Homosexuality has been held forth ad nauseum from so many angles: the theological, historical, political, biological, legal, sociological, economic and ecclesiastical viewpoints. When my daughter, Elaine Chee, who studies geography and business at the NUS, said she wanted to examine homosexuality from a geographical angle, and write about Free Community Church, it got my attention. As you know, geography is not just about climate, contours, crops, cartography, countries and cities. Its also town planning and social groups and lots of other interesting stuff. For those interested, take a look at how space and social identities interact, in her paper (yet to be graded):
Question: How do identities construct spaces and places, & how do spaces and places affect social identities? Illustrate with examples relating to one of the following: gender, sexuality, age.
Not simply an impartial box in which historical events unfold, space is in fact intrinsically intertwined with people in its specific historical context. Rohkrmer and Schulz (2009) further suggest that humans socially construct the meanings of and relationships to space. Physical spaces become places as it is imbued with activities and social cultural expectations and meanings (Nova, 2005). Places, in turn, exert power and influence over humans. Conversely, humans embody multiple social identities that are developed in relation to the ‘other’. Thereby, this essay attempts to unveil the complex negotiation of sexual identities in spaces of engagement between ‘self’ and ‘other’ (Sibley, 2009) by drawing attention to to Free Community Church (FCC) – the only church that endorses homosexuality in Singapore.
Heteronormativity in Singapore
The normalcy and naturalness of heterosexuality legitimizes “certain identities, practices and institutions and the concomitant prohibition of others” (Bells, 2009). As a result, gay sex is viewed in Singapore as “an act of gross indecency”, punishable by a maximum of two years in jail. The government has banned gay festivals, censored gay films, and denied gay group organisations in rejection of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice (Wee, 2005). This effectively labels the homosexuals as the imperfect and deviant ‘other’ as Sibley (2009) proffers.
National Council of Churches’ Stand
Even in the context of the Christian community in Singapore, Rohkmer et al.’s (2009) proposal, of how the dominant power (heterosexual identity) is influential in the construction, reproduction or contestation of space and its associated meanings, holds weight. The prominent representative body of the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and other Christian congregations in Singapore, is the National Council of Churches (NCC). NCC though adamant that “the practice of homosexuality is clearly incompatible with the teachings of the Christian faith” (NCC Official Statement, 2003), were quick to reassure that they do not “reject or despise homosexuals (homo phobia)… and they should be treated no less as persons of worth and dignity”.
Mediation of sexual identities out of personal experiences and social norms in mainstream churches
Yet, the experiences of homosexuals in mainstream churches depart vastly from those of the heterosexuals. As Lease, Horne & Noffsinger-Frazier (2005) postulates, “love the sinner, hate the sin” belief systems have inescapably “promoted behaviours that ignore or reject same-sex relationships, leaving gays feeling invisible in many congregations”. Khoo, a member of FCC lamented that she “was made unwelcome by fellow members” and felt ostracized in her previous church upon discovery (Agence France Presse, 2005). Leadership and ministry positions are often denied to open homosexuals as established by another member, Gary Chan, who expressed that he was asked to quit the church band (Wee, 2005).
Given the implicit and explicit heterosexualizing of mainstream churches, gay Christians are inevitably forced to repress their sexual identity in a process of ‘closeting’ as referred to by Bell (2009). Tianci, a church-goer of FCC, was quoted that this was done “in fear of getting blacklisted… But they expect you to change and become straight, or at least to be celibate” (The New Paper, 2004). Evidently, spaces and places manifest the appropriation and conformance of norms and expectations as enforced by the hegemonic identity.
Identity conflict giving birth to new spaces
Furthermore, the social identity of gay Christians in non-affirming mainstream churches takes a bashing when exposed to religious teachings opposing homosexuality. Researchers have attested to them experiencing heightened internalized homonegativity and associated shame (Shidlo, 1994) as well as low self esteem and social isolation (Szymanski, Chung & Balsam, 2001). This places them in a double bind of denying “their sexuality in order to accept their religion or suffer with the message that they are sinful in God’s eyes” (Ritter & O’Neill, 1995). To resolve this spiritual-sexuality identity conflict (Baumeister, Shapiro & Tice, 1985), each equally important to the tormented individual, they sought a safe haven where identity integration, as described by Rodriguez and Ouellette (2000), of both religious and homosexual identities could harmoniously co-exist.
This gave birth to a new gay positive church-space – the Free Community Church (FCC) in Singapore. As Manzo (2005) asserts, people actively shape their environment and espouse creativity to meet their needs. Here, pro-gay sites like FCC are innovatively forged by circumventing regulative regimes via “registering itself as a company whereby worship session are considered private gatherings” (Wee, 2005). Reiterative religious spatial practices, like worship, prayer sessions and sermons, therefore imbue meaning into the space such that a sense of place is developed.
Reinforcement of identity through space and place
Above that, the FCC embodies a refuge where concordant individuals positively reinforce their lifestyles and lends social support (Rodriguez, 2010) in dealing with the social and cultural alienation (Enroth, 1974). This is actualized through identifying strongly with liberating gay theology where homosexuality is biblically viewed in a positive light (Englund, 1991), alluding that “God is on their side”. Rev. Yap, Pastoral Advisor to FCC, adds that FCC “helps them to increase their self-esteem and to know that they are not doing anything sinful” (Agence France Presse, 2005).
Human experience and relationship with place has in indelible impact on their identity “influencing their actions and self-understanding” (Wiles, Allen & Palmer, 2009). In fact, FCC, as a place has “become ‘part of the person’, having been incorporated into one’s concept of self” (Krupat, 1983). Applying Boa and Palfreyman’s (2000) concept of Heimat to FCC, a sense of belonging serves to shield the self by stimulating linkages with fellow homosexuals which “feeds and sustains a sense of identity”, thereby empowering them.
Re- “othering” of pro-gay spaces
Nonetheless, Spencer (1994) warns about the trappings of becoming too integrated and thus too isolated from the rest of the relevant communities, ironically setting up boundaries against others. Rodriguez and Ouellette (1999) argues that heterosexuals feel estranged and that the compulsion for inclusiveness in pro-gay churches may coerce people to conform to their norms of being fully accepting or risk exclusion. Hence, the meaning of place is highly contested and never fully inclusive as “different individuals and groups read space in very different ways” (Rohkrmer et al., 2009).
“Tolerated space” as legitimizing dominant sexual identities
On closer scrutiny, Bells maintains that the creation of ‘gay space’ like FCC achieves little in effectively challenging the hegemony of ‘straight space’- elsewhere. Thus, instead of undermining ‘heteronormativity’ such ‘gay spaces’ may actually sanction and champion it by demeaning itself as a ‘tolerated zone’ and reinforcing their deviant sexual identity. This fear is prevalent in FCC as envinced by church-goer Peter Goh’s plea for FCC to be known as “an all-inclusive church” rather than labelled a “gay church” (The New Paper, 2004).
In conclusion, the incongruence of simultaneously embodying both a Christian and homosexual identity has driven the construction of a new gay-positive space as a safe fortress for gay Christians to practice their faith. This, consequently, has affected their social identities both for better and for worse. Despite individuals achieving internal reconciliation and bolstering self esteem, FCC has ultimately only reinforced the heteronormativity that it had endeavoured to overcome.
Word Count: 1,098 words
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