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Thursday, October 21, 2004

FEER: Gay Asia: Tolerance Pays

Far Eastern Economic Review

SPECIAL REPORT: GAY ASIA

Gay Asia: Tolerance Pays

In this special report, we examine the changing lives of Asia's gays. We begin in Singapore, a state where contradictions abound, but where one message has hit home: Gay rights make economic sense


By Gordon Fairclough/SINGAPORE

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


For many, the journey has yet to begin, but a growing number of Asian gay men and women are finally on the road to winning social and legal acceptance.

Some are benefiting from the belief that open societies equal stronger economies; others are finding the courage to stand up for themselves as they find--often through the Net--that they are not alone.

ON A HOT TROPICAL NIGHT, around 8,000 gay men are dancing to pulsing house music. Laser lights play across sweaty bodies. Many of the men have whipped off their shirts. Some are down to just their Speedos.

Welcome to Singapore.

Sean Ho, a 33-year-old information-technology consultant surveys the scene. He's wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Choose Sin" in large, red letters. Below, in smaller type, is "gapore." "Singapore's become much more tolerant and open," says Ho. "They are giving us a lot more space."

The annual gay Nation party, held to coincide with Singapore's National Day in August, is an event the city-state's conservative founders would probably never have imagined. But stodgy Singapore has recently witnessed a flowering of gay culture. Gay bars, dance clubs and about a half-dozen bath houses have sprung up. The national art museum even featured an exhibit of homoerotic photos this summer.

The driving force behind this liberalization appears to be economic. One consideration: Earning "pink dollars" from gay tourists. Organizers estimate that Nation and related events pulled in about 2,500 foreign visitors and nearly $6 million. But Singapore's more relaxed attitude towards homosexuality is also part of a broader government strategy to transform the city into a creative, ideas-driven economy. That, Singapore's mandarins realize, will require some loosening-up, as well as a serious effort to change the world's perception of Singapore as a rigid, authoritarian place.

Even so, when it comes to gay people, the government remains ambivalent. Despite then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's pronouncement in an interview last year that gays "are like you and me" and shouldn't face discrimination in the civil service, laws prohibiting homosexual acts remain on the books.

The government has also refused to register a group campaigning for equal rights for gays, saying that it is "contrary to public interest to grant legitimacy to the promotion of homosexual activities and viewpoints." Recently, censors banned a Taiwanese film about two gay teens, saying it "conveys the message that homosexuality is normal." And the country's one magazine aimed at homosexual readers has seldom dared to use the word "gay."

"This place is full of contradictions," says Stuart Koe, chief executive officer of Fridae.com, a gay Web portal with its main office in Singapore, and the organizer of the August parties. "Change at the grass roots is outpacing change at the policy level. But things are moving in the right direction."

Indeed, across Asia, international travel, an increasingly globalized mass media and--crucially--the Internet are exposing gay people to the greater acceptance of homosexuals in the West and elsewhere, encouraging more to live openly and demand civil liberties. In some cases, though, that's raising the risk of a conservative backlash.

In Singapore, police harassment of gay people, common even in the early 1990s, say activists, has stopped. Gay nightlife is flourishing. And, since Goh's remarks, the once taboo topic of homosexuality has received a lot of attention in the mass media. The cover of local weekly I-S Magazine recently showed two sperm in an embrace with the headline: "Happy Together? Can straight and gay Singapore co-exist?"

The official Singapore Tourism Board commissioned a study of last year's Nation party "to assess the potential of tapping on these attendees to bring in tourism receipts." This summer, the agency included the Nation parties in a newspaper ad, headlined "Party All the Time!" that also listed the official National Day celebrations and other attractions.

All this is making it easier for gay men and women to be more open. Dinesh Naidu, a 29-year-old writer, came out to his family over the past year. After a rocky start, his parents are now fairly accepting. Naidu says his boyfriend "gets along very well with my mother. After a few beers, my father can be quite friendly, too." Still, many homosexuals keep their orientation secret from family and colleagues.

Conservative Christian groups have taken the lead in opposing more liberal attitudes. Some churches actively work to "convert" gay people into heterosexuals. The government cites such opposition to justify its go-slow policies.

Many things, such as a gay-pride parade, remain out of bounds. There are strict limits on other forms of expression, too. Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, editor of a gay-oriented magazine, says officials have warned him against "promoting a gay lifestyle," and have objected to photos of "too skimpy" underwear in his magazine. "You are always on thin ice," says Nijen Twilhaar, "and you never know when it's going to crack."

