FALLOUT OF THE AWARE SAGA: A LETTER TO CONCERNED PARENTS

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6 May 2009

By Catherine Lim

I had given my views, mainly as a non-partisan, liberal Singaporean during the recent Aware controversy. Some parents had written or called to voice their concern about one issue that had stood out – the use in schools of an Aware program on sexuality, which allegedly promoted homosexuality. The following letter tries to address this concern.

Dear concerned parents

There must be many of you out there, less interested in the polemics and theatrics of the recent Aware debacle than in the one issue that suddenly surfaced and grabbed your attention as parents: the issue of homosexuality.

You are clearly not against homosexuals (many of you in fact claim to have homosexuals among your friends) but you are, understandably, against any program in the schools that encourage your sons and daughters to become gays and lesbians. This was exactly the charge brought against the Aware Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) by the Christian group that had seized control of the organization precisely to fight what they perceived as a great evil. They quoted from the program materials to prove their charge, condemning the insidious call to young people to regard homosexuality and its associated practices (including anal sex—ugh!) as ‘neutral’. As parents of young impressionable teens, you must have been aghast.

I would like to begin by commending this concern of yours which is not only natural and understandable but highly laudable at a time when so many parents are just too busy or too indifferent to play an active role in guiding their children’s behaviour, and simply leave everything to the schools. And I would like to add that if there is a good outcome in the Aware fiasco, it must be your new awareness and readiness to seek corrective action.

With reference to the CSE program (which I have not seen), I can say this with confidence: it is probably a well-researched, useful course of instruction providing young people with information on a whole range of sex-related issues (with the homosexuality bits cited by the Christian group actually forming only a small percentage of the total course). Its usefulness is reflected in its adoption by school principals and teachers who, by the standards of their profession, can be trusted to have good judgment and a strong moral sense. Moreover, during the considerable time that it was run, there had been no public complaints, including from the Christian activists, which the Ministry of Education would surely have immediately investigated. Lastly, the Aware leadership, although steadfastly maintaining the position it has taken in the program, has at the same time promised to look into parents’ complaints, reservations and suggestions for improvement. So on the issue of the suitability of the CSE materials for your children, I would say you can rest assured.

Beyond the specific issue of the program, I would like to address your overall concern about influences in general, such as the all powerful entertainment media and the Internet, which may affect your children’s sexual orientation, since, more than any sex-related issue in Singapore, that of homosexuality is currently in the forefront of public consciousness.

Any address of such a complex and sensitive subject must surely begin with proper, factual knowledge of it. For only through knowledge, can we understand the truths about our human nature, and only through understanding, can we take into account the needs, instincts, capabilities, etc of this human nature, in the formulation of values that will fit in with those of our society as a whole. This fact-derived, value-based framework will allow us to make decisions that are informed, reasoned and principled, leaving no place for prejudices, emotional outbursts and a rush to judgment that are only too common whenever controversial subjects crop up.

Within such a framework then, are some observations in response to your concern regarding homosexuality:

  • Homosexuality is NOT an abnormality, an illness, an aberration, an evil, an abomination in the eyes of God, etc. This is probably the single most important fact to keep in mind. The research work of scientists such as behavioral psychologists, evolutionary biologists, genetics biologists and neuroscientists has shown that there is probably a genetic component for sexual orientation, but how nature interplays with nurture to affect the individual’s development is not fully understood. Indeed, as parents, you are first-hand witnesses of the mysterious workings of both forces. Your children, despite a common family background, often behave differently from each other, and turn out differently, pointing to the power of nature; at the same time, their personality and behaviour can be guided and shaped by you, pointing to the power of nurture. Hence this knowledge and understanding should make you cast off whatever strong feelings, (including the ugh reaction), which you may have against homosexuality, since it is no more than the natural product of a combination of complex forces, as are personality, character, intelligence, musical talent, etc.
  • You say: Even if we accept this fact about homosexuality are we not justified, as parents, in fearing that it will tend towards promiscuity, with all that implies of dangers such as sexually transmitted diseases, including Aids? It is worth reminding ourselves that sexual promiscuity among liberated young people today is not confined to any one group; consider, for instance, the alarming incidence of teen pregnancies and abortions. Hence if sexual licentiousness is to be treated as a social or moral problem, it cannot be dealt with as one exclusive to homosexuals. Any study that concludes that homosexuals are more immoral than others must be a very questionable one indeed. So here’s one more misconception to throw away.
  • You say again: What about the social stigma that is attached to homosexual behaviour, and shouldn’t we as parents protect our children from it? It is indeed a fact that even in western countries noted for their liberalism, such as the United States, there remains strong social antagonism against homosexuals; gay men and women continue to fight noisily for their rights. In the more conservative Asian societies, there are any number of anecdotes about gays having to remain in the closet, hiding the truth from their parents, employers and friends, even contemplating suicide. Hence you are right about the stigma and the attendant social injustices which naturally you don’t want your children to suffer.

