Homosexuality: a geographical angle

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.

Introduction

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).

Conclusion

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

References

Agence France Presse. (19 June 2005). No parties or sex, but Singapore’s gay Christians can         gather to pray. Retrieved September, 10, 2010, from http://www.factiva.com.

Baumeister, R. F., Shapiro, J. P., & Tice, D. M. (1985). Two kinds of identity crisis. Journal         of Personality 53, pp. 407–424.

Bell, D. (2009). Heteronormativity. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography (pp.          119-124). Oxford: Elsevier.

Boa, E. & Palfreyman, R. (2000). Heimat – A German Dream: Regional Loyalties and      National Identities in German Culture 1890 – 1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Englund, M. E. (1991). The Bible and homosexuality (4th ed.). Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho          Press.

Enroth, R. M. (1974). The homosexual Church: An ecclesiastical extension of a subculture.          Social Compass 21, pp. 355–360.

Free Community Church Official Website. (n.d.). Retrieved September, 10, 2010, from             http://www.freecomchurch.org/07-getting.htm.

Heermann, M., Wiggins, M. I., & Rutter, P. A. (2007). Creating a space for spiritual practice:        Pastoral possibilities with sexual minorities. Pastoral Psychology 55(6), pp. 711-721.

Howell, P. (2009). Sexuality. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography (pp. 119-            124). Oxford: Elsevier.

Krupat, E. (1983). A place for place identity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 3, pp.             343-344.

Lease, S. H., Horne, S. G., & Noffsinger-Frazier, N. (2005). Affirming faith experiences and        psychological health for Caucasian lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of         Counseling Psychology 52(3), pp. 378–388.

Manzo, L.C. (2005). For better or worse: exploring multiple dimensions of place meaning.             Journal of Environment Psychology 25(1), pp. 67–86.

National Council of Churches of Singapore. (2003, July 29). Official Statement on Homosexuality. Retrieved September, 10, 2010, from     http://www.nccs.org.sg/NCCS/Statement_Homosexuality.html.

Nova, N. (2005). A review of how space affords socio-cognitive processes during             collaboration. Psychonology Journal 3(2), pp. 118–148.

Ritter, K. Y., & O’Neill, G. W. (1995). Moving through loss: The spiritual journey of gay men and lesbian women. In: Burke, M. T.  & Miranti, J. G.  (eds) Counseling: The      spiritual dimension. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association, pp. 126–141.

Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (1999). The Metropolitan Community Church of New
York: A gay and lesbian community. The Community Psychologist 32(3), pp. 24–29.

Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and lesbian Christians: Homosexual and            religious identity integration in the members and participants of a gay-positive church.           Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39, pp. 333–347.

Rodriguez, E. M. (2010). At the intersection of church and gay: A review of the    psychological research on gay and lesbian christians. Journal of Homosexuality 57(1),    pp. 5-38.

Sibley, D. (2009). Sexuality. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography (pp. 119- 124). Oxford: Elsevier.

Spencer, D. (1994). Church at the margins. In:  Nelson, J. B. & Longfellow, S. P.  (eds.),
Sexuality and the sacred: Sources for theological reflection. Louisville, KY:            Westminster, pp. 397–401.

Szymanski, D. M., Chung, Y. B., & Balsam, K. F. (2001). Psychosocial correlates of         internalized homophobia in lesbians. Measurement and Evaluation in Counselling       and Development 34, pp. 27-49.

The New Paper. (2004, July 14). Prayers held in a pub. Retrieved September 10, 2010, from             http://www.factiva.com.

Wee, S. L. (2005, July 18). Gay Singaporeans gather to pray in Christian church in country           that outlaws homosexuality. Associated Press Newswires. Retrieved September 10,        2010, from http://www.factiva.com.

Wiles, J. L., Allen, R. E. S., Palmer, A. J., Hayman, K. J., Keeling, S., & Kerse, N. (2009).            Older people and their social spaces: A study of well-being and attachment to place in           Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Science and Medicine 68(4), pp. 664-671.

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Comments

  • Blogpastor, your daughter writes well.

    Space and identity are issues for all Christians to consider and work through, too, especially since we are shaking off colonial Christianity and embracing Australian, American, British Christianity and not thinking about what is “ours.”

    Thank you for sharing this piece.

  • Elaine should visit FCC (which is near to your church I believe) and attend its cell groups and perhaps would give a greater insight than just a “pro-gay” label. It is a different world(s) which could not be fairly judged from the outside. A walk with them through the streets of Gaylang helping sex workers, or going to prisons to support prisoners with AIDS, would give a better insight.

    God bless and take care.

  • I’m wondering if FCC’s aim is to overcome heteronormativity in society at large in the first place. I think that’s too big a goal. Possibly, all they are interested in is a Christian space where everyone, including and especially gays, can be accepted. I think that’s an achievement in itself for a conservative society like Singapore.

    FCC is 7 years old. May God continue to give their leaders wisdom and revelation and may gay Christians in Singapore find a safe place in FCC that can aid their relationship with our Father in heaven.

  • Like other human communities, there is nucleation, aggregation, community development and sometimes formation of a ghetto. Ghettos are collection of like minded individuals who are quite evangelical or even predatory often with a siege mentality. Assertion of perceived new legitimacy leads to rpttectionism and often results in same intolerance that was heaped upon the group before community development.

