I was in my favourite comfy chair, drowsily reading the travel journal of the 17th century French mariner Robert Challe, when the following passage caught my eye: “The grandfather of the current king of Pegu, seeing how his realm was slowly being depopulated because the men of Pegu, being much addicted to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, would have no commerce with women, forbade his subjects to marry and ordered all women, except those of his household, to show themselves in public naked save for a draping of cloth that yet left their genitals exposed… “
Apparently his stratagem worked, because two generations later the women of Pegu, according to Challe’s eyewitness report, were still wearing this revealing form of dress, which he compares to an apron worn backwards, and had become very free with their sexual favours (“gutters of lubriciousness”).
Thanks to this unusual expression of civic-mindedness, deviancy had all but disappeared and births were more numerous.
Pegu, it turns out, really did exist.
William Hunter, a ship’s surgeon with the East Indian Company in the late 18th century, writes almost a century later than Challe that “Pegu is a kingdom of the farther India, situated on the E. side of the Bay of Bengal… It is bounded on the west and southwest, by the sea; on the south-east, by the kingdom of Siam; on the north, by that range of mountains which bounds the empire of China to the south-west; and on the north-west, by the kingdom of Ava…
“But, I must be confessed, that the boundaries of this country, except on the sea-coast, where it has been frequented by navigators, have never been ascertained with any tolerable degree of accuracy.”
“…The natives,” Hunter continues, “are perhaps the most robust and muscular race of men that we meet with any where in India… their stature is about the middle size, and their limbs, in general, well proportioned…
“In feature they resemble the Malays; their face is broad; the eyes, large and black; the nose, flat; the cheekbones, prominent; and the mouth, extremely wide. They wear, on the chin, a tuft of hair, of unequal lengths; and shave the rest of the face. Their teeth are always of a jet-black… which is, among them, esteemed a great ornament; and accordingly, they are at very great pains to accomplish it…”
Like Challe, Hunter is pleasantly scandalized by the dress of the women of Pegu, whose origins, however, he ascribes not to a man but to a woman.
“This mode of dress, they tell us, was first introduced by a certain Queen of Ava, who did it with the view of reclaiming the hearts of the men from an unnatural and detestable passion, to which they were at that time, totally abandoned; and succeeded so well, that she is remembered at this day, with gratitude, as a public benefactress to the kingdom.”
So, the place was real and two foreign witnesses a century apart tell the same story of a nation once given over to homosexuality on a grand scale.
This set me thinking about what a country would look like if we ran it.
After all, we have taken over neighbourhoods. Why not an entire country?
But, if we did, would it depopulate itself like Pegu?
I imagine a lesbian bureaucracy running our country like a train on a shiny set of tracks. I see a tastefully decorated land, the natives in quaint national dress (leather chaps or dungarees) and communal dancing to a patriotic house mix before each hockey game. Why, it would look just like Provincetown, circa 1980.
What gives rise to this last image —and I blush to tell you —is a trashy 1982 gay detective novel I’ve just finished reading, Cobalt by Nathan Aldyne.
Like all genre novels, it is a goldmine of period detail. If younger readers ever want to understand the pre-AIDS gay golden age, all they have to do is read this series starring amateur detectives Dan Valentine and Clarisse Lovelace.
Unlike Pegu, however, Nathan Aldyne never existed. He was Michael McEachern McDowell, a prolific paperbacks original writer much admired by Stephen King, and his lover Dennis Schuetz. They wrote four novels together before McDowell died of an AIDS-related disease in 1999.
In the Provincetown Aldyne imagines, people have low paying jobs, boyfriends can be losers, and the sex, though frequent, is not always that great.
On the other hand, everyone is witty, good-looking, knows how to dress and can solve murders even when hung over after a night of drug-fuelled disco dancing.
So, how is this a blueprint for our gay republic?
It’s that queer is the norm.
Heterosexuals shuffle along in the background like so many extras in a movie. It’s the 20th century ghetto writ large. It’s Pegu!