People and Places, Films and Ideas
links in blue are to other websites
Azure Love in Gion:
According to Google, there are one - maybe two - gay bars in Kyoto. According to those who live in the city, there are sixteen.
2.5c = 1e:
The combination of cachaça
(the local rum), sugar, ice and slices of lime is an instant and powerful mood-lifter. One glass puts the world to rights, restores one's energy and makes one handsome, generous and wise. The second glass confers omnipotence and the third glass, which should only be imbibed by experts, allows you to transcend existence and glimpse eternity.
The King and the Clown:
Thus the relationship between Jang Saeng and Gong Gil that forms the heart of the film remains understated. We see the emotion that binds them, we see them sleep together but we never see them kiss or make love - and if we are wise, we do not want to do so. This is not a film about sex, but a film about love, and at the end of the day love always takes precedence.
Angel in the Toilet:
In a dank and dirty public toilet loiters a semi-naked youth with tattered wings. From time to time, men
enter, urinate and excrete, wash and leave, unaware of the figure watching them. Then a moustachoied figure in a tank
top reaches out to him, to fuck him silently in one of the stalls. Lost in reverie, the angel grips his anonymous lover tightly.
I was - perhaps naively - reluctant to offend Jom. Switch on the light, point to the lump,
which I assumed was a wart, and ask him to leave? No, I couldn't do that. Instead of which, I whispered in his ear:
"An-nee aray?" What's this?
Almost gay Isaan:
Things looked up in Ubon, the capital of the province bordering both Cambodia and Laos.
The two cute bellboys at the four-star Lai Thong Hotel, who both insisted on delivering
our two small bags to our room, smiled politely at me and complicitly at the Squeeze.
The waiter in the Chinese-Japanese restaurant was also young, good-looking and friendly.
My grandmother is ill:
His beloved grandmother - the one who brought him up while his parents worked abroad
- has suffered a stroke. The hospital won't treat her unless the family come up with
$750 downpayment. He has $300 of his money - the $150 I sent him and the
$150 he has saved - and the family has come up with another $150. They still need
another $300. Can I send it?
My eyes were certainly glued to the screen by the long sequences in which
one, two or more cute young men rubbed up against each other near-naked (that full-frontal is the exception rather than the rule). It was only in
the second half of the film that both a plot and a serious social message appear.
London: There is longing and hurt in her eyes. I take her hand and kiss it. Then I lean forward and gently kiss her cheek as I tell her how soft she is - it is not a lie - and how much I love her above all others in the world. And while I say the words, that statement is also true.
Love of Siam: The basic story is simple.
Hitman Mek is hired to kill It but is unconvinced of the need to do so.
After a shoot-out with his employer's men, the wounded Mek and It hide out in a rooftop shack.
Cue tender bathing. Cue sexual intercourse. Cue wondering-about-one's-sexual-identity.
Berlin: On top of buildings, lining bridges and
in fountains, adonises can be seen fighting, dying, wrestling, relaxing, cavorting
and dreaming in postures that display their anatomies to their best advantage, and
usually at an angle which allows the viewer to contemplate their every asset (and frontet).
Paris: An exotic, pastoral scene. A long-haired, long-bearded man in his thirties in a white robe is lecturing, in a manner that is firm but kind, to an informal group of twelve young men, all of whom are listening intently. Most of the students are naked; the others are draped by cloth that will shortly fall to the ground.
years since doctors in Los Angeles and New York first diagnosed rare
strains of pneumonia and skin tumours in a few of their homosexual
patients. The diseases resisted treatment and were symptomatic of an
immune failure that led to death within weeks or months. It took
eighteen months for the news to reach the scientific press - a few
paragraphs in the US government-published Morbidity and Mortality
Weekly Report in June 1981. By the end of that year it was clear
that a new disease was affecting increasing numbers of gay men in the
United States. AIDS had arrived.
Chiang Rai, Thailand:
Way up at the northern tip of Thailand, where it leans against Laos and
Burma and where you can follow the Mekong a few miles upstream into
China, lies the rural province of Chiang Rai. Narrow roads wind over
rolling green hills where only a few years ago opium was the primary
cash crop. Most of the harvest has moved over the border into Burma but
here and there relics remain, like the expensive houses scattered
amongst villages, faded posters from the Thai government's War on Drugs
and the Opium Museum in the town of Sop Ruak, which both honours and
denigrates the world's most famous drug.
