When news broke in December that Singapore’s High Court had allowed a gay couple to adopt their son conceived through a surrogate in the United States, it was not met with cheers by all of the city state’s LGBT community. Public opinion over same-sex relationships is deeply divided in Singapore , where gay sex is still technically illegal under a colonial-era law and government policies promote the formation of two-parent, heterosexual families. So Joanna, a 38-year-old who works in sales and is married to a woman, was worried the landmark ruling could fuel a backlash from conservative Singaporeans. “We feel that the louder you are, the more attention you’re drawing to [LGBT rights] and that actually prompts the public to be a little more aggressive in shooting it down,” she said. Joanna, whose wife Casey is a 33-year-old civil servant, said she was not convinced “shining the spotlight” on LGBT issues was the best way to ensure equal rights. She referred to last year’s debate on repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men but is not actively enforced. She said she believed the government, which is now conducting a review of the Penal Code, would have found it easier to scrap the law if activists had not drawn the attention of conservatives and religious groups to it. How Singapore’s red-light district became a playground for mainland Chinese The couple – who asked that their names be changed and personal details kept to a minimum for this article – know their view is not likely to be shared by many among Singapore’s LGBT community. In the last decade, LGBT issues have had a bigger airing as countries around the world move to legalise gay marriages and local gay pride rally Pink Dot attracts more people each year. In 2007 and last year, there were calls to repeal Section 377A but each time such nationwide discussions happen, the government says it is neutral and will only move forward when society is ready for it. The government has also reinforced its pro-family stance. Since the adoption ruling, which the court explained as a bid to prioritise the child’s welfare and increase his prospects of acquiring Singapore citizenship, the Ministry of Social and Family Development has announced its desire to tighten adoption and surrogacy rules. Casey, who holds a foreign passport and an employment permit in Singapore, said she doesn’t “feel trapped” there. “I can choose to move, I can leave and go to a different place so I don’t feel so oppressed,” she said. She said neither her nor Joanna had encountered mean comments about their sexuality like they had when they travelled overseas. While they are not legally recognised as a married couple in Singapore, they had circumvented this by drafting wills and registering lasting powers of attorney, to grant each other the right to make medical and financial decisions for the other party. According to former teacher Joseph Chong, public attitudes have changed to the point where “you can hold hands in Singapore and nobody would care or be bothered by it”. Singapore’s landmark gay adoption case may lead to tighter laws But when it comes to equal rights for LGBT individuals, a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” still prevails. The 44-year-old said that while he never hid his sexuality from his colleagues at the elite school where he worked, he also never felt comfortable advertising it publicly, such as by attending the Pink Dot rally that has been allowed to take place in the city since 2009. “I did not want to put my school in any sort of position where they will be questioned. I think I’ve to respect certain boundaries,” he said. For Kerry Sieh, a leading geologist who was wooed to the Lion City from the United States in 2008 to set up and head the Earth Observatory of Singapore, “Singapore has gotten worse”. A decade ago, his employers helped his partner secure a job and residency in the country. He cited the barring of foreigners from 2017’s Pink Dot rally as evidence of changing attitudes. “They had barricades put around the park and all the foreigners had to stay out,” he said. Sieh has said that he only took the job initially because Lee Kuan Yew, known as the founding father of modern Singapore, had said publicly in 2007 that the government would not interfere in homosexual people’s private lives. In September, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that when it came to “work, housing [and] education” there is no discrimination against the LGBT community in Singapore. Gay sex: is Singapore ready to come out of the legal closet? While that might be true, there is still public opinion to worry about, according to Thomas, an educator in his 40s who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions. “If you’re asking if we want to stand up and be counted, we really cannot,” he said. “Let’s say a student or parent files a complaint, will that be used against us? There’s no clear stand [from the education ministry] on what happens if a complaint was made against you because you’re LGBT.” Chong, the former teacher, shared similar concerns: “the general public will question, ‘Oh what’s the school’s stand? Do you allow teachers like that in the school? What is the education ministry’s stand?” This pressure to present a public persona in spite of who you are in private is something that Amanda Wee, a transgender Singaporean now living in New Zealand, knows all too well. As a Catholic, the 34-year-old said she feels the weight of both societal and religious expectations. Yet her LGBT friends will still pressure her to support “everything in every way”. “I do feel torn in that while I want to support my gay friends, from a religious perspective I am constrained in how much I can support gay activism, and frankly I have not yet found a good middle ground,” she said. Social worker and executive director of LGBT counselling group Oogachaga, Leow Yangfa, said that given the “pragmatic reality of Singapore’s situation”, a “subtle combination” of action and inaction was probably the best approach. “What is more important is that as a community, we do not descend into having divisive views about what is right and best,” the 43-year-old said.