By: R Raj Rao
Book: Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East
Author: Benjamin Law
Publisher: Random House
A twenty-something gay nonfiction writer who lives in Australia but calls himself “ethnically Asian” voyeuristically ventures out to seven Asian countries to explore the queer scene there. The result? A sleazy, smutty account of third world homosexual life that, despite its serious intent, serves as little more than a Gay Men’s Lonely Planet targeted at Western readers scouring the brown continent for sex tourism.
Benjamin Law begins his journey in Bali, Indonesia, and travels to Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and finally India, to speak to gay rights activists, male sex workers, closeted homosexual men and even men of religion.
His narrative is uneven and varies in tone. It is grim when he speaks to dying, AIDS-stricken apwint (transgendered men) who work as male prostitutes in Yangon and Mandalay; titillating, when he visits in the opening chapter of the book, a clothes-optional hotel in Bali, where white Western men are allowed to stroll about naked in the lobby, and have sex with local Indonesian boys with the doors of their rooms open; inspiring, when he attends a gay pride parade in Mumbai, and feels the pride seep into his nerves.
In the bargain, we get an informative glimpse into the lives of the moneyboys of Indonesia, the ladyboys of Thailand, and the so-called ex-homosexuals of Malaysia whom religion “cures” of homosexuality.
Law’s point of view is determinedly neo-orientalist. Even as he describes the gay subculture of the countries he visits, he is thinking, in no uncertain terms, how lucky he is, as an out gay man, to be living in a civilised first world country where his gayness does not heap indignities on him. Some of Law’s findings betray class and generational prejudice.
In his chapter on China, for example, he suggests that homosexual men did not know how or where to find each other before the internet came to the country. This is hard to imagine, considering that, from early on, parks and washrooms, in spite of their sordidness or perhaps because of it, have always been hot cruising and networking sites for homosexual men all over the world.
Law’s account brings out the patriarchal nature of gay lifestyle in Asia. He meets Ayaka, a Japanese lesbian, who complains that this is “still a man’s world.” Ayaka regrets that “in the gay scene here [Japan] the majority of the venues — the saunas, the bars — are targeted at men.” The few lesbians the author manages to interview in other countries express the same view.
The India chapter that is most relevant to us has factual errors that show that Law’s research isn’t foolproof. It is likely that such discrepancies exist in other chapters as well. Pune is described as a “north-western” city; Law writes that cinemas screening Deepa Mehta’s Fire were burned down by the BJP in 1996, whereas actually they were vandalised by the Shiv Sena in 1998, the year the film was released.
There’s the usual Naipaul-style India bashing where the author scoffs at train compartment toilets that “had the … wonderful capacity of emptying directly onto the railroad tracks. You sat down, let the wind caress your naked butt and then happily watched as everything flew out into the open air.”
Its drawbacks notwithstanding, to me, the best (and most redeeming) part of the book was the last section of the India chapter, where Law has a sort of epiphany as he attends the gay pride march at the Oval Maidan in Mumbai. This is best described in his own words: “I thought of Harvey Milk’s San Francisco of the ’60s and ’70s, when the jeans were tight and the homosexuals were furious.
No one could re-create the Castro Street of that period, but as I watched the men and women dance in Mumbai, I felt what seemed to be a similar energy, the same spirit, the unbeatable optimism that came only after an arduous, bleak stretch of digging upwards, followed by the daylight of major victory…what I felt was something closely resembling pride.”