Benjamin Law, author of books The Family Law and Gaysia, the latter a hilarious, poignant and intuitive journalistic exploration of the unique queer cultures found across Asian countries, sits with us over a Skype session having finished working on the TV adaptation of his memoir The Family Law. Identifying himself under the double minority of being gay and Asian, “Gaysian”, in Australia, Law discusses contemporary minority and queer issues.
Q. So you’ve become sort of like the poster boy for the gay community. When you started off, did you expect something like that?
A. You mean sort of become like the go-to boy for gay rights? Well, I mostly write about two things — about myself and the people that interest me, and a lot of people who interest me happen to be queer. And when I write about myself, I can’t not write about being gay, you know; I’ve got a boyfriend, I am gay. It’s just the way straight people write about being married. Perhaps because there are fewer people writing about being queer that they sort of seek me out as a poster boy, but it’s not something I necessarily sought for myself.
Q. Now I’m curious about The Family Law, writing a memoir as a first book; that’s a pretty bold thing to do. I mean, no one knows you, yet you’re telling people, “Hey, I’m Mr No One from Nowhere but I’m still gonna talk all about myself and you’re going to read it”, and people did read it, and loved it.
A. Well, honestly I think it’s the total and complete narcissism that comes with being 20-something. I’m in my early 30s now, and looking back I think it is a little ballsy as you described, but another part of it is a slightly deluded sense of self-worth. Besides, I’ve always thought my family is very interesting. My parents migrated from Hong Kong and China in the ’70s, a period when there were few people like them. And so, in my work I also wanted to deal with larger issues of being gay and a Chinese minority in a predominantly white part of Australia. And I’ve always thought my mom is hilarious; she’s always saying the weirdest things and getting into graphic descriptions of her kids’ births with total strangers. And growing up, there was this thing she said, like, if we had an itchy bum, she wanted to know if we had worms or not so she would ask us whether it was our “cheek” or our “hole” that was itchy, and that sort of made it to the script for the TV adaptation based on The Family Law (slated for a 2016 release) and so we have all actors marching around saying “cheek or hole/ cheek or hole”, so yeah, it’s pretty funny.
Q. In Gaysia, you’ve described pretty intense conversations with queer people in, say, China, where there’s not much of a gay community and it’s pretty much on the hush-hush, so how’d you go about getting them to trust you enough to confide in you?
A. Well, half the people I met in my travels were people I’d already contacted online beforehand, so if people were open about their sexuality even within certain forums, I’d be introduced to them by someone they know, so I’m already vouched for.
Q. What was your weirdest experience in India… other than with the food?
A. No, no, the gastric experience was just because it was my first time, and in fact, in retrospect, it’s pretty funny. I’ve been to India since then as well and I just feel that one can adjust very quickly. I suppose meeting Baba Ramdev was a very interesting experience. He’s someone so iconic in India, his face is everywhere you go, it was like meeting a celebrity you know, and he had all the fanfare of celebrity around him — his minders, his publicists, he had infrastructure. And you know, with his yoga class, it’s my first 24 hours in Haridwar, I’m freezing and here’s this guy who comes out doing weird things with his body. And then tells me in an interview that he can cure homosexuality, but when I get into such situations, I just think that it makes for good material, so I’m happy.
Q. Can you tell us a little about how you came out, and not just to family but in general. I know some people who’ve done that through mass texts, I myself just got real nonchalant about it and hoped that news would spread around and I’d be saved the trouble of having to “come out”. So what was it like for you?
A. It’s funny; I think you’re touching on the fact that coming out is a pretty exhausting process, and it’s never just over; you constantly have to explain yourself over and over again. Just the other day, I took a taxi cab in Sydney and the taxi driver went on about the gays and lesbians of Sydney and how he suspects that the public transport works are secretly all a lesbian conspiracy and I just went, “Whoa, what’s wrong with being lesbian? I’m gay myself.” With some people, it’s exhausting to play the teacher, but I was like, if you’re happy to go off about gays and lesbians, I’m happy to make your taxi ride as awkward as possible. So to answer your question, it’s not just one moment but you constantly have to make people reassess their assumptions about you.
Q. In art, do you think that a minority or marginalised community, not necessarily the queer community, just any minority community, has this pressure to always be a representative for their community?
A. Yeah, I definitely think that if you’re a writer or a performer from a minority group, there is this burden to be the best role model possible. But people are complicated; they’re not just virtuous, and they’re not just evil. Most of us are both at any given time. So for me, when people say that you’re a role model for this or that community, it’s important to realise that that is just a part of a much larger conversation, and I’m just one person. I don’t represent my community, I don’t represent Chinese people, I just represent myself. It’s funny — very good Chinese-Australian communities have questioned my work before, saying I’m not a very great role model, and my answer is I didn’t ask to be. If there’s some controversy with a heterosexual character, you don’t hear people saying that he’s such a bad role model for straight people. That’s because there’s enough diversity there so that it doesn’t have to be. So I think the only way to remedy that is to make sure that there’s diversity in representations of the queer community or any other minority community as well.
Q. There also exists the “post-modern gay”, who is perfectly open about the fact that he’s into dudes, but still tries desperately hard to defy stereotypes and be all masculine. Why do you think this is so, that people might be out about being gay but still deny certain characters that might traditionally be associated with that label?
A. For me, personally, I understand that dangerous dynamic wherein you grow up and you see all these images of gay people that you don’t identify with; for example, when I used to see the Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras on television and everyone’s in drag and floats, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s not me!” As a child, when you see people be so negative about that stuff, you just want to remove yourself from it, which is horrible because it’s a kind of internalised homophobia. And so people police themselves far too much and are like, “I’m real masc, and I’m not like them!” Which is sad because it’s not up to you to defy stereotypes, its up to other people to go beyond stereotypes and see that someone might be a drag queen but he’s also a really interesting family member who also reads a lot of interesting books with a fascinating background in computer science or something. If someone can only look at you and see a one-dimensional person that’s their problem, not yours. Be whoever you want to be and if someone else can look at you only in terms of those stereotypes, then f**k ’em.
Q. You and your beau have been together for over a decade. Where are you guys in your relationship now?
A. Well, all our heterosexual friends are having babies at the moment, and when your friends start having babies, you’re not partying as much as you once did because you don’t really want to; you’ve had a lot of it already. And I’ve never been a party guy anyway. Ben’s that kind of guy who really craves lying in bed Friday nights and reading because the week’s been so intense and so out of control. And I get these natural highs from other things, like when I go overseas with my boyfriend or get really good expensive Japanese whiskey or hang out with my friends who are out of control anyway and it feels like you’re on drugs when you’re around their babies because they’re just screaming and screaming and screaming. That’s sort of where we’re at right now.