Posted by: facetothewind | July 19, 2015

The Eyes of Envy?


American Gay Marriage as Seen from Southeast Asia

When I was growing up in rural Florida in the 70s and 80s, gay life was secreted behind closed doors. Gay bars were named things like “Secrets” or “Whispers” and hidden in nondescript strip malls or side streets where you could get bashed in the parking lot. It was a disgrace to one’s family to be gay — a fate worthy of being thrown out, fired from one’s job, publicly ridiculed, or even beaten while a blind eye was turned on you.

Now at the age of 51 as an expat American, I sit in my office looking out over the predominantly Muslim city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a place that seems perpetually stuck in that gay un-friendly time in my life.

I’m chatting with various local friends who are all chirping about the recent verdict of SCOTUS regarding gay marriage. I sent them a picture of the White House illuminated in rainbow colors, a sight I was certain had been Photoshopped, but in fact, it hadn’t. The “wows” starting coming in on my global chat apps. Even I was incredulous — the White House tricked out in the colors of the rainbow? What happened to the country I turned away from, thinking it would never grow up?

For me, living in Malaysia has effectively recreated my sweaty Florida childhood complete with all its backward thinking. Here, in 2015, gay anything is censored from TV and films. So it’s as if we don’t exist — just like I didn’t exist in backwater Florida late last century. For gay locals here in Asia, the Supreme Court verdict is pure entertainment enjoyed on uncensored social media. It’s an expression of freedom that they will never know in Malaysia, a country cuffed forever by its colonial past. And its unforgiving religion.

With the photo of the colorful White House, I included a caption to my Malaysian friends saying something to the effect that, ‘this was a hard-won victory — the result of decades of people coming out and being willing to risk their dignity and refusing to be considered second class citizens.’ There was a resounding silence. This very American attitude of ‘fight for your rights’ falls on deaf ears to most Asians, who by culture, accept what they’re given without complaints, from the meal that wasn’t cooked properly, to the cars blocking the sidewalk, to the widespread homophobia they face on a daily basis. Nothing subversive will be said or done. And as a result, nothing changes. It’s a hand-me-down of 6th Century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching: Nothing is done and nothing is left undone.

It simply isn’t the nature of Asians to act up and fight back. And when it has been done in the past, it’s usually met swiftly with the long arm of the law. And so you end up with a whole continent — and the majority of the world’s population — silently taking their lumps as gay people.

This has never been the ethos of America, right from the revolutionary beginning. It is in our blood to fight for what we believe in. American entitlement and the absence of “the tall poppy syndrome” keep Americans always re-inventing themselves, the most charismatic leading the way. In Asia, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, and please, no shouting, you’re making a scene.

Malaysia’s penal code is a stern mixture of Islamic and British Colonial law. As a result gay sex is a punishable offense with up to 20 years of jail time and caning. Gay bars here in Kuala Lumpur are modern day speakeasies subject to being raided by the police. Recently, the former deputy prime minister was jailed for 5 years on charges of sodomy — punitive residue from British colonial rule.

Amid my oh-so-American motivational rants to come out and get into action, I received a text from a Malay friend. By most people’s standards, he would be considered a prize catch in his mid-30 — handsome, professional, and educated in England. But he remains perpetually single here in Malaysia because, like most Asians, he lives at home with his family. And he’s Muslim. What this translates to is a secret life as a gay man and a lot of familial pressure to marry and have children.

I asked him if he’d been thinking that maybe he should go to America and find a husband and exercise his right to a green card. He shied away from the idea saying that it’s more likely that as a foreigner and a Muslim, he would face a new kind of oppression in America that he doesn’t face here in his home country: glass ceilings and Islamophobia. So it’s a toss up for him — the freedom to love and express himself as a gay man somewhere else or the acceptance of being a Muslim man in a Muslim country with all the attendant privileges (and restrictions) of that.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life in Southeast Asia, it’s that people here are not fixers or changers. They don’t look at something and think, as we Americans do, “What’s wrong with this and how can I improve it?” Here the prevailing wisdom is more about making things work as they are without calling undue attention to oneself. And that keeps Malaysia, India, Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the like perpetually behind the times when it comes to human rights, whether it’s the rights of women and ethnic minorities, or in this case, gays.

The Malaysian government spins the gay victories of America as cautionary tales from a land whose moral compass is spinning out of control. And the locals here watch on YouTube with raised eyebrows and disbelief — something they could never imagine or execute, themselves. It simply isn’t in their nature to foment a groundswell of change. They may rainbowfy their Facebook profile pic in solidarity, but that’s about as far as their activism will go.

But I as a Westerner think it is my nature to change and for the first time in years I felt a sense of pride as a far-flung American. That is a change. All those years of public advocacy work I did in the U.S., all my parents’ PFLAG meetings in Florida have paid off and maybe it’s time to dig out my American passport and come home. But this time I will be with my Malaysian boyfriend with a fiancé visa.



  1. Cute graphic, David. It looks like a still from a Jib Jab card. I think you¹ve done some good revising from the earlier draft you sent me, and your blog entry feels more of a piece now. I didn¹t really get the sense of the title, though, because I didn¹t read that your Southeast Asian friends were envious. Maybe more incredulous or impressed. Did I miss something? Love, Jean xoxoxo

    on 7/19/15 7:05 PM, Field notes from a noticer

  2. “The Eyes of Envy” great title to this piece. I think it is more than just envy; it is also resentment–why are we so much wealthier, more confident, smarter, etc. than they are. I’ve noticed many times, even when going to a doctor who speaks okay English, the doctor seems intimidated by me.

    Yes, you and your mother certainly did contribute toward the status that Gays now enjoy. I agree, could never happen in Malaysia.

    I’ve viewed your entry on the ship and Europe. How does one avoid gaining a lot of weight on the floating feast? Maybe dancing to that fabulous big-band music, made me very envious!

    Thanks for sharing your great photos and musings.

    All is same-same here. I have never heard back from the Thai eye doctor in BKK after I wrote to him asking if he could recommend someone in Chiang-Mai as going to BKK is a hardship for me. I finally identified a dr. that looked as though she may be qualified but the hospital gave me an appointment on a day that she was out of town for a week to a conference. I found about it after going to CM, one day before the appointment. TIT!

    All best to you and Chuan, Dianna

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