I first became acquainted with Benjamin Law’s writing in the pages of frankie magazine several years ago and he has since become one of my favourite Australian writers. So when a copy of Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East turned up at the Booktopia office I acted like a deranged fangirl and declared that I must – MUST! – review this book. And, unsurprisingly, my instincts were proven right. This book is an illuminating exploration of an issue that does not normally get a mention in discussions of Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Law provides some valuable insights into the nations he visits.
In Gaysia Law becomes our enthusiastic guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) experience in seven countries: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India. In each chapter Law generally focuses on one or two specific examples from the country at hand (for example, gay conversion therapies in Malaysia or a beauty pageant for transsexual women in Thailand), and uses this to explore the wider issues of gay acceptance in that country. This approach works well as Law is able to gain great insights from the people he interviews, and this makes for a very warm and engaging work. To his credit, Law does recognise that his approach does not encompass the totality of LGBT experience and he cannot provide a sweeping analysis of homosexuality in Asia. The work does not suffer because of this; the greatest strength of the book is its focus on personal stories as this provides an opportunity to engage with people who, for the most part, would have otherwise remained invisible to us.
Each nation Law takes us to throws up a different set of issues, and he makes clear the ways in which the social, cultural and political norms of a particular country influence the ways in which queer sexualities are perceived and experienced. For example, Law discovers that gay personalities are everywhere on Japanese television, but are expected to behave in a way which essentially renders them as figures of entertainment; they are drag queens with wicked senses of humour, or super-camp gay men with biting social critiques (basically think of the campest gay stereotype that you can, add a vat of glitter, and you’ve got what Law is describing here). While the visibility of certain types of queer identities is positive in that it at least shows a superficial acceptance of homosexuality, the absence of others, particularly lesbians, hints at a deeper lack of acceptance or understanding of LGBT issues in Japanese society.
In stark contrast to Japan is Myanmar, a country struggling with an exorbitantly high HIV infection rate for gay men (where they are 42 times more likely to contact HIV than their counterparts in any other country) and woefully inadequate resources to cope with the crisis. Further, the grinding poverty, lack of education and geographic isolation prevalent among Myanmar’s citizens means that many may never gain access to the life-saving drugs they need. The contrast between Japan and Myanmar not only demonstrates the varying challenges that people of different backgrounds in Asia face; it also gives the reader a valuable insight into the society and culture of each nation.
For me, Gaysia did not only provide a fascinating insight into the experiences of LGBT people in Asia, but into the broader social and cultural structures of each country. In the chapter on Malaysia, for example, Law provides a sense of the multiplicity of religions, their regional concentrations and the roles they play in Malaysian society. This ability to ground each chapter in a broader context really strengthens the work and provides yet another reason why this book is so valuable. Law recognises that in each country deeply ingrained historical, cultural and political factors influence the ways in which queer sexualities are regarded, as exemplified by gays and lesbians marrying each other to stave off parental pressure in China or the existence of a ‘third sex’ in Thailand. Law demonstrates the unique circumstances, and difficulties, that each nation’s gay population faces in their struggle to find a place in their societies.
Gaysia is an absolutely fascinating book, and I have gained so much from reading it. There are many heartbreaking stories of familial rejection, of hiding identity and, overwhelmingly, of feeling invisible. Yet there are also stories of resilience, happiness and love. Gaysia is a book with human experience at its core, and these stories are wonderfully brought to life through Law’s vivid documentation of his quest through the queer heart of Asia.
Review by Catherine Horne