When he applied to renew his publication licence, Nijen Twilhaar says the government's Media Development Authority cautioned him that the more gay people "lobby for public space, the bigger the backlash." Since then, he has decided to limit distribution of the magazine to paying customers. Keeping a lower profile should allow the magazine more freedom, says Nijen Twilhaar. "We'll no longer have to hide the fact that we are addressing a gay target audience."

August's dance parties also received scrutiny, with officials ordering that a planned "Military Ball" be renamed. Police say they were concerned guests might inadvertently break the law by wearing uniforms without authorization--an offence in Singapore. The next night, Nation organizers say, the authorities objected to anti-Aids campaigners handing out condoms and pamphlets. Police "objected to the Action for Aids materials based on the misunderstanding that they promoted gay sex," Koe says. The operation was shut down. Police say they did not request "the removal of any booth."

Critics of the government say all this smacks of hypocrisy. The government is content to let gay bathhouses with names such as Towel Club and Raw exist in the centre of town, but is loath, say some activists, to give gays permission for much besides sex, dancing and drinking.

"Entertainment doesn't challenge their political dominance," says Alex Au, a leader of People Like Us, the group that the government has refused to register, thus limiting its ability to raise funds and hold public meetings. The group is seeking the repeal of colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, which generally aren't enforced against consenting adults.

Of the government, Au says, "They are driven by economic imperatives. But they're trying to do the absolute minimum they can get away with, so it doesn't chip away at their ability to control the political agenda." Au believes the government blocked registration of his group not because it represents gays, but because it is independent: "They dislike any organization they can't co-opt or control fully."

But, according to a spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs, "many Singaporeans continue to voice their objections to displays of homosexual behaviour. There are certain things that homosexuals want which are not feasible now. This includes the setting-up of a society to promote homosexual activities and viewpoints."

Other gay activists favour a less confrontational approach. "It's highly unlikely we'll ever get gay rights on the grounds of civil liberties," says Dominic Chua, a 29-year-old schoolteacher. "The only appeal that seems to work is a pragmatic one that relies on dollars and cents."

The economic argument seems to have some merit. In one recent study, Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, found that countries that were more accepting of homosexuality fared better economically. "Tolerance pays," says Noland. "People who are comfortable with differences seem to be more comfortable with innovation."

A book by American academic Richard Florida about what makes cities vibrant makes a similar point. Florida says a city's openness to gay communities is an indicator of receptivity to new ideas and, thus, creativity. The book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has been cited frequently by the pro-government Straits Times newspaper.

For decades, the implicit social contract in Singapore was that the government would deliver the economic goods and people would acquiesce to a high degree of government control over their lives. That agreement is becoming increasingly strained, as Singapore finds that more openness is what is required to keep the economy moving and as the government struggles to accommodate the wishes of the growing number of its citizens exposed to the world through the Internet and time spent living abroad.

In many ways, the 32-year-old Koe and his enterprises are emblematic of the shifts that are taking place. Koe, who has been openly homosexual since he was a teenager, spent six years studying in the United States before returning to Singapore in 1995. He worked for the Economic Development Board before leaving to start Fridae, one of the largest gay-oriented Web sites in Asia.

Koe, who lives with his partner, says: "Sometimes, we ask ourselves: 'Is it futile? Should we just move to New York where people get it?'" For now, they've decided to stay. "It's gratifying to see the changes and be a part of it," he says.

Singapore's need to hang on to people like Koe is why many gays believe the city will continue to expand the space open to homosexual citizens. "Singapore may not be first in gay rights, but it can't afford to be last," says Martin Loh, a painter who was fired from his job as an analyst for Singapore's intelligence agency in the 1980s after it was discovered he was gay. "We will one day enjoy these rights because the government knows it can't be too far back on these things. It has nothing to do with enlightenment."
 

SPECIAL REPORT: GAY ASIA

Across the 38th Parallel

GAY LIVES: Jang Yong Jin is a gay man who fled North Korea


By Gordon Fairclough

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


Most people who escape from North Korea leave because of hunger or political repression. Jang Yong Jin, who crawled through a minefield to get out, fled because of his sexuality.

Jang was wed in an arranged marriage to a bride chosen by his mother, as is the custom in North Korea. But he never had romantic feelings for her. Sex, he says, was stressful and unpleasant. "I just didn't want to go home after work," says Jang, now 44 years old and gaunt, with a shock of jet-black hair. "I didn't want to share a bed with my wife."

