When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures. I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.
Avory Faucette: Though your style is accessible and reflects your journalistic background, I also wasn’t surprised to find that you have a PhD, since you raise a lot of important questions that I’ve seen in the recent scholarly literature around queer identity in Asia. What kind of research did you do in preparing for your travels? Were you at all influenced by academic research in deciding what topics to investigate in the countries you visited?
Benjamin Law: To be honest, the volume of academic writing on queer identities, culture and communities is so enormous, I had to back away from it and remind myself I was writing something pretty different – a work of adventure journalism. At the same time, a lot of academics were so enlightening and crucial in my understanding of how other cultures framed queer identity, especially Dr Peter Jackson. But most of my background reading was other journalism, actually. For prep, I’d try to email or call every expert in the field, in the country I was going to. And then when I’d arrive in, say, Myanmar, I’d have a meal with them, pick their brains, and ask for more recommendations of interesting stories, or people I should chat to. Most of the contacts I encountered were people I met on the ground.
AF: What was your biggest surprise in terms of how the people you met see their own identities or present themselves?
BL: I guess the biggest surprise was that nearly every preconception or expectation was completely dismantled by the time I left a country. For instance, as an outsider, you go to Bali assuming every male sex worker is living a life of rank exploitation and poverty, when a lot of them are middle-class guys with other jobs, but see sex work as a respectful way of supplementing their income. I’ll never forget when one money boy said, “Of course I’d ask for money after sex – I’m young and handsome, and no one should get this for free.” In a way, I sort of got where he was coming from! And then there are the stories I assumed would be happy, like the ladyboy beauty pageants in Thailand, where transsexual women get a lot of media attention and sponsorship deals if they win. But of course, as I quickly discovered, Thailand isn’t exactly this promised land for transsexual women. In some respects, their laws overlook transsexual women so much, that ladyboys are treated even worse there than countries were transsexual people are less visible.
AF: Were you surprised by how some of your subjects saw you as a journalist? I was struck, for example, by a story where someone perceived you as white, and your decisions in certain contexts not to reveal yourself as queer. Did you find that your own identity shifted significantly in the eyes of those you met as you went from country to country?
BL: Oh absolutely. My first rule was never to lie – I’m openly gay myself, but I’m not going to go out of my way to discuss my sex life with a religious zealot who believes homosexuality can be cured by the power of Christ, or Allah, or yoga, or whatever. But then, to get access to other openly gay men, I’d bring up my boyfriend back home, just to let them know they were in a safe space. Being a Chinese guy ethnically, but an Australian person in terms of citizenship, was interesting – some people saw me as outsider, and others saw me as someone they trusted more quickly, because I had a familiar face.
AF: Finally, I was particularly interested given my own research into how some Asian cultures classify gender and sexuality in how you described kathoey people in Thailand. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get any sense from English-language literature of whether kathoeys and other gender categories (hijras in India, fa’afine in Samoa, etc) are really a distinct category in the given culture or just another understanding of what white Westerners would call trans women. Your explanation seems to suggest that ladyboys are basically trans women and that the idea of kathoey has died out. Do you think that in Thailand, or in other queer cultures you researched, gender and sexuality are mostly understood as separate categories with a Western model of transgender identity, or do you think there’s a fundamentally different understanding of gender (or how gender and sexuality relate) in these cultures compared to in the US or Australia? You described some fairly complex understandings of identity categories in a few of the countries you visited, and I found myself wondering to what extent they might affect a general cultural understanding of gender (as opposed to something very much internal to queer subcultures).
BL: Every culture has different vernacular for what’s often similar things. But then in some places, like Myanmar/Burma, the language is really specific, because the gender and sexual identies are so super-specific and don’t have an exact parallel – apwint, abone and thange, for instance. I mean, I think it’s really interesting that the West uses the acronym LGBTIQ, whereas in many other cultures, those alliances aren’t seen as inevitable or natural, necessarily. Gay Burmese men would probably have little or no understanding, concept or care-factor about lesbians, and one country that might subsidise sex change operations because transsexuality is seen as an illness, might also stone homosexuals to death.
Thanks to Benjamin for generously answering my questions about the book and to Cleis for the review copy!