Business Standard

The bigotry of the victim

- CHINTAN GIRISH MODI The reviewer is an independen­t journalist and educator based in Mumbai. He is @chintanwri­ting on Instagram and X

What was it like to be a gay man born to Chinese-cambodian parents in France in the early 1980s? How did anti-asian racism play out in the predominan­tly white world of gay dating? What were the psychologi­cal implicatio­ns of being reduced to a stereotype and not seen as an individual, of being repeatedly told that one was inherently unattracti­ve because of one’s race? How did someone at the receiving end deal with this humiliatio­n? Read financial analysttur­ned-actor Jean-baptiste Phou’s memoir, Coming Out of My Skin, to know more.

This slim volume throws light on the experience­s of men who are marginalis­ed in heteronorm­ative spaces because of their sexual orientatio­n, and excluded from gay spaces on account of their racial identity or ethnic origin. It shows that people who face discrimina­tion are not necessaril­y free of bigotry themselves. While this is common sense, perhaps it needs to be articulate­d explicitly in an age where people think that their lack of privilege in one aspect of their lives makes them immune to criticism or accountabi­lity for their behaviour.

The author notes, “Such behaviour (racism) is very common among homosexual­s, some of whom go even farther by protesting: But I can’t be racist! I’m gay…without noticing, we can all have racist thoughts and exhibit racist tendencies while stopping short of outright racism.”

Readers might feel that he is belabourin­g the point, but there is a solid reason behind this. According to him, French society claims not to see colour because all citizens are equal before the law. People’s lived realities are often dramatical­ly different from legal provisions.

“I was being rebuffed solely because I was of Asian descent, so consistent­ly that it was becoming a pattern,” he writes. “This wasn’t about individual tastes expressed by just a handful of people, but in fact a widespread attitude, a kind of conditioni­ng with collective roots.” He began to wonder why Asian men were considered repulsive, even undesirabl­e, and eventually discovered that such ideas were based on representa­tions in popular culture where Asian men are depicted as possessing smaller penises and being less virile than white men.

“The mainstream media goes on spewing forth more or less the same representa­tions of Asian bodies,” he adds. “In the West, it’s well understood that images are a potent weapon in the arsenal of soft power. The feeling of being economical­ly threatened by Far Eastern countries contribute­s to the perpetuati­on of such dehumanizi­ng, even demonizing depictions.”

Growing up in this toxic environmen­t, the author tried to avoid all contact with fellow Asians in public spaces and saw them behaving similarly due to their internalis­ed sense of shame. It must have taken the author a lot of courage to revisit those unpleasant memories and make himself vulnerable in print. He does an excellent job of giving us a glimpse into his troubled mindscape. At a time when he was hungry for connection, he had to disconnect from parts of himself that were considered unwelcome. He hated how he looked and how others saw him.

The author confesses, “For a long time, my skin horrified me with its pallor, my eyes with their shape, my nose with its flatness, my fingers with their slendernes­s, my hair with its stiffness.” All the physical characteri­stics that reminded him of his Asian identity, and what it stood for in France, made him recoil with disgust. He began to idolise whiteness. “I dreamed of letting my skin roast in the sun, getting implants to be hairier, going under the scalpel — anything to stop looking so yellow,” he recalls.

This is a disturbing book, and a muchneeded one, because the obsession with appearance continues to thrive in spaces where gay men seek romance, sex and companions­hip.

Calling out white people for their racism does not take much effort; it is more challengin­g to confront the ways in which people of colour inflict harm. Hopefully, this book will make gay men in India think about the damaging effects of the hate that is normalised on gay dating apps like Grindr, Planetrome­o, and Scruff. It is not uncommon for gay men using these apps to flaunt their aversion to darkskinne­d, fat, differentl­y abled and effeminate bodies. Some users are particular about the religious and caste identities of their prospectiv­e partners.

If this wasn’t enough, the topic of sexual position complicate­s matters even further because gay men often define themselves strictly as top or bottom. Based on his experience­s in France, the author says, “Deeply rooted in the gay imaginatio­n is the idea that Asians can only be passive, a bottom. And since two bottoms won’t do, they need to seek partners outside their ethnic group.” Over a period of time, beliefs masquerade as truths. Those who are keen to challenge them get entangled in newer traps instead of getting liberated.

He writes, “That’s what one of my friends of Cambodian descent did: to escape the cliché of the Asian bottom, he only ever topped. Alas, in seeking to free ourselves from others’ perception, we continue to define ourselves in relation to it.” The author’s self-awareness and candour are refreshing. The book strikes a chord because he opens up about his own irresponsi­ble behaviour, including unprotecte­d sexual encounters that exposed him and his partners to the risk of sexually transmitte­d infections.

This book is fiercely honest and unwavering­ly gloomy. But it has the potential to ruffle feathers and get people in LGBTQIA+ communitie­s worldwide to look within and clean up the rot.

 ?? ?? COMING OUT OF MY SKIN Author: Jean-baptiste Phou
Publisher: Seagull Books
Translator: Edward Gauvin
Price: ~599 Pages: 124
COMING OUT OF MY SKIN Author: Jean-baptiste Phou Publisher: Seagull Books Translator: Edward Gauvin Price: ~599 Pages: 124
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