Between Hope & Despair: Of Gay Adoption, Some Reflections on 2017 and Resolutions for 2018

2017 started and ended with some pretty bad news.

I found out at the beginning of 2017 that my Constitutional Law tutor was going to be Prof Thio Li-Ann. I remember freaking out to my close friends and being absolutely worried that my semester was going to be terrible. After all, she was the Nominated Member of Parliament who vehemently opposed the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises same-sex relations, and (in)famously described anal sex as as being like “shoving a straw up your nose to drink”.

Fast forward to a few days before 2017 ended, a District Judge dismissed a gay father’s adoption application to adopt his own biological son. “Singapore court rejects bid by gay man to adopt child he fathered through surrogacy”, read the Straits Times headlines. I felt angry, disappointed, frustrated, but not very surprised. It reaffirmed the voice in my head that I should leave this country the soonest I can because clearly, Singapore was not home truly for some of us.

Then, I read the decision written by District Judge Shobha Nair.

I remember during my Constitutional Law tutorials with Prof Thio, she would always tell us that reading a judgment is like listening to a song and there’ll always be a chorus that repeats itself, again and again throughout the decision.

In this judgment, it was the DJ’s affirmation that there was nothing wrong with same-sex parenting.

At [6], Nair DJ said, “It is no place of this Court to dictate… what a family unit ought to be or look like nor acceptable patterns of behaviour in order to obtain that unit. Indeed there is much research which supports proponents of same gender relationships having children.”

At [10], she impliedly recognised that the welfare of the child is not compromised by his being in the care of same-sex parents. At [12], she went further and held that “a 4 year old will thrive anywhere if in the hands of loving people”. Finally, at [13], she ended by “wish[ing] the applicant and the child the very best in their journey forward, together.”

While others felt outrage and disappointment, I felt hopeful. The judge did not have to make these statements, since she had already noted at [7] that this case “has very little to do with the propriety and/or effectiveness of same-gender parenting.” Indeed, the dismissal of the adoption application was premised on Section 5(c) of the Adoption of Children Act, in relation to the prohibition of any commercial transaction in relation to the adoption of a child, and had nothing directly to do with the sexual orientation of the applicant.

Yet, she chose to do so, contrary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s position during the 2007 parliamentary debate on the repeal of S377A. Then, PM Lee had said that “the majority of Singaporeans will strenuously oppose [same-sex… parenting]… and I think for good reason.”

Nair DJ could not affirm the legality of the parent/child relationship between the applicant and his son but she affirmed the dignity of their relationship. Who would have imagined that a member of our judiciary would have made such affirming statements about same-sex parenting, maybe just five or ten years ago? Indeed, who would have imagined that a gay person would apply to court to adopt his son in Singapore?

Of Hope & Despair

Yet, it is perfectly understandable why others felt outrage, anger and disappointment. How else, apart from surrogacy overseas, is a gay couple in Singapore supposed to start a family if they can’t adopt a child with the Ministry of Social & Family Development or try assistive reproductive technologies in Singapore? The father would not have had to come to court to seek an adoption order if not for the fact that he is gay and could not avail himself to other ways to start a family that a married, heterosexual couple in Singapore would have been able to.

This was clearly another instance of our laws failing those of us who do not fit into the mould of a “traditional family unit”.

There are, then, at least two emotional responses to this gay adoption case: one that is hopeful because of how far we have come; another that is disappointed because of how far away we are from a truly equal society.

Over this winter break, I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. At one point, she noted how leftists “often gaz[e] so fixedly at the world’s problems that they cannot see beyond them.” Despair, she argues, “demands less of us, it’s more predictable and in a sad way safer.” In contrast, authentic hope “requires clarity — seeing the troubles in this world — and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable.”

Over the past six months, I’ve felt a crippling sense of despair that led me to leave the Inter-University LGBT Network and withdraw from LGBT activism. This happened after I returned from my internship at an LGBT advocacy organisation in San Francisco over summer and I felt angry with myself that instead of being all fired up to keep up the good fight, all I felt was deflation and hopelessness.

After much thought, I realised it was precisely because I saw what LGBT equality could look like there that I felt such a overwhelming sense of despair upon coming home to Singapore. It just did not feel possible that Singapore can ever become like San Francisco, no matter what I did, no matter what we did as a movement. This was burnout at its finest. I knew it would come one day.

