Is Queerness a White Invention?
BY SARAH NGU
This piece was published in the 29th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
This blurring of boundaries in all forms is what makes Southeast Asia, as a whole, “queer.” And this is our gift that we can share with the world. For we were queer before the word existed.
Many queer Asian Americans feel that to be queer is to assimilate into white American culture, leaving behind their ‘traditional’ cultural heritage and abandoning their blood-families. Many Asian Americans and Asians actively propagate the idea that queerness is a white, Western import. But this idea blatantly goes against the historical record. Plenty of historical evidence suggests strongly that gender and sexual pluralism – that is, societal legitimization and respect for different gender and sexual behaviors, roles and identities – was quite prevalent in Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, and it has been the advent of modernity and largely white, Christian colonialism that has undermined this pluralism.
The first password I created when I got to United States was “Malaysia.” I was ten then, aware that I had a self who was Malaysian, but also aware that I might lose her over time. Since I didn’t want to forget my country, I chose its name as my password, hoping that the ritual of entering it over and over again would engrain it in my consciousness. Over the next fifteen years, us kids would only have the chance to visit Malaysia once. Our parents couldn’t afford to travel as an entire family, so what we knew of Malaysia came filtered through them.
It was they who reminded us that we were not Chinese, but rather Malaysian Chinese; that “Malaysian” food was the best food in the world because it blended Chinese, Indian, Malay, and indigenous cuisines; that although there are racial and religious tensions, everyone wishes everyone “Selamat Hari Raya!” (“Happy Eid!” in Malay), “Happy Lunar New Year!,” or “Happy Deepvali!” It was my mom who told us that my great-aunt was a Communist guerilla who was killed by the government. It was my dad who lectured us about why Sarawak, our home-state, was being exploited by the federal government based in West Malaysia. It was they who transmitted updates on our cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
During the first five years of moving to America, we kids weren’t the least bit interested in Malaysia. But as we lost our accents, learned how to play softball and baseball, and become more integrated, we started to ask more questions. “Tell us about that great-aunt again, mom,” we asked. And although we kids only spoke English, we started becoming curious about the different sounds of Hokkien, Fuchao, Mandarin, and Bahasa Malay that came from my parents’ mouths as they dialed their parents or their friends.
Now in my late twenties, I’ve traveled to Southeast Asia every year for the past four years. I’ve traveled by myself or with a friend through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but I’ve never visited Malaysia without my parents. I rely on them to take us to the right restaurants, to barter in the right language in, to translate with our grandparents, and to remind us to not wear short-shorts when entering government buildings, which are mainly staffed by Muslims. As a result, I hardly remember where anything is located, and I’m of little help to my American friends who email me for Malaysian vacation tips.
When I decided to fully come out to my parents in 2016, I knew that I was not just risking my relationship with them, but also, risking my ties to my entire extended family and our home-country. If I lost my parents, I feared that I would become unmoored—a plank of wood floating in the sea of America, unattached from any tree. That fear is more imaginary than real – after all, many queer immigrants make the choice to cut off their parents and still find ways to be connected to their heritage – but nevertheless it was a real fear to me.
The first few years were the most difficult. My parents are extremely Christian. Almost every conversation and interaction about my “decision” would spiral into intense fights, typically couched in theological language. But I knew deep down they were panicking and scrambling to answer the question, “What happened to our oldest child?”
They never asked that question out loud. But I knew it was on their minds when my mom said to me once, quite casually, “You know, we didn’t move to America from Malaysia, maybe you wouldn’t have been gay.”
I replied, “Mom, that’s not how attraction works.”
And she said, “Yeah you might have still felt a certain way, but you probably would not have chosen to be in a relationship with a woman. That may not even have been on your radar. You would just go along with what everyone else did.”
Her implication was simple: Gayness—and all queerness—is a Western thing.
As absurd as her statement was – one does not simply step on a plane, and 24 hours later, emerge with a new sexuality – I knew what she meant. Almost all of the out, queer people in my life at the time were white. Queer characters on television and in the media were usually white. To come out as a queer immigrant feels like stepping off a brown land into a sea of white.
