Melbourne, Australia – “I knew something was different since I was very young,” said Ian Row from his home in Melbourne, Australia.
“There was this awareness and awareness that I felt differently about boys than girls. I knew I was different.
Originally from Singapore, Row, 54, is a gay man who has lived in Australia – a country where the LGBTIQ community recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality – for almost 20 years.
But back in Singapore, LGBTIQ people remain subject to Section 377A of the National Penal Code, a 1938 law that criminalizes sex between men as an “act of gross indecency” punishable by two years in prison.
In 2007, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government would “not proactively enforce” 377A, but during Row’s time in the city-state the situation was very different.
“You didn’t talk about [being gay],” he said. “You didn’t want to ‘get yourself out’ because you would make yourself vulnerable and open to abuse, or worse – getting in trouble with the police.”
“That fear is something you absorb, and it becomes part of your identity and affects how you live your life.”
In 1997, an LGBTIQ community group that Ian helped found was threatened with going public.
It became the catalyst for Row to move permanently to Australia, where he had previously studied. This is where he felt most comfortable living as a gay man.
“A lot of us panicked and a lot of us pulled out of the public front,” he said. “I felt like I was going to crumble living in Singapore.”
377A was inherited from the British who ruled Singapore as a colony until 1963. Other former colonies, now members of a loose group of nations known as the Commonwealth, also retained legislation that criminalized intercourse sex between men.
And while the Singaporean government has said it will not enforce 377A, Clement Tan, spokesperson for Singapore-based LGBTIQ rights group Pink Dot, said it must go further and repeal the law. because of the climate it creates.
“The effects of 377A go beyond the threat of lawsuits. Many important policies that impact the LGBTQ+ community every day depend on his continued presence,” he said.
“From media censorship to the lack of objective sex education, the trickle-down effects of 377A entrench discriminatory views based on fear and ignorance.”
Tan says 377A has been embraced by the more conservative and religious elements of Singaporean society, often under the rhetoric of “Asian values” or “family values”.
This attitude was reflected in the Prime Minister’s speech in 2007.
“Singapore is fundamentally a conservative society,” Lee said. “The family is the cornerstone of this society. And by family in Singapore, we mean male, female getting married, having children and raising children as part of a stable family unit.
Tan said public support for these values means “conservative groups in Singapore are emboldened by the lack of government action.”
“Increasingly, they began to take on the task of ‘enforcing’ the discriminatory spirit of 377A privately and horizontally through their own corporate moral police.”
Just last month, Samsung released an online advertisement in Singapore depicting a Muslim mother hugging her drag queen son after an online outcry from more conservative members of society.
“The repeal of 377A will undoubtedly pave the way for a more inclusive society that respects individual dignity, choice and expression,” Tan told Al Jazeera.
In 2020, 377A was upheld by the Supreme Court in response to a legal challenge arguing that the legislation was unconstitutional.
The case is now before the Court of Appeal, the outcome of which has not yet been decided.
In other parts of Asia, countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are maintaining a hard line, while there has been a shift elsewhere.
India, which also inherited British laws, decriminalized same-sex relationships in 2018, while Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019.
Yet colonial-era laws criminalizing same-sex relations continue to exist in 71 countries, according to the Human Dignity Trust – and nearly half of them are Commonwealth members.
In 11 jurisdictions, the death penalty may be imposed or remains a possibility for homosexuality.
Victoria Vasey of Human Dignity Trust told Al Jazeera that maintaining such laws means LGBTIQ communities continue to be stigmatized and subject to discriminatory behavior.
“In some jurisdictions, LGBT people are arrested and imprisoned based on these laws,” she said.
“Even where arrests are less frequent, LGBT people experience violence, abuse, harassment and this violence, harassment and abuse occurs with virtually impunity because of the existence of these laws.”
While 377A specifically criminalizes the act of sex between men – and not simply the person’s sexual preference – “the perception of many people is that it is illegal to be gay,” Vasey told Al Jazeera.
“And it’s incredibly damaging and a huge burden to bear whether the laws are enforced or not.”
In Australia, the repeal of such legislation has not only led to greater acceptance of the LGBTQI community, including same-sex marriage, but also increased support for people who may feel isolated because of their sexuality.
The annual Pride Parade and the recently concluded Midsumma Festival are expressions of gender and sexual diversity and an opportunity for the LGBTQI community to find support.
Karen Bryant, CEO of Midsumma Festival, told Al Jazeera that “the very purpose of coming together – the importance of coming together – is a way to help combat those feelings of isolation”.
She said that while the 40th anniversary of the repeal of legislation criminalizing homosexuality was “an important milestone”, it was “a milestone on the way”.
“There are still many ongoing legal and social debates that threaten basic human rights and the health and well-being of our diverse communities,” she said.
In 2017, Australia also amended the Marriage Act to recognize same-sex marriages.
“The result of the vote itself was tremendous euphoria and a sense of relief, and almost disbelief, because it took so long to come,” Bryant said.
She told Al Jazeera that amending such legislation meant greater awareness and acceptance of the LGBTIQ community, but there was still work to be done, especially in the workplace and in community organisations.
“People will always be at their best when they can truly be themselves and feel safe,” she said.
Row says he is “happier” as a gay man living in Australia where changing laws such as 377A have paved the way for greater acceptance.
“I feel like I can live a more authentic and complete life like me here [in Australia],” he said.
And while former British Prime Minister Theresa May said she “deeply regret“British legacy of anti-gay laws, Row thinks the UK should take more responsibility for some of the more unsavory colonial laws it left behind.
“The 377A continues to cause heartbreak for millions around the world,” Row said. “The least [the British Government] could do is to advocate for the repeal of these laws among the nations of the Commonwealth.