When several years of union failed to produce a child, Jang's mother asked him if he had some kind of "deficiency." After that, he says, "I thought maybe I had some kind of disease." That began a series of hospital visits and check-ups for presumed physical maladies that could be interfering with the couple's ability to have children. The fact that Jang might be gay never came up. In North Korea, "people don't even know what homosexuality is. They don't have that perspective," Jang says.

When, after nine years of marriage, a North Korean judge refused to grant him a divorce, Jang decided he and his wife would be better off if he left. He set out for China, intending to get to South Korea. Refused assistance by South Korean diplomats in China, he tried to make his way to other countries, but failed. In desperation, he returned to North Korea, made his way to the Demilitarized Zone and sneaked into South Korea.

At first, Jang was reluctant to reveal the real reason for his defection to intelligence agents in the South where attitudes towards gays remain conservative. Finally he says, he told them that he left because he didn't like to have sex with women. The agent, he says, told him not to worry because South Korea had "better medical technology" that could help him.

It was only two years later, when Jang saw a picture in a newspaper of two men kissing, that he says he realized he was homosexual. He bought a South Korean gay magazine and began visiting gay bars in Seoul. "It felt so good to know that I was capable of loving someone."

That was until Jang ran into a conman preying on South Korean homosexuals. The man, who said he was in love with Jang, eventually bilked him of his entire savings. Distraught, Jang fell ill and is now unemployed. "He's ruined my life," Jang says of the conman. "This is tougher than when I crossed the 38th Parallel."

 

Gays and the Law


Data compiled by Alison T. Sebens

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


CHINA
Laws against sodomy repealed in 1997; official classification of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder ended in 2001. Gay scenes emerging in major cities, like Shanghai and Beijing. Chinese gays often refer to themselves as tongzhi (literally "comrades")

HONG KONG
Homosexual acts decriminalized in 1991. A case currently in the courts is testing whether local laws recognize same-sex marriages conducted overseas. The government plans to test public opinion on an anti-discrimination law next year


JAPAN
Some cities have laws outlawing discrimination. Strong family and social pressure forces many gays into marriage

SOUTH KOREA
Homosexual acts legal, but significant government censorship of homosexual material. Little social tolerance for gays: In 2000, popular comic actor Hong Seok Chon was axed from a number of TV jobs after coming out

TAIWAN
Bill to recognize same-sex partnership under discussion; gays permitted to join the military since 2002. Social pressure to marry keeps many gays in the closet


AUSTRALIA
Gays enjoy wide-ranging freedoms, though laws vary from state to state. Tasmania only lifted its anti-gay laws in 1997; New South Wales offers same legal rights of marriage to gay couples

CAMBODIA
Homosexual acts legal. Earlier this year, King Norodom Sihanouk called for gays to be allowed to marry

NEW ZEALAND
Anti-sodomy laws repealed in 1986; anti-discrimination law introduced in 1993; gays can join military. Civil-union bill is under discussion

PHILIPPINES
Growing tolerance, but the Roman Catholic church--which rejects homosexual acts--wields wide social influence. An attempt in the lower house of the legislature to allow gays to enter the military was later rejected by the Senate

VIETNAM
Penal code makes no mention of homosexuality, so exact legal status of gays is unclear


INDONESIA
Homosexual acts permitted, though a bill introduced in 2003 sought to ban them. Quiet tolerance for partners in same-sex relationships, though pressure to marry is strong

MALAYSIA
Homosexual sex punishable by 20 years in prison and whipping

SINGAPORE
Gay sex remains illegal. Despite the lack of legal change, there's a clear trend towards greater tolerance

THAILAND
Bangkok is traditionally Asia's gay capital, though a government crackdown on late-night venues has dimmed the city's gay-friendly image. Social tolerance remains strong, however, especially in the capital


AFGHANISTAN
Under the Taliban, men found guilty of sodomy could be crushed to death. Laws remain intact, but some signs of increasing tolerance in post-Taliban era

BANGLADESH
Homosexual acts punishable by fines and imprisonment

INDIA
Attempts to repeal sodomy laws have failed; gay-sex acts legally punishable by 10 years' imprisonment. Strong social pressure to marry, but cities like Mumbai and Bangalore are more open to gays

NEPAL
Gay sex can result in life imprisonment

PAKISTAN
Gay sex punishable by life imprisonment or execution; some traditional tolerance among tribal groups, such as the Pashtun

SRI LANKA
Gay sex illegal, but no prosecutions in recent years

 

In Search of a Hot Currency

Just as mainstream advertisers are moving to tap high-spending gays, the stereotyped image of that target market is showing signs of change


By Michelle Innis/SYDNEY and Cris Prystay/SINGAPORE

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


EARLIER THIS YEAR, car maker Subaru ran a print advertisement in Singapore showing the back of a man, clad in a sleeveless white undershirt, with his hands braced on the top of a cubicle. The headline: "Grips like hell."

