Australian writer and journalist Benjamin Law on his travels through queer Asia
In "Gaysia", Australian writer and journalist Benjamin Law sets off on an expedition to the gayest continent of them all - Asia. By seeking out and relaying a diverse set of voices - of intrepid lawyers and a homophobic godman in India, homosexual nudists in Bali, Tokyo's celebrity drag queens, Thai ladyboy beauty contestants, HIV positive Burmese sex workers - he tells the story, with humour and with insight, of the complex attitudes to queer sexuality in these countries. Benjamin who has previously written a "black comedy memoir" titled "The Family Law" replied to questions in an e-mail interview. Excerpts:
Last week the Supreme Court of India upheld section 377, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sex, and an Australian high court declared gay marriages illegal. What are your thoughts on these developments?
It's so disheartening, isn't it? My heart is with India right now. So many people collaborated and conspired for that miracle of a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling, and now that work seems to have unravelled in the Supreme Court. Another reason I sympathise is that within 24 hours, Australia's queer rights movement had a similar setback, with our High Court also ruling against same-sex marriages that were briefly legal in the Australian Capital Territory.
On the other hand, despair isn't an especially useful emotion. And to their credit, LGBT rights campaigners in both in India and Australia have seemingly picked themselves up and the optimism is bursting through...If this movement has one strong virtue, it's being practical.
Can you talk about the beginnings of “Gaysia”? What prompted you to do this book and how long was it in the making?
Firstly, I always Gaysia thought it'd be a good book title. Like a lot of gay Asian-Australians, I've been getting called “Gaysian” for a while now – my friends just though the portmanteau was funny. Another reason: I was reading a whole lot of queer news stories about what was happening overseas, and saw that a lot of the stories I was interested in were coming out of Asia: the Indian queer rights movement (they're still the latest country in the world to have decriminalised homosexual acts); religious ex-gay reparative therapy in Malaysia and Singapore. And whenever I read news stories, I'm always super-curious – maybe overly so – about the human lives behind those stories. And finally, because I'm the kid of Chinese migrants, I often wonder: What would my life would have been like had my parents have never moved to Australia? Would I still be openly gay? Would I try to “cure” myself? Or wouldn't it make a difference?
It took roughly two years to travel between countries, mainly because I kept coming back to Australia – I missed my family and boyfriend too much to travel non-stop. Also: I decided early on not to be enclyclopedic about my approach. It would've been impossible to write about every Asian country! Instead, I really wanted to focus on issues – transsexuality, LGBT politics, religion – and sought out countries where those issues would be best illuminated.
What were the challenges you faced in your travels? Did your being gay ever create a problem?
If anything, I think being gay helped earn my interviewees' trust, since they were often lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people themselves. Mentioning my boyfriend back in Australia was always a good ice-breaker – people always wanted to know more or see photos.
And as for the other interviewees, who were either homophobic or trying to cure people of homosexuality? Well, they must've been very polite. They never asked me about my sexuality!
One of the things the book brings out is how, despite homosexuality being legal, the struggle for gays and lesbians continues in these countries. Can you talk about China and Japan in this context?
In China and Japan, gay people often say similar things: “We mightn't have homophobia in our countries like you know it, but we have a profound silence on the issue instead.” When you barely have any public discussion about homosexuality – anti or pro – you've got a completely different context and model for an LGBT rights movement. For starters, you're not going to get your Stonewall or Section 377 moment that mobilises a community.
Can you talk about your experience in India? How significant was it in the overall scheme of the book?
It's funny: I hadn't been to India before I wrote the book, but of all the countries, it felt the most culturally familiar. Australia and India both share that British colonial past, and our sense of humour is quite aligned. For me, it was always going to be the last chapter – as Harvey Milk said, “You've got to give them hope,” and my book charts some profoundly depressing territory in the preceding chapters. And despite all the setbacks that the LGBT movement in India has faced and will continue to face, to me, it also felt exceptionally optimistic and forward-looking. It felt energising.