    Thought it could be interesting to answer this question – was the aggregation and need a function of economics ( land cost rental and
    social stigma) sociology, biology or as implied geography as suggested in this perspective.

    10 marks to Elaine for attempting to find a plausible answer for a new sect of Christians who have sexual preferences and practices different from the “normal” Christians if there is such a thing or organism.

    Tyranny of the majority or the powerful is often enforced as law or acceptable moral standard. Slavery still exists in new socially acceptable guises.

    Did sex come to Geylang or vice versa or was it just about economics?

  • Dear Elaine,

    Thank you for this piece. It was well-written and cogent on the whole. And indeed there is some truth in the concepts you have applied in this essay. Indeed, minority groups have a lot to shoulder to guard against perpetuating ideologies of oppression – things that majority groups can get away with, many times unjustly so.

    However, I share Gentle Lamb’s opinion above. While the concepts are logically sound, and indeed true in many respects in real life, unfortunately, perhaps due to the word limit of school essays, you have only been able to highlight a partial truth. This is nowhere near the whole truth if you have visited the actual church for some time and your concluding paragraph most certainly does not do the church justice.

    Individuals have not been entirely victims of their circumstances. The people in FCC have been able to exercise discernment and agency to an extent where harmful ideoglogies from the outside have been exorcised to a considerable extent (though not fully, and this is where there is still some truth to the theories you have highlighted). Furthermore, there is a constant effort to emphasize the extension of liberation beyond homosexuals to include the people perceived as the more forgotten in society – most charitable efforts of FCC go towards such “forgotten” groups such as migrant workers, the HIV+ and even a seedling effort exists to attempt outreach efforts to the Geylang sex workers in the church’s neighbourhoods.

    You may be interested in developing your research further by coupling your obviously very commanding grasp of geographical concepts and theories with empirical data from actual field visits.

    Good luck in the rest of your studies!

    Best regards,
    Nicholas

  • Hi Blogpastor and Elaine,

    Thank you for sharing and writing the essay respectively. I enjoyed reading it, and it is a credible academic exercise. There are truths in the writing, although perhaps incomplete and still unfolding! That said, I do appreciate Elaine’s efforts in writing it, and pleased that FCC was chosen as the subject.

    My only wish is that Elaine could have come visit and spoken with some of us to ground her research more, but perhaps that was beyond the scope of her paper.

    That said, as one of the pastors of FCC, I would like to warmly invite the both of you to come visit FCC, and if Elaine is interested, to have a chat with me and get to know some of us better. Dialogue is always beneficial, and something that we at FCC are always open to, and on the lookout for dialogue partners.

    You have my e-mail address, and I look forward to hearing from you!

    Shalom,
    Su-Lin

  • Blogpastor,

    Your posting of your daughter’s essay has yielded many positive responses and more importantly than just a grade for her, the opportunity for dialogue and understanding and true Christian community to be experienced.

    May it be so!

    Best,
    Maria

  • Dear All,

    Thank you so much for your well wishes and for your valuable feedback! I really had an eye-opening and interesting time reading up academic literature and press reports about christian homosexuals.
    Indeed, a truer, more holistic and deeper insight on this topic can only be obtained through interacting with the people and doing field work. There would be so much to learn and discover. I would love to have the opportunity to do that in future, if God willing:)

    and to Sulin:
    Thank you so much for the invite to FCC! I look forward to meeting up with you all and finding out more:)

    God Bless,
    elaine chee

  • Some thoughts on leprosy. Irrelevant, perhaps.

    “Mosaic law required lepers to live in a state of exile, cut off from friends and family. They had to cry out.’Unclean! Unclean!’ everywhere they went. How intolerant and barbaric is that? Away with Moses’ laws. If I were a leper, i wouldn’t live in hiding. I would go right on continuing to live among my friends and family. I am entitled to live a normal, decent life just like everyone else. They need to accept me and my disease.”

    “If I were a leper, i’d try to get into the mainstream. The mainstream. That’s where everything has become respectable, acceptable, God-sanctioned, ok.”

    “In the not too distant past, lepers were burnt. Alive. In their own homes. They were victims of irrational, selfish fear. God forbid that the people made in his own image should suffer such violence and indignity!”

    “Father Damien was a saint. A real saint.”

    “People are more enlightened nowadays about leprosy. The fear and stigma is lessened considerably. Yes, it’s possible to cure leprosy. But it’s a long and pain-staking process. There are no vaccines. We can’t get infected from a handshake with a leper. But leprosy is infectious. Leprosy’s not really the problem. The real problem is the numbness that it brings. With impaired pain receptors, lepers damage their own bodies without even being aware of it. Leprosy is a terrible disease that needs to be eradicated. Meanwhile, care, help and treatment should be extended to lepers as much as possible.”

    And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
    – Mark 1:40

  • A rejoinder n extension to RY’s perpective – more people are infected w leprosy than realized as most often it is asymptomatic N slow progressing.

    Second like other humans we always believe in half truths n pleasent narratives.

    A soundbite truism that evolved from a Bible discussion – “sexual preference is just a reflection of ones’ friction source and definition of productivity”

    what is the big deal?

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