The ad made its debut on August 9 at the Nation party, a three-day gay event hosted in Singapore by Fridae.com, which claims to be Asia's biggest gay Web site and which is running the ad as part of a year-long advertising deal.

Subaru has used gay-specific marketing in the mainstream American media for more than eight years. Now it's starting to court high-spending gays in Asia through the gay media, largely because--thanks to the Internet--it can finally reach them.

In Australia, however, where such advertising has never really moved outside the gay press, the old stereotypes of gays as single people with high disposable incomes are fading. Instead, there's a growing perception of gays as couples sharing similar concerns as their straight counterparts--buying homes and bringing up kids. Marketing to them isn't always that much different from marketing to any couple.

That's a long way off in Singapore, where the gay community is only just beginning to find its feet. For advertisers like Subaru, the Internet has proved to be the missing link in targeting these gay consumers. Until relatively recently, says Glenn Tan, a director at Motor Image Enterprises, which distributes Subaru in Singapore, "we couldn't follow the lead taken by the U.S. because there was no medium in Singapore or clear way to communicate."

Subaru, which helped pioneer gay marketing globally, may have been waiting for Asia's gays to come of age, but other companies were harder to woo. When Stuart Koe started Fridae.com, he had a tough time finding advertisers. "Most people politely declined and said 'we're not ready for something like this,'" says Koe. "They were concerned about backlash, and worried about what marketing to gays would do to their brand."

But the statistics swayed many. As Fridae.com built up its subscriber base, it proved it offered access to a very moneyed niche: Fridae says that 43% of its subscribers are professionals or executives, 50% earn more than S$45,000 ($26,800) per year and 71% are between 21 and 40 years old. "These people have a high disposable income, no kids and they spend it on themselves. Sexuality aside, it's an important demographic to attract," says Koe.

Howard Tai is a typical gay consumer. A Hong Kong event manager, he earns $95,000 annually and takes four beach vacations a year. He's attended Nation since its inception four years ago. This year, he spent S$1,200 on hotels, S$4,000 on food and beverage and another S$2,800 shopping for clothes and CDs during his three-day visit to Singapore.

Tai says he's pleased to have been singled out by marketers like Subaru. "It makes me feel happy. It shows we're being respected, in a way," he says. "They're acknowledging that we're there, and that they realize this is a sector they need to take care of, instead of pretending we don't exist." Some, however, dispute the stereotype of high-spending gays, and believe gays can be victims of a "pink ceiling."

"Gays self-select workplaces and industries that won't penalise them for being gay," says Robert McGrory, lawyer and convener of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in Sydney. "These industries often provide poorly paid jobs--especially the arts-based industries; therefore, gays have less income than the general population. But when you're young and thinking about a career, you think about discrimination and which industries will be difficult for you."

Nevertheless, in Singapore there are plenty of signs that advertisers want to jump onto the bandwagon. Motorola launched its new E398 music phone at this year's Nation, which was sponsored in part by Cathay Pacific Airways and InterContinental Hotels. Internet travel guide VisitBritain, which runs a Web site for American gays wanting to travel to Britain, used Nation as test for Asia. It developed a series of print ads in Singapore for the event, and is now hunting for local gay media in North Asia so it can broaden its campaign.

But conservatism does pose a problem in Singapore. Local property developer SC Global advertised apartments in a new development on Fridae.com last year, and even arranged tours for Fridae subscribers--then pulled its ads after residents complained. The company declined to comment.

Such issues are rarer in Australia, where there's wider acceptance of gays. "There are still issues, like equal rights, but it is a mature community and it is easier to accept who you are," Leong K. Chan, a senior lecturer in graphic arts at the University of New South Wales.

"Gay and lesbian life crosses every socio-economic group," adds Trent Zimmerman, a directors of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Business Association. Indeed, he argues that the behaviour of gay couples is becoming less distinguishable from that of straight couples. "It was thought gay people had more money because few of them had children and the expenses that go with having children," he says. "But more gays are having children and more straight couples are deciding not to have children."

That blurring of identities is on view at the former hospital site of St. Margaret's in Surry Hills, an inner suburb of Sydney, which has been converted into 220 upmarket apartments that start from A$500,000 ($365,100). The building sits right in the middle of the city's gay district, so gays are clearly target customers. But they're not the only ones.

