This year I want to read books without feeling compelled to review them. But when I found myself losing sleep to converse in my head with author Benjamin Law after reading Gaysia, I figured this was one review I had to write.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books. Articles and essays, yes, but not books. That said, I like to try for one or two each year and in 2012 I managed two memoirs — Kate Holden’s compelling In My Skin and Timothy Conigrave’s sad and beautiful Holding the Man (incidentally, moved to read the latter after this piece by Law) — with Gaysia getting me through the festive season.
Gaysia is an abosorbing read, mixing journalism and anthropology in a unique exploration of the Queer East (Law is a big one for puns).
After a short author’s note and introduction, Law plunges the reader into Bali’s only resort exclusively for gay men that also has ‘a 100 per cent clothing-optional’ policy. His candid descriptions of the goings on at the Spartacvs Hotel, where bulé — sometimes known as DOM aka dirty old men — hang out with their Indonesian boyfriends or local moneyboys (even Law has trouble distinguishing between the two) sets a candid tone for the whole book.
We are treated to a transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand, the Miss Tiffany Universe contest (which incidentally gets a mention in my second novel, The Half-Child). In China we learn about sham marriages between gay men and lesbians, designed to appease family. In Japan we see the popularity of gei tarento — ‘gay talent’ — albeit uniquely ‘camp, feminine, hilarious and weirdly sexless’ in the mainstream media.
In Malaysia, Law hangs out with Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, operating under the banners of Real Love Ministry and the Malaysian Islamic Association of Homosexuality Research and Therapy respectively, who aspire to ‘cure’ homosexuality. Swamiji Baba Ramdev in India aims to do likewise through yoga and ayurvedic medicine. But Law moves on from the Babaji to connect with Indian activists in New Delhi and Mumbai who successfully fought to repeal Section 377 of the Penal Code, which by decriminalising ‘consensual sexual acts of adults in private’, effectively decriminalised homosexuality. In 2009.
For me the most moving chapter is the one set in Myanmar (aka Burma), where men who have sex with men are 42 per cent more likely to contract HIV than anywhere else in the world, but where four in five will die for lack of access to lifesaving medication. A country where sex between men can be bought for less than USD$1 and even the HIV community workers hire those they are supposed to be protecting for sex.
Law has remarkable access, affording unique insights into the queer east. I found much of it illuminating — e.g. Thai transsexuals look so feminine because they start hormone therapy before they hit puberty — and a little of it disturbing, e.g. niche markets in the Japanese porn industry. But my overwhelming sense as a reader was one of privilege: Law goes where this Angela fears to tread, and I am grateful to share vicariously in his experience.
Furthermore, Law’s prose sparkles. Take for example his descriptions of Myanmar’s superseded capital Yangon (Rangoon).
…[I]f you could extend your gaze past the the cement rubble and the open drains smelling of horror, there was evidence of Myanmar’s former glory everywhere. In Yangon and all over the country, golden pagodas — domes and spires sometimes plated with tonnes of solid gold, some encased with real rubies and emeralds — shone like beacons. They rose up in expected places, punching through Yangon’s urban mess…like the highest towers of a long-buried city triumphantly pushing its way above ground.
For the most part, Law strikes the right balance between telling the story and revealing his place in it, a skill demonstrated by the best cultural anthropologists.
Where the book falls short, thus fuelling my imaginary conversations with the author, is in its ending. As in, there is none. Law leaves us in India at the Queer Azaadi Mumbai Pride Parade feeling ‘something closely resembling pride.’ But the conclusion I anticipated, one that reflected on his overall experiences and analysed them from the point of view of a self-confessed gaysian Australian, simply wasn’t there. In fact, for a writer who is happy to share details of his toileting dramas in India, Law is remarkably coy when it comes to adopting a political position in relation to the subject matter he investigates.
So, Mr Benjamin Law, here are my questions:
How do you feel about using the term gaysian to describe yourself after your travels in the queer east? Do you have a sense of shared identity with the people you met in Indonesia, Thailand, China and beyond? Or does ‘gaysian’ turn out to be as problematic a label as ‘gay’ when it comes to sexual identities in Asia?
You hung out with a number of religious fundamentalists intent on treating homosexuality as an affliction that could be cured, and you gave them a pretty equivocal answer when they asked you what you thought about homosexuality. How do you weigh up a cultural relativist stance — that for some in Malaysia good, long-term gay and lesbian relationships ‘couldn’t work’ — with a human rights approach? Or even with your own experience?
You found yourself in some tricky ethical situations in your travels. I was particularly affected by your account of the HIV community worker in Yangon having sex with the kind of young male prostitute he was supposed to be working to protect, imagining the outcry if a foreign aid worker engaged in the same behaviour. You questioned the appropriateness. A local peer educator suggested there was no problem because the community worker was off-duty from his job. Were you satisfied with that?
I welcome a late epilogue to Gaysia.
In the meantime, I will recommend this book widely for its riveting subject matter, unique insights and lyrical prose, if not its political analysis.