Story | Justin Ong, Executive Editor
Photo | Justin Ong
In co-writing an article about what people on campus thought about Section 377A for The Octant, I was fascinated, captivated and affronted by many of those I spoke to. There were stories of courage, of resilience, of humility. But at times, I was confronted with a wall of silence. Out of the many whom spoke, there were a few students who chose not to have their voices heard.
Most of the students that declined to be interviewed or chose to remain off the record brought up their religious affiliations as their main reasons not to speak. This was far from a blind allegiance to their faith. They rationalized their silence with unique reasons; but the general sentiment was that having their views in conversations with that of opposing views would be unintentionally “othering” to both parties, and thus not productive.
But then when the conversation developed, and we warmed up to each other, the interviewees revealed more reasons as to why speaking up on campus wasn’t something that they were willing to do.
The first thing that I learned was that faith is something that takes a long time and a lot of jargon to explain. Just interviewing someone about their faith meant a laptop full of open tabs, each one linked to a different verse, or religious figure, or a historical event.
An alumnus, who is a Christian, posted a lengthy Facebook note about why they did not sign the petition for repealing Section 377A. That post, though well-substantiated and concise, took almost half an hour to properly read, reread and understand. It detailed how religion interacted with their life choices, and had the potential to be even longer, had the alumnus not cut short some explanations of certain parts of their faith.
To put on an article that “The Octant interviewed so and so but they declined to be on the record” did not feel satisfactory to me. The reasons why someone believes what they do rides on a lot of detail — detail that may divide as much as it can help heal through understanding. To deny the community that opportunity for mutual understanding left a bad taste in my mouth.
But it is not to say that silence was always a passive choice, nor was it necessarily the convenient thing to do.
At times, it can be a frustrating choice. This is not to say that they perceived themselves as victims, but rather that they simply wished that their beliefs weren’t as easily dismissed by some. They told me about their faith with a great deal of caution, as if I was about to question its validity, or quickly change the subject out of discomfort. Perhaps they had faced the same problems many times before. But when I asked more questions about what they believed, and why they believed it, their guard was dropped, and they opened up and told me more.
As a community, I believe that many are concerned with the core of the argument. We want to know within two sentences if someone supports something we support, and are raring to tear them down if they don’t. Listening to what someone has to say becomes very strained and restless, like waiting for a tennis ball to return just to smack it back full force. Perhaps in our minds, we have already tagged them as possessing incorrect beliefs, and no amount of justification will be satisfactory.
Not everyone does this, but it only takes a handful of these voices to turn a productive conversation brutal. This can happen regardless of the side of the argument you are on.
Many interviewees also told me that one’s belief in a certain faith should not turn into a burden and a source of face-judgement. For instance, just because some members are homophobic or have set a bad example, doesn’t mean that all members are like that. Members in a religious group, they reminded me, are not homogeneous in how they interpret their faith, nor should they be held accountable for one preconceived set of beliefs.
Lastly, I learned that silence does not necessarily equate to ignorance or reclusion. All the interviewees were well-informed on arguments for and against Section 377A, both from their personal conversations with friends along the religious spectrum, and from reading what has been said online.
They acknowledged that some criticism that had been hurled at their faith was difficult to swallow, but that they made their own peace with it by remaining silent instead of descending into a war of words. Instead, they had sought to listen more intently, to understand on their own terms and learn from what those they dubbed the “liberals” had to say.
They told me that all they wanted was to learn from the “liberals” to be more accepting, and to be more willing to question themselves while still holding firm to their beliefs. They just wanted to be given a chance to do so without feeling misunderstood.