"If the project is located near the inner city, then you have to consider the gay community," says Bradford Gorman, whose marketing firm, Design Communications Associates, conducted the strategic marketing of St. Margaret's. "But we have not marketed this project exclusively to gay people. We have aimed for people who lead trends. People who lead trends can recognize the clues in our marketing, the way the images are put together that make it attractive. These might be gay people or single young people. They are early adopters."

"There is a recognizable, credible gay market segment and you can market to that," adds Jennie Tsen, Sydney-based senior strategic planner with ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. "But the stereotype was more apparent when the gay community was still developing its identity. When it was trying to find and define itself, the stereotype was much stronger than it is today.

"Today, the gay community is established and matured," she adds. "It would be a sweeping statement to stereotype a 'gay' person. For example, you would not pigeonhole all women in their 20s as wearing white pants suits, Gucci sunglasses and aspiring to the same goals and role models. It's now the same for the gay community. It is not as sharply defined. It is so diverse."

A World of Their Own

As never before, the Internet is allowing gays in conservative societies to connect--and is possibly fuelling a rise in risky sexual encounters


By Gordon Fairclough/SEOUL

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


THE INTERNET changed Bae Sung Yong's life. As a teenager growing up in a conservative family in Seoul, Bae struggled with his homosexuality. Then one afternoon, surfing the Web, he came across a gay on-line community. "I realized I wasn't alone," says Bae, now 24, and an outspoken advocate for gay rights in South Korea. "I've come to learn there are many people like me."

The Internet is transforming gay life in Asia. It is easing isolation, allowing gay people to connect with each other and realize the strength of their numbers, and opening a window onto the progress of homosexuals in other societies. That is encouraging more and more Asians to declare their sexuality and push for greater acceptance.

"The Internet has had a huge impact," says Ko Seung Woo, a representative of the gay-rights group Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea. "In a society that is very closed and intolerant, the on-line space is basically the only place that people can feel at ease talking about their sexual orientation."

South Korea's largest Internet service, Daum, has hundreds of gay-themed Web communities, including groups of homosexual university and high-school students and Koreans abroad. The country's largest gay-oriented portal, Ivancity.com, has about 70,000 members and registers more than 20,000 hits a day. Similar sites now exist in many other Asian nations, including China.

For South Korean gays like Bae, the freedom they find on-line is often in stark contrast to the social restrictions they encounter in the real world. After he came out, Bae explains, "people at work ostracized me" and he was pressured to quit his job, which he did a month later. His parents kicked him out and told him he should go to a hospital to be cured. For support, Bae turned to gay friends he had made on-line.

One of the on-line communities to which Bae belongs organizes regular meetings in bars and coffee shops. Still, he says, people are seldom willing to talk about their work or families, fearing their homosexuality will be discovered. Most use their screen names rather than real names, he says.

Elsewhere in Asia, gays are starting to graduate off the Net, building a visible--and not just virtual--presence. In Singapore, those in their early 30s and late 20s, after early experiences on-line, have become the first cohort of visibly gay people. And they are becoming more politically active.

"I used to think Singaporeans weren't political. But people are becoming politicized on-line," says Alvin Tan, artistic director of The Necessary Stage, a theatre group that has staged a number of gay-themed productions in recent years. "You see it in the on-line interactions, the growing sophistication of the citizenry. There is definitely a sense of confidence being built."

Jerry Siah, a 32-year-old technology consultant in Singapore, says the Internet is playing an important political role by exposing gay people to information about homosexuals in the West. "You can read beyond what's being offered on this island," Siah says. "Things that are wrong here can be right somewhere else." Siah leads a group that aims to build bridges between straight and gay people in Singapore by doing voluntary work for the disadvantaged.

Clarence Singam, an investment banker in Singapore who has helped organize gay support groups, also says people are coming out at younger ages because of the influence of the Internet. "You may not want to deal with homosexuality in families or schools. But it's going to be dealt with on the Internet," he says. "So we need to face this issue constructively."

The Internet's role in encouraging people to come out at earlier ages and making it easier for them to meet each other may also be having a dangerous side-effect. Roger Winder, programme director of Action for Aids Singapore, says HIV infection rates are rising among younger men in the city state. A survey two years ago by Winder's group found the Internet was the most popular means of finding sexual partners among gay Singaporean men.

Growing numbers of young people are also becoming sexually active in Singapore, says Winder. "We get people coming in for anonymous HIV testing in their school uniforms," he says, noting that surveys show "younger people are more likely to have unsafe sex" than their elders.

