Christianity, specifically in the US, has become so myopic in its focus. If it’s not in the US, then it doesn’t seem to affect them. (Not all, of course, but the most vocal seem that way.)

  • I thought maybe people thought the Penguins made it too frivolous a story…

    And though I know you’re joking, look how much I DON’T hate penguins:


  • Right now I think many people’s focus is on three hotly debated topics. 1. Who do we get to blame for shooting down a passenger plane while not caring one bit about the families or the local citzens trapped because of the conflict, 2. How can we get away with making sure downtrodden people stay that way, in their own countries, and 3. How can we support Israel’s killing of civilians, blame them for a terrorist group’s actions because…Islam. All while trying to sound intellegent AND compassionate.
    Its beginning to get quite difficult to keep the screams of frustration silent.

  • Jeff Preuss

    I don’t know, I think people expect a certain…glibness? That doesn’t seem right, since you are clearly sincere in your topics, but I would think by now it would be expected there is some level of…humor or equating with non-threatening hot topics in some way that attempts to somewhat defuse anger or at least point out the fallacy of some super-conservative views.

    So, in other words, I don’t think anyone would expect the penguins would mean you aren’t serious.

    (Also, LOOK! You wrote a book!) 😀

  • I Own that book of John’s. Its great.

  • Jeff Preuss

    Oh, I might buy it, but clearly I don’t read. 😉

  • Tom McQuarrie

    “one of the rallying calls of the anti-LGBT groups is the idea that “foreign values” … have been seeping into and corrupting our traditional Asian culture”

    Wait, isn’t christianity one of those foreign values?

    Seriously though, when you see supposed christians treating gay people so hatefully, and contrast it with Anakin’s response that “I can’t be angry at those people, no matter what they’ve said”, it really rings true that “by their fruits you will know them”

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    “… if we decriminalise homosexuality, everybody would only have gay sex and the population would die out. Which isn’t a very heterosexual thing to believe.”

    It’s not very thoughtful either. They apparently think everyone else believes we have so few humans left humanity could die at any time and that gay people are sterile and/or unable to know how reproduction works. My former pastor, in order to shoehorn in a Bible study book question about homosexuality into a Sunday school lesson about Samuel’s dad having two wives instead of doing what Jesus/YHWH thought was right (“traditional marriage”), asked, “What will happen because the female population in China is so much lower in China than the males? The spread of homosexuality!” Instead of the dead stair I gave while others amened, I wish I would have questioned that or at least broken my head open on the pew in front of me.

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    Watch Nostalgia Critic and Nostalgia Chick… come back… problems with bordem now and in the future abated?

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    I think part of it (and this may be only a small part intuited from my navel gazing) is that there is some fear this problem is just so HUGE and everywhere and more subtle in some places (Singapore) than others (Uganda, Nigeria). The other thing is that tension that despite the USA being so powerful, a lot of us want to discourage our country from being white-night world police. Still, the most prominent reasoning against caring probably is “not my lawn, not my proble…Ge-ge-GET-OFF-MY-LAWN!!!”

  • BarbaraR

    Perhaps someday we can have a session on “Most WTF things you ever heard a pastor say.”

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    One more, then… A visiting pastor once said “newer Bibles watered down the Bible” because they translated that KJV “my father’s house has many mansions” into “… many rooms”. Never mind that because of what the word mansion most commonly meant in the early 1600s was a dwelling place or room not a palatial house of a wealthy person. Oddly enough, a previous recent youth camp event had the kids singing ‘Big House’ with the more accurate for modern Christians “… with lots and lots of ROOMS”. Also, that mansions passage may not even be talking about heaven as one pastor I read on the internet wrote that the only place Jesus ever calls “My father’s house” is the Jewish temple where he was going shortly after saying he would go to his father’s house to prepare a place for his disciples. The internet pastor also wrote that the Jewish temple had many rooms where priest met privately with worshipers to give them counsel.

    Apparently, Jesus’ holy spirit can’t give you the feeling you’re unknowingly making an ass of yourself.

  • Jill

    I once did a book report on Fahrenheit. I love Bradbury and all, but I’ve seen one too many parallels from that book and life as we know it… scariest horror story ever. Still having nightmares…

  • Jill

    Color me overwhelmed just now. Thank you Allegro for putting this into words.

  • Jill

    Penguins and God… it’s even better than chocolate and peanut butter.

  • Jill

    Again, overwhelmed… man, are you and I on the same vast frustrated wavelength or what? Life seems to be buffing out my little dents faster than I can make them.