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Are Asian societies more homophobic than Western societies?

I recalled reading an interview with an Asian lesbian immigrant in the US. She recalled dumping a white ex-girlfriend who did not respect the immigrant's culture and background. According to the Asian woman, the white woman had no interest in understanding her Asian girlfriend's culture and the struggles of her family. "She wanted to be my great white savior. Show me the American way." the Asian said. "Later I found out she had a pattern of dating immigrant women."

Like straight whites, many white gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people (an expression that will be shortened to the acronym 'glbt' for the rest of this article)believe that women of color (or in the case of gay men, their supposedly "passive bottom" yellow boyfriends or "sexually-aggressive, well-endowed" black boyfriends) need to be "rescued" from their communities of origin, which whites perceive to be inherently flawed. This mode of thinking comes from colonialist European hypocrisy - the need to justify the exploitation of women of color by claiming that particular forms of exploitation are beneficial for the women.

A prime example is the catalog-bride phenomenon that brings Southeast Asian women to the West to marry European-descent men they haveve never met. White men boast about providing poor Asian women with a better life while not at all addressing the economic, social and racial inequalities that cause the women to make such choices. Many of the women brought over to the US are abused by their "spouses", and even in the absence of abuse, one must ask, "Why is it not the case that Australian/European/Canandian/American men place themselves in picture catalogues for the viewing of Filipina and Thai women in the hopes of being sent over to Southeast Asia as husbands?"

One might expect that the "rescue mentality", being a product of an European male-dominated heterosexist world view should have no relevance among non-heterosexuals. Ironically, it is practiced by white lesbians who do not give a second thought about assuming the role of the "dominant white male" in interracial relationships. Many whites assume that Asian societies are more homophobic than Western societies. Correspondingly, they conclude that the Asian glbt person's only choice for acceptance is to join 'white society'. While many individual Asian glbts have found a greater level of acceptance in largely-white Western glbt circles than among straight Asians in their communities, that has not been everyone's experience. At any rate, all that could be said about an individual glbt Asian choosing a white glbt social network over an Asian 'heterosexual' social network is that glbt individuals generally find greater acceptance with other glbt individuals, who do not necessarily have to be white. When comparisons are drawn between 'straight' Westerners and 'straight' Asians, then it becomes apparent that Asians are not always more homophobic than white Westerners.

Are Asians More Homophobic?

Are Asian societies "by nature" more homophobic than enlightened European/Euro-centric societies? Let's take a look at the 1990s:

"International" (aka Western) news sources report that 2 Iranian youths, accused homosexuals, were punished by having a building demolished over them. So fitting with the dominant American view of Iran as an insane place ruled by religious fanatics of the Islamic persuasion. Western sentiments in response to this unfortunate incident very likely echoed the lines of the oppressed American wife in the film Not Without My Daughter (set in Iran): "This is a primitive, backward country!!!"

But what about that unreported incident that happened in an American school? A mid-teenager thought to be a lesbian was gang-raped by male classmates because one of them thought she made a pass at his girlfriend. A female classmate who helped her home saw blood running down her legs. The alleged lesbian was a virgin until the gang rape. She did not report the incident for fear that her mother would be informed of her alleged sexual orientation. If this heinous human rights violation was reported, it would be read by international audiences as a case of "savage, primitive USA"!

While the Iran incident was the result of sentencing by a religious court in an openly and self-admittedly hostile environment, the US incident took place in a school, where children are supposed to be safe. The Iran incident involves religious authorities as the initiator of violence, the US incident involves children as the perpetrators of rape. If you ask me which of the 2 horrifying incidents is the more twisted nightmare, I'd pick the American incident.

Sexual relations between women are illegal in India. No woman has yet been prosecuted. In December 1998, rioters mobilized by the far right Hindu religious group Shiv Shena attacked and vandalized cinemas showing the lesbian-themed Indian film Fire. Lest white Americans self-righteously thump their chests about how much better gays and lesbians are treated in America, think of the neo-Nazi who murdered two gay men and set fires to synagogues. What about the lesbian in a mid-size US town who was run down by a car driven by a group of kids shouting, "Die, dyke!'?