Bryan, who asked to be identified only by his first name, started going on-line at age 15, chatting with other young gays in Singapore. At first, he says, "I met people almost every day for sex, sex and more sex." That started to change when a 21-year-old friend tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes Aids. Bryan, now 19, says "teenagers aren't mature enough" to evaluate the risks of sexual activity. And he says that recently he has "this urge to settle down, not to get so wild."
 

Me and My Site

GAY LIVES: Echo Chen is a 29-year-old Web designer in Shanghai who hosts an Internet radio show on her Web site


Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


Looking back, I probably had the first inklings that I was a lesbian when I was 15. I had a very good, close female friend. We did everything together--it was like we were one person. But I never knew that it was a possibility that I could have romantic feelings for a woman. I dated boys too, but I never wanted them as boyfriends. I thought that maybe I hadn't found the right one. Then, at 23, I started using the Internet. It was only two years after looking at all kinds of Web sites--including lesbian ones--that I knew I was gay.

The Internet had the biggest influence on my life. After finding a gay community on-line, I became much happier. I realized I could find someone to love, and that she would be female. If it hadn't been for the Internet, I'd probably be married to a man now. It's hard to know if that would have made me happy.

But the problem was that there weren't very many good lesbian Web sites in China. There are dozens of Web sites for gay men in China, but very few for gay women. As a professional Web-site designer, it was very easy for me to build a Web site for lesbians. It started three years ago as a sort of hobby, to express myself. I posted personal stories that my friends and I had written, and then quickly it expanded into something bigger. We get 20 new users every day, to add to the about 30,000 regular users that we already have. We started a radio show where we play songs, interview our lesbian friends and talk about feeling and love. The Web site also has advice columns, a gift store, chat rooms and news.

I realized that lesbians in China need guidance--we even have users in Tibet. Many feel a lot of pressure once they find out they're gay. Gays abroad have a lot more freedom, but China is still very conservative. My Web site hasn't been censored so far, but maybe the authorities don't know about it yet! But then, even though China is pretty traditional, it's not as severe as people outside the country might think.

In conversation with Jen Lin-Liu

New Home, New Beginning

For some of the thousands of Philippine women who go to work in Hong Kong, the move offers a chance to freely explore their sexual identity


By Geoffrey A. Fowler/HONG KONG

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


BACK HOME IN MANILA, Irene had a cheating boyfriend and a 12-year-old daughter. In Hong Kong, she works as a live-in maid and spends her only day off each week with Louie, her girlfriend.

Irene (who, like her partner, asked not to be identified by her full name) left the Philippines in 1998 to support her impoverished family. That's a familiar story among the 220,000 foreign maids in Hong Kong, who make up one of the world's largest--and all-female--migrant labour forces. Lonely and far from home, she suffered through a string of anguished long-distance relationships with Philippine men. "I didn't want to be in love again. I thought nobody would treat me seriously," she remembers. "But then along came Louie."

Irene, a 35-year-old former legal secretary, has never called herself a lesbian. In college, she rebuffed a romantic advance from a female friend. Yet today she's making a future with Louie, a 33-year-old self-described "tomboy" who also moved from the Philippines to work as a maid. "Here you are free. You don't have to worry about what your neighbour might say," says Irene.

Like thousands of other maids in Hong Kong, Irene and her partner spend their Sundays off in the city's upmarket business district. There, the large lesbian culture stands out: Scores of tomboys in baggy jeans, men's shirts and buzz-cuts camp out on the streets with their girlfriends.

These women, from the devoutly Catholic Philippines, never experienced a gay-rights movement. While there's a growing gay male culture in the Philippines, family and religion still pressure women into producing children--keeping lesbians in the closet. But when economic necessity sends them to Hong Kong, a second-class status here means their only friends are other female migrant maids.

Some, like 32-year-old Lanie Caraig, say they have always been attracted to other women but only acted on that after moving to Hong Kong. Others, like Caraig's girlfriend and Irene, had previously only dated men. Still others revert to heterosexual relationships when they return home.

"They may not call themselves lesbian. But because they are away from their families, these women have space to explore possibilities other than heterosexuality," says Julie Palaganas, coordinator of Philippines-based lesbian activist group Lesbond. Yet most aren't mere boarding-school flings. "I am 35," says Irene. "I am serious because I am in love."

The women often model their relationships on what they know from the Philippines, with tomboys like Louie taking on both the "macho" physical appearance and responsibilities of a man. "Louie thinks he is a man," explains Irene.

