The first meeting of the ‘Sexuality and Space’ research group was a success: participants read two interesting articles and discussed many issues regarding the queer spaces in Sydney. But I left with some doubts and disappointments.
The readings are good: Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s (in-)famous article ‘sex in public’ and Lee Wallace’s chapter ‘The Sexual Life of Apartments’. In fact, I appreciate the fact the convener put the two articles together, and reveals that Berlant and Warner might have privileged the gay male experience with the public and have thus overlooked the lesbian experience with the ‘apartments’, which disturb the public/private dichotomy. It seems to me that ‘sex in public’ is a tongue-in-cheek idealisation of the gay White male experience in the West and a unapologetic call for antagonistic queer politics. Here ‘queer’ signifies an antisocial, anti-establishment and counter-public stance. Those who are less out, less public, and less rebellious are considered less queer. As a person who comes from a different political and cultural context where the political atmosphere does not encourage an antagonistic queer politics and where collective and relational subjectivity is more valued than the individualistic subjectivity, I find this type of queer politics patronizing and even misleading. I can recall many instances in China, as with many other countries, where the antagonistic and culturally-insensitive queer politics does more harm than good to local gays and lesbians. In this sense, a single type of queer politics is as hegemonic and imperialistic as the gay and lesbian identity politics it critiques. It is great that queer politics reflects on the problems of the gay and lesbian identity politics. Unfortunately, many writings in queer theory lack reflection on itself. Many queer theorists base their discussions on the experience of New York and San Fransisco, and they tend to turn a blind eye to other cultural contexts, where queer subjectivity and politics might take on different forms. This is not to say that other cultural experiences are unique, and are totally different from the West; nor is this to say that the so-called ‘Western’ experience is such a coherent identity. However, paying more attention to the social and cultural contexts of queer subjectivities in other locations and at other times (queer spaces in contemporary Sydney included) will help us better understand queer as a ‘zone of possibilities’ (Edelman, 1994: 114) and the incommensurability of such possibilities.
In the discussion regarding Sydney’s queer space, I wished someone in the group would bring up the issue of cultural difference. There were a couple of times when this issue would surface, but it was soon distracted by other themes and topics. For example, Sen mentioned that many queer Asians have their own ways of sociality: they prefer meeting at each other’s homes and in social groups to going to queer venues on Oxford Street. This did not attract much attention: people have their own ways of sociality: lesbians, queers of colour, mature-aged people, over-weighted people … they all have their creative ways of sociality that does not conform to the ‘gay stereotypes’ who are often found on Oxford Street or Kings Cross. Yet my attention was not drawn to the fact that they are creative, or they ‘technologise’ the self in novel ways, something that is often celebrated in cultural studies and queer studies. I was trying to figure out why many of them refuse to go to the queer venues in Oxford Street or Kings Cross, and what are the ‘structural’ (a very unfashionable term in a department celebrating poststructualism) reasons that keep them from doing so, apart from their ‘choice’ and ‘free will’.
I would start my query from asking a very simple question: ‘where (and what wonderful queer spaces) should I go as a gay Asian male (GAM in gayspeak)?’ I hope that my experience, not trying to be ‘typical’ or ‘representative’, can provide an entry point for the discussion of the politics of queer spaces in Sydney.
A few days after my arrival in Sydney four years ago, I asked a gay Asian friend of mine to guide me to some exciting gay venues in the city. He kindly introduced me the Midnightshift bar on Oxford Street and the 357 sauna on Sussex Street. He did not tell me that there are also other pubs such as the ARQ, the Columbian, and the Stonewall in Oxford Street that do not particularly welcome Asians. Nor did he tell me that the two places are often called ‘rice steamers’ or ‘meat markets’, where Caucasian guys pick up Asians for casual sex.
In fact, there were many more things that a newcomer to Australia like me should know. I had no idea of the continuing existence of the legacy of the ‘White Australia’ policy in this country; neither was I aware of the controversy over ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘assimilation’, let alone the advocate for ‘One Nation’, in Australian politics; neither did I know the harsh attitude towards aboriginal peoples and immigrants (both legal and illegal) for decades; nor did I know that being Chinese (and Asian in general) is not viewed as particular appealing in Australia (‘I believe that we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,’ in Australian politician Pauline Hanson’s (1996) words.) . I would have benefited a lot had I read Australian filmmaker Tony Ayres before I ventured into gay bars by myself:
Gay bars are places where you are what you look like, even if that is at odds with how you feel about yourself. In gay bars, I was/am Chinese. That is how I was/am judged. As it turned out, being a Chinese in a gay bar was one of the worst things you could be. (Ayres, 1999: 87)
My first experience at the Midnightshift bar was not a particularly pleasant one. There were handsome guys everywhere, with gym-toned bodies and wearing tight jeans. But none of them showed any interest in me. Gilbert Caluya’s (2006) experience reflects mine:
A head pops into view. He leans forward to order a drink and then turns my way. In reaction I smile. His left eyebrow rises, his eyes look me up and down, he scrunches his nose and with curled back lips he says ‘I don’t do Asians’.
I felt ashamed. I should have gone to gyms more often and puffed up my muscles; I should have gone to the beach and got a tan; I should have gone to a hairdresser and had a spiky hair style; I should have worn a sexy top or a pair of tight jeans; I should have got rid of my nerdy-looking glasses and invested in a pair of contact lenses; I should have listened to more Madonna and Kylie Minogue. But, the one thing that I cannot change is my Chineseness. No matter how fluent my English is, and no matter how ‘un-Chinese’ that I see myself as, I am still identified as ‘Chinese’ by others. ‘Chineseness’ is like a spell that keeps haunting me wherever I go. It becomes a pain, and an unbearable heaviness of being.
