Colour and movement

GAYSIA: ADVENTURES IN THE QUEER EAST
Nanjing Night Net

By Benjamin Law. Black Inc. 288pp. $29.99.

Just when you might think books by ingenues-in-Asia were a thing of the past, a sub-species arrives: books by gay-ingenues-in-Asia. Gaysia is the second of Law’s cutely titled books, following The Family Law (2010), which made his reputation as a self-satirist. That led to media columns, TV and an Asialink fellowship that took him to seven Asian countries in search of what he calls ”breathtaking examples of exotic faggotry”. Law is trawling among LGBTT people, he explains, for his fellow Gaysians: ”the Homolaysians, Bi-Mese, Laosbians and Shangdykes”. (If you need to ask, this may not be the book for you.)

Of course he finds them, behind every bush and exposed on every beat in the ”queer East”. Naked profiteers and muscled go-go dancers accost him in Bali, where he’s told everyone is a slut, and where men from the rest of Indonesia come for a gay time. Transsexual beauty queens reveal all to him in Bangkok. Squeals of mirth greet lewd jokes in tiny Tokyo bars that selectively specialise in thin, fat, old, female, or foreign gay clients. In Beijing, gay Chinese, conflicted between filial duty and sexual preference, tell Law how they negotiate sham marriages with the help of the internet. He listens to exhortations about curing ”sexual perversion” from a Christian in Malaysia and a Hindu in India, gurus who not only profit from their anxious followers, but covertly share their lusts. Straight Indian activists tell him of their struggle in 2007 to overturn a British statute of 1860 that outlawed ”carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Gay Indians now parade annually in Mumbai, making up in colour and decibels for the frisson of risk they have lost becoming legal.

What starts out for Law as a light-hearted romp from one fleshpot to another in countries where anything goes, turns dark in China and Malaysia, where the pressure of ideology on one hand and religion on the other is constant. A way of life he regards as ordinary is a torment for gays there. But Law’s mood is darkest in Myanmar, where the three most fatal diseases are malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. In 2008, he says, quoting UNAIDS, nearly a third of transgender people and men who have sex with men in Myanmar had HIV. Of people needing antiretroviral drugs, one in five may get them. The rest will die, including some of Law’s interviewees who, with no alternative, go on working in a sex industry in which condoms are rarely used. He is puzzled that they laugh.

All ingenues-in-Asia report their emotional highs and physical lows as a life-changing experience. To make sense of it, the temptation is often to bring Western judgments to bear, and urge Western solutions – some only recent. Law’s empathy with his gay interlocutors is evident. But trying to get an appointment, cold, using Google translation, with a Japanese TV talent is naive, and the result is a massive fob-off. Mixing up given names and surnames isn’t a good look either. Failing to understand why Burmese say appalling things and laugh suggests that Law’s Asian sensibility may have been lost in one generation. Law is shocked when the Indian guru tells him homosexuality can lead to sex with animals, yet this prospect has recently been raised in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia. Hypocritical behaviour of supposedly celibate clergy in the West was well known, and Law doesn’t mention it once.

Law dangles the promise that on his journey he will get ”very, very naked”. If he does, he doesn’t say so, and instead keeps virtuously telling people he has a partner in Australia. If readers are hoping for a no-holds-barred sex tour, Law’s book is not it. What it more importantly lacks is historical research: the West didn’t invent LGBTT. Law understands there are various performance traditions, providing a paragraph or two on some, but surprisingly says nothing of crossdressing in the Takarazuka review or the Chinese opera, not even M.Butterfly. These traditions were diluted or repressed in the name of Western morality, and have been further reduced to the crass transactions that Westerners expect in ”the world’s gayest continent”.

Dr Alison Broinowski reviews and researches Asian Australian writing.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.