Their employers don't always understand--or approve--of their relationships and outward appearance. One insisted that Caraig dress like a girl, and bought her long skirts, lipstick and eyeshadow. "I had no choice but to wear those stupid things, because I couldn't afford to lose my job," she says.

But their new economic status--Caraig sends home $175 per month, a large sum in the Philippines--means the maids gain the power to resist societal pressures back home. "My mother at first was very angry," says the soft-spoken Caraig of the time she turned down an arranged marriage. "But I told her that if she didn't stop insisting I get married, I'd never come home again."

Today Caraig and her girlfriend are planning to buy a small home back in the Philippines. "I want to choose the person that I will be with in my life," she says.

 

MEET THE FRUITS


By Kevin Voigt

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


It's a Tuesday evening at Hong Kong's upmarket One Bar + Grill. A group of business people and professionals are pinning on name tags, exchanging cards and chatting over cocktails. Old friends kiss cheeks, shy newcomers sip drinks and look on. It could be a Chamber of Commerce function except for two things: The guests are all men, and the name of the event--Fruits in Suits.

Running in Hong Kong since July, these monthly networking events have been drawing up to 200 men--evenly split between Asians and Westerners--mainly by word of mouth. Does this signal a trend toward greater openness among gay professionals in Hong Kong? Or is this simply a safe haven where like-minded career people can meet? "I would definitely say it's more the latter than the former," says a 39-year-old Malaysian business development manager who co-founded the group. (Like others at the event, he asked not to be named.)

For other attendees, the events are a relaxing change from the usual gay scene. "It's about promotional networking, and the real lack of choice for other outlets here in the city," says a 39-year-old Australian lawyer, who is also a group co-founder. "Which is funny when you think about it, in a town where money is almost a religion--and gay professionals make a lot of money." And the turnout showed that there are a lot of gay professionals in the city, he says. "I'm absolutely astounded we got 100 people the first time we did this. We were figuring it would be 30-40."

Fruits in Suits was started in Sydney 10 years ago as an avenue for gay professionals to meet and network away from the nightclub scene. (A lesbian-oriented counterpart is called Lemons with a Twist.) Since then it has spread to other cities in Australia and New Zealand, says Simon Davies, a board member of the Sydney Fruits in Suits. "First, you have to realize not everyone in the gay community goes to nightclubs," he says. "They're not a place where you can really have a conversation and get to know each other, and perhaps find a business opportunity."

At the Hong Kong events there are no guest speakers, but organizers plan to have information about events of interest. The gatherings start in the early evening on weekday nights; that's aimed at encouraging guests to come straight from work in their suits, not their club wear. "It's an upmarket venue so you don't feel like you're going to a club. The lights aren't dim and there is no music," says the Malaysian organizer. "Probably the biggest feedback we're getting from people is the ease to talk to people. It's hard to approach someone at a club and start a conversation. But it's easy when they're wearing a name tag."

 

Unspoken Acceptance

Indonesia's diversity accommodates homosexuality, as long as it remains unmentioned


By Cameron Bates/JAKARTA

Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


BHIMANTO SUWASTOYO and his partner, Steven, often tell a lie. Given the inquisitive nature of Indonesian small talk, a family of two men and a baby lends itself to awkward questions. "We just tell them that the mother is away and did not come with us, full stop," says Bhimanto, a 48-year-old journalist from Jakarta.

However, Bhimanto has divulged to most of his neighbours that he and Steven, who like many Indonesians uses one name, are indeed raising a son, Arya, legally adopted by Bhimanto four years ago. "But in all conversation, there is no mention of the gay factor," he says, "though I imagine everyone in the neighbourhood does know, especially because of Steven's presence, an ethnic Chinese living with a Muslim Javanese in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood."

This attitude, explains gay-rights campaigner Dede Oetomo, is the typical response of Indonesians to members of the country's largely discreet gay and lesbian community--as long as it's not your own son or daughter.

Ade Kusumaningrum, a 33-year-old lesbian from Jakarta, believes that 80% of the secretive lesbian community, the size of which is unknown, would not be or are not accepted by their families. She says a friend whose family discovered she was a lesbian was beaten and dragged to a mental hospital.

In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, the Ministry of Health estimates that 55,000 men are gay. But this figure excludes the large and visible population of transsexuals and their clients, or closet homosexuals.

Dede, a professor at Surabaya University in East Java, says male homosexuality has always existed in Indonesia and is institutionalized in a number of ethnic groups and traditional practices--sometimes between older men and younger male lovers, as well as among boys coming of age. "It is part of the culture; it is a known practice and has a place," he says, adding that such practices are waning.