In many non-white societies, including Asian nations, glbt people traditionally enjoyed privileges their European/Euro-Am counterparts could only dream of.

Differences in Asian and European/European American Homophobia

I am by no means claiming that ALL Asian cultures welcome glbt with open arms. Certainly there are some Asians cultures that are much more tolerant than others. I have heard of Asian parents who cry over, remonstrate with, and even disown glbt children, especially in the case of sons who must carry on the family line. But Asian sentiments of disapproval pale in comparison to the violent homophobic hate of many European American families. An American father tried to cleave open his son's head with a hammer after finding out he was gay. Talk about American family values.

Some Asians, particularly those influenced by Euro/Euro-Am culture, disassociate themselves from friends whom they discover are glbt. But this passive rejection is nothing like the deep-seated irrational rage some Euro Americans dish out to their glbt ex-friends. A gay American thought it wise to tell his high school best friend that he is gay before they become roommates at college. The result: the gay youth was beaten unconscious in his own front yard and went to hospital with a concussion. So much for friendship. And there is the well-known case of Brandon Teena, a FTM transgender youth was was raped and murdered by 2 former friends when they discovered he was a biological female.

Yet even in the homophobic milieu of the U.S., Asian American communities can be more accepting of sexual and gender minorities than European American communities. Ann, a New York lesbian, said, "We have our Philippine Independence Day Parade, but the Irish lesbians and gays cannot march [in the St. Patrick's Day Parade]. But with the Filipinos, it is fine... When issues about gay/lesbian rights or children's rights or any other minority rights come up, the women hold up an umbrella. When lesbians are being discriminated, it is always the women that support us. That is how it is in the Filipino community here."1

Is Homophobia a European Import?

Homosexual or gender-bending behavior has existed in Asia and Australia, just as it has existed on other continents, since prehistory. Many non-white societies have a place for glbt in public life, or did until recently.

There is reason to believe the homophobia and the limitation of gender identities in modern Asian societies (and other non-European societies) is a European import. Conservative Singapore is known to tolerate lesbians. Gay bashings are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, gay men could be arrested under Singapore's sodomy laws, a British legacy. Most of the homophobia comes from self-styled "Westernized" Singaporeans who try to ape European values and denounce their Asian traditions as "backward", "pagan" and "ungodly". Western-educated Singaporean politicians accept Western culture as the normative, universal standard and pride themselves on upholding an Anglo version of "morality".

In Thailand, transgender people are a common sight, and homosexuals are visible and accepted in every aspect of life from grade school to college and beyond. Most straight Thais have openly gay relatives and friends. Yet, in Laos, a neighboring country with a similar material culture and language, glbt are closeted. Thais and Laotians are so closely related they can understand each other's speech, and cuisine differences are minimal. One major difference in modern Thai and Lao cultures is the presence of European colonial influences. Laos had been under French colonization, while Thailand, although visited by many foreigners through the ages, has never been colonized by Europeans. Some observers attribute the tough situation for glbt in Laos to the cultural legacy of Europeans.

The European/American attitude of showing the rest of the world how to be a non-sexist, non-homophobic society is hardly appropriate considering that it is Europeans/European Americans who exported their cultural evil of virulent homophobia to the non-European world in the first place.


East Asian pre-modern fiction with some homoerotic content

Yes, these were written way before Western 'gay liberation' came along.

Except for The Great Mirror of Male Love, these books are not exclusively dedicated to the topic of male homosexuality. We make no guarantees as to whether the homoerotic overtones have been lost in the English translation. Other East Asian pre-modern literature with homoerotic themes exist, but are not available in English translation.

H.T.


Notes
  1. Lipat, Ordona, Stewart and Ubaldo, "Tomboy, Dyke Lezzie, and Bi: Filipina Lesbian and Bisexual Women Speak Out", Filipino Americans: Transformation and Identity, ed. Maria P.P. Root, p. 2