Anglocentricism, racism and all that

Notes for a talk presented to Culture, Ethnicity and Sexual Health. Paul van Reyk, February 19th 1999.Racism and the gay community
In the January 1992 issue of Campaign, Australia’s longest running gay monthly magazine, a letter appeared under the heading `Racist Friend’. The letter read:
I have to compliment you on that beautiful guy on the November cover, Linden Davidson. But when I looked inside I was disappointed to see that Asian queen, Chee Kun Woo. He would probably look good in the Hong Kong Weekly. How come there are thousands of gay men coming out from Asian countries? Who lets them in when there are thousands of American, German, Irish, Hungarian and Italian queens who could emigrate getting knocked back? I didn’t come out with my suitcases of gold and money and open a gay restaurant or Asian supermarket. I had to work ten years at two jobs. Now I have two shops on Oxford Street. I am not an Australian born person but a very proud naturalised Australian. I love Lena Horne, Shirley Bassey, Sara Vaughan, Harry Belafonte and Soul II Soul but in their own country. I don’t want to have dinner with them or go to places with them. It is okay to go to bed (for one night) with a coloured person but to have an everlasting love affair is out of the question. So you are really kidding yourself when you feature an Asian on the front cover and try to be multicultural. It is only the stupid Australian (gay poofters) who want the so-called `multicultural’ pot. We hate each other. There are only a few white men interested in the small Asian dick. You can show me a small dick and show me a big black one and it is more important to go off with the big black one than the small Asian one. So whatever you try to do there is never going to be harmony between the colours and the whites and others. We just laugh at you and other journalists who are in a dream world.
This is the overt side of racism, and it still exists within our communities. It continues to present a significant barrier to non Anglo men finding their place in our gay communities. We as a community of workers hopefully have the strategies for dealing with a non-Anglo client’s experience of this kind of overt racism. But what of covert racism, do we as a community of gay men, or as a community of health workers have the tools to combat that? Do we even understand what it is and how it operates?
The issue became clear to me first at the time of the Campaign letter. My response to it was to write an article for Capital Q on my experience as a non-Anglo gay man. The article arose out of a conversation with a friend, Lyle Chan. Our histories are strikingly parallel, as is our experience of being non-Anglo gay men, or at least not entirely Anglo gay men. Lyle’s parents are Malaysian Chinese, mine are Sri Lankan Burgher. Both of us left the countries of our birth at an early age, Lyle to the Mid-West of the United States, I to Singleton, half way up the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Both sets of parents were educated and socialised in a white milieu, so were we. Both of us grew up speaking English. Taken out of the environments of our birth, though, both of us have had to live straddling two worlds the Anglo and the non-Anglo. Lyle defines himself now as an Asian-American-Australian. I am an Australian-Sri Lankan-Burgher. Neither of us has experienced overt racism in the gay community targeted directly at us. For both of us, we concluded, that has to do with the `whiteness’ of our backgrounds. This has given both of us the cultural tools for meeting a white gay world on its own terms. But as we talked about gay couples where one partner is Asian and the other Anglo, I began to consider other ways that racism is inscribed in us. I wondered if sometimes these relationships don’t play out, however unconsciously the relationships of colonisation, not only relationships of labour, but sexual relationships as well.
It took me a long time to allow myself to desire men who aren’t Anglo. The geography of our sexual desires is as much a site of colonisation as the geography of our home countries. The impact of this colonisation is profound. For both Lyle and I, there is also a sense of loss of our ethnic heritage. It comes in part from our history of displacement, but more significantly from a choice we made, however unconsciously. Lyle put it this way. Multiple oppressions are synergistic. The experience of being non-Anglo and gay is greater than the sum of both. By virtue of our membership in both oppressed groups we thought we had a home in neither. We had to choose one and let go of the other. Both of us chose to be gay men first. It was easier, surprisingly, for us to come out as gay men than as Asian. Now we regret the opportunities foregone by that decision. The price of that has been a feeling of distance, a loneliness. How many others have had to make that choice, still make that choice? What are the implications of that for how they handle HIV/AIDS messages? Will someone be fucked without a condom if it means that for that moment they are less alone? I remember a Mardi Gras when a group of walkers dressed up as look like those awful lamps from the fifties – the one’s where the bases are caricatures of black women, in this case the black Aunt Jemima type. They had blacked their faces and wore red polka dot skirts, big hoop earrings and lampshades on their heads. I understand the campness of the image and so its attraction for a Mardi Gras contingent. But the image is nonetheless racist. How would you feel as an Afro American gay man in Sydney at the time? How would you react to the gay community, and how might that reaction impact on your reception of HIV/AIDS messages?
Gay male sex tourism
