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5 Nov 2002

the gay cultural divide

Just what is gay Asian culture and how different is it from its Western counterpart? Fridae's new writer, Mark Adnum, tackles this cultural issue and offers some theories of his own.

It's almost impossible to resist clichs when trying to describe gay Asia: the phrases "stir-fry" and "melting-pot" just keep coming to my mind. How do you summarise a continent that contains everything from high-tech gay bars in skyscrapers (Japan), disappearing gay activists (China), transsexual MPs (New Zealand), rigid anti-gay media censorship (Singapore), and well, the list goes on (there's another clich already)?

The disparity and variety of gay experiences in Asia are fundamental and infinite. In the western world, gay culture spreads itself around with pan-cultural ease. The gay strips of Western Europe, America, South Africa and Australia are like McDonalds restaurants - they're predictable and completely indistinguishable from each other. San Francisco's Castro Street is lined with gay bars, rainbow flags, gay bookstores and novelty t-shirt shops. So is Sydney's Oxford Street, LA's Santa Monica Boulevard, London's Old Compton Street, Melbourne's Commercial Road, New York's Christopher Street and so on.

But these trademarked strips aren't found in Tokyo, Taipei or Kuala Lumpur, even though large gay communities are active in these cities, and others throughout Asia. (Naturally, you won't find gay strips in cities like Vientiane or Rangoon, either, but a discussion on the idea of modern, slick gay scenes sprouting up in the developing countries of Asia would require another feature article.)

One thing the countries of Asia do have in common, then, is that their gay communities have so far resisted the theme-park approach to gay city life that's so popular elsewhere in the world. Is this a good or a bad thing?

While they each hold true to their own particular flavours (Asian clich #3), gay scenes in many Asian cities struggle to identify themselves against the ignorance, indifference or flat out resistance of their countries' conservative cultures and governments. Despite Asia's rich gay history, and the relative absence of Christian culture that's plagued gay life in the west, Asian gay people today are still struggling to form cohesive communities.

Perhaps this is because, unlike the west, cultural and legal attitudes towards homosexuality can vary greatly from one Asian country to another, making it impossible and illogical for a franchised chain of western style gay communities spreading across Asian cities.

And since Asian gay communities can't really look to each other for direction, they tend to evolve along their own unique paths, like the gay community in Johor Bahru, southern Malaysia.

"Malaysia is a Muslim country, hence there is a limitation on the gay scene," says AJ, a manager of Ryu's Members Sauna, a three storey sex-on-premises venue located above a bar.
"We run a bath house on the pretext of a gym. This is for licensing purposes and the crowd is totally gay." But patrons don't simply walk in off the street. "Interrogation" of every new member takes place before admission.

AJ maintains that hassles from the police are rare, but not impossible. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia, and punishable by flogging or imprisonment under Muslim law. Ryu's Members Sauna, like the Johor Bahru scene in general, stays out of trouble by keeping a low profile, and generally "behaving" itself in public.

"The scene is definitely visible but not as glaring as other Asian cities. Here in Johor Bahru, the scene is terribly closeted. It is improper to express your gayness in public, let alone be yourself. Nowadays, you can see the younger gay crowd sashaying down the malls. But that's it. Period."

Homosexuality is of course technically illegal in Singapore too, but Singapore's contained size has allowed local gay culture to develop far more consistently than in spread out countries like Malaysia. What it has in common with many other Asian cities, though, is a cautious approach to gay visibility - the sense that acceptance is more likely to be achieved through patience, rather than through protest.

In western cities like Sydney, or San Francisco, authorities have been alerted to dissatisfaction in their local gay communities after noisy gay protestors have smashed a window or two at City Hall, or got into a fistfight with cops. Indeed, the entire gay rights movement in the west is attributed to the Stonewall riots in New York in 1968, where drag queens mourning the death of Judy Garland violently resisted arrest and physically defended their territory for days.

Having lived in Sydney for several years myself, I'm often reminded of the Australian gay community's political clout through regular media reports about the electoral and economic power generated out of gay precincts in Sydney and Melbourne. The Sydney Mardi Gras parade began as a violent street protest, and is now widely praised as having had a massive and positive influence over gay rights in Australia (never mind that it has just gone broke).

When an anti-gay cleric was appointed as the head of the Sydney diocese, gay activists interrupted church services and marched in picket lines outside the cathedral. During Parliamentary debates over gay adoption or proposed same-sex marriage legislation, gay activists are interviewed by major television news networks, and their opinions seem to have some influence, if only because appeasement can be the only way to shut them up.

Nick from ADLUS, a Singapore gay man's sporting and social group, notes that things are done differently in his country. "What gay rights? We are tolerated as long as we don't riot, march or make a scene! The gay life in Singapore is good so far - as long as you don't bother about the rights."
Nick agrees that westernisation of Asian gay scenes may not necessarily be a step in the right direction. "In many cases, the same smoke filled drug induced club scene can be pretty similar in most Asian & western countries. In these cases, because of the seemingly 'western' import of 'gay culture' (that might not really be gay culture), many Asian governments tend to be more critical and hence less accepting when faced with the need to liberalise laws etc to provide more rights to gay people."

An exception to all this, of course, is Thailand, which is celebrating its fourth Gay Festival - replete with film festival, street parade and full government endorsement - this November. Never anyone's idea of a quiet, subtle place, Bangkok has lent itself to open, flagrant gay culture more than any other Asian city.

Known throughout the world as a thumping gay capital, Bangkok doesn't trouble anyone who's obviously or openly gay. Though a current crackdown on drug use, opening hours and license violations in Bangkok venues has been fairly severe; it has affected the club-oriented gay scene only by default. No anti-gay laws exist in Thailand, and the gay scene has been left to take its own path.

What is interesting is that Bangkok's gay scene has always been stitched neatly into the general nightlife scene of the city. Despite being a bigger city than New York or London, and many times larger than San Francisco or Sydney, Bangkok's gay scene has never strove to overstate its presence. There are little chunks of gayness, like Sois 1 and 2 in Patpong, or the area between the Babylon Sauna and the Malaysia Hotel, but on the whole, gay culture in Bangkok is virtually issue-free. The vast gay scene there is established and mature, and loved by gay travellers from all over the world.

What does Bangkok's example mean for other Asian gay communities that aren't blessed with a national culture as tolerant and liberal as Thailand's? Do they follow the western gay model, and end up as strange stapled on subcultures, putting on parades once a year and generally looking completely out of place? Or do they get verbal and violent, risking ostracism in tightly conservative places like Singapore or Korea, or imprisonment or worse in China or Indonesia?

My impression is that most don't seem to be rushing to make any major changes. Instead, they're developing gradually and organically, finding real places to belong, rather than hastily constructing false ones, and sticking up heaps of rainbow flags.

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 ILGA Asia - Fridae partner for LGBT rights in Asia IGLHRC - Fridae Partner for LGBT rights in Asia