I picked this book up a couple of months ago while I was in Melbourne for a job interview. I’d been hanging around in a bookshop while I waited, and saw the book tucked away on a shelf to the side. I’ve read quite a lot of Benjamin Law’s stuff, particularly his columns in Frankie Magazine. I’m also hugely interested in the Asia and Pacific regions and have spent the better part of the last 7 years studying marginalised groups, particularly in South-East Asia. I decided that I’d go back after my interview and buy it as a reward for myself. While the interview itself ended up being a bit of a disaster, “Gaysia” was far from it.
Asia is a very large geographic area that is extremely culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse. While there are very few things that Asian countries have in common aside from their continental location, most Asian countries have an extremely complex attitude to homosexuality and diverse gender expression. Within the same country, homosexuality can be simultaneously accepted, taboo, illegal and ignored. Himself a gay man of Chinese heritage, Law is able to gain access to interviews and insights that most of us simply could not. Law is a frank and evocative writer who shares his experiences of some of the unusual and nuanced gay communities that can be found throughout Asia. Without hestitation he immerses himself in each culture he explores (except, as a monogamist in a long-term relationship, when it comes to sex) and clearly and honestly explains his findings to the reader.
Some of Law’s discoveries are quite heartbreaking. The fake heterosexual relationships that many gay Chinese people find themselves signing up for to appease their families while maintaining clandestine real relationships with their lovers. The religious counselling that many queer Malaysians undertake in order to conform to social standards. The devastating situation of HIV in Myanmar, especially among young, gay, male sex workers who are either unaware of or unable to assert their right to use condoms. However, he manages to couch his insightful observations with a sense of optimism and humour. This book is a great read and is broken into nation-specific chapters that make it easy to complete in bites. “Gaysia” reminded me about the incredible diversity that abounds in Asia and it has encouraged to try to read more non-fiction.