Deadlines and a year moving at warp speed meant it’s taken me a few weeks to getting around to reading Benjamin Law’s second creative non-fiction book, Gaysia (his first book is the soon-to-be-made-into-TV The Family Law). And it’s taken me a few days to digest its often funny, often heartbreaking content.
Ben (who I should say upfront I went to uni with and consider a good friend) researched the bulk of the book courtesy of an Asialink grant (those things are dynamite). He’s spent recent months (years, really) hunkering down to write his examination of how homosexuality is received (or rather, often not received) around other parts of Asia.
He opens Gaysia with a trip to a gay-friendly hotel in Bali where clothes are optional and he seems to be one of the few opting for them. He then moves on to India, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Burma/Myanmar, and Thailand, which may sit closely geographically, but which appear to be grappling with how to accept (or address) homosexuality in varied ways. Some of the stories in Ben’s book are simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, but some are just incredibly, does-that-really-go-on sad.
There are the gay men who marry lesbians in an agreed fake marriage that enables both parties to alleviate societal and familial pressure. There are also the straight women who unwittingly marry gay men, who are then wedged in a no-win world of grief and bitterness and shame. The situation’s sadder still when you consider the lack of acceptance of homosexuality that has forced these men into such marriages in the first place.
There’s also the sense that, at close inspection, even the places that appear to accept ‘otherness’ actually don’t. Take Thailand, for example, which hosts the world’s largest beauty pageant for transsexual women. It’s a competition that represents our confused understanding and expectations:
To win Thailand’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant, you needed to fulfil a number of contradictory and near-impossible criteria. If helped if you were tall, but big hands and feet were a minus. You needed to look ‘natural’, even though judges often pulled losing contestants aside and consoled them by saying they should undergo more surgery for next year’s round. Above all, the judges wanted you to look like a ‘real girl’, even though the competition’s entire premise was that you were originally born male.
Indeed, pervasive in this book is the ongoing and utter denial of homosexuality and otherness, and the awfulness that that entails. That may include having to give vague answers to relationship statues (‘No, I don’t have a wife [because I have a boyfriend]’) or enduring psychological damage at the hands of psychologists and random cranks claiming with cult-like evangelic fervour that they can cure homosexuality. The latter is made more authoritative when its leader is a ‘former’ gay person who’s ‘seen the light’ so to speak. It may also, through a denial-induced absence of sexual education and overriding abject poverty, include contracting effectively life-ending diseases such as HIV.
Australia mightn’t be leading the world in its acceptance of homosexuality (I could write legions about Campbell Newman’s attempts to repeal the recently passed civil unions laws, especially as these laws have nothing to do with whether Queensland is fiscally ship shape), but Gaysia reminded me that it’s far from the worst. We at least offer access to healthcare and sexual education here, and in most parts of Australia it’s relatively safe to be openly gay.
But nor is it good to be measured by degrees of ‘worseness’. Gaysia makes me wonder what it would take for us to lift our game and be accepting and progressive. What it would take for us to be, by virtue of our excellent efforts, measured by degrees of gay acceptance ‘greatness’.