Why are these traditions tolerated? "I think homosexual relations are seen as a juvenile thing--most if not all these men marry a woman later on--or the lesser of two evils, the other being adultery." Homosexual sex is not punishable under Indonesian law, Dede notes.

Debate rages, however, on whether the Koran forbids homosexuality. Liberal Islam Network coordinator Ulil Absar Abdalla, who lectures in Islamic philosophy and theology, says the Koran does not explicitly prohibit homosexuality, though Muslims generally see it as a moral deviation.

But a spokesman for a small mosque in central Jakarta, who did not wish to be identified, says that according to the Koran, homosexuals "will be crushed," though he quickly adds that they are usually tolerated by the community in which they live. "We can only advise them not to do this [be gay], as long as there is no problem with the people around them."

To most Indonesian men, principles from the Koran "have little day-to-day influence on sexual behaviour, including the gender of their sex partners," says Richard Howard, a Jakarta-based communications specialist with Family Health International, a U.S.-based not-for-profit public-health organization.

Howard, an American who wrote his doctoral thesis on men, marriage and homosexuality in Indonesia, says greater social stigma comes from being unmarried. "As men approach their late 20s, the pressure to marry becomes nearly unbearable. This is much more of a result of social pressure rather than anything expressed in the Koran or stated in the mosque." Being gay in Indonesia today, he says, is "increasingly becoming about adopting a modern, foreign-influenced way of living and defying the pressure to marry."

Dede, who received a death threat in 1999 for his outspoken views, says violence and threats against homosexuals peaked after an attack by alleged Muslim extremists on an Aids education fair near Jogjakarta in late 2000. But he maintains that the gay community is gaining acceptance as society opens up in a new era of democracy.

He cites as an example an amendment to Indonesia's constitution in 2000 to provide protection to gays and lesbians. In late 2003 the first male-on-male kiss was screened in a mainstream Indonesian movie, Arisan!, which The Jakarta Post described as the first film to portray gay men not as "limp-wristed, lisping queens, but good-hearted, intellectual and decent, as many are in real life."

Bars have sprung up in Indonesia's major cities to cater to and cash in on the gay and lesbian market, with more and more offering gay nights complete with male strippers. But for most homosexuals, gay life focuses not on bars and nightclubs where alcohol is expensive and not a part of the culture, but on discreet coffee shops, restaurants and salons.

David Prettyman, a 45-year-old aid worker, says he experienced more prejudice from his family in small-town America than his partner of 12 years, Jazz Pasay, did from his Indonesian family. Says Prettyman: "Indonesian culture is generally very tolerant, and this is not a bad place to be gay."

Shamed by Faith

GAY LIVES: The author, who has asked not to be identified, was born in the Philippines


Issue cover-dated October 28, 2004


Growing up gay and Catholic in the Philippines was strange. In school I couldn't relate to friends' obsession with girls, but I couldn't put a finger on what that made me. In Tagalog, there is no word for homosexual--the closest we got in the 1970s and 1980s were bakla and tomboy, which refer to effeminate men and butch women. The absolute worst thing a boy could be was bakla. The vague feeling I had that I was attracted to men, and thus possibly bakla, was so unspeakable that I suppressed it, and never discussed it.

Catholic education taught us the dangers of lust. In my boys' school, we were warned that looking at pornography was a serious sin. Bizarrely, this sparked a sense of righteousness in me--hey, Playboy disgusted me, maybe I'm morally superior to my porn-obsessed classmates.

That smugness was broken by a conversation over dinner with my family once: I mentioned that I wanted to pin a picture of a talented and handsome actor next to my bed. No, I shouldn't do that, Dad said as gently as he could, "normal" boys are attracted to girls. So much for my smugness.

It was only much later, when I was studying abroad, that I learned what being gay meant and finally realized I was gay. That sparked such shame and fear that it took me years to accept it and be open about it. My being Catholic had a lot to do with this--one can dissect Catholic teaching on sexuality as much as one wants, but the reality is that my religious upbringing and the teachings of a church that I cherish made me ashamed of who I was for a very long time.

Since coming out, I have been amazed at how accepting my very Catholic family and friends have been. Our religion may be full of straight lines, but our Philippine culture is one of subtle curves. I know I'm lucky: My family and friends are open-minded, I've lived abroad for a long time, and I work in finance--a field where no one cares about your private life. Life is a lot harder for many of my gay compatriots. Some day, I hope, that will change. For now, I still tell my straight friends: I hope your kids don't turn out gay. Life will be so much easier if they aren't.
 

 


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