Thursday, September 20, 2012

Interview: Benjamin Law on Gaysia

Phnom Penh Advisor, Oct 20, 2012

Australian Benjamin Law often jokes about being a double-barrelled minority: he’s Asian and he’s gay. In his latest book, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, Law heads off on an expedition (perhaps better described as a romp) across Asia to explore the issues around being queer in the Far East. Along the way he visits Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, and India and meets queer activists, HIV-positive sex workers, ladyboys and the wives of men who have sex with men. He goes to a nude resort in Bali, attends yoga classes with an Indian guru that are intended to cure homosexuality, and comes down with whooping cough in Japan.

By turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, Gaysia is a must read, whatever your sexual orientation. I caught up with Benjamin Law in Melbourne and asked him about his new book, teaching sex ed in Myanmar, and why he didn’t write about Cambodia.

Do you think the issues facing LGBTs in Asia are different to what they contend with in Australia or other Western countries?

It’s hard to make generalisations. When we talk about ‘Asia’ we’re talking about Japan, which is completely different to India, which is completely different to Myanmar (Burma), which is  completely different to Indonesia. And within each of those cultures and countries – and based on the extent of their wealth, I guess – the issues facing queer people are different again. At the same time, you could probably say Asian cultures tend to focus more on family than individualism, which means you’ve got a lot of queer people – across Japan and China and Indonesia – all considering whether or not to marry someone of the opposite sex, to please their parents, families and themselves.

I’d imagine that researching this book was quite difficult. Which country was the hardest, and why?

India is always going to test you. There are roughly 21 million people in Mumbai alone, so imagine cramming the entire population of Australia into a single city. You really feel that density of humanity and it’s not comfortable. You haven’t lived until you’ve found yourself with gastro and emptying your guts out into a  public squat toilet in Mumbai. But then India was also a joy,  because interviewees speak English and are incredibly animated and generous in interviews. On the other hand, Japan is a dream to travel around, but when it comes to interviews, almost impossible. But the saddest country to document, by far, was Myanmar. The HIV situation there, especially among sex workers, just destroyed me.

I’m saddened that you didn’t include Cambodia in your book. Why did you decide not to?

From the very beginning I knew I couldn’t write What It’s Like To Be Gay in Asia. First of all, it would have been logistically impossible to visit every country, but that book would’ve had a silly premise, too. So instead I decided to focus on specific issues – the rights of transsexual women; HIV; civil rights movements; religious ex-gay reparative therapy; marriage – and set each focus in a country that made sense. Cambodia would’ve been fascinating, and originally I  considered looking at sex work or HIV rates, but I also deal with both those things in Myanmar and Indonesia. That was another rule: no doubling up.

In your chapter on Indonesia, you wrote very non-judgmentally about moneyboys and their much older Western patrons, and it was hard to get a sense of how you felt about the issue. This sort of thing is common in Cambodia as well, and personally, I feel very ambivalent about the dynamics of these relationships. What do you think about relationships (and/or sex work) between Westerners and locals in poor Asian countries?

You’re right: I also felt pretty ambivalent by the time I left Bali about the dynamics of sex work. Obviously, it’s not like Australia, where sex work is – at least to some extent – regulated and
legalised. And on a basic gut level, it’s gross: there were old goblin-like men all over the place with their hands literally down the pants of much, much younger men. But then I started speaking to some of the young guys, and their attitude was, “You want sex from us? You must pay!” It was almost entrepreneurial, the way they saw sex in general. They had assets; what kind of self-respecting person would give away those assets for free? In a way,I admired their chutzpah. But on another level, the idea of reducing sex right down to just a monetary transaction is never going to sit well with me.

The scene in Myanmar where an HIV-positive aid worker was picking up young men for paid sex was really, really hard to read. How did witnessing that feel? Now that you’ve had a year to digest it, what do you think about what you saw?

Sad, really. And it’s interesting you raise the idea of “now that you’ve had a year to digest it”, because when you’re in the moment, you often don’t know how to feel. You’re parachuted into a completely different culture and socio-economic situation and constantly questioning: ‘Is this okay? Is this okay?’ And so much of what’s going on in Myanmar – to cut a long story short – is not okay, that story included.

I remember you telling me about teaching a sex ed class in Myanmar, but it’s not in the book. Why not, and can you tell me a little bit more about it?

Oh man, this was one of the funniest and most hideous stories, but it got cut in the end because of space and relevance (or lack thereof). Basically, I had a friend there who was working for NGOs and CBOs, and because I have – let’s say – rather extensive sex education knowledge, I was invited to teach adult men about sex ed over two nights. It was eye-opening for them (a lot of them didn’t know about basic anatomy, male or female), but eye-opening for me how little they knew about safe sex. There were assumptions that people with HIV appeared to have lesions, or that it was okay to put ‘the special juice’ into a woman’s drink to ‘make her feel sexy and sleepy’.
Let’s just say we had to have lots of chats about consent, and the meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

It seemed like one of the running themes of the book was that people were trying to have sex with you everywhere you went. Did this make you uncomfortable or is it just part of being an incredibly attractive journalist?

It was actually sort of heartening being hit on constantly, especially in places like Delhi and Bali. I’ve written in the past about how Asian dudes in Western gay scenes rarely have much sexual currency, so when elderly lecherous Dutch men start leering at you through your bedroom window at night, you take it as a compliment.

Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East is available from or as an ebook on