A new LGBT in Asia platform worth bookmarking


BeingLGBTToday, surfing around the international cyber-LGBT world, I came across a truly impressive social media effort in Asia that’s being funded by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the USAID program. It’s called “Being LGBT in Asia” and while it has the usual accounts you would expect on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram (as well as  key Chinese social networks QQ, Weibo and Douban) here’s is what is really impressive: Being LGBT in Asia also has a page on Crowdmap where anyone can report violence or verbal harassment in locations all across Asia using a smartphone, email, a tweet or a web form.

Not only can folks file reports about discrimination, violence, or harassment but they can also tell stories about positive developments — personal stories of support from their families, pride rallies, and legislation making a difference.  And they can file in their own language. The site even has an alert system so that you’ll know if anyone files a report within 20 kilometers of your own location — a good way to keep up with what’s going on in your own city.

Asia’s lingering 377 sodomy problem

India has disappointingly returned to the ranks of nations that not only criminalize gay sex, but do so using an antiquated, vague legal definition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” imposed by the colonial British in 1861.

IndiaflagThe section of the penal code involved, Section 377, is the same that has been at recent issue in other former British colonies in Asia including Singapore, Malaysia, and Myanmar/Burma. In fact, Section 377’s wording and numbering was either adopted directly or served as the model for criminalizing homosexuality in more than 30 of the roughly 70 nations that still do so.  In India, as in Burma, the section makes sex “against the order of nature” punishable with 10 years in prison. Other nations add even more extreme punishment. Malaysia’s Section 377 specifies up to 20 years imprisonment along with whipping.

The Delhi High Court had struck Section 377 down in 2009 in the case of Naz Foundation v Govt of NCT of Delhi. The Delhi decision decriminalized homosexual acts between consenting adults, saying the law was a violation of principles of equality, freedom of speech, and privacy.  But the new decision came after religious groups challenged the Delhi court ruling. The Supreme Court overturned the Delhi ruling, basically saying that only Parliament can repeal the law.

In both of my books, Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Dwelling and Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Singapore, I wrote about how anti-gay governments use sodomy laws not just to punish individuals but also as an imaginative technique for creating a “landscape of fear” aimed at regulating the consenting sexual activities of all citizens. (That term I take from the noted geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who wrote an entire book by the title of Landscapes of Fear).

“Even if the police only infrequently use the law,” I noted in Gay Seattle,  “an accusation of sodomy provides the cornerstone of the sexual imagination that considers all homosexuals as criminals, either because they desire forbidden sex or because they have already had it. As such the law is the foundation for an expansive set of discriminations – for who would want a sexual lawbreaker as a police officer, a teacher, a mother, or a legislator?”

In Gay Paradise, I wrote about Singapore’s trinity of laws that regulated sex: not only the sodomy 377 section, but an add-on 377A from Nazi-inspired fears that criminalized any form of “gross indecency” among men, including almost any sort of touch, hugging, or kissing; and, as if that wasn’t enough, an additional Section 354 the outlawed any “outrage of modesty” of another due to a suggestion of sex or a light touch.  On top of those were laws regulating public assemblies and private associations.

Some of us in the West have perhaps grown a bit complacent about our brothers and sisters in those 70+ nations that still create these landscapes of fear with sodomy and what might be called pseudo-sodomy laws. We’re too busy celebrating our new rights to marry. The India Supreme Court ruling needs to be a wake up call for all of us to find new ways to help those who are still struggling to win the most basic of rights – which now includes all the LGBTI folks in the worlds second most populous nation.

For the text of the India Supreme Court ruling in Suresh Kumara Koushal v. NAZ Foundation, click: Suresh-Kumar-Koushal-Vs-Naz-Foundation

Singapore court upholds anti-gay sex law

Singapore continues to insist that consensual gay sex is criminal, with the High Court dismissing a legal challenge to Section 377A of the penal code, which provides up to two years of prison. Justice Quentin Loh ruled that “377A essentially addresses a social and public morality concern which our Legislature identified in 1938 and subsequently affirmed in 2007.”