During those years, I attended my first-ever LGBTQIA Christian conference hosted by Q Christian Fellowship. I was stunned to see a booth called “Free Parent Hugs!” where people would line up to receive hugs from white, American moms and dads. I teared up upon seeing this, but I couldn’t bring myself to stand in line. It felt akin to waiting in line to be adopted. Although I deeply wanted a hug, I felt that walking into their embrace would somehow only further alienate me from myself. Already, my family has been alienated and uprooted from our motherlands twice over—how could I uproot myself from a tree that has already been uprooted from its native soil?
The LGBTQIA community often speaks of “chosen family,” but for many queer people of color, finding a “family” that accepts them sometimes means finding a family whose skin does not look like theirs, whose tongues do not know their languages and whose stomachs do not share the same cravings—a family that, in fact, wields certain privileges and powers that our biological families will never have. It looks, in other words, oddly like assimilation.
My mother’s views are not unique to her—they are indicative of mainstream views on LGBTQ issues held by many first-generation Asian Americans and Asians. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the current prime minister of Malaysia, spoke at a press conference in late 2018 in response to recommendations made by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. He said, “While we agree with suggestions made by the [commission], we must remind them that our value system is not the same as the West. There are certain things we cannot accept, even though they are considered human rights in the west. This includes LGBT and same-sex marriages.”[i]
Yet I sensed that the truth was more complicated than what Mahathir and my mother were telling me. I reflected on how common it was for men and women to hold hands as friends while walking down the street in Malaysia, a supposedly ‘conservative’ society. I recalled how frequently, when in a restaurant, my parents would quietly point out that the effeminate waiter serving us was a “pondan,” a derogatory word for people whom we would describe as ‘trans women’ in American English. Last year, when I traveled to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I was struck by how commonly accepted “kathoeys” – a Thai word that can refer to ‘trans women,’ ‘effeminate men,’ or a ‘third gender’ altogether – were. Yes, it may be currently illegal to commit sodomy in Malaysia and Thai citizens cannot legally change their gender identification, but there seemed to be a lot more freedom and range in gender expression on the streets of Southeast Asia even than in New York City, where I currently live.
So I started reading everything I could on LGBTQ history in Southeast and East Asia. My main text was Michael Peletz’s Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia, as well as many articles and selections from other books[iii]. I wanted to know if my queerness had roots that ran deeper than my parents let on, if I could find a lineage or history that I could attach myself to, even if I had to skip over my immediate family.
What I found surprised me. Not only was queerness not white, it was arguably whiteness that erased queerness. The historical record suggests that early modern (16th century onwards) Southeast Asia was a region that encouraged societal tolerance, even respect, of gender and sexual fluidity, and that such a tolerance was eroded by the forces of modernity and European, Christian colonialism.
Southeast Asia was, and still is, a region that contains an incredible, interactive multiplicity of religions, cultures, cuisines, and languages. There is a native comfort with diversity, fluidity, and porous boundaries, as opposed to binary, categorical thinking. This is all the more true when it comes to religion.
According to Michael Peletz, early modern Southeast Asian religion did not portray “god” as a single, masculine deity[iv]. The universe consisted of polarized entities: sky and earth, mountain and sea, sun and moon, life and death, and, male and female. These opposing yet complementary forces were needed to hold the cosmos together. Female gods were in charge of the underworld and the earth, and male gods were in charge of the upper world, the sky, and sun. Sometimes gods were even presented as both male and female, as in the case of the Hindu god, Shiva. It was believed that both male and female elements exist in a person.
Moreover, people who embodied both masculinity and femininity tended to hold roles of sacred and religious authority. They were accorded such respect because they embodied the universe’s purity before it was split into various different forms of life. Therefore, it was believed that they could communicate with the gods in a way that ordinary single-gendered humans could not.
In Indonesia, these “male and female” persons are called “bissus,” who were the priests of the Bugis people and continue to exist today[v]. The bissus channeled divine spirits in order to bestow blessings and were stewards of sacred manuscripts.[vi] They are typically “male-bodied” individuals who dress in both masculine and feminine attire, jewelry, and makeup.[vii] Today, bissus’ power has lessened, but they still perform blessings for people who are about to make the hajj.
