Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Making Room for Love"

A little bird recently sent me this article from 2001, by architectural writer and LGBT activist Dinesh Naidu, on how unmarried people negotiate physical space to express a little loving.


Possibly the most important spatial manifestation of mainstream sexuality norms is found in public housing. Despite 'land scarcity', the State actively facilitates the purchase of affordable homes by all young married couples through the provision of cash grants and subsidised public housing. These policies complement the promotion of heterosexuality, marriage and procreation as the norm in Singapore. The State-sponsored marital home provides couples with a relatively permanent and private space of their own. Within the constraints of monogamous marriage, couples are free to indulge in a range of marital relations in their purpose-built and sanctioned space. Indeed, traditional homes have long served as the "locus of heterosexual reproduction and socialisation".[6] Although inherited colonial era statues[7] forbid what we may assume are fairly common sexual practices among married couples, the degree of privacy and sanction provided by the marital home protects husbands and wives from the practical and psychological effects of these laws.

While couples who marry can enjoy home ownership, singles are barred from purchasing either new or re-sale public housing until they reach the age of 35, when they may buy re-sale apartments. This policy stems from an avowed promotion of the 'traditional' family unit. As a result, apartments and estates are designed for occupation by such households[8]. In addition to these State-imposed obstacles, Singapore parents often have cultural expectations of their children to reside with and support them, at least until marriage. Private housing is also unaffordable to most people [9] and this fact, compounded with housing policies and parental demands, means that most singles live with their parents at least until they are middle aged, if not beyond. Bachelor pads or apartments shared by singles, common features of middle class single life in other developed cities, remain unrealised types in the Singaporean experience.

These conditions constrict the space available for sexual practices outside of marriage. For unmarried couples who wish to spend some quiet, private time together, and perhaps engage in light petting, the parental home is a problematic venue because of the presence of family members and even maids. These household members can act to discourage or even forbid such activity, which is, ironically, better tolerated in anonymous public settings. In his short story "Evening Under Frangipani"[10], Jeyaretnam depicts the parental approval faced by an inter-racial couple, making the home a hostile area for courtship. Two solutions are presented in the sotry.

First, the couple ritualised their meetings at a small landscaped area: "A few carefully trimmed hibiscus bushes, their leaves variegated shades of green, lined the concrete path which stretched across the path -- no more than a hundred square metres -- of green. Fallen red petals stained the grass. They called it a park, according it dignity and respect because of the importance it had assumed in their routine as meeting point." [11] Here we see how private ritual and the act of naming can be used to create a vital courtship space out of anonymous urban landscape. These practices are also symbolic means of affirming a relationship frowned on by others.

Later in the story, we learn that "... her parents would be away in Malaysia over Saturday night and Elaine and Prakash would have the bungalow all to themselves on Saturday. There would be no need to meet on the crowded malls of ORchard Road, jostling with teenagers on parade... The bungalow all to themselves! A release from the claustrophobia of Singapore courtship, the lack of places away from the watching judging eyes of parents, friends and strangers."[12] The strategy employed here invovles observing family or neighbourhood schedules and patterns in order to discern small windows of opportunity to appropriate ordinarily 'unsafe' spaces for use. As this practice is trangressive, individuals may initially experience feeling guilt or fear (although some might instead / also enjoy the pleasure of forbidden fruit and the thrill of subversion). Unlike the earlier act of symbolic affirmation, this act of hiding denies a couple any sense of legitimacy and pride, and works, however subtly, to shame them. At the same time, the inability of spaces to address real social needs renders them, and their underlying ideology, open to critique. For example, as spatial trangressions become routine, dominant values become exposed as inadequate.

Gay couples face obstacles similar to those mentioned above, but with some important differences. Whereas moderate heterosexual displays of affection are sanctioned in public spaces, gay couples have almost no comparable public spaces to use. Ironically, while the act of bringing to the home or bedroom a 'friend' of the opposite sex tends to attract the notice and possibly disapproval of family and neighbours, such action tends to go unnoticed when the 'friend' is of the same gender. This stems from a lower public awareness of homosexuality. The presumed platonic nature of same-gender relationships can act to mask gay relationships and even facilitate the use of family homes by such couples.

Gay couples also can use the symbolic practices noted earlier. In his study of local gay relationships, Sinn[13] characterised this strategy as the 'symbolic appropriation of objects, spaces as well as time' and reported two cases of this. The first involved a couple who tended a small herb garden together in the home of one while other family members were out. Another example was of a couple who maintained a photo album of shared times together. Given the invisibility and secrecy whcih surround most gay relationships, such small acts, which are easier to conceal, are loaded with significance and become critical to the symbolic affirmation of the relationship, in the absence of familial and societal recognition and validation.


[6] Friedman, Alice T., "Not a Muse: the Client's Role at the Rietveld Schroder House" in Diane Agrest, et al (eds) The Sex of Architecture. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc, 1996 p218
[7] [Ed: Naidu highlights the recently repealed Singapore Penal Code Section 377, which sanctioned against oral and anal sex that does not lead to vaginal intercourse between a heterosexual unit. Section 377A remains to sanction against fellatio and anal sex between a homosexual male unit.]
[8] It must be noted new typologies such as housing for the elderly ('granny flats') and the recent announcement by Prime Minister Gosh Chock Tong that these flats might be available to singles in the future does signal a move towards accommodating a more diverse range of households.
[9] According to Chua, the State has an ideological commitment to the universal provision of (up to 90% of the population) of public housing in Singapore. This leaves private property developers to cater to the housing needs of the elite top 10-15% of the population. See Chua, Beng-Huat, Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1996, pp19-20.
[10] Jeyaretnam, Philip, "Evening Under FrangiPani" in First Loves. Singapore: Times Books International, 1987, pp166-199.
[11] Op cit pp168-169.
[12] Op cit p171.
[13] Sinn, Wai Mu Mark, A Different Kind of Love: Gay Relationships in Singapore. Singapore: unpublished National University of Singapore thesis, 1996.
Naidu, Dinesh. "Making Room for Love," Singapore Architect, 212. Dec 2001. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Architects, pp98-100.

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