Bertha Henson’s Illusions

(Trigger warning for homophobia, transphobia and suicide mentions.)

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With that out of the way (phew),

“I find it totally confounding that Pink Dot is allowed to promote its agenda,” Mr Khong said in a statement issued yesterday. “I find it even more disconcerting that the event is being used as a platform of public persuasion to push its alternative lifestyle.”

Lawrence Khong, pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church, in response to Singaporean LGBTQ+ event “Pink Dot” announcing in 2014 that it intended to change Singapore’s attitude towards LGBTQ+ people.

Look, I only kind of know who Bertha Henson is. I know she used to write for the nationally-owned paper, the Straits Times. I know she transitioned later on into running the now-defunct Breakfast Network, a site which commented on local political affairs. I know she’s rather famous and respected in the local literary and political scene, but she dropped off the radar after that, or at least my radar.

That is, until today, when I came across this article on Facebook.

To give some context, local queer folks have been up in arms over IKEA Singapore’s decision to offer discounts for members of its IKEA Family loyalty card scheme to go see Lawrence Khong’s magic show, “Vision”. Afterpromising a resolution, IKEA Singapore then decided to carry on promoting the show, stating in a Facebook post (archived here in case it gets deleted) that it “respects the diversity and equality of all people living in our community” and also “that all individuals have a right to their opinions and personal choices, including the freedom to choose their preferred entertainment.”

What did Bertha have to say? With an at most milquetoast condemnation of Lawrence Khong’s views, she turned almost immediately on the justifiably indignant members of the queer community who raised the outcry about IKEA’s promotion, calling them “as intolerant of other people’s views as they say other people are of theirs”.

Excuse me?

First, some facts.

Fig. 1, preference between rejecting vs accepting “gay lifestyles” in Singapore. Data taken from REACH’s “Our Singapore Conversation Survey”, page 9.

Leaving aside for the moment the points Fikri makes in her essay on why this data doesn’t mean the majority of Singaporeans are homophobic and the criticism of the term “gay lifestyles” itself, 47% of Singaporeans “reject gay lifestyles”, whatever that means. 47% isn’t a majority, but 47%+27% is. 27% of Singaporeans are neutral on the “gay lifestyle”, but that doesn’t mean fuck-all. Being neutral on a human rights issue is as good as being against it; it means you contribute to the silent majority brought out by those against, in this case, acceptance of queer (represented here by gay) people. So yeah, fuck neutrality, a full 74% of Singaporeans are, by the looks of this survey, against queer rights in one way or another.

Where does IKEA’s support of Lawrence Khong, and our subsequent reaction to it, fit in? I’m not sure how many of the respondents REACH interviewed were actually queer, but assuming the same fraction who support “gay lifestyles” are queer, that puts us in the minority. The minority that’s been legislated against by laws like Section 377A, condemned, and demonised by homophobes with large platforms like Lawrence Khong and his ilk.

The word “platform” is key here. Lawrence Khong, as an individual homophobe, might be pretty vile (as seen here, he firmly believes in a homosexual agenda and likens gay sex to incest and drug-taking). He might have a family, and they might be homophobic. That’s vile too. What makes the difference, then, is “platform”; Lawrence Khong boasts a 10,000 strong church and chairs LoveSingapore, an alliance of 100-odd churches that seeks to “TURN [Singapore] God-ward”.

“Platform”, then, comes from all public activities of Lawrence Khong, be they religious (sermons and other officially church-related events) or secular (magic shows). Wherever Lawrence is in public, he builds his personal brand as a dedicated Christian pastor and cool stage magician; through this, then, he not only profits, materially or otherwise, but he gains the means and the audience for his messages.

And those messages are distinctly harmful; from local LGBTQ counselling organisation Oogachaga’s March 2012 survey, 60.2% of the respondents to that survey reported experiencing homophobic or transphobic abuse and discrimination, leading to an overall higher rate of suicidal thoughts and attempts. What does it mean, then, to assist the people responsible for such abuse in growing their platform?

Sounds a lot like bullying to me; and yet, the way Bertha describes it, you’d think we were the bullies here. According to Bertha, for the understandably offended to ask fellow queer people and their straight and/or cis allies to “vote with their money”, as it were, and register protest against any attempt to help Lawrence Khong or the like increase the reach of their potentially lethal abuse, is now “intolerant” and “bullying tactics”, and puts us at risk of “start[ing] a culture war”.

Bertha Henson has fallen for illusions about free speech that seem to be afflicting much of the liberal Western media today. Hers is an admittedly less virulent version of the stance GamerGate, the terrifyingly racist, sexist, transphobic and homophobic American hate group that has harassed marginalised people in the gaming and media communities, holds; namely, that all views can, should and must be heard, and that it’s censorship to claim otherwise.

Well, fuck you and your illusions, Bertha. Us queer people, even with our 21,000-strong turnout at Pink Dot 2014, can’t muster the same platforms as bigots like Lawrence Khong and his 100-church-strong LoveSingapore network. We can’t “bully” a company with EUR €29,293,000,000 (that’s 29.293 billion euros, or SGD $42,308,747,100.33) in revenue and 351 stores in 46 countries that chooses to “reward” its loyal customers with discounts to watch a homophobe’s magic show.

You know what? I don’t believe Bertha.

I don’t believe it’s censorship to demand a view, backed up by institutional prejudice, be kept from gaining traction, and I don’t believe in any value of “free speech” that allows hate speech and its endorsement to walk free.

I don’t believe it’s “bullying” to organise a boycott, a sit-in, a loud outpouring of fury over the Internet at an act that quite literally threatens to harm us, and I don’t believe it’s “pushing too hard”, as Bertha so ungenerously puts it, to stand up for our rights.

I do believe, though, that she needs to snap out of it. Bertha, wake the fuck up, and smell the coffee. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to do something about this sorry situation.

Robert Bivouac is a queer Chinese man living in Singapore. He is an advocate for social justice and diversity in media, and believes in the right to be free from hate speech. He can be reached on Twitter at @boygainvillea or at [email protected].


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