The last time I traveled in India, an incident occurred which brought home to me the other aspect of gay men and colonisation/racism that few of us ever talk about, and that’s gay male sex tourism. What happened was this. I was at a dinner with a number of people working in HIV/AIDS in India. One of our number was the CEO of a large US HIV/AIDS organisation. At the end of dinner when it came time to pay the bill, he took the bill and on the back of it wrote his name, the name of his hotel, and his room number. He had been doing this throughout his visit to India. The intention, as he openly stated, was an invitation to the waiters to have sex with him for money. I was too shocked to ask him if he always used a condom with his casual partners. I hope he did. But it brought home to me how easily Anglo gay men expect to get sex in countries like India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia etc. They may well argue that this is the way they behave in any country they visit. But to do so is to ignore the fundamental difference in the relationships of power that Anglo men have in different countries, and the implications of that difference for the object of the desire.
For the Indian men who took up the offer from the AIDS-o-crat, the lure was the money, it was an economic transaction where they were not in a position to bargain around safe sex, assuming they had any idea that of what safe sex was and why they ought to bargain for it. The situation is exactly paralleled in Pat Phong or Ubud or wherever the male prostitute culture has developed for Anglo-men. What is our responsibility here as gay men in Australia and/or as a community of workers with gay men, and how do we act on that? What do we do if we have clients who we know are sex tourists? How do we deal with non Anglo men who have come from a background in sex tourism into the Australian gay communities? I know that those who end up in sex work in Australia get access to good information and support through the various sex worker projects. But what about those who don’t, who go to the bars, the discos with an understanding of gay sex that his formed out of their experience as sex workers in their countries of origin.
More than language
Cultural identity is more, obviously, than a matter of language – yet we continue to act as if it were not. In many instances we continue to see the simple translation of material into ‘community languages’ as an adequate means of discussing issues around HIV/AIDS. But cultural identity is about the meanings culture gives to all aspects of one’s personal and social life. For example, simply translating information developed for an Anglo audience into another language assumes that sexuality and sexual behaviour are consistently defined and understood across different cultures and that translation will mean that the message will be understood and acted on. A young Asian man, newly arrived in Sydney, goes to Numbers and sucks off another man. Is his experience and understanding of the act the same as that of the Anglo-Australian next to him who is doing the same thing? In some ways, yes, perhaps, given the internationalisation of gay community practices. But in other ways, no, given the specificity of the experience of that Asian man in his country of origin, particularly given the nature of the gay community in that country, assuming that he had access to that community in the first place.
Some cultural factors to consider
These were first articulated to me by Arnel Landicho, former worker with ACON’s Asian Men’s project. He talked of them in the context of treatment and support, but I think they can be generalised.· Examine the experience of the individual and of their community in living in a foreign country, especially if they and their community have a history of oppression and discrimination in their country of origin. If they are uncomfortable with authority, will they take on the messages from a government department? Are people from situations of trauma more likely to engage in risky behaviour? Has anyone ever done a study on it? If you thought that taking on an identity as a gay man or as a man who has sex with other men would lead to you losing the supports you need to establish yourself in this foreign country, would you take on that identity? · Understand how they construct male to male sex or other high risk practices. How we deal with their construct will have an impact on their self-perception, self-esteem, willingness to disclose to family and other supports etc. · The balance of the individual identity versus the family identity will also be important. If you are in a culture where the notion of the individual is subjugated to that of the family, how do you construct an individual identity as either a gay man or as a man who has sex with men as our education efforts still ask of you? Would you put at risk the possibility of ostracism from family and community if it also means losing the sense of who you are? ·
How cultures express themselves both verbally and non-verbally. The direct verbal approach of Western cultures is not one accepted in many other cultures. Eye contact, physical contact, the location of the physical contact, are subject to different understandings. Two Indian men walk down Oxford Street holding hands, or with arms around each other’s shoulders, or one lies in a park with his head on the lap of his male friend. Are these men gay, do they have sex with each other? Not likely. The most conservative Indian Moslem men will hold each others hand because that’s what good friends do in India. As an educator or health professional I need to know that, or else I am going to make some very offensive and possibly damaging assumptions.
The task for us as workers with gay men or men who have sex with men is twofold: · To create contexts and processes that are culturally appropriate and supportive. · And to work with non-Anglo gay men and lesbians is to create an environment within the gay communities in which racism, however unconscious, is not tolerated.

Copyright (C) 2001 Paul van Reyk

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© Paul van Reyk 2019.