Since at least the late 1800’s, Thailand has had “kathoey” dancers and spirit mediums. “Kathoey” is a term that refers to male-bodied individuals who appear as women, or “lady-boys,” to use the English translation. In 1935, a British man commented, “There are certain number of men who habitually wear female clothing and grow their hair long. It does not seem to be thought that there is anything wrong with this… In England, if a man goes about dressed as a woman he is arrested.”[ix] Today, kathoeys are still common in Thailand, and while they are accepted as legitimate, they are more marginalized than before.
In Borneo (a large island that contains Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), reports from the 19th century reveal that the indigenous Iban people revered “manangs,” or shamans, who were leaders responsible for the agricultural and spiritual rhythms of their villages. There were many types of manangs, but the most esteemed were the “manang bali,” who were typically male-bodied individuals in female attire and took cis men as their husbands. Although Iban society maintains strict gender roles, they permitted “manangs” to transgress them due to their diving calling.
In these three examples and many more, religion created a space of legitimacy for non-normative gender and sexual behaviors through the role of priests, shamans, etc. But the authority that these priests wielded was tied to an agrarian, religious cosmology. Once the power of that cosmology began to be less compelling in the age of science and technology, so too declined the status of all ritual specialists, including “transgendered” folks.[x]
European imperialism also contributed largely to this decline. Currently, more than half of the countries in the world that penalize gay sex are former British colonies.[xi] European colonizers were incentivized to de-legitimize or murder ‘transgendered’ ritual specialists, as their spiritual authority competed with the authority of the Church. Manang balis no longer exist in part due to the Iban people’s mass conversion to Christianity.
Moreover, European authorities enforced patriarchal norms in how they distributed economic power and land rights, undermining the status of Southeast Asian women who held much more freedom and power than their European counterparts. This is significant because “transgendered ritual specialists” were esteemed largely because “femininity” itself was esteemed. It was “feminine” people – regardless of their bodies – who occupied the highest religious roles in society. And as femininity became devalued, so was gender fluidity. Strict gender norms began to be imposed, or self-imposed, on Southeast Asian societies.
Thailand is an emblematic case-study. Although for centuries, gender expression was not highly differentiated in Thailand – to the point where Europeans remarked that they had a hard time telling women from men – the Thai monarchy began passing a series of Cultural Mandates in the early 1940s, stipulating that men had to wear jackets and trousers, and women had to wear skirts and blouses. Women’s and men’s names also had to be distinct. The Prime Minister of Thailand felt Thailand was not respected as a civilized nation by Western powers, and blamed the French reluctance to return territory to Thailand on his people’s failure to dress according to Western standards. The foreign secretary of Britain observed that the Cultural Mandates was due to the “Thai desire to Westernize and modernize everything Thai which [is] rooted in the inferiority complex of an oriental people which has only recently succeeded in establishing its theoretical equality of status with the European Powers.”[xii]
What This Means for Me
When the Disney movie, Moana, came out, I felt envious. Moana initially leaves her community in order to set sail and pursue her desire for adventure, but her rebellious choices ends up helping her community re-discover their “voyager” roots. How convenient, I thought, that her choice between herself and her family was not a trade-off. When I heard the line from a song in the movie, “we tell the stories of our elders in the never ending chain,” a part of me always winced. Have I broken the chain?
I began this research project for personal reasons; I wanted to find out if my story could turn out like Moana’s. Can I claim a queer, historical lineage? To be technical about it: No. Pre-colonial queerness in Malaysia is located within indigenous and Malay communities; my family has lived in Malaysia for at least four generations, but our roots are in China. Can I really claim these queer ancestors as my own?
I’ve come to realize, with the help of a few Malaysian friends, that this mode of technical parsing and categorization is not what Southeast Asians do. The attempt to pin things down into either/or categories is a fairly post-Enlightenment, Western approach—and not a very queer-friendly one at that. Particularly in Borneo, where I was born, cultural inter-mixing and inter-marrying between indigenous and Chinese communities is completely normal and does not carry the historical baggage of “cultural appropriation” that exists in America. This blurring of boundaries in all forms is what makes Southeast Asia, as a whole, “queer.” And this is our gift that we can share with the world. For we were queer before the word existed.