There were terrible experiences. Once I was punched at by a big White guy while I was standing on the escalator at Kings Cross train station, without knowing what I had done wrong. At another time, an Australian young man took the bar stool away from me while I was sitting there in the Columbian Hotel. After those experiences, I decided that the commercial gay venues are probably not for people like me.
I must clarify that these dramatic moments are only rare occurrences. Although occasionally people would shout at me ‘get out of this country!’ or ‘go back to your country!’, most of the things are too insignificant to mention, and to notice. For example, some people appear quite impatient to hear me speak English; I have to wait extra longer time for my order to arrive at a cafe, and it sometimes got forgotten. I get special attention from the police or ticket inspectors; on a bus or in a train carriage, people prefer standing in the corridor to sitting next to me although the seat next to me is the only vacant seat available. Sarah travelled with me to Adelaide in June. She noticed several ‘odd’ ways that Asians are treated by the locals and asked me why I did not get angry. ‘It is just part of my everyday life,’ was my reply. I would have been driven crazy if I had taken all these minor things seriously. Besides, I would ruin the image of the ‘nice and quiet Asians’ and risk being accused of the ‘China threat’, if not the 'Yellow Peril'. Or, I would be considered someone who does not have a sense of humour to cope with Australian jokes. Relax, mate. No worries. She’ll be right.
I was overjoyed when I found some gay dating websites such as Gaydar and Gayromeo where I could access gay profiles. But I was appalled by the explicit racist language used in the profiles: ‘no Asians’; ‘not ever into Asians’; ‘Asians don’t bother’. I felt ashamed of my ethnic identity. After numerous frustrating experiences trying to contact others on these websites, only to be rejected, I learned to confine my choices to some Asian dating websites such as Fridae. Contrary to the more mainstream type of gay websites, I have a lower risk of being rudely rejected on Fridae. Yet, many Caucasians seem to have exploited their ‘White privilege’: some have dozens of Asian ‘boyfriends’ (and sex partners) in their private collection and few are interested in having a relationship. (Put simply, why would you want a relationship when sex partners are so easily available?) I opted not enter their private collection; I quitted the online queer space.
Contrary to the rejection of Asians by many white Australian gay men, there are those who are exclusively attracted to Asians. The gay community has come up with different names for them: for example, ‘rice queens’, meaning Caucasians who are exclusively attracted to Asians. The counterpart of ‘rice queen’ is ‘potato queen’, meaning Asians who are exclusively attracted to Caucasians. The stereotypical image in cross-cultural gay relationships is that of an older, and probably richer, Australian guy in his fifties or above, who takes a younger, handsome Asian boyfriend, who often barely speak fluent English. In real life, negotiations of power between two partners are more complicated than many people would have thought. There is, however, evidence of the inequality between them that is based both on race and class.
Now, let’s go back to the question: what queer spaces in Sydney can a ‘gay Asian’ like me go? I am not claiming that my experience is universal or representative; the negotiations of identities are more complex than the two terms of ‘gay’ and ‘Asian’ would allow. Also, I am not painting a totally pessimistic picture of the Australian society. There are happy moments when people from different cultures, races and ethnicities get along with each other really well. Nor am I denying the agency of gay Asians. We can probably find hundreds of ways that they have their own modes of sociality and intimacy, and how they ‘technologise’ themselves in novel and creative ways. However, let us not forget to address the issue of cultural difference in the discussion of the queer spaces in Sydney. By using the term ‘cultural difference’ or ‘multiculturalism’, I am actually trying to keep away from one word. This word seems to be a taboo in Australian society: people do not talk about it; people do not want to talk about it; people invent numerous ingenious ways to avoid talking about it.
The word that dares not speak its name in this context is racism. It exists in Sydney’s queer spaces, in the very white and Eurocentric Gender and Studies Department, and in Australian society in general. It permeates people’s everyday lives. Stating that there is also racism in other parts of the world does not make us feel more relieved about where we live. Knowing that racism functions differently on each individual and social group does not render the discussion of it less important. Realising that people have agency and can technologise themselves creatively does not free us from the responsibility to address social injustices. Every time when we speak about Western theories as if they were the only legitimate knowledge in the world, every time when we use a term including ‘woman’ or ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ without reflecting on its social and cultural embededness, together with its openness to other social and cultural contexts, and every time when we talk about ‘China’, ‘Asian’, or ‘Africa’ as if there are exceptions to the universal and therefore should not be taken seriously, we are complicit in this complex social and cultural intelligibility in which Eurocentrism, colonialism, imperialism and racism converge. This is not simply a call to ‘political correctness’: before we speak, we should routinely clarify: I am a middle-class, Asian/ white gay male/female. Obsession with ‘political correctness’ may render the critical edge of the Leftist politics rather banal. In a context when there is an urgent need to undo Eurocentrism and to address incommensurable cultural differences, and when there is a silence about, and a(n) (un)conscious erasure of, social injustices, terms such as ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘racism’ are still worth mentioning and reflecting upon. The exclusion of queer spaces based on race and ethnicity is therefore still high on the agenda.
Upon leaving Australia, I have mixed feelings about this country and about my experience of being gay and Chinese in this country. Indeed, I have had wonderful memories, great friends, and nice communities to be with, here in Sydney. But I also had my worst experience of racism in this country. Both being Chinese and being gay hurts and traumatises. Educated in Gender and Cultural Studies, I understand that there is racism everywhere in the world, albeit to different degrees; I am also aware that racism is not always there all the time. There are times when we can let go of racism. I am pleased that I have learned that people have ‘agency’ and can ‘technologise’ themselves in creative ways when confronted with an imagined, fragmentary and fractured ‘social structure’. I feel optimistic and hopeful as long as the word ‘racism’ remains unuttered, unmentioned and buried deep in the social memory, knowing that it still haunts at some unexpected moments.