Identity, religion and sexual orientation: why both sides of the 377A debate might share more in common than we think

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The 377A issue is not necessarily irreconcilable. When we take a closer look at human nature, and the importance of identity to our sense of person-hood, we will see that religious people and gay rights activists both act from the same basis that unites them as human beings: they are both attempting to defend something that is deeply related to their sense of self-identity. Race and religion are not the only identity-conferring characteristics that people identify deeply with, and consider fundamental to their sense of who they are as a person. Understanding this might reduce polarization, encourage empathy, and help us make progress on the matter. 

All human beings have an intimate sense of what makes us who we are. This is something that you, I and everyone else share. There are things about ourselves that we identify with most deeply as constituting what we consider our life to be fundamentally about. This includes certain commitments, such as our commitment to our family, or our commitment to our religion (or lack of one).

For all of us, abandoning this sort of identity-conferring commitment will cause us to lose grip on what gives our life its identity, or individual character. If someone who has been raised a faithful Muslim, or a faithful Christian, is forced to convert into another religion, or stopped from practicing his/her religion, he/she will no doubt feel that his/her life has lost its sense of meaning; that he/she has been deeply and severely attacked as a person. I am sure many religious people will agree with this.

I also believe this is why even though religions are mutually exclusive (i.e. they make contradicting claims as to who is the one true God), they can nonetheless co-exist. Religious harmony comes about because we understand the importance of the identity-conferring aspect of religion to others (and ourselves), and we believe this is something to respect and protect, even if we do not share the same faith with them.

I can be… (a) Christian… (and yet) go out of my way to defend my Muslim counterpart…  because I can appreciate how important his religion is to him and his sense of identity

Therefore, I can be an extremely committed Christian or a Buddhist, and yet, if I see someone trying to stop Muslims from exercising their religion, or even trying to convert them by force, I will go out of my way to defend my Muslim counterparts. This is because I can appreciate how important their religion is to them and their sense of identity, and I believe that this must be respected and protected. In my opinion, this should be the reason why different religions seek to live in harmony with one other, rather than the fear of criminal punishment, or social backlash.

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Christians protecting Muslims during their prayers, Arab Spring 2011

However, aside from commitments, there are other things that give us our sense of identity. Our personal characteristics, for example, can be identity-conferring. This includes our race. I believe many people would be appalled at the idea of undergoing plastic surgery to remove certain features that are essential to their race, such as their hair, facial structure or skin color. If you asked them why, they might reply “because this is who I am“. If we forced them onto the operating table, they would, like the faithful Muslim or Christian, feel that they have been deeply and severely attacked as a person. Similarly, if we took someone who identifies as male, and forced them to wear a dress, make-up, and high heels for the rest of their life, that person will also feel that they have been deeply and severely attacked as a person.

Just like race, religion or gender, sexual orientation is a personal characteristic that people identify with very deeply as constituting what they consider themselves to be as a person

Just like race, religion or gender, sexual orientation is a personal characteristic that people identify with very deeply as constituting what they consider themselves to be as a person. Just like the person raised religiously, or the person who rejects plastic surgery to alter racial characteristics, prohibiting a person from acting on their sexual orientation, or trying to ‘convert’ them, deeply and severely attacks them as a person.

Hence, both the religious activists who oppose homosexuality, and the activists who call for the repeal of Section 377A are acting from the very same basis that unites them as human beings – they are both attempting to defend something that is deeply related to their sense of self-identity, which they naturally consider as extremely important to them. [1]

Race and religion are heavily recognized and protected, but they are not the only identity-conferring characteristics that people identify deeply with, and consider fundamental to their sense of who they are as a person.

I think that future conversations on this topic must begin from this premise. Race and religion are heavily recognized and protected, but they are not the only identity-conferring characteristics that people identify deeply with, and consider fundamental to their sense of who they are as a person. Gender and sexual orientation matter as well. I believe that understanding the relationship between different identity-conferring characteristics will help promote a more cohesive, plural Singaporean society where different people can live in harmony, regardless of race, religion, or any other identity-conferring characteristic.

I believe that if religious groups think carefully about why they care so deeply about Section 377A, and if they think about the reasons why they tolerate other religions, and why other religions tolerate them, they will begin to see the important role that identity-conferring characteristics/commitments play in their own lives, and the lives of others. When they do so, they may begin to realize how much they share in common with the other side. This realization can contribute to empathy, understanding, and perhaps even acceptance. [2]

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NOTE: The notion of identity-conferring commitments was first introduced by the philosopher Bernard Williams in the 1970s. It is a rather important feature of modern philosophical thought. Those who are interested in learning more can read this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, or alternatively, read Williams’ contribution in Smart & Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, 1973

[1] It is worth making one clarification. Not all identity-conferring commitments must be respected. If someone considers committing acts of terror as fundamental to his sense of who he is as a person, we should not respect it, because of the harm that he causes to others. But this type of harm is surely very different from the so-called ‘harm’ some people believe will emerge from the fact that the other side’s values contradict their values. Such a wide definition of harm is problematic because it means that one suffers only as much harm as one causes someone else by the very fact that one believes in different things from someone else.

[2] One possible counter-response is that religion is a choice, and sexual orientation is not. Perhaps this is applicable to people who have voluntarily converted. However, for a majority of people who are born into a religious environment, or a religious family, they never really had a choice with regard to their religion. Even when they are old enough to be exposed to other ideas, it is difficult for them to relinquish something that has been such a big part of their lives.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a Singaporean law student and currently in his final year of law school. His interests include politics, legal theory and political philosophy.