I just did not know it would happen after I attended my first pride parade in the city where the gay rights movement was born.

I don’t know if I have recovered from my burnout but I know I feel more hopeful now, after this gay adoption case. After all, who would have thought that a gay man would ever go to court to seek an adoption order for his son in Singapore? Who would have thought a court would express, even if so subtly, its approval of same-sex parenting in its written judgment?

Just a decade ago, a group of men and women submitted a parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code. A few years later, a gay man by the name of Tan Eng Hong took up a constitutional challenge and he was later joined by a gay couple — Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee — who would bring a similar challenge to the courts with the full support of online crowdfunding and the overwhelming attendance at every subsequent Pink Dot.

In Hope in the Dark, Solnit wrote: “You may be told that the legal decisions lead the changes, that judges and lawmakers lead the culture in those theatres called courtrooms, but they only ratify change. They are almost never where change begins, only where it ends up, for most changes travel from the edges to the center.”

This case was not a setback, it was a milestone in our movement. Even if it will take some time for our laws to develop in favour of same-sex relationships and parenting whether through the judiciary or the legislature, this gay father’s actions will sow the seed of hope in the minds of countless young gay people that they too can be parents even if there may remain certain legal and socioeconomic obstacles to doing so today.

That seed was planted in my head when I was in San Francisco and had the chance to stay with a gay couple and their daughter during my time there. It was the first time I had seen a gay couple with a child. I’ve never thought it a possibility to have a child as a gay man because I’ve never see a gay couple with a child but San Francisco changed all of that. Now, this case would do the same, perhaps to a lesser extent but to some extent nonetheless, to others in Singapore.

Faith in our future

Similarly, by the end of my semester with Prof Thio, I realised just how unwarranted my fears and worries were about being in her class.

While we never directly discussed the decriminalisation of sodomy, my experience in class was probably one of the most, if not the most, transformational experience I’ve had so far in college. It humanised someone who has been caricatured as this horrid, hateful homophobe and made me challenge my own assumptions about people who think and believe things differently from myself. Especially seeing how divided other places like the US have become over difficult moral issues, this experience made me reflect on whether there could be a better way to foster a safer and more equitable society for LGBT people without the collateral conflict between liberal and conservative, secular and religious.

That thought was reinforced by two other experiences I had over the past year. The first was watching a friend’s theatre piece based on the experiences of her own and several other Catholic women’s struggle with same-sex attraction, which led me to pen this article for Mynah magazine. The second was hearing about how some Christian students at Yale-NUS College felt alienated and unwelcome in our community because of their religious beliefs, which also led me to pen another article for The Octant.

Near the end of the year, my faith in the possibility of another way forward beyond the pink versus white, queer versus religious binary was further affirmed by a Straits Times article about churches building bridges with the LGBT community. While the National Council of Churches later issued a statement reiterating that its position on homosexuality had not changed, it was encouraging nonetheless that change is in the air with the various initiatives within the church and among the Christian community.

2018 Resolution 1: Be Hopeful, No Matter How Easy Despair May Be

That may seem a little too hopeful but hope would probably be preferable to the certainty of despair.

As Solnit observed, “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

2018 Resolution 2: Celebrate Every Victory, No Matter How Small

I have felt hopeless for a good part of 2017 and I think that’s about as tiring as feeling hopeful about the future and perhaps more disillusioned than realistic.

After all, so much has happened that are worth celebrating. From the over-pouring of support for Pink Dot 2017 by local companies and sponsors to the overflowing of bodies at Hong Lim Park, to Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew coming out, to the great work that the amazing team at the Inter-University LGBT Network has done over this past year with the S377A project, the campus discrimination policy research and the great events that the various student groups organised (Qrientation, Sexuality & Gender Month, and more).

Solnit offers a timely reminder about the importance of celebrating each victory: “Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I’ve long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognize the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win, and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.”

It’s both exciting and scary what new challenges and progress we will make in 2018 but I will always remember to be hopeful. After all, as Harvey Milk once said, “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you gotta give ‘em hope!”


Daryl Yang was previously Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network constituted of 5 student-led organisations with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses, and was previously Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’s gender & sexuality alliance. He is currently a fourth year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore.