When I first came out as gay, my parents blamed England. If only they had not sent me to boarding school, ‘this’ would not have happened. It’s just not Asian!
I never asked which part wasn’t Asian. Did they mean:
- Being attracted to someone of the same sex?
- Telling a fundamental truth that made others uncomfortable?
- Daring to think outside the box?
This took place in the mid-1980s. It would be tempting to believe that the whole world has changed since.
The map below shows the countries (in red) in which homosexuality remains illegal. There’s a very large mass of grey – not the case before – so, indeed, there has been progress. But we are nowhere near an egalitarian utopia. The Russian Federation, for instance, is hardly an oasis. Neither is China.
Earlier this year, mainland censors erased a lesbian plot-line from the sitcom ‘Friends’. No lesbians for the mainland! Just what is the Communist Party so afraid of? Obviously, merely hearing about lesbians on TV could give Chinese women ideas. Hardly a vote of confidence in their men.
One of the other countries in red is Malaysia. It has a Muslim majority and homosexuality is illegal. I still have relatives there, one of whom is gay. He isn’t a Muslim. He has lived in Malaysia all his life. He has also been in the closet his entire life.
An early memory I have is of waking one morning to be told that this particular relation had been in a terrible road accident. When I saw the photographs, I was shocked. To describe his car as a wreck would be an understatement – it was crushed. If you looked at photos alone, you would have assumed its occupant well dead.
Apparently, the accident was his fault. My relative had come out of a junction and was hit by a bus (if my recollection serves me right). Everyone was amazed he survived the catastrophe. At the same time, they could not fathom what he was doing in that part of town. I remember the adults around me shaking their heads, asking repeatedly: what was he doing there at that hour?
Years later, he told me. He had been meeting a man.
The revelation brought lightning clarity. Disjointed memories fell into place. Finally, I understood. I felt like Archimedes with his Eureka moment. When my relative swung his car out of that junction, his mind was occupied.
Obviously, such an accident could have happened anywhere. But if this relation of mine had been able to meet a man the same way he was encouraged to date women, he is unlikely to have been skulking off to a clandestine encounter in the early hours of dawn.
I have a gay cousin who did the same: he went around surreptitiously – until his parents accused him of being a drug addict! It took a dramatic argument for him to come clean with them. That story, at least, has a good ending. My cousin lives happily with his partner and has done so for years.
Not the case of my car-crash relative, whose sexual orientation is an open secret. Granted, he is loved by the family. This makes him fortunate. Nonetheless, can you imagine the amount of sniggering he has had to endure, what it must be like living within a culture where you’re asked ‘Are you married?’ within minutes of meeting someone?
As we celebrate Pride month, I thought it time to shine a light into the closet. It looks to me like a dank, dark place. I can’t imagine living in it, or how great the mental toll must be.
I’ve often heard that ‘we in Asia have our own way of doing things’ – we don’t need to talk about them. Some people believe there are things better left unsaid. No doubt they also think I should not be writing this blog-post. But ‘ways of doing things’ evolve. Chinese women used to bind their feet: should we return to that practice? Of course not – no culture is beyond universal human values. If we find it hard to say the word ‘gay’, it’s because we still associate shame with gayness. The dictum ‘we have our own way of doing things’ is no more than a convenient cover. It allows uncomfortable topics to be avoided.
Fortunately, some changes have come; in Asia, Taiwan has led the way. The island nation legalised same-sex marriage on 17 May, 2019. Contrast that with China’s censorship of the Friends’ sit-com lesbian plot-line. Taiwan’s marriage equality is one of many reasons why it is not China – and whether Taiwan belongs with the mainland is, in my view, debatable.
All those years ago when my parents blamed England, they had a point. England did not make me gay, obviously, but it has given me a confidence, freedom and happiness I would not have enjoyed otherwise. Here I can live openly without having to hide; here I stand without fear, knowing that I am protected by law.
This freedom is indescribably precious. In a poignant moment a few years ago, my ex-wife and I welcomed a visitor from Dagestan. When he realised that he was the guest of two women who were married to each other, he was in awe. Without any hesitation whatsoever he proclaimed:
‘Today I have met people who truly are free.’
Part 4 to follow