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Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Sunday, 17 May 2009 15:15 UK

Singapore gays in first public rally

Sharanjit Leyl
BBC News, Singapore

Participants of the pinkdot rally in Singapore. Photo: 16 May 2009
Many participants described the rally as "a landmark event"

Halfway across the world, as police moved in to break up a gay rights protest in Russia, another country known for being equally as restrictive on liberal ideals was holding its first gay rally undisturbed.

Some 2,500 pink-attired supporters of gay rights gathered in a park in Singapore on Saturday, to form a pink dot, which was photographed from a nearby building.

The organisers of the event, pinkdot.sg, say the event was held to commemorate love in all forms and between people of every orientation.

It came after Singapore loosened law on public gatherings last year. Currently any gathering can be held that does not touch on topics of race or religion. Multi-racial Singapore last saw race riots in the late 1960s.

The city-state still has a ban on homosexual sex that has been in force since its colonial days under the British even though many countries in the region, and the UK itself, have repealed the law.

According to Jack Soh of pinkdot.sg, there was no overt political message being sent to the government.

"It was not a protest or a political rally. The event was for Singaporeans in general - to affirm our respect for diversity and the freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation.

"We recognise that many Singaporeans are conservative... so we planned an inclusive event that would reach all Singaporeans, straight and gay," Mr Soh says.

'Defining moment'

Participants - ranging from families with children to men and women from different orientations - added to the carnival atmosphere of the event.

Meeting together and seeing each other is empowering and liberating
Gilbert Cheah, magazine publisher

Many picnicked, danced and clapped to cultural performances from Singapore's various ethnic groups.

Gilbert Cheah, a magazine publisher who was a gay rights activist in the US before returning home, was at the event.

He says Singapore was repressive and homophobic just a decade ago but that it has come a long way.

"The space given to gays has grown: there are clubs, bars, businesses that were unimaginable in the 1980s and 90s.

"Meeting together and seeing each other is empowering and liberating, and for many - who grew up feeling isolated and fearful - this is an important and defining moment."

'Strange anomaly'

Many at the event shared his views.

Ivan Heng, the Singaporean actor and producer who recently played Lady Bracknell in a local version of Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Ernest", was one of the many familiar faces in the crowd from the city's theatre community.

'This is really a landmark event," he said. "I do feel that in spite of what the government says, that Singaporeans have a great understanding of diversity."

Still Mr Heng acknowledges that it is a "strange anomaly" that gay Singaporeans are being allowed by the government to live their lives but still be "criminal under the law".

Singaporeans and permanent residents were also for the first time free of worry that authorities would monitor their activities. However, the earlier restrictive rules requiring permits to hold public gatherings still applied to foreigners.

According to Singapore's National Parks division, in charge of events held at Speakers Corner where the gathering took place, local organisers can now register online and carry out their activities immediately.

"Our officers do not patrol the area any more often than they would patrol other parks. Activities can be held round the clock," says Kalthom A Latiff from the National Parks Board.



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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Singapore
27 Oct 11 |  Country profiles
Singapore retains its gay sex ban
23 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Singapore reviews oral sex law
06 Jan 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Singapore tries to loosen up
12 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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