Imagining Gay Paradise explains the history of both the original Section 377 from British colonial law, which criminalized actual sodomy (anal or oral intercourse) and Section 377A, which was added in 1938 as a response to the rise of the Nazi concept of manhood — which was to prompt a witchhunt of gay men in the neighboring Dutch East Indies. Section 377A applied to any sort of “gross indecency” that two men might commit with one another, such as hugging, kissing, dancing together — all those expressions of affections that straight privilege affords to heterosexual couples.

As I note in the book (p 166), “What was a ‘gross indecency’ was left vague. The courts termed it as whatever a “right thinking person” might consider a “gross indecency”…. Section 377A was [is] a law based on what others considered offensive, not what kind of behavior might actually harm others.”

For a complete report from Fridae.asia on the ruling, click here.

“Innovative, highly readable” study

The well-respected Cornell University scholar of gender studies in Southeast Asia, Tamara Loos, has praised Imagining Gay Paradise as a “innovative, highly readable nonfiction study of masculinity and gay male sexuality.” Writing a review for the American Library Association’s influential “Choice” comments sent to all university libraries, Loos says:

“Deploying biographical sketches as a vehicle, Atkins opens a window onto heteronormative sexual and gender regimes as they affected elite gay men. [He] succinctly and engagingly recounts the linchpin arguments of secondary literature on gender and sexuality in early- to late-20th-century Germany, the Dutch East Indies, Siam/Thailand, and Singapore. Atkins weaves together the impact of and resistance to Western modernity’s “triple supremacy” of romantic, monogamous heterosexuality by those living in empire’s periphery: King Vajiravudh of Siam, German artist Walter Spies in Dutch-occupied Bali, US journalist Darrell Berrigan, Thai entrepreneur Khun Toc, and Singapore cyber activist Stuart Koe. The book is split into two halves organized chronologically. Readers learn about the histories of Siam and Dutch Bali, European art history, contemporary Bangkok, and Singapore through short biographies of individuals who are not necessarily representative of gay men in their respective locales but who are all deeply connected to Southeast Asia and one another through their defiance of normative definitions of manhood.”

She highly recommends the book for both undergraduate and graduate libraries. Loos has written extensively about gender in Siam, most especially in her book Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand.

A “fascinating study”

GLReviewThe Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide this month includes a review of Imagining Gay Paradise, calling the book a “fascinating study” in “how to be gay in Asia.” The Review  neatly summarizes the three parallel stories that form the core of the book.

“Atkins,” the Review says, “weaves together history, architectural theories, gender studies, colonial practices, and even Confucian dualities into a compelling narrative that feels like a novel. The book illustrates the remarkable changes in the region’s history through the personal stories of a few unusual men.” Read the review by clicking: Book Review – Imagining Gay Paradise

American Library Assn. names Imagining Gay Paradise to Rainbow List

Imagining Gay Paradise has been named to the American Library Association’s “Over the Rainbow” list for 2013, honoring books about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues that “exhibit commendable literary quality and significant, authentic LGBT content.” The list is intended to provide an annual core selection for readers and librarians who are looking for a cross-section of the year’s titles. The 2013 list includes 84 books published in the 18 months between July 2011 and December 2012.  They were selected from 163 titles.  For the complete list of books: 2013 Over the Rainbow List.

“A sweeping yet intimate construct”

The latest review of “Imagining Gay Paradise” is in Mandala. It’s an online academic journal so put on your thinking cap if you read it. But the writer has done an interesting job dissecting the book’s theme about the search for gay home in Southeast Asia and relating the theme to various “cultural memes. Of course, I best like the part where the reviewer refers to “the brilliance of the sweeping yet intimate construct of the book.” Click here to read the review. 

Bali launch successful

Thanks to everyone who came to the successful Bali launch of “Imagining Gay Paradise.” All the books I took in were so quickly claimed that we couldn’t even stock the Periplus outlet at the Writers and Readers Festival — which, by the way, was an amazingly extensive set of multi-day panels, special events, other launches and, of course, writers’ parties. The interest in one of the book’s main characters, Walter Spies, remains strong … as it does in the main theme of the book: the search for gay home.

