Written by R. Jeyathurai Backus
Fire up Grindr, Hornet or Jackd, among the other gay social applications in Malaysia, and notice a commonality. For the privileged Asian men, white migrants, or tourists, scrolling through the grids of profiles may be an activity of pleasure. However for gay men racialised as Indian in Malaysia, it has become customary to read every word listed before initiating anything. Their first, and then subsequent interracial rejections which follow the unsuccessful attempts of a desired homoerotic exchange morph into their ‘rite of passage’ of political Queerness in post-colonial Malaysia. Ironically this repudiation is not even positioned on class, English language proficiency, education, occupation, muscularity, or the colonial stereotype of “Indian labourer masculinity”. Unfortunately, this immediate dismissal is largely based on the “blackness” of their skin. This issue radically upsets the hierarchy of racialised Asians, and exposes lighter skinned Asians as beneficiaries of the remnants of colonialism and white hegemony in gay media. Racism within the Asian gay community is real, particularly affecting gay men racialised as Indians in Malaysia. Although currently no scientific research exists to study this predicament in detail, a casual dialogue with some of these men reveal a distressing state of depression, severe lack of self-esteem, increased hyper-masculine counter strategies, denial of their homosexual identities, and even a self-deprecating internal racism and homophobia.
Sexual racism according to Stember was initially defined as “the sexual rejection of the racial minority, the conscious attempt on the part of the majority to prevent interracial cohabitation’’. Though exclusively heterosexual in definition, questions of racial discrimination among gay and MSM racialised Indian men are not complicated, and typically relate to the explicit desired Eurocentric physical features of potential romantic and sexual partners which have then been implicitly suggested through user profiles with the “No Indians”, “KelingParia stay away”, “Chinese most welcomed”, “Preferably Malay” labels. Taking off from the bizarre ‘personal preference’ argument, these labels reproduce, either deliberately or unintentionally, insidious colourism and other biological attributes unique to the racialised Indian body. As researches in Australia argue, “choice” is a libertarian key ideology and is “especially significant to gay men and other sexual minorities, for whom the repression, exclusion and marginalisation of sex and sexuality is both a historical and ongoing reality”. However, the sensitivity between sexual (un)attraction, racism, and fetishism in this age of instant gratification has made sexual racism a critical issue in the Queer community.
In an attempt to investigate sexual stereotypes and uncover ‘undesirability’ among racialised Indian gay men, colonial and postcolonial texts in the Malay Peninsula provide avenues for future research. Over the years, colonial writers penned their experiences of whiteness in Malaya regarding the introduction of Indian indentured labourers into the colonial economic system. Leopold Ainsworth was one of the few who directly defined the Tamils as an inferior being, cut clear from the broader Indian ethnicities. He noted that “the Tamil struck me as being a poor specimen, both in physique and morale, and of being abject, cowardly and generally lacking in vitality.” Such descriptions were common in what Edward Said describes as “a coercive framework, by which a modern ‘coloured’ man is chained irrevocably to the general truths formulated about his prototypical linguistic, anthropological, and doctrinal forebears by a white European scholar”. Streams of stereotypes made out of this populace swarmed the colonial era. From literary publishing to historical accounts, the racialised Indian became the epitome of undesirability. What about sexual desirability? This blaring lack of agency and pluralistic understanding of indentured labourers is another focal point to study queer desire in Malaysia.
In contemporary times, many of these stereotypes linger due to the failure of Malaysia’s political arena, which exploits ‘racial identity’ and religious beliefs to the benefit of a singular supremacist party. The result? A disenfranchised racialised population. P. Waythamoorthy, leader of HINDRAF was quoted as saying that “Malaysian Indians are the single largest displaced community in the Southeast Asian region” by a figure of some 800,000 ethnic Indian workers and their families, uprooted from the country’s plantation sectors without homes and compensation which are linked to displacement policy initiated by the government’s ‘New Economic Policy’. Other notable figures in Indian historiography such as Neelakanda Ayer have maintained that “the fate of Indians in Malaya would be to become Tragic orphans of whom India has forgotten and Malaya looks down upon with contempt”.
Racially derogatory words like “keling” and “pariah” have also found their way into queer spaces from colonial narratives, and are used to shut down racialised gay Indian men who challenge these profiles online. Sometimes in their effort to negotiate race performance, hoping to appear less Indian and accepted, they strive to distinguish themselves as ‘deviant’ and special, usually playing up class privilege to set them apart from the assumed hegemonic block of “dirty Kelings”. In Malaysia section 377A: Unnatural Offences, CIATON is defined as sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person, and is punishable by imprisonment and being liable to whipping. This subjugation of one’s sexual identity by criminalising a sexual act using a Victorian and Puritanical law reveals the double colonisation extended to the Indian queer identity. Queer desire usually sparks a dilemma within the racialised Malay state elites, along with religious authorities and the local media who police morality and attempt to demonise queer Malay Muslims. Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad once maintained that “[w]estern societies are riddled… with homosexuality.” Since every Queer individual in Malaysia is oppressed by the law and ‘national culture’, then why is racism lurking within the gay community? The answer lies with the lack of a common historic experience by the different diasporic communities in Malaysia. It is a factor that negatively affects the creation of a national identity and understanding of oppression among other Malaysian racialised communities like the Chinese and Malays.
In the gay community, the reproduction of social Darwinism in this aspect makes the Chinese a ‘premier’ skin over Indians. In the numerous gay applications and blog conversations I have observed, ultimate desirability is seen related to the hierarchy aforementioned within the Asian gay community and stem from “the white masculine gym-fit” archetype perpetuated by Eurocentric gay pornography. Comments on Tumblr which are anti-Black and anti-Indian make the profiles, nude photographs. and videos of Indian men into animalistic racial fetishisms. Most often than not, Chinese and Euro-Asian mixed race men are preferred, and remain at the top of the “Socioerotic Desirability” scale as they are substituted for the desired white skin. This is then followed by Malays themselves. Almost always, though, Indians come in last.
The outright denial of Chinese privilege among gay Chinese men in Malaysian queer forums does not help in any process of decolonising. Although the effort of coming to terms with one’s racialised sexual Indian identity is a lifelong process, gay Indian men themselves need to be emancipated from colonial ideals and socially constructed desirability. Through the promise of literatures, some queer Indian experiences have been revealed in Malaysian English writing like Body2Body, a compilation of 23 short stories with six containing Indian queers. Many Queer Indians in urban spaces have begun to reclaim their muted voices through the arts, participating in spoken word poetry, open mikes, writing forums, and establishing an online support group known as The Desi Initiative for Queer Malaysian Indians. LGBT+ Malaysian Indians play a pivotal role in the decolonising and self-acceptance of their marginalised queer bodies, thereby helping to break barriers and lead the fight against the patriarchy of race, sexuality and gender identity.
R. Jeyathurai Backus obtained his Masters in Postcolonial and Global Literatures at Queen Mary University of London. His areas of research include narratives of colonialism, racism, and gender and queer sexualities of the Indian diaspora in new media and postcolonial fiction. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled “Queer Asia,” a conference held at SOAS University of London between the 16th and 18th June 2017 exploring LGBTQ+ issues in Asia. Image credit: CC Walkerssk/ Pixabay.