HONG KONG >> Paris Jackson, the 20-year-old actress and model who recently told fans she is bisexual, apologized this week for appearing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in Singapore, a country where sex between men is punishable by up to two years in prison.
But it was an apology that many of her followers on social media said was unnecessary, with some praising Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter, for offering visibility to members of a group that rarely gets positive representation in the Singaporean media.
Jamie Tabberer, an editor at Gay Star News, started the debate when he criticized the cover, saying Jackson’s appearance on it was incompatible with her pledge to support gay rights. Nicki Minaj faced a similar backlash in July after appearing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Russia.
“The hypocrisy is absurd,” Tabberer wrote of Jackson.
Jackson responded to the column by saying she “didn’t know” about the state of gay rights in Singapore, which offers no protections for discrimination based on sexual orientation. While apologizing, she indicated she thought there was value in her appearance, asking, “Isn’t that a step forward?”
While social media comments are an inexact gauge of public opinion, both her tweet and one from Gay Star News were overwhelmed by support for Jackson. Her defenders included Lauren Jauregui, a “Fifth Harmony” singer who is bisexual and was named the Celebrity of the Year at last year’s British LGBT Awards.
Harper’s Bazaar did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s rare to see “such open and visible representation in local mainstream media,” said Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, a support organization in Singapore for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
He said he hoped the international attention on Singapore — buttressed by the success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” a movie based in the country — might shine light on the state of gay rights there.
“Not everyone in Singapore lives like the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’; homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are very real experiences for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore,” he said.
In 2007, Singapore revisited its long-held prohibition against oral and anal sex between consenting adults, a law widely seen as outdated. The government repealed much of the law but kept a portion aimed at “gross indecency” between men, “in public or private.”
The law applies specifically to men and does not address women.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2007 that the government would not enforce the law. Prosecutions have been rare, but in 2010 a man was charged with having oral sex with a man in a public bathroom. The defendant appealed to the country’s highest court, which ruled against him in 2014 and declared the law constitutional.
LGBT people in Singapore, thousands of whom publicly rallied in July, have a “sense they’re made invisible, or the government would like them to remain invisible,” said Linda Lakhdhir, a legal adviser for Human Rights Watch who focuses on Asia.
Films and television shows are at times censored to remove homosexual characters or plot lines, she said, citing as an example a character from “Desperate Housewives.” The country’s censorship guidelines say that films should not “promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle.”
Gay characters may exist, but only if they’re seen as negative characters, Lakhdhir said. In 2008, a cable operator was fined for broadcasting a commercial in which two women kissed.
“How can you make any progress if people watching films or television can never see a positive depiction of an LGBT individual?” Lakhdhir said.