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How Does Law Matter to Social Movements? A Case Study of Gay Activism in Singapore


This study is aimed at gaining a better understanding of how people fight for change collectively in societies that, unlike the United States, have less of democratic processes, and fundamental civil-political rights, and, of how law matters to their processes of doing so. It focuses on a particular minority group, gay people, in one particular society - Singapore, an Asian country with shades of authoritarianism - and explored how gay activists make sense of their grievances, strategize and take action to achieve their goals, and evaluate their own efforts.

Based on systematic collection and analysis of data, including in-depth interviews with 100 activists, the study found: Unlike what sociology of law has learned in the United States, law - in the form of legal rights - is neither a strategic nor symbolic resource for these activists. The role of law in collective fights for social change goes beyond that of rights, which are stymied by the very legal system set up by the powers in control. Gay activists in Singapore regard law as a key source of oppression that obstructs their movement. The ruling party, in control for the past 45 years, has used law's power of sanction and delegitimization not only to deter legally, but also to cultivate cultural norms that discourage its people from coming together to agitate for social change, to use rights, and to ask for change in the form of rights, which are painted as confrontational, and detrimental to their society's stability and economic progress.

Hence, these activists focus on achieving social changes outside formal law, such as gaining acceptance from society at large, and the state to come out, speak out, and have their grievances heard, and to organize, and assemble more publicly as a group of people with shared concerns and interests. Rather than turning to the law to aid their cause, they resist it through "pragmatic resistance," a strategy that precariously balances movement survival, and advancement. To "live to fight another day," they abide by the law, and oppressive cultural norms so as to avoid legal sanctions that could lead to the repression of their movement, and demise of small gains already accumulated, thus reversing their hard work; meanwhile, to advance their goals, without changing formal law they imperceptibly push the boundaries of those cultural norms - which are backed by legal sanctions - on what are socially and politically acceptable. They are conscious of, and accept, their strategy as a trade-off between the accumulation of informal gains outside formal law, and the reification and reinforcement of legal power that perpetuates the cultural legitimacy of the existing political order.

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