10 thoughts

    1. Thank you very much Kenneth. I hope that we do find common ground very soon, and that we can progress together as a society on this issue 🙂

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  1. I think your central premise is spot on: the conversation must revolve around “what it means to be authentic human being.” Personhood (identity) is sacred and so we cannot deny anyone the right to be who they are.

    But in your footnotes you very astutely raised a potential defeater, which is that not all identities should be considered legitimate. But this would mean that we must only be allowed to be authentic, vis-à-vis our identity-conferring commitments, insofar as those commitments do not violate another moral principles (e.g. the harm principle). Morality is a way of saying, “this is how a human being should be.”

    In other words, what I read you as saying is that “we must allowed to be true to ourselves (derived from our identity-conferring commitments) if those commitments are in line with who we should be as human beings. We must not be savages, nor terrorists without a cause, nor rapists, because human beings are not meant (designed?) to be that way. To derive our identity to these sort of commitments is to make us less human (inhumane).

    But this raises the question. Does our sexuality have anything to do with our humanity? If yes, is heterosexuality more in tune with how human beings are meant to be, or is homosexuality? Or are both equally legitimate expressions of human sexuality? In one sense, the answers are irrelevant.
    The point is this: the fact of the question itself suggests that religious can be simultaneously championing a particular view of sexuality, as well as the right to be “who one truly is”. For that matter of course, so can the LGBT community. But then the conversation boils down to “what does it mean to be truly human?” – this I think, is a question that cannot be adequately answered apart from a theistic worldview. If so, the voice of the religious in this conversation is especially important, and I think would be a lot more prominent if it wasn’t so juvenile for the most part.

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    1. Hi Luwin, thank you for your wonderfully written comment. You are certainly correct in pointing out that my central claim is that we must be allowed to be true to ourselves as long as our commitments are in line with who we should be as human beings. This is a point that I would like to address. I think we may have a different understanding of what it means to be human, or less human – at least partly because I failed to give a much deeper elaboration of my theory of humanity in my original article, which is my bad. I will try to summarize here.

      In my view, what it means to be human – which i define as living a flourishing human life (in a similar vein as the Greek notion of eudaimonia, and yet different in other respects) – is to pursue and maximize the basic goods of human life. These are goods which we can derive from practical reason – any rational person will consider them simply good to have: e.g. life, safety from bodily harm etc. – and any rational person will use these goods as a practical guide for their conduct.

      And so, there are things that all of us, as rational human beings, can agree on as good for us. I argue then, that we do not do bad things to others because our forbearance from doing bad things is essential for the existence of a community within which individuals co-operate to pursue these important goods. Again, this is something we do rationally – and these rational choices, and rational conceptions of the good are independent of one’s religion or background. They can be arrived at through human reason.

      And so to summarize, because human beings can arrive at a rational conception of basic goods in life, and since the pursuit of these basic goods is a natural, rational extension of humanity’s rational capacities, any action that contradicts the pursuit of these basic goods, such as raping, or murdering, is also contradictory to the requirements of practical reason, and are therefore not what “a human should be”, so to speak.

      So in some way, my view is not too different from the theistic view. According to the theistic view, in order to answer the question of what it means to be human, we can turn to God. In my view, to answer that same question, we can turn to practical reason, because practical reason provides us with a set of goods that do not deviate too far from many theistic notions of the good. I am therefore hesitant to admit that the question of “what does it mean to be truly human?” cannot be adequately answered apart from a theistic worldview. We can come up with both theistic and non-theistic answers to the same question – and that is perhaps another location from which future conversations can begin.

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      1. Hey Rio,

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I certainly agree that secular reason can provide very good answers to the question of “what it means to be human”, but I think non-theistic reasoning works off an initial assumption that cannot be rationally sustained apart from a theistic worldview. But as you said, that is perhaps a different conversation for another time.

        I’d like to add, that if ConsensusSG keeps up its very intelligent writings on very relevant issues facing our nation, and keeps responding so respectfully with others its comments section, this site is well on its way to becoming a key conversation space for civil society, and I do hope it shall be.

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  2. I’d like to thank you for a reasoned, empathetic article that doesn’t explicitly take either side of a debate that is far too polarised and emotional. I fully agreed with everything you wrote until those last two footnotes (the first of which another commenter already brought up).

    I think it is difficult to say that one is necessarily “born with” and unable to change identity-conferring commitments such as religion and sexuality. (Even with race, how much one identifies with that race can be influenced by how much one’s family practices its customs and traditions, whether that race is the majority in one’s country, etc.) There are theories that homosexuals are so inclined because of traumatic childhood experiences with either parent, resulting in either increased affection and the seeking of validation from someone of the same sex, and/or distrust and animosity towards the opposite sex. While some who wish to reject a religion may find it near-impossible because of familial pressures, there are many others who convert quite freely. Furthermore, someone who rejects a religion has likely rejected it as an identity-conferring commitment at least inwardly, even if he/she must appear to subscribe to that religion outwardly. These outward appearances may mean that on some level, the religion is still part of this person’s identity… and here I start to sound like I’m going in circles.

    My point is that human beings are complex; our identities are indecipherable mish-mashes of elements of nature and nurture. (I say indecipherable because no matter how many studies we conduct and theories we develop, I don’t think we will ever be able to fully understand people.) So I do agree with the general thrust of your article, but I don’t think choice should matter when respecting others’ identity-conferring commitments.

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