I was sitting at a local pub, drinking a beer, and reading the book, “Gaysia” by Benjamin Law. It’s a book about Ben’s experiences travelling throughout Asia and getting to know more about “gay life” in countries as diverse as Japan and India. Ben is Australian-born Chinese, and the whole idea behind the book, he says, was for him to get a better understanding of the kind of life he might have led if he, as a gay man, had grown up in Asia, not Australia.
The book covers just about every story you might imagine, some with humour, others with tenderness and poignancy. In Indonesia, for example, he struggles with going nude at a gay resort. In Thailand, he meets the contestants in a so-called “Lady-boy Beauty Contest”. In Japan, he reflects on the high rate and intensity of the pornography on sale, compared with the closeted lives many gays and lesbians must lead. In China, he meets gays and lesbians who marry each other in an effort to appease their parents, often leading to comical, farce-like activities. And in Malaysia, he meets a charismatic religious figure who grew up and lived as a gay man, who later married a woman, and then founded a religious organisation to “help” people “overcome” their homosexuality.
As sad and awful as all that sounded, it was the chapter about Burma/Myanmar that moved me the most, and brought me close to tears as I sat in my local pub on Sunday afternoon. I’d been trying to finish the book for a week or so, and so yesterday I decided I’d take myself to a quiet spot, leave the mobile phone at home, grab a beer and knock off the remaining three chapters.
I’m not sure why but I wasn’t quite prepared for the sadness I would feel in reading this chapter. Like most people, I knew about Aung San Suu Kyi and the human rights abuses, but that was about the full extent of my knowledge of the country. I didn’t know about the poverty, I didn’t know about the high rates of HIV, I didn’t know about the rape and abduction of children that can sometimes occur, and I didn’t know about the prostitution (particular underage prostituion often involving Western men) where you can “secure” someone for as little as sixty-five cents for an hour. Ben’s introduction to the country was thanks to a Medecins sans frontieres aid worker. MSF is an organisation I’ve supported financially for a number of years. I hope they’re doing good work there.
Despite the sadness of many of the stories, there are also moments of great humour where I laughed out loud. Ben writes well, and is a little Louis Theroux-like in the way he is both an observer and part of the story. One of the best, most interesting books I’ve read in quite a while.