By Maria Ekarista & Annabelle Cheung
Reading fanfictions about your favourite gay ships, following queer-friendly accounts on Tumblr… To certain young queers, this is the largest extent to which they can embrace their identity – through an online persona.
Although Australia is more progressive than much of the world in recognising LGBTQI+ rights, that does not immediately make it accessible to all Australians, the fight against homophobia is still ongoing, and at times extremely exhausting for those from a more conservative cultural background.
Following the assault of four LGBTQI+ men the night before the Mardi Gras Sydney Parade, a need to review our own country’s inclusiveness has emerged. In Sydney, this behaviour would have been condemned; in some countries, hate crime isn’t even a “crime”, but a legal bureaucratic measure against the vicious disease called “homosexuality”. The reality, however, will only be fabricated in the name of “morals” by the authority.
In Indonesia, homophobia has peaked in recent years when moral panic against homosexuality accumulated intensively. Politicians became openly homophobic, banning “community ‘group shelters’ for LGBT individuals” (Firdaus, 2018). Police forcibly shaving hair off transgender women and forcing them to march and chant until their “men voices” came out in an attempt to “correct” their gender identity, was a ruthless breach of human rights, but was excused by the government. These external factors undoubtedly took a heavy toll on queer Indonesians’ wellbeing, particularly the youth still discovering their queer identity.
Cyr, an Indonesian Arts student who identifies as pansexual, became a victim of severe internalised homophobia and self-torment. Not only was she prone to panic attacks and episodes of psychosis, she suffered from anxiety and had once attempted to commit suicide. Whenever she had to visit her hometown during holidays, she experienced a “fear of being back home closeted, and also being cut out from all the necessary resources and support I was able to receive here [in Australia]”, and that her mind “insinuates it as if I’m leaving this place forever, whereas in reality it’s only for 3 months”.
Prior to discovering her queer identity, Cyr used to be a devout Christian who was “somewhat active” in her church community. Upon Christianity’s long history of condemning homosexual acts, Cyr no longer feels comfortable attending church, as she struggles to find a “church denomination that is not only supportive of gay people but also queer inclusive”. Her process of “reconciling what it is to be a person of faith and also be queer” led to wonders of whether these two traits can coexist.
As an Asian Christian, Jessica, a bisexual genderfluid student with family roots from Hong Kong, also claimed the lack of LGBT-friendly churches existing in the society isolates many queer Christians. Jessica compared the LGBTQI+ community with “lepers”, a biblical reference that illustrates a group of diseased outcasts, in the eyes of the Church. Jessica stressed the irony inherent in Christian beliefs. “We’re very outcasted by a community that claims to love and accept everyone!” she exclaimed. Jessica, on her part, believed that the main message of the Bible was love, she recited: “God’s sacrificial love is the purest of love, I think if you feel that way for someone, and if they reciprocate it, that justifies reasons for being gay.”
Jessica recalled holding hands with a female friend in Hong Kong, which attracted stares from strangers. On the contrary, this would happen less in Australia. Jessica concluded that an integral part of Chinese culture favours traditional gender norms with very binary expectations, which makes it “scary to come out because there is no ‘grey area’”. Cisgender and heterosexual privilege takes away any empathy for queer people as “they don’t experience the fear of discrimination”.
Suny Pereira, a half-Thai half-Brazilian who lives in Australia, spoke about her experience being out as a bisexual in a Catholic school, especially one remarkable instance of receiving an F grade on an assignment because her teacher didn’t believe “ someone of your level of intelligence can write something as good as this”.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Thailand also has its homophobic side. According to Suny, many Thai people still have the misconception that being gay equals being transgender, and media representation of LGBTQI+ people remain comedical with a slightly degrading tone. But most importantly, the stereotype that Thai trans women are all prostitutes disabled them from having a normal lifestyle, e.g. if they applied for a job at a corporate firm in a major city, they would very likely be turned down since transgender people were seen as inappropriate in a professional business setting.
The endorsement of Western ideals amongst the younger generation contributes to homophobic attitudes as well, “the American dream” that consists of a traditional marriage and a nuclear family, is surprisingly a model lifestyle that most Thai youths aspire to have. Although same-sex marriage is not legal in Thailand at the moment, being accepting of LGBTQI+ people is in fact, very entrenched in Thai society, which is now being contested by ideals from westernised Bangkokers.
Suny explained that in Thailand, normalisation of trans people was demonstrated practically: allowing students to wear the uniform of the gender they feel comfortable in, using honorifics to acknowledge one’s gender regardless of presentation. On the other hand, the LGBTQI+ community in Australia were seen as “snowflakes”: they were being catered to but not integrated into the society. Suny insisted Australia’s approach has to change in terms of building a community where “you don’t ever see someone else looking funny at someone”, in order to see a decreasing suicide rate and greater participation in the workforce.
In the midst of conflicted times, inclusive cultural groups that are queer-friendly came to the aid for a lot of closeted youth who feel marginalised and misrepresented. “Friends of Brown Gays,” founded by Sidd Sharma and relatives, is a group that gathers South Asian queer people and their families, to create a metaphorical extended family. Fobgays aims to defy stereotypes of “fresh off the boat” migrants being conservative and undeveloped, whilst establishing an allyship that combats both homophobia and racism that exists even in queer circles. “We deserve to be here as much as you do.” Sidd attested.
One of the most surprising experiences Sidd has had, was people’s positive reaction to his invitation to march at the Mardi Gras Parade, of which he initially felt skeptical about. Many people, including friends of friends, friends of parents, sponsors, technically strangers, were welcome to the idea of marching at a parade that celebrates LGBTQI+ diversity.
Similarly, Cyr’s first encounter with a Mardi Gras float called “Selamat Datang” [“Welcome” in Indonesian] was one of overflowing emotion, immense gratitude and a sense of belonging. “I remember giving a hug to one of the marchers and I was about to cry because, oh my god is this real? This is my first time seeing a float that is specifically for queer Indonesians.” Cyr reminisced.
To some degree, Australia provides a “safe haven” for queers, but not without a lurking dark side, against which an ongoing battle persists.