‘Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore’ by Gary L. Atkins
In 1869, the term “homosexual” was coined by an Austrian-born Hungarian writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny. Kertbeny used the term to describe gay men in a pamphlet arguing against the Prussian anti-sodomy law. “Homosexual” became the popular, clinical, and pejorative word to identify and describe a gay man in the West. Prior to the construction of “homosexual,” gay men existed in the West, but had no words to describe themselves other than “sodomite,” a label provided by heteronormative Church and penal codes.
Prior to colonization by Western nations, the peoples of southeast Asia had their own definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity. While the Southeast Asians might not have recorded those constructions until recently, to suggest that European colonialism and white gay exiles created gay culture in southeast Asia perpetuates this colonial mindset. Gary L. Atkins seems to hint at this in his new book Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore.
In Imagining Gay Paradise, Atkins tells the stories of several gay men who shaped modern gay male cultures in Southeast Asia. In particular, he focuses on the Siamese king Vajiravudh (Rama VI), German painter Walter Spies who lived in Dutch Java and Bali, and Singaporean webmaster Stuart Koe. The lives of all three men were affected by European colonialism and the colonial cultural and legal codes that regulated sexual identity and behavior. Many reviewers state that this book is really about Walter Spies, and how his paintings of Indonesian boys and young men exoticized Southeast Asia and encouraged gay men from the West to find those “sloe-eyed boys” for some “companionship”…but that is a one-dimensional, Eurocentric take on this book as well.
Colonialism, which provides the framework for “globalization,” led to exposure to and blending of different cultures. Siamese royalty sent their children to Western countries for their education, so that they could learn how to become strong, effective leaders in the eyes of the West, and “modernize” their nations. Those children also learned European or American social mores from private tutors, Western boarding schools, and universities. When the royal children returned to their home countries as adults, they often experienced a disconnect with their native culture, and would create a separatist bubble. If they were in the position to rule, however, those children sometimes would demand changes to traditional customs and laws. In Siam (now known as Thailand, or “land of the free people”), the child Vajiravudh who became King Rama VI probably would have lived as a gay man even if he did not have a Western education. He loved the arts, and his position in Siamese society allowed him the freedom to have a “harem” of male companions, as opposed to the expected female concubines and mistresses. The Siamese people frowned upon this not because of Western influence, but because he was not living up to his traditional royal responsibilities that had been dictated since time immemorial in Siam. King Rama VI was extremely reluctant to marry or bear children, and failed in the eyes of his people as a symbol of fertility. King Rama VI’s Western education did not make him gay, but encouraged him to pursue individualistic goals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Atkins did not address this element of Western influence in his rendering of King Rama VI. This failure of King Rama VI to live up to his royal expectations, rather than Western influence, led future Siamese kings and lawmakers to construct an “acceptable” gender binary, a monogamous society, and the discouragement of homosexuality.
Colonialization also gave Europeans the opportunity to travel to far-off lands, as well as chances to provide their interpretations of unfamiliar cultures. German painter Walter Spies traveled to Java seeking refuge from the looming troubles of post-World War I Berlin. Spies receives credit for introducing the world to traditional Balinese arts and music. At the same time, Spies also shared his paintings and drawings of Indonesian and Balinese boys and men with the world. The lean, willowy figures dressed in sarongs, and often in submissive, vulnerable positions, made a statement about male beauty that went against the sculpted Greco-Roman ideal accepted by the West. The gay European men wealthy enough to travel were inspired by Spies’ paintings to also look for these beautiful boys and men. The colonial Dutch government had taken a “hands off” approach to cultural traditions in Java and Bali, as opposed to other colonizers, but that changed when young men complained to authorities about molestation, rape, and male prostitution. European homosexuals were rounded up and imprisoned, while natives who engaged in homosexual activity with Europeans were sent to work camps. Unfortunately, Atkins cut the story of gay male culture in Bali off at this point, and left this reader in suspense.
Atkins’ story of Singaporean webmaster Stuart Koe, perhaps, is the “happiest” one, and least tainted by colonialism. Koe, educated in the top Singaporean boarding school and university based on the British models, discovered his gay identity in those educational environments. In fact, Koe states that those schools are a hotbed of gay and lesbian activity that is tolerated by the teachers, even though homosexuality was declared illegal in Singapore under the British and the anti-sodomy laws had not been erased from the books at the time. After graduation, Koe did his military service and then became a web designer. He used his skills to develop a social networking site for Singaporean gays and lesbians which would allow them to be “out” online and meet others like themselves. Creation of this social network started a movement in Singapore to abolish the old sodomy laws and promote LGBT tolerance. The Singaporean government has begun to recognize that LGBT people often possess intellect and talent that can make a country prosperous. With that in mind, and the fact that other industrialized nations have begun to develop anti-discrimination laws, the Singaporean government wants to create an environment that will allow their talented employees of any sexual orientation to stay in Singapore.
It is easy to forget that, once upon a time, Western gays and lesbians were a people without a name and without community. As our histories evolved, we built our communities for ourselves, not at the whim of imperialist powers. While Atkins writes a well-researched, engaging narrative that provides a great gay history lesson of colonial southeast Asia, he would have done well to mention this. There are many more Stuart Koes out and about in Southeast Asian countries today, shaping their own unique LGBT communities and overthrowing centuries of colonial abuse.
Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore
By Gary L. Atkins
Hong Kong University Press
Paperback, 9789888083244, 316 pp.