Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East
By Benjamin Law
Black Inc, $29.95, pp 288
ISBN 9781863955768

Given the tight-lipped sanctimoniousness of some advocates of same-sex marriage in Australia, one could be forgiven for thinking that homosexual writers had lost their longstanding literary tradition of self-deprecating humour. Fortunately, Benjamin Law has the twin gifts of writing well and not taking himself too seriously, and the result is a book that is thoroughly enjoyable. But Law also finds plenty of serious things to say, and there is more than enough pain and heartache attached to being gay in Asia.

Law hails from Brisbane but is of Chinese descent (his 2010 memoir The Family Law was a light-hearted look at his background), and his trek across seven Asian countries is a journey of personal discovery in itself. He makes no secret of his homosexuality but is apparently in a committed relationship, so in Gaysia he is an observer rather than an active participant.

Nevertheless, he gets into the swing of things at a clothes-optional gay resort in Bali, although the manager seems more interested in filling a market niche than promoting alternative lifestyles. But everyone, from the international clientele to the local moneyboys, are happy with the arrangements, and the authorities are willing to turn a blind eye as long as the money rolls in.

Thailand, on the other hand, appears to be quite at home with homosexuals and transsexuals, with hugely popular ladyboy beauty contests and sex-change hormones available even to children. But in some ways this is a superficial tolerance; everyone goes along with it as long as it is an entertaining show. True acceptance seems elusive, and the showbiz nature of the current situation may even be entrenching the sense of abnormality.

Similarly, in Japan drag queens are a constant fixture on television but few people seem to understand that homosexuals exist in reality. Maybe it is simply a lack of willingness to face a crack in the social consensus. One of Law’s interviewees explains the deal: the mainstream pretends to not see them, and gay people pretend to be invisible.

The situation in China is similar, with gay people being tolerated, more or less, as long as they stay on the margins. The internet has been a lifeline, allowing them to communicate, but the downside is that it could expose them to a level of government scrutiny. Law relates a series of sad stories of gay people marrying straight people as cover, sometimes leading to absurd degrees of complexity. One can, in fact, feel some sympathy with the straight partners, who were often not told the real reason for the union. They even have their own support organisation.

In many cases, gay people in China have had to cope with parents determined to ‘cure’ them, with drugs or harsh discipline. A novel ‘treatment’ was a rubber band on the wrist, to be snapped whenever a homosexual thought was experienced. It would have been easy for Law to become thoroughly depressed at all this, but he manages to speak to people who are finding paths forward, and the future does not look entirely gloomy.

On the other hand, in Myanmar it is hard to see much upside. The issue for homosexuals is not really discrimination but exploitation, mainly through prostitution driven by poverty. Law notes that the price for a moneyboy can go as low as 65 cents, although many of them are not really gay as much as searching for a way to make a living. It’s a deadly way to do so: AIDS, HIV and the whole spectrum of STDs are rife, and the only way to get money for medical help is more prostitution. It is undeniably tragic, and the problems are not going to be overcome simply by distributing more condoms and pamphlets.

The issue in Malaysia is more likely to be overt discrimination, based on the belief — which actually seems a bit contradictory — that homosexuality is both an affliction and a choice of immorality. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have found common ground here, arguing that homosexuality can be overcome by faith, willpower and psychotropic drugs. Law keeps his own sexuality private here: who can blame him? He is torn between the abject silliness of much of what he sees and hears in the country and the knowledge that it has a deeply worrying, painful edge.

But it is India that was the last country in the region to decriminalise homosexuality: odd, since there is a long history of gay people playing prominent, public roles. The range of attitudes covers the spectrum, from pro-gay activist groups to yoga teachers who believe that homosexuality can be overcome with breathing exercises. Law finds himself drawn into a gay pride march — a first for him — and he finds himself both exhilarated and worried by such an over-the-top exercise in flaunting.

It would be easy, reading the book, to see it as a litany of other people’s troubles. But somehow it does not come out this way. Maybe this is due to Law’s sense of humour and personal contact. Here he is on an Indian train, transferring his porn stash to a new friend’s laptop. Here he is, wondering if the acronym of the Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action is inspired or appalling. Here he is, wondering if he should find the ultra-feminine gays of Thailand attractive or not.

It is these vignettes that really lie at the core of Gaysia. The book might look like a travelogue, but it is really a journey of the heart.