Bangkok, Thailand: There we were, more than a hundred gay men from across the world at the International AIDS
Conference in July. It was the middle of the afternoon and we
were commenting on a statement of principles for HIV interventions for
men who have sex with men. Many of us knew each other from years of such
conferences and working together and the atmosphere was relaxed. In the
chair, mediating between the floor and the panel who had drafted the
statement, was Shivananda Khan,
the doyen of HIV activism in South Asia. Shiv is one of nature's aristocrats; in a previous life he was surely a
princess, both decorative and functional, the power behind the throne as
her maharajah dallied in the harem.
Dili, East Timor: Okay, I
admit defeat. There is no way I can fill a column on gay life in this
town. It's not there isn't any. It's just that there's so little of it.
A leading global expert on HIV/AIDS (me) estimates that in the East
Timorese capital, which has about 120,000 inhabitants, about 1,500 -
3,000 men have sex with men. Perhaps 100 of these is willing to admit it
or is so camp that he doesn't even need to open his mouth, and on any
one night, about 15 are going to put on their best clothes and head into
for the town's night spots. Which means that gay life here isn't exactly
Sylhet, Bangladesh: It's eight o'clock in the evening and Tarique and Paritosh are taking me
out to look at the cruising spots. Until I flew in here this afternoon,
all I knew of this provincial city and the surrounding area was that it was where
most of the Bangladeshis in the UK come from - and since most of the
Bangladeshis in the UK live in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, I feel
a kind of affinity with the place. Whether or not Sylhet feels an
affinity with me is a different matter.
Siem Reap, Cambodia: What, I asked Phearum, was
the transliteration of the Khmer term for a man / men who love(s) men (Khmer is one of the lucky languages that doesn't have a
plural form.) He took a pen and my notepad and wrote boros sralanh
boros. It's very long, I said. Maybe it will be supplanted by "gay".
He and Sophat shook their heads. "Gay" is too foreign, too suggestive of
pretty girl. But boros sralanh boros doesn't trip off the tongue
easily, I pointed out.
Predictably, the love affair turned sour and Nok
was soon on the streets. For the next two months he sold himself,
finding foreigners more willing to pay than the Dutch. And with money in
his pocket and an itch in his pants he went to sex clubs and ingested
various drugs. A week before he came home, high on ecstasy, he allowed
himself to be gang-banged in a dark room. It was painful and there was
blood but he did not regret it. When we met, the pain had gone but the
blood was intermittent.
Bangkok, Thailand: Some DVDs fall out of Son's suitcase.
Mother picks them up and is shocked to see that they are pornography.
Father angrily attacks son. Mother - a squat overweight figure in garish
black make-up, a purple bikini-top under which balloons of silicon gel
wobble and a long blue towel over men's shorts - defends her offspring
by executing a perfect martial arts high kick against Father's head. Son
escapes and the rest of the room collapses in laughter.
All these words focused on the sex of the partner, not
on what the two partners did together. Thus although English-speakers were
usually aware of sexual roles - the idea that one partner in a same-sex
relationship assumes an "active" "insertive", "top" or "masculine" role
while the other is "passive" / "receptive / bottom" or "feminine" - these
roles were not critical to a gay or lesbian identity.
Bangkok, Thailand: I wondered where people danced; by the end of the evening I had my
answer. Each couple or group dance at their table, as enthusiastically as in any nightclub where the floor is clear.
So why the tables? I asked my friend. Because Sake probably doesn't have a dance licence, he
suggested. Oh, I said, aware that table-dancing had suddenly acquired a whole new meaning.
Some people who work in HIV/AIDS say
that they speak for MSM; they don't; no-one can. They talk about the MSM
community; there isn't one. They talk about having an MSM identity; they
can't. MSM leads people down the same mistaken path that gay did - it
reduces the variety of men who have sex with men to a single identity and a
have no goal beyond whatever money they can negotiate with their clients,
many are hoping for a lifelong commitment. Take me to Europe or the United
States, they whisper with their eyes to likely candidates; give me a home,
buy me clothes, send me to college, buy me a car, and I will devote my life
to you. I will even tell you I love you. And if truth resides in hope and
intention rather than provable fact, then such love is indeed often true.
Sex between men is a phenomenon as old as history. In ancient China,
it was called the Love of the Cut Sleeve, after an emperor who cut off the
sleeve of his robe rather than wake his male partner who was sleeping on it.
In ancient Greece and mediaeval Japan warriors took teenage boys as lovers.
In many North American tribes men who dressed and lived as women spent their
lives with other men. Mediaeval Arab literature has many examples of poetry
and stories of men who made love to younger men.
Tokyo, Japan: I have never been to Japan before and I'm not particularly
looking forward to this trip. No-one there speaks English; the Japanese are
racist. Just getting from one appointment to another is going to be a major
hassle. I'll get lost and no-one will help me. And I'll starve for the five
days I am there because I won't be able to order anything in a restaurant.