But North America and Western Europe has yet to confront the anti-queer legacy of white colonialism in Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Currently in Britain, Yew Fook Sam, a gay Malaysian man, is under threat of deportation by United Kingdom authorities for overstaying his visa. The fact that UK judges have denied his asylum appeal, which cites Malaysia’s anti-sodomy laws, is doubly cruel in light of the fact that British colonial authorities were responsible for instituting those laws.
Here in the United States, there are an estimated 267,000 adult, undocumented immigrants – mostly Latinx, some Asian – who identify as LGBTQ.[xiii] NQAPIA National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) has been organizing to bring attention to the unique risks and dangers that LGBTQ immigrants face, especially South Asian and Muslim immigrants, if they are deported to their countries of origin. The United States is a Western power that has aided and directly participated in colonialism. It ought to examine its moral responsibility for the systemic reasons that cause some LGBTQ+ people to feel unsafe in their home-countries and to seek refuge in the West. Only by honestly confronting history can we, as Americans, create a morally responsible immigration policy that queer people deserve.
Sarah Ngu (pronouns flexible) was born in Borneo, Malaysia and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. A graduate of Columbia University, Sarah is a co-founder of Church Clarity, a database that scores churches on how clearly they communicate their policies for LGBTQ+ people and women in leadership. Sarah also occasionally reports as a freelance journalist and has written for Splinter News, Sojourners, Jacobin, The Slant, and Public Radio International on a hunger strike in Chinatown, queer Christians, labor unions, and indigenous representation in Crazy Rich Asians.
[i] Joseph Kaos Jr, “Dr M: M’sia does not accept LGBT culture, same-sex marriage,” The Star Online, Sept 21 2018, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/09/21/msia-does-not-accept-lgbt-culture-same-sex-marriage/
[iii] A caveat: Most of the research on gender-fluid ritual specialists is conducted by white, Western professors, and almost all of their primary sources are records kept by European settlers.
[iv] Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, as well as local indigenous Austronesion religions.
[v] Sharyn Graham Davies, “The transcendent bissu,” Aeon, June 12, 2018., https://aeon.co/essays/the-west-can-learn-from-southeast-asias-transgender-heritage
[vi] The Bugis actually believe in five genders: masculine men (oroane), effeminate women (makkunrai), effeminate men who have sex with men (calabai), masculine women who have sex with women (calalai), and bissu who neither male or female. Irwan Martua Hidayana, “On gender diversity in Indonesia,” The Conversation, September 15, 2018, http://theconversation.com/on-gender-diversity-in-indonesia-101087
[vii] The phrases “male-bodied” and “female-bodied” are shorthand for “people with penises” and “people with vaginas.” I thought about using the terms ‘assigned male at birth’ or ‘assigned female at birth,’ but I decided not to because ‘assignment’ carries medical and scientific connotations that would not be relevant to Southeast Asia’s early modern history.
[viii] Sharyn Graham Davies, “What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders,” The Conversation, June 16, 2016, http://theconversation.com/what-we-can-learn-from-an-indonesian-ethnicity-that-recognizes-five-genders-60775
[ix] Michael Peletz, Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009), 78
[x] I put ‘transgendered’ in quotes not just because it’s a word foreign to the local context, but because it etymologically implies a traversal or transgression of gender boundaries. But if the boundaries are blurry or porous to begin with, is ‘trans’ the right prefix?
[xi] Ben Westcott, “The homophobic legacy of the British Empire,” CNN, Sept 12, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/11/asia/british-empire-lgbt-rights-section-377-intl/index.html
[xii] Leslie Ann Jeffrey, Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity, and Prostitution Policy in Thailand (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2002), 17.
[xiii] Gary J. Gates, “LGBT Adult Immigrants in the United States,” The Williams Institute: UCLA School of Law, March 2013, https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/research/census-lgbt-demographics-studies/us-lgbt-immigrants-mar-2013/