It’s impossible to look at any new travel memoir and not think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous Eat, Pray, Love. And so it is with Gaysia, the new Cleis Press book by Benjamin Law, an Australian journalist and screenwriter.
Law gets that out of the way quickly, referencing the book in his first chapter on Indonesia, explaining that for gay visitors, a more appropriate title would be “eat, drink, fuck.”
Law follows Gilbert to India, too, part of his seven-country Asian romp that includes China, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Japan and Malaysia. If you’re looking for a gee-whiz, American-style travelogue more about the emotional state of the person travelling than those he meets, you won’t find that with Gaysia. This first-person journalistic foray examines how the LGBT movement fits into countries usually in the news for economic and political reasons. Law, who has a PhD, researched the book through academic grants and fellowships, interviewing hundreds of people on and off the record.
I first became aware of Gaysia when Cleis asked me to blurb the book based on my own experiences covering LGBT issues in the developing world. I felt Law achieved a delicate balance, creating a sensual, enjoyable read that’s at once part of the gay travel circuit, yet with deep sociological observations.
Law calls Asia the world’s gayest continent. At four billion people, it has the world’s largest number of queer people, he reasons, all “sharing one hot, sweaty landmass and filling it with breathtaking examples of exotic faggotry.”
The sex is out of the way at the beginning, with Law visiting Balinese gay resort Spartacvs. He shows a paradise perverted by the economic, environmental and social impact that tourism — gay and mainstream — has wreaked. “In a single decade,” he writes, “Bali’s gay scene went from almost nothing to being the premier hotspot for fabulous homosexuals the world over. If you were a foreigner, especially a bulé — a Caucasian Westerner with pockets presumably lined with cash — you could buy almost anything you wanted. Or anyone.” Locals buy motorcycles to rendezvous with clients, paradoxically supporting families who don’t know or refuse to face why their sons are meeting male foreigners. Law says that for many Balinese men, sex with foreigners is “a rite of passage.”
In this first chapter, we learn Law is Australian of Asian descent, making him not exactly like the Westerners nor exactly like the locals, a source of confusion in interactions throughout the book. Law is often considered attractive by the men he meets, and he defuses situations with those who think his research is more prurient than journalistic by bringing up his boyfriend.
Law’s chapter on Myanmar/Burma is one of the most disturbing. We might imagine we know the country now that it has blossomed into a fashionable travel destination. Law doesn’t focus on that, but instead on how men who have sex with men meet and on the impoverished country’s HIV crisis. He is surprised to discover a temple in a Yangon/Rangoon traffic circle where “men were cruising each other for sex everywhere around me.” Law interviews Myat Noe, an HIV-positive transgender sex worker who fears losing her beauty to antiretroviral therapy. She’s also resigned to unsafe sex with clients. The chapter leaves one aware of the brave work of NGO workers and deeply worried about Burma’s future.
In China, we learn how the recent economic and physical transformations of the country are altering the LGBT environment. An enormous, anonymous landscape has sprouted within China’s cities, in ways aiding LGBT movements. For example, Beijing’s LGBT Center is in a colossal apartment building, distinguished by a rainbow on its door, something most Chinese people overlook.
Law explains that, even though young people have found freedom in the capital, “in Chinese culture, it wasn’t possible to turn your back and run” from family as it is in the West, and with one-child families the norm, “the highest rate of violence towards gay women is from their parents.”
Whether you’re planning to visit Asia or only curious, Law’s book provides deep insight into LGBT society on the continent. True, as a journalist and researcher, he has unique access, but I am sure tourists will find similar experiences. My only want from the book would be to better understand Law himself and why he undertook the journey, and if it transformed him. But unlike Eat, Pray, Love, a book I enjoyed, Law puts the focus on those around him, rather than making himself the star of the show.