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An Australian researcher sets out to examine various aspects of the LGBTQ population in Asia.
A report published in the United States earlier this year called 'We Are on TV' estimated that 4. 4 per cent of actors who appeared regularly on primetime TV would portray lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters in 2012-2013;a jump from 2. 9 per cent the previous year. A subsequent survey also discovered that the regular visibility of gays on American television, in shows like Modern Family and Glee, had directly influenced viewers' attitudes to homosexuality. Twenty seven per cent of viewers polled said they would support gay marriage, outnumbering the 12 per cent who said gays on TV made them oppose gay marriage.
But in the continent across the Pacific, another reality plays out entirely. In Japan, for instance, surveys show that local television doesn't improve public opinion, it embalms it. That's largely because homosexuality is mostly parodied in the Japanese media - with gay characters only providing comic relief. 'Sassy drag queens, camp gay men, and giggling transsexuals, they were all. . . camp, feminine, hilarious and weirdly sexless. They presented themselves as happy little eunuchs, ' reports Benjamin Law, a journalist. In his new book Gaysia - a clever conflation of his subject and object: gays in Asia - Law, a young Australian of Chinese stock, sets out to cover (in what he initially expected to be a wrinkle-free task) gay cultures in this continent. He was spurred to action after reading hard news accounts of what was happening in the LGBTQ worlds here.
His research, which began in 2009 and ended a year later, took him to seven countries: Thailand, China, Malaysia, Burma, India, Indonesia and Japan. "The more I think about my observations in Japan, the more I believe a lot of countries are like that - if you can't deal with it, laugh at it;it's a sort of defence mechanism, " he says, referring to TV stereotypes that do little to improve gay rights on the streets. "That can have two effects: you might laugh at them because it's an easy way of accessing these people (homosexuals), and it's non-confrontational and you don't have to think of them in any sort of sexual capacity. But it also brings up problems: are you laughing at them because they are ridiculous to you and beyond the realm of being taken seriously? You must question the reasons for their visibility, " he states.
When the Brisbane-based Law first sat down to map out his itinerary, he struggled with which countries to include. Why not Nepal, which hopes to be a gay tourist capital? Or Iran, where homosexuality is met with capital punishment ? "In the end, I realised it wasn't about the countries but the issues they represented, " he says. So India popped up, largely with regard to its gay activism around the time of the repeal of Section 377 (the law that decriminalises homosexuality); Bali's emergence as a gay holiday hub driven by local 'moneyboys' made an entry in the chapter on Indonesia;Myanmar's terrifying HIV situation and its deficient aid programme were investigated, while de-gayification processes by hyperreligious types were documented in Malaysia.
In Thailand, Law tracked transsexuality. He began by looking at the 2009 Miss Tiffany's Universe contest, Thailand's biggest beauty pageant for transsexual women - referred to as 'ladyboys' locally. The winner received US $3, 000, a car, advertising deals and a shot at becoming Miss International Queen. On the sidelines of the pageant, Law delved into the private lives of transsexuals and interviewed surgeons who believe that sex-change procedures make it easier for transsexuals to integrate themselves into Thai society and pursue professional careers.
"Originally, I had delusions of grandeur;I thought I'm going to be writing a book about what it's like to be gay in Asia, this comprehensive encyclopaedic account, " he admits. "Then my editor and I realised it was an insane idea, and to even attempt it, one we would have to make sweeping generalisations, so I decided to focus on specific topics. And these are topics that are not exclusive to these countries, but they amplified the issue somehow. So in China I look at the pressure to marry, which is common across Asia, but in China, that pressure is felt even more keenly because of the one-child policy. "
Law writes about gay Chinese men 'sham marrying' Chinese lesbians, to keep families happy and social systems intact. "In China, you don't only represent your parents' only chance at having grandchildren, but you also represent an ongoing generational social security network, " he explains.
He says he was aware that the book was a hard-sell, especially to non-queer readers. "Who wants to read about gay issues in Asia? I never wanted to make this a niche book, but a mainstream travel adventure book that happens to be about the gay world, " says the 30-year-old who identifies as gay himself. "And to write that sort of book I needed to pull it out of the scholarly and gay travel writing world. I wanted to give it that sense of wide-eyed adventure and a part of that is sometimes laughing at bizarre situations, especially in a place like Thailand, when you're at a transsexual beauty pageant and they're bending over and you can see their packages - that has to go in. "
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