Re­veal­ing jour­ney through gay Asia

Gaysia: Ad­ven­tures in the Queer East

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew Mcmillen An­drew Mcmillen

AF­TER ex­plor­ing his up­bring­ing in the 2010 comic mem­oir The Fam­ily Law, Ben­jamin Law turns to an­other topic close to his heart. An Aus­tralian of Chi­nese an­ces­try, he sets out to ex­plore at­ti­tudes to ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in seven Asian coun­tries.

Gaysia is Bris­bane-based Law’s first at­tempt at book-length jour­nal­ism and it con­sol­i­dates him as one of the most sur­pris­ing and en­ter­tain­ing voices in Aus­tralian non­fic­tion writ­ing.

On the first page, he writes: ‘‘ Of all the con­ti­nents, Asia is the gayest.’’ Given it’s pop­u­lated by close to four bil­lion peo­ple, he goes on, ‘‘ doesn’t it stand to rea­son that most of the world’s queer peo­ple — les­bians, gays, bi­sex­u­als, trans­gen­der and trans­sex­ual folk — live in Asia too, shar­ing one hot, sweaty land­mass and fill­ing it with breath­tak­ing ex­am­ples of ex­otic fag­gotry?’’.

This bal­anc­ing of of blunt hu­mour and in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion is one of Law’s strengths. Each chap­ter deftly com­bines re­portage with his­tor­i­cal facts.

For ex­am­ple, Law strips off at a clothin­gop­tional gay re­sort in Bali while in­ter­view­ing the owner, who dis­cov­ered this gap in the tourism mar­ket in the 1990s. The re­sult is a strong nar­ra­tive with one foot in the present, the other in the past.

Given the top­ics at hand — nude re­sorts, pros­ti­tu­tion, Thai lady­boy beauty con­tests, to name three — there’s lots of room for graphic de­scrip­tions, and Law rev­els in it. He’s clearly at home writ­ing about our sex­ual urges and bod­ily func­tions.

From male hook­ers in Burma beg­ging him to share his pe­nis size to wit­ness­ing an awk­ward three­some through his neigh­bours’ cur­tains, he has masses of ma­te­rial to work with.

There is a se­ri­ous side to Law’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions. The Burma chap­ter is par­tic­u­larly af­fect­ing. Law in­ter­views widely while ex­plor­ing the preva­lence of HIV. The fi­nal anec­dote is bru­tal: a des­per­ate, 22-year-old pros­ti­tute — who had no knowl­edge of the virus un­til she tested pos­i­tive — asks Law whether he can help her. To the au­thor’s shame­ful re­al­i­sa­tion, his an­swer is no.

Gaysia is more a win­dow on to a trou­bled world than a trav­el­ogue. The sto­ries Law tells, the prob­lems he dis­cusses, are ones rarely ex­plored in-depth by the Aus­tralian me­dia. Some so­lu­tions are sim­ple — cross-cul­tural sex ed­u­ca­tion and wide­spread dis­tri­bu­tion of con­doms, for ex­am­ple — yet many are not.

Much of the ten­sion in this book comes down to dif­fer­ing so­cial mores. In Ja­pan, By Ben­jamin Law Black Inc, 288pp, $29.95 where drag queens are a con­stant fix­ture on tele­vi­sion, Law notes that ‘‘ so much of queer­ness seemed to be a per­for­mance for straight peo­ple’’.

Yet he con­tends few seem to un­der­stand that ho­mo­sex­u­als ex­ist in re­al­ity, away from TV cam­eras. ‘‘ As long as they’re in­vis­i­ble, they’ll be tol­er­ated,’’ a gay bar owner tells him.

Sev­eral chap­ters high­light those who view ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as a ‘‘ bad men­tal habit’’, to quote Baba Ramdev, a yoga in­struc­tor whose In­dian fol­low­ers num­ber more than 80 mil­lion peo­ple.

In re­cent times in China, ho­mo­sex­u­als were pre­scribed self-flag­el­la­tion tech­niques (a rub­ber band on the wrist, to be snapped when­ever a ho­mo­sex­ual thought was had) elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­apy and even, in one sad case, a cock­tail of con­flict­ing psy­chotropic drugs that re­sulted in ir­re­versible neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age.

Law presents these in­stances of mis­un­der­stand­ing, per­se­cu­tion and out­right ho­mo­pho­bia mat­ter-of-factly, with­out draw­ing his own con­clu­sions.

In Malaysia he meets Chris­tian and Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ists who treat ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as ‘‘ an af­flic­tion that can be cured’’. When ques­tioned by them, Law plays the neu­tral jour­nal­ist, per­haps a lit­tle too well: he doesn’t re­veal his sex­ual iden­tity.

Yet by keep­ing quiet and quot­ing his sources faith­fully, Law cer­tainly gives them enough rope.

High­lights of this book in­clude Law’s ac­count of the madly de­tailed lengths Chi­nese les­bians go to when ar­rang­ing fake marriages, so as to please par­ents on both sides; his im­mer­sion in the hys­te­ria sur­round­ing an an­nual lady­boy beauty con­test watched by 15 mil­lion Thais; and a chance meet­ing with an ex­citable yet clos­eted In­dian man on a 30-hour cross-coun­try train trip. (Law gen­er­ously trans­fers his gay porn stash to his new friend’s lap­top.)

Gaysia is a book of pow­er­ful, en­light­en­ing sto­ries on a fraught topic, told with care, em­pa­thy, grace and good hu­mour.

Ben­jamin Law has writ­ten a book of pow­er­ful, en­light­en­ing sto­ries

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