LGBT rights in the global financial capital are murky at best, while Vietnam has been pegged as one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in Asia.
A global metropole, the small, tropical island of Singapore is the hub of crypto-capitalism: a country flanked by towering skyscrapers that boast of "progress" and "advancement," but where fighting for LGBT rights is still a tall order.
While queer marriages are prohibited, changing one’s gender is allowed — underscoring the country’s schizophrenic policies with regards to sexual rights, which palter about progressivism, but leave much to be desired.
LGBT activists are gearing up for continued challenges after the government tightened rules this year for the upcoming Pride event, limiting the celebration that is already only allowed to take place once a year.
From ambiguity about their legal rights to facing censorship in the media, the terrain of LGBT equality in the global financial capital is nonexistent at worst, and murky at best.
Legal ambiguity and inequality for LGBT Singaporeans
For bisexual lawyer Indulekshmi Rajeswari, the country “does not recognize LGBT rights at all.”
“In fact, sex between mutually consenting men is still criminalized, through the infamous section 377A of the Penal Code,” she told teleSUR.
“There are no anti-discrimination laws in any sphere, including housing, employment, healthcare and so on. LGBT couples and families live in a legal limbo,” she continued.
According to Rajeswari, while queer and trans people pay the same taxes, they are not given the same access to government housing or tax breaks that “married, heterosexual couples take for granted.”
The “vocal but small religious right and the government’s interest in maintaining the status quo”, she explained, explains why LGBT Singaporeans continue to live in a state of legal ambiguity and inequality.
“Same but Different,” the new legal guide
In this arena of muddled rights, comes Rajeswari’s new guide titled, “Same but Different: A Singapore LGBT Legal Guide for Couples & Families.” Set to release July 8, the book will help LGBT Singaporeans navigate their legal rights.
"I knew my friends were asking me because they did not know other LGBT-friendly lawyers," Rajeswari told teleSUR of her inspiration to begin the guide in November 2015.
The crowd-funded project that has a team of 18 volunteers, delves into the "legal ambiguities" surrounding marriage and cohabitation contracts, property, wills and inheritance, medical decisions and children.
The guidebook, to be published and distributed to LGBT organizations throughout the country, will also be made available for free online, filling a "much-needed resource gap" for social workers and other LGBT advocates alike.
"For example, we could not find any publicly available guidance on what is required to change one's gender legally," pressed Rajeswari.
"This is one of the many examples of the type of legal ambiguities that LGBT people in Singapore face. It is a type of ambiguity that is often hidden or rarely discussed," she said to teleSUR.
Parties versus policies
The guidebook is to come in handy as the community faces ongoing assaults on their rights.
For the past 8 years, LGBT Singaporeans have congregated in Hong Lim Park, “the only venue in Singapore where public protests are allowed," for Pink Dot, the annual Pride rally.
But this year’s event has been mired in controversy — with recent changes to the country’s Public Order Act barring foreigners from attending.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament last month that the changes were made to prevent foreigners from “advancing political causes in Singapore.”
“As a government, we don’t take a position for or against Pink Dot, but we do take a position against foreign involvement,” he had added. “The point is this is a matter for Singaporeans, Singapore companies, Singapore entities to discuss.”
For Rajeswari, Pink Dot and other public displays of LGBT pride illuminate only a tiny reality.
“How gay-friendly or trans-friendly Singapore is, depends on who you are and what you want out of life. There are gay parties, there is a relatively vibrant scene and most people are not afraid of being arrested for being gay. If you just want to party and have a good time, Singapore might seem great to you,” she said.
“However, we are not allowed to have Pride parades (except the annual Pink Dot gathering). Freedom of speech and freedom of association is in general very curtailed, so that applies to the LGBT community too. If you want any kind of rights, then Singapore starts looking less attractive,” she added.
Vietnam, one of the most LGBT-friendly places in Asia
In contrast, elsewhere on the continent, Vietnam has emerged as one of the most LGBT-friendly country advancing on a number of fronts in the last decade, leading NBC News to say in January 2015, “On gay rights, Vietnam is now more progressive than America."
That year, its ruling Communist Party of Vietnam removed a ban on same-sex marriage and also allowed those that undergo gender reassignment surgery to register under their preferred gender. At a hearing leading up to the legalization, Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Viet Tien proposed that same-sex marriage be made legal immediately, "As human beings, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else to live, eat, love, and be loved," according to the Atlantic.
It was a decade prior to these achievements that Nguyen Hai Yen, searching for community and acceptance in a place still mired by homophobia and transphobia, turned to the internet.
“I became the administrator of a lesbian online forum,” Yen told NBC OUT. “The internet community was a safe space for us to meet, so we met each other and discussed things like dating or coming out.”
The year was 2004, and while there was an emerging network of online forums and websites for lesbians, gay men, gay teens and transgender women that had a large following, they remained separate and disconnected.
“The issue of rights for the broader LGBTQ community was never mentioned,” said Yen.
But things changed in 2008, when the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment, a civil society organization in Hanoi, invited Yen and other online forum administrators to discuss the idea of building a more focused community.
“iSEE decided it should be the community’s voice that brought up their own issues,” Yen explained.
March for marriage equality in 2015.
Just a few, short years later, Vietnam is set to celebrate its fifth year of pride celebrations in 36 provinces across the country.
“The first generation of leaders is now in their late 20s or 30s,” iSEE Chairman Le Quang Binh said. “They are (now) building the second generation of leaders … (who) are young, passionate, committed and daring.”
Still, despite the progress, the LGBTQ community still has its fair share of challenges that stem from deep-seated prejudices against them. But the movement fighting that has left even those involved with it for years, stunned.
“The LGBTQ movement in Vietnam has had this really strange and unprecedented opportunity to grow so fast — it is head spinning,” Nga L.H. Nguyen, who joined the movement four years ago and is now on the organizing board of Viet Pride, told NBC OUT.
LGBT Singapore resists
Back in Singapore, Rajeswari is hopeful, recounting victories elsewhere in the region. Despite the battles, she notes the resilience of her communities.
“We have an LGBT-affirming counseling agency, Oogachaga, who do the very important work of helping LGBT people with their mental health and also work related to safe sex. We have organizations such as Sayoni, a queer women’s group, which does a lot of advocacy and welfare work,” she said. “This is not an exhaustive list, but we do indeed have a vibrant scene with lots of group working on their individual concerns.”
“(Our) community continues to be resilient by creating resources to help empower the community,” she told teleSUR.