But the truth is that things are changing—and fast. In a rapidly evolving world environment, driven by technological advancement dominated by youthful energy and the unabashed pursuit of the good life, every society has to adapt to the realities of the times. In Singapore, a traditionally conservative government is now prepared to employ gays even in the top positions in the administration, thereby acknowledging their valuable contribution to a society that because of its lack of natural resources, has no choice but to develop all its human resources.

In the foreseeable future, as more homosexuals come out into the open, the last vestiges of the old stigma against homosexuality will disappear altogether. We have witnessed how, one by one, the other moral stigmas of divorce, cohabitation, the loss of virginity, and going back even further, marriage outside one’s race, have all become a thing of the past. These changes seem to be part of a universal, spontaneous process of social evolution seen in all societies. They are neither good nor bad. They are simply part of the real world we are in.

Since as parents you are helpless to prevent the trend, you might as well accept it, and see how best to cope with it. If you suddenly find out, overtly or covertly, that your son or daughter is gay, you might as well, in order to avoid the no-win situation of confrontation and rejection, adopt a sensible approach.

  • What is the sensible way to deal with the issue of homosexuality as parents? I believe we all already know the answer, having graduated from that school of hard knocks known as parenting. Chief among the lessons learnt is that our children, as they grow up, have minds and wills of their own, especially in the matter of sexual orientation which defines their identity. Whatever our reservations, we should respect this independence; indeed, we have no choice.

The worst possible parental reaction is obviously the ‘I-forbid-you-because-it’s-against-God’s-will’ or the ‘We-are-conservative-Asians-and-don’t-do-this-sort-of-thing’ stance. It will only confirm our children’s belief that we don’t understand them and don’t have their interest at heart. The best possible response is a two-stage one: first letting our children know exactly how we feel and what our anxieties, wishes, hopes, etc for them are (it is amazing how people in general value honesty and decry insincerity and hypocrisy) and second, letting them know that regardless of what they become or do in their lives, they can always be assured of our love and support (it is amazing how such parental assurance remain as comforting memories throughout life).

I know of a mother who couldn’t bring herself to talk to her son who was showing all the signs of homosexuality, so she wrote down all her thoughts and feelings, covering the entire human gamut of fear, anger, frustration, despair, hope and love in a 20-page letter which she left in his room. The young man later told me that as he read the letter his initial embarrassment gave way to great relief. Today she is open about his sexuality, and proud of his success in the corporate sector.

  • Communication, listening, understanding, unconditional love—these have become the clichés of all inspirational and exhortatory literature on human relationships. But they also happen to be the most reliable tools in the parenting kit, to be continually refined to adapt to the ever challenging issues facing all parents today.

I would like to end with a true anecdote that has moved me deeply. It concerns a gay friend of mine. For years, out of love for his very traditional and conservative widowed mother, he hid his homosexuality, even letting her try to matchmake him with eligible young women. The pretence and outward show of cheerful spirits was most stressful. When she died, he left the country, utterly miserable, still needing psychiatric help. Years later, in middle age, he met and fell in love with someone who became his partner. For the first time in his life, he was happy. Sometimes, talking to me about his life, he would indulge in pensive ‘what if’ reflections: What if he had not assumed all along that his mother would object to his homosexuality? What if he had actually broached the subject to her? What if she had actually given him her blessing?

For she had said once, touching his hand lovingly while he was attending to her on the sick-bed, that all she wanted was to see him happy.

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