Reverend Dr Yap Kim Hao — the first religious leader to express support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore — died of heart failure on Thursday morning.
His wake was held at Mount Vernon Sanctuary on Saturday, with nightly wake services that will end tonight before the hearse departs for Mandai tomorrow morning. He was 88.
Born in Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, in 1929, Dr Yap was educated at Anglo-Chinese School in his youth and survived the Japanese Occupation before he was introduced to Methodism in Kampar and Ipoh. He studied at Baker University in Kansas, USA, before returning to Malaysia to serve in various churches and eventually coming to Singapore.
In the years that followed, he obtained his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Theology Degrees from Boston University School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts, and taught at Trinity Theological College and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
At 39, he became the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia in 1968, before stepping down from the position to become the General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia in 1973. He gradually became directly involved in social justice issues, and in the 1990s, began to be acquainted with gay men and women and the challenges they faced — something that reminded him of the discrimination against African-Americans in the United States before the Civil Rights movement.
In 2003, Dr Yap came to nationwide prominence as a bishop who openly supported LGBT rights. In written response to a letter published on The Straits Times Forum that questioned the public service’s relaxed position towards hiring gays, Dr Yap applauded then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for announcing that the government is more open to employing those from the LGBT community.
“The lack of understanding of the condition of homosexuality and the harsh homophobic views expressed in the letter are regrettable. From my meetings with members of the gay and lesbian community, I have come to see them as normal human beings even though their sexual orientation is different from mine,” the reverend wrote.
“In remaking Singapore, the Government is taking a forward step in recognising the rights of homosexuals. It is only right that we do not discriminate against anyone on account of race, religion or sexual orientation.”
He eventually retired from full-time service at 65 and volunteered to be a pastoral adviser at the Free Community Church — a church whose mission is to celebrate “diversity in living out God’s love and promise of abundant life for all.” According to the Singapore LGBT wiki, the Free Community Church affirms that “all individuals, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ones, are of sacred worth created in God’s image, believing that discrimination, fear of differences and homophobia are inconsistent with Christian teachings”.
In the years that followed, he continued to voice his support for LGBT rights in Singapore, even putting his weight behind legal challenges that sought to have the controversial Section 377A of the Penal Code — that criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men — declared unconstitutional.
Since Dr. Yap’s death, prominent LGBT rally group Pink Dot penned a tribute to the man, acknowledging his support and affirming him for his outspoken advocacy of “acceptance and equality”. The reverend was also noted to have given talks and participated in Pink Dot rallies, and he even appeared in their campaign videos.
Free Community Church also published a eulogy for Dr. Yap, noting the huge legacy he left behind and the many lives he touched.