Lambda Literary review: “Well researched, engaging narrative”

Lambda Literary’s just-posted review of Imagining Gay Paradise emphasizes the flow of colonial and global cultures that have helped to create gay spaces and places in Southeast Asia, which is one of the major plotlines in the book. The reviewer, Rachel Wexelbaum of St. Cloud State University, particularly notes the accounts of King Rama VI in early 20th-century Siam, Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, and Stuart Koe in Singapore in the past decade. (She calls Stuart’s achievements the “happiest” story in the book which “helped start a movement in Singapore to abolish the old sodomy laws and promote LGBT tolerance”.) While she has a few constructive criticisms to make of my writing, Wexelbaum pronounces Imagining Gay Paradise,  a “well-researched, engaging narrative” — and appropriately notes that there are many Stuart Koes in Southeast Asia today “shaping unique LGBT communities and overthrowing centuries of colonial abuse.” To read the entire review, you can click here.

Bali launch set

The Bali launch of Imagining Gay Paradise at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is now scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Oct. 4, from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. Appropriately, given  the book’s focus on gay ways of creating a sense of belonging through aesthetics and the body, the launch will be held at the gorgeous Taksu Spa in central Ubud. That’s just a few blocks away from the 1930s home of one of the major characters discussed in the book, artist Walter Spies.  To read more about the launch or the festival, click here.  

Out in Thailand review

“Out in Thailand” reviews Imagining Gay Paradise, calling it “an impeccably documented academic study that also reads like a mystery thriller or almost like an exposé. The book is at the same time a historical study, a social-cultural commentary, analytical biography, and gay study.” The reviewer keenly zeroes in on the central conflict that drives the book, the conflict between the imposition of the “triple supremacist” ideology of romantic heterosexual monogamy and the dissents of the “triple taboo” that emphasize non-heterosexual, fraternal loves among men. Click here to read the entire review.

Bali launch set

The next public discussion of Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore, will occur in Ubud, Bali, during the  Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Oct. 3-7. I’m looking forward to meeting many of my old friends — and getting to know some new ones — at this Indonesian launch for the book. Undoubtedly, the discussion will focus mostly on Walter Spies and his imaginative pursuit of an aesthetic home in Bali in the 1930s, one that offered a different understanding of masculinity and manhood than the “ideal” manhood Hitler was proposing in Walter’s ostensible homeland of Germany.

For more about that, read the excerpts “Bali Prelude” and “Bali: The Triple Taboo” on this website.

Check back for more details about the Ubud launch in early October.

Seattle Times review

The Seattle Times reviewed Imagining Gay Paradise ahead of the local reading at Elliott Bay Bookstore, noting that the book “covers more than a century of progress and defeat in the way homosexuals have been treated [in Southeast Asia], skillfully connecting the stories of artists, anthropologists, businessmen and computer experts.”  Click here to see the full review.

Elliott Bay Books reading

A reminder….The next public discussion of Imagining Gay Paradise is scheduled for Saturday, June 23, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Bookstore. The event, at 2 p.m., is part of Seattle’s LGBTQ Pride weekend.  The bookstore is located at 1521 10th Avenue, between Pike and Pine Streets on Capitol Hill.

The New Jersey Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.,has recommended Imagining Gay Paradise as one of five books to buy to kick off Pride Month. It’s a bit of an odd review in that it suggests that one theme of the book is that oppressed gay men in Europe and the U.S. who sought out paradises in Southeast Asia were often tragically disappointed. But that was not at all true of Walter Spies, the major European character who helped transform the image of Bali into that of an aesthetic paradise, nor of the major American character, Darrell Berrigan, who thoroughly enjoyed Bangkok.  Both of their lives did end tragically — Spies died due to an unjust Dutch detention and a Japanese bomb during World War II; Berrigan died at the hands of a gay hustler. But does that mean the men were tragically disappointed in the paradises they had imagined in Southeast Asia and would have preferred to stay at home?  I don’t think so. Both in fact successfully re-imagined the meaning of “home” in Southeast Asia.   Read the Star-Ledger review here.