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A same-sex couple joins Metro Manila Pride, the longest running pride march in Southeast Asia, in Manila in 2016. Intimate Strangers, a new collection of short stories, conveys what it’s like being LGBT in conservative Asia. Photo: Shutterstock

Review | Despair. Hope. Depression. Love. True stories of LGBT life in Asia are unflinching, moving and surprising

  • Intimate Strangers: True Stories From Queer Asia is a collection of non-fiction stories about what it’s like being LGBT in conservative Asia
  • It’s also a showcase of creative language, the stories retaining each writer’s vernacular English to reflect the diversity of experiences and authors

Intimate Strangers: True Stories from Queer Asia, edited by Carmen Ho and Gregg Schroeder, Signal 8 Press, 4/5 stars

Intimate Strangers manages to be two rare things. It is a collection of unflinchingly honest, revelatory and intimate accounts of being LGBT in Asia, where such voices are often brutally silenced or, at best, subdued and ignored. It is also a showcase of creative English non-fiction from Asia.

The editors say they deliberately preserved each contributor’s vernacular English to celebrate “the variety and richness of English as it is used throughout the Asia-Pacific region”. And that is important: an anthology reflecting a diversity of experiences should allow its contributors to sound like themselves which, in any case, can enrich the language.

For example, the story Divine Comedy contains the line: “My utterance to you of the truth was the release I never knew I needed.” This may sound faintly archaic, but it powerfully captures the moment when Agatha Verdadero from the Philippines came out to her dying, elderly mother. The biblical ring of “utterance” and “truth” is in keeping with how she reconciled her religion with her sexuality.

The cover of Intimate Strangers: True Stories from Queer Asia.

As Alistair Yong points out in Gift from God, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the make-up of the LBGT community in Asia, and people like himself – who “prefer to lead quiet uneventful lives” and hope to find a life partner – are rarely seen and heard.

Malaysia, Yong’s home country, is a good example of how LGBT rights in Asia often take one step forward and two steps back. The change of government in 2018 was supposed to herald a new era of tolerance, but Yong describes three incidents during the months following the May 9 election that show just how entrenched homophobia is in the country – even before the recent gay sex video controversy involving a government minister.
Alistair Yong writes about how LGBT rights in Malaysia haven’t really changed despite the nation’s change of government. Photo: Shutterstock

Living in such an oppressive environment has led Yong “to the edge”. He writes about his life in Kuala Lumpur becoming a whirlpool of despair, as he falls more frequently into what he calls “the darkness”. On his last night in the Malaysian capital before moving back to his parents’ home in East Malaysia, he looks over the balcony and contemplates “the journey down from the thirtieth floor of the condominium”.

A similar darkness haunts Indonesian Edward Gunawan wherever he lives. In Crows Like Us, he describes being told by his parents that homosexuality either did not exist in Asia or that “people like them” were doomed to a life of misery.

His Chinese-Indonesian parents lived through two waves of anti-Chinese violence in the country in 1965 and 1998, and he writes that he understood why they wanted to protect him from even more “minority stress”. He tries to conform, even obligingly going for hormone tests and gay conversion therapy in Jakarta before escaping to Los Angeles, where he becomes an out, gay actor.

Intimate Strangers is an unflinching collection of intimate snapshots of being LGBT in Asia. Photo: Shutterstock

Still, the depression that his parents predicted – a self-fulfilling prophecy given the constant drip-feed of negativity – stays with him.

“I had internalised and lived with shame and minority stress for so long that I equated being gay with depression and mental-health issues, and thus suicide. I thought I deserved this tragic end. I thought this was the only way,” he writes. And he suspects that his hero, Leslie Cheung, and later Ellen Loo, another Hong Kong star who came out and then committed suicide, felt the same.

Even Caucasian expatriates with Western partners are not immune to such stress in Asia. Nancy L. Conyers perfectly conveys the weight of daily, systemic discrimination in Asia by describing what it feels like when this weight is lifted.

Life under the Khmer Rouge: Cambodian family who buried their past to ensure their future

“When the caseworker read our applications, she asked to see our marriage licence, made a copy of it, and said, ‘welcome to Sweden’. Simple as that. My eyes welled up and I wasn’t even able to choke out a thank you. That moment was so huge for me, and for Libby and me, but it was just another moment in a typical day for that Swedish caseworker.”

Conyers and her wife had spent years in Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving to Europe, and she is now back in Asia. In Singapore, she has to face extended periods outside the country to avoid being found out by immigration as an illegally trailing spouse.

There have recently been hard-won victories in Asia for LGBT rights. In May, Taiwan made history in Asia by legalising same-sex marriage. In June, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that the government had to grant spousal benefits to the same-sex spouses of local civil servants who have married abroad.
I had internalised and lived with shame and minority stress for so long that I equated being gay with depression and mental-health issues, and thus suicide. I thought I deserved this tragic end
Edward Gunawan writes in Crows Like Us

While this collection of stories is a reminder that Asia lags behind the West when it comes to recognising LGBT rights, the stories are filled with messages of courage, hope and love.

Simon Wu’s short memoir about growing up in Hong Kong is funny, tender and free of trauma. Colum Murphy’s heartbreaking tale of his relationship with a Singaporean Sindhi man living in Guangzhou is a beautifully written and fascinating look at the challenges of traversing multiple minority cultures. And From Beavis (M) to Beatrice (F) is a laugh-out-loud account by comic talent Beatrice Wong of her gender reassignment.

Even those who are well-informed about the state of LGBT affairs in Asia will be surprised and moved by Intimate Strangers.

If you, or someone you know, are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: truthful accounts of being LGBT in Asia