September 2012

Arts & Letters

Queer and Loathing

By Robert Dessaix

Benjamin Law’s 'Gaysia'

Benjamin Law has invented a new style of journalism: ‘gonzo nice’. Like straight gonzo, the kind popularised by the hard-drinking, drug-addled Hunter S Thompson in Rolling Stone some 40 years ago, it is opinionated, in on the action, racy, unfazed by sexual excess and breathlessly look-at-me-look-at-me. But Benjamin Law is nice – suit-and-tie and button-down-collar nice, quaintly keep-your-hands-to-yourself nice. Nobody would have said that about Thompson.

Once or twice in Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (Black Inc.; $29.95) Law has an unconvincing stab at boozing, it’s true, but he’s much better at getting food poisoning than getting drunk, and doesn’t seem interested in drugs at all, unless they’re the antiretroviral or breast-enhancing sort. His prose is peppered with ‘fucks’, certainly, but then so are the lives of most of the people he meets and talks to. Overall, however, Law comes across as not just fun to be with, but sensitive, quick to empathise, sharp-eyed and, well, extremely nice. Since he’s in the limelight on every page, this matters. All the same, it is a bit like watching a lesbian vampire movie starring Doris Day.

I didn’t take to him at first. The opening chapter, about gay tourism on the island of Bali, begins with the sentence: “We come to Bali after reading Eat Pray Love, but most of us just come here to eat, drink and fuck.” Who are “we”? I wondered. Was Law lampooning somebody? Apart from anything else, nobody I know would read a book called Eat Pray Love if their life depended on it, even if the commas were put back in. (Was it a spoof on Truman Capote or PJ O’Rourke, perhaps?) As I eavesdropped on Law’s conversations with gay tourists in Bali and the male prostitutes who live off them (there’s barely a page of historical contextualising – this is pure gonzo), it wasn’t just the references to “young gay dudes” and men who “hooked up poolside” that struck me as pastiche, or our journalist gasping that “this place is amazing” (surely nobody over 15 would write this sort of thing with a straight face, would they?) but also the relentless naughty-boy mockery of anyone past the first bloom of youth. “I had a horrible thought,” Law writes about a conversation he has with a waiter who prefers older men, yet has clearly taken a fancy to him (Law’s quite a heartbreaker): “Am I old?” It’s true that across the gay world not to be young is at the very least undesirable and at worst can turn you into an object of abuse (as I know from experience), but Law is precisely the sort of writer we might have expected to ridicule this kind of stereotyping. Perhaps he’s just having a lark.

By the next destination, where Law reports vividly from the front on “Thailand’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant”, the tone is beginning to change, to darken in an interesting way. Although few things could interest me less about Thailand than its biggest transsexual beauty pageant, the sheer gut-wrenching, vulgar awfulness of this national celebration of children and young men who “slice, cut and bruise themselves into [a] shared idea of beauty” is mesmerising. With hideous irony, the song pumping out of the loudspeakers at the event is ‘I Am What I Am’. Well, no, actually, that’s precisely what the contestants are desperate not to be.

There is some canvassing of opinion about why Thais are so accepting of transvestites and transsexuals. Ladyboys of one kind or another seem to be thick on the ground in Thailand – some schools even offer a transsexual bathroom option. “Maybe there was something in the water,” Law wonders unhelpfully. Or is it the Buddhism? Readers are left to come to their own conclusions. Many may suspect that Thailand is (in Law’s lazy formulation) “a country synonymous with sex-change” for the same reason you’re more likely to find transgendered entertainers in working-class RSL clubs here in Australia than where the smart set gathers, more likely on Japanese television, say, than on Dutch television: male to female gender changes are more common where the border between the sexes is more fiercely patrolled. As the founder of a Tokyo lesbian website explains to Law, “Gender binary pressure is very strong in Japan … Transsexuals are more accepted, because they fit into those ideas.” In other words, transgendering is arguably less a sign of the social acceptance of homosexuality than of the need to dress up a shameful sexuality as ‘normal’, or, as in Japan, as a wacky entertainment for straights.

By the time we get to China in an even darker account, the rules of the gonzo game seem clearer and the sheer verve of Law’s prose, its punchiness and immediacy, is becoming more affecting. This is not – and we should not expect it to be – a chapter about homosexuality in China. It is a report on Law’s meetings with a number of gay activists in China, where homosexuals are still “ghosts”, homosexuality being not illegal, but by government fiat kept invisible in books and the media. It is a tragic situation, with tens of millions of people, both men and women, either trying to cure themselves of this unmentionable aberration with electroshock therapy and damaging drugs or else entering into marriages that are in some sense a sham: a performance to mollify the parents; a cover for the husband’s preferences. In China, it seems, the main question homosexuals agonise over is whether or not to get married.

In Malaysia, Law confronts the part played by religion (Christianity and Islam in particular) in making a misery of gay men and women’s lives. Our intrepid reporter is unflaggingly good-natured and generous towards those he meets who, if they knew his predilections, would see him as a tool of Satan or possessed by evil djinns. (We’re even vouchsafed a tiny snippet of personal information about him at last: he could never be “a hardline atheist” because “something about worship seems almost fundamental and necessary”.) However, the reason for the hostilities of these Christians and Muslims to homosexuality never seems to go much beyond the dogmatic assertion that it’s “wrong” – it would always be wrong from an Islamic perspective, the founder of the Malaysian Islamic Association of Homosexuality Research and Therapy tells him, even if all people turned out to be homosexual – and the importance in Malaysia of having children. Ah, yes, children – that’s the real nub of it, isn’t it? Without tightly controlled families and lots of children, no religion can thrive after the first wave of conversions. As we see in India, where homosexuality is no longer illegal, Hindu gurus and faith-healers continue to rage against the threat posed by homosexuality to society – and, of course, to the growth of their sect. Swamiji Baba Ramdev, for example, a yoga teacher with 80 million followers, continues to campaign not just vigorously but viciously against homosexuality, teaching that his alternate nostril breathing treatment can cure it (as well as cancer and AIDS). He will regret granting Law an interview.

It is in Myanmar, however, that Law is at his most courageous and the human suffering he engages with, unblinkingly, at its most unbearable. “Something,” as he says, “had gone terribly wrong in Myanmar.” In the country with the lowest government spending on health on the planet, HIV infection rates for men who have sex with men are staggering high, even by Third World standards. As many as 25,000 of them are dying each year from a lack of treatment, often after being dumped by their families on the street. Yet few know where to go to seek help. Some Burmese, Law claims, don’t even know what a condom is, let alone how to find out about a clinic where they could join a queue for antiretroviral treatment. If they do join a queue, the likelihood of ever reaching the head of it is small.

Gaysia is an oddly, even comfortingly, old-fashioned book in some ways, for all the “breathtaking examples of exotic faggotry”, four-letter words and raunchy action in the bushes. In the thick of the sexual mayhem, Law himself stays coyly monogamous (he never gets “very, very naked”, as he promises to do in the introduction, even metaphorically); the homosexuals he encounters are depicted as overwhelmingly fixated on having sex with each other; and it is bitchy, caustic and sometimes angry rather than politically conscious.

However, for all its imitation of older journalistic styles, Gaysia is focused, observant (within its own limits) and often thought-provoking in a refreshingly upbeat way. It makes no claim to be a learned book, but it is certainly a compassionate one.

Robert Dessaix
Robert Dessaix is a novelist, essayist and journalist. He is the author of A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and Twilight of Love.

Mini from Korea is crowned Miss International Queen, Thailan, 2010. © Narong Sangnak/Corbis
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