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Asia’s gay culture promotes tolerance (The Nation [Thailand])
9 Jul, 2005

Asia’s queer cultures are likely to evolve as a mixture of their indigenous past and a new cosmopolitan, globalised class of gays who are wealthy, privileged and fashionable, the first International Conference of Asian Queer Studies has been told.

Scholars at the Bangkok conference noted yesterday that this trend followed the rebuttal of the notion that all forms of homosexuality were Western imports, and the recognition of Asian queer identities predating Western influence – such as the “hijras” of India, the “warias” in Indonesia and Thailand’s katoeys.

Remarking on the historical acceptance of katoeys in old Siam, author and researcher Richard Totman suggested that both Asian and Western scholars could take lessons from Asia’s past. These would show the way to promote acceptance of today’s Asian gays, lesbians and transgenders.

“Why mimic yesterday’s West,” he asked, “when you can be informed, and lead tomorrow?”

Totman said the change to more ambivalent attitudes toward katoeys in contemporary Thailand came from the fear that people whose gender didn’t conform to the “respectable” dichotomy of male-female had no place within a modern globalised society.

As a result, they were increasingly the targets of discrimination and persecution in the form of gratuitous fines, arrests and confiscation of ID cards. They had also been kept invisible, out of embarrassment.

The chief executive of the popular gay website fridae.com, Stuart Koe, saw the change in Asian queer cultures as largely prompted by the increased mobility of people and particularly by the Internet.

“The Internet has democratised the way that people interact, meet, find one another and gain access to information,” he said.

“Prior to the Internet, there were isolated pockets of communities. What was happening in Singapore might not have been known in places as close as Kuala Lumpur. The advent of the Internet has changed all that.”

Some scholars warned against looking at Asian queer cultures through the dichotomy of Western and non-Western.

Indian academic Gayatri Gopinath, from the University of California (Davis), said the focus on the new cosmopolitan class of globalised gays who shared a similar lifestyle from Bangkok to New York was a narrow definition of queer identity. It provided fodder for conservatives and gave them the opportunity to portray all queers as alien.

“More importantly, it also tends to efface other forms of gender and sexual identity,” she said.

Neil Garcia from the University of the Philippines (Diliman) urged Asians to move toward the celebration of differences.

He said there was no uniform queer discourse in the world’s largest continent, whose countries were exposed to different conservative pressures.

“Even the West is now hybrid,” he added, noting the reverse influences of Asian immigration on Western queer cultures.

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