A book review for The Weekend Australian, published on 8 September 2012. The full review appears below.
Revealing journey through gay Asia
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 clothing-optional 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, 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.
Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East
By Benjamin Law
Black Inc, 288pp, $29.95