Prejudices; where would we be without them?
Abidjan, Ivory Coast:
June 1998. It is the rainy season, but despite the band of cloud stretching
across the CNN weather map from Cameroon to the middle of the Atlantic, it
hasn't rained once since I arrived. Hubert and I wander through the
Intercontinental Hotel d'Ivoire, its air-conditioned comfort almost
successful in its imitation of its Northern brothers. Certainly it is more
luxurious than the Novotel where I am staying, where the humidity in my room
crinkles the papers of the report that Hubert and I are writing and
threatens to short-circuit my laptop.
Mexico City: I
have three companions this Friday night in the centre of the city: Adriana
from Ecuador, a lawyer with a loud voice and dark orange hair who insists
she is at the head of every demonstration that demands women's rights, Livia,
a journalist from So Paulo, Brazil, in her late twenties, tall and thin,
Rebecca, also Brazilian, dumpy and middle-aged, director of communications
in a family planning organisation. We have been colleagues in a seminar on
sexual health which closed earlier in the day; now, in the upbeat mood that
only a good meal and several glasses of wine can instil, we are looking for
the Cabaret Tito - a pun on "Little Cabaret" and the owner's name - and the
promise of a two hour drag show.
San José, Costa Rica. "You know the best way to recognise a successful hustler in San Jos?" asks Antonio. "He has an
earring, a walkman, Reeboks or Filas and a backpack. The backpack is very important. It shows that his latest customer
is Canadian. Canadians are very popular; the boys find them younger and much
more attractive than Americans. It's every boy's dream that a rich Canadian
will fall in love with him and take him back to Toronto. Of course if the
Canadian is not only rich but attractive the boy really has struck gold."
Vancouver, Canada. In
the distant past it was a biker bar, then for a time lesbians took up
residence (some prejudiced wits might say that nobody noticed the
difference), but since the mid-1980s it has been mid-week home to gay men who are
down on their luck or never had much luck in the first place. There are always a
few Real Women and a few Drag Queens and most of the time it is easy to tell the
difference. And while it tolerates no illegal drug use, many of its
customers are familiar with chemical concoctions that William Burroughs, Aldous
Huxley, Timothy O'Leary, Hunter S Thompson, and others would be happy to experiment with.
Dhaka, Bangladesh. The first day of
my first visit to this sprawling, impoverished city. My contact, a Filipino,
has invited me for a meal. In a karaoke restaurant. A Thai karaoke restaurant.
I have never been in a karaoke restaurant before, of any nationality, and I do
not want to be here now. After a fourteen-hour flight and a six-hour time change,
the only place I want to be is in bed. But Fernando and I are to be colleagues and I have not
the heart to plead jet-lag.
Pattaya, Thailand Nin was followed by Nan, equally thin but well-defined, in blue shorts rather than
green slip and with jewellery where Nin had none. Nan was older, we would learn,
twenty-six to Nin's twenty-one. He was less good-looking, with
too prominent lips and teeth and his voice was louder and higher pitched. But he
was welcome and it was
not long before he invited himself onto my lap.
Asmara, Eritrea Friday evening in a windowless room in the Intercontinental Hotel. A reception for the local development bigwigs at the end of a week in which colleagues and I have been working with local journalists, hoping to improve their coverage of HIV/AIDS. About sixty people, half white expatriates, half local Eritreans. Speeches are made, drinks are drunk and snacks are snuck. Some people leave, others replenish their glasses.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil The tail-end of the Rio Carnival, two in the morning at the Galeria Alaska, haunt of drag queens, hustlers and those too tired to party on. A hot night, when even a t-shirt is too close and the only sensible clothing is the gold make-up and white loincloth of a passing reveler.
Kathmandu, Nepal Over the last eighteen months, as night falls, Sunil and his colleagues have regularly visited Ratna Park in the centre of Kathmandu, Nepal. They are there not to take the evening air - which is frequently heavily polluted in the Himalayan valley in which it nestles - but to talk to some of the shadowy figures loitering there.
London, UK Half past ten on a Friday evening in autumn. I'm sitting at a pavement table in Soho, watching the world go by. The world is mostly gay and mostly young, couples sauntering, groups gossiping, singles looking for old or new friends.
West Hollywood, California A bar on a quiet stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, where hustlers, johns and the curious hang out. The decor bright and bare, the pool table used, the pinball machines standing idle and the bartender serving clients with the bored efficiency that comes with middle-age. The hustlers not as young as you expect hustlers to be, and the johns not as rich; both in tight, faded polyester. Mingling freely and sometimes the only way to distinguish one from the other is to see who buys the drinks.