Singapore will change its constitution to prevent same-sex marriages, but decriminalize gay sex

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Singapore will not allow same-sex marriages even as it moves to repeal a law that criminalizes gay sex, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Sunday.

The government plans to amend the country’s constitution to limit its definition of marriage between a man and a woman, and to protect that definition from legal challenges.

Marital status is tied to many social policies in Singapore, including eligibility for public housing and adoption. LGBTQ activists in the Southeast Asian country have long called this system discriminatory, and some now fear enshrining the definition of marriage will entrench it.

Titled “Indecent assault”, section 377A stipulates that sexual relations between men are punishable by up to two years in prison.

Rights activists describe the section of the colonial-era penal code as archaic, discriminatory and contributing to social stigma by labeling members of the LGBTQ community as criminals.

“Section 377A relegates our gay friends and relatives to second-class citizenship by signaling that what they do, and who they are, is reprehensible and wrong,” reads the organization’s Ready 4 Repeal website. .

Singapore’s Court of Appeal ruled in February that 377A was unenforceable – relying on the ruling that the law would be kept on the books, but authorities would not proactively enforce it, as Lee said. in 2007. It would have been “too divisive” to decide anything else, Lee said Sunday, leaving the nation with this “messy compromise” for years.

Yet the law occupies a major role in public discourse on LGBTQ issues, holding strong symbolic meaning for activists, many of whom had campaigned against it for generations.

“It took many people, for decades…today we are united to savor this moment,” Harpreet Singh, an attorney who helped bring a constitutional challenge against 377A in 2019, told The Washington Post on Sunday.

Oogachaga, a Singaporean LGBTQ community organization, said it was “relieved and hopeful” to hear of the repeal. It can “be a chance to start healing the wounds that have taken place,” he said.

Section 377A has caused “immeasurable pain and suffering” to LGBTQ people in the country, said Jean Chong, co-founder of Sayoni, a gay rights organization in Singapore. Chong said she felt “deep regret” that the removal of the law had to come with additional protections to the government’s definition of marriage.

“These suggested constitutional changes will discriminate against LGBTQ families and partnerships who make significant contributions to Singapore’s economy and society,” Chong said.

Religious groups in Singapore, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore and an alliance of Christian organizations, have been vigorously advocating in recent weeks for the government to add protections to the traditional definition of marriage.

In a televised address, Lee called the government’s two-pronged decision a compromise that would allow the country to “maintain our current family and social standards”.

“Overall, Singapore is a traditional society, with conservative social values,” Lee said. “Therefore, even if we repeal 377A, we will maintain and safeguard the institution of marriage.”

Several dozen countries have legalized same-sex marriages, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of them, like the United States and Taiwan, did so after constitutional challenges. Lee said in his speech that his government wanted to avoid such challenges by amending the constitution.

The courts are not the “right forum” to decide the issue, he said. “Judges and courts have neither the expertise nor the mandate to settle political issues and rule on social norms and values ​​- because these are fundamentally not legal issues, but political issues,” Lee added. .

The constitutional change “will retain what I think most Singaporeans still want, which is to retain the basic family structure of marriage between a man and a woman”, he said, without giving further details. details.

A 2022 Ipsos poll reported increasingly positive attitudes among Singaporeans towards same-sex marriages. Nearly 50% of all respondents said they were more accepting of same-sex relationships than three years ago.

Rebecca Tan in Thailand contributed to this report.

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