Asian gay men's bodies.
Gay men exist in a culture that is heavily aesthetically oriented (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, & Grilo, 1996; Dillon, Copeland, & Peters, 1999; Herzog, Newman, & Warshaw, 1991). A gay man's body and overall "looks" play a significant role in determining his cultural status and sex appeal to other men. The look of his body has the capacity either to attract or deter potential sexual partners; such is the image-driven gay culture. Undoubtedly, the body becomes a central point around which young gay men develop and ultimately exist. Much of the focus is centred on the body's looks, its ability to function, and its capacity to fulfil a dual role in which the men often live separate lives--that is to say, a gay life and another one that allows them to "blend" into the heterosexual world. This can be an extremely difficult duality for many gay men. However, for males growing up in masculinised cultures, it becomes a further challenging predicament.
This paper is based on in-depth interviews with six young Asian gay men. Each provided life historical accounts of their difficulties associated with body identity and masculine identity growing up in masculinised domains. Some have had the opportunity and capacity to identify their sexuality to their parents. However, others have masked their sexuality through masculinised veneers. The men have all been a part of a specific counselling service dedicated to young gay Asian males in South Australia. The men discussed their plight at having to look a certain way for the gay culture and yet look and act another way for their parents and the culture into which they were born. The men's stories provide valuable insights for health promoters working with young Asian gay men around sexuality, body identity, and masculinity in a challenging masculinised environment.
Data for the study derived from a series of individual in-depth interviews with gay men aged between 18 and 25 years--with institutional ethics approval. A cohort of six Asian gay men were among the participants and have been selected for this paper to highlight specific cultural issues these men confront with respect to body identity and masculinity (the full study is reported elsewhere (see Drummond, 2005). Prior to the individual interviews, a two-and-a-half-hour focus group interview was carried out with a cohort of gay men of the same age group and from a variety of cultural backgrounds. As a heterosexual male from an Anglo-Australian background, I undertook this initiative in order to develop a sense of the issues impacting young gay men from a variety of perspectives and to assist in the construction of the individual interview guide.
Potential participants became aware of the project through the Bfriend e-mail network, which has more than 500 subscribers in South Australia. Project leaders from gay men's counselling services in the Adelaide metropolitan area subsequently invited participants to contact me.
Over a period of six weeks, 14 gay men contacted me to participate in the project. Six of these men were Asian and lived in the Adelaide metropolitan area (those reported here). As these men were studying at universities, they made frequent trips back to their homeland at the end of some semesters and at end-of-school-year breaks. Three of the participants lived at home with their parents; three had parents living in Asia, and these lived alone or shared accommodation with housemates. None lived with partners. All of the group had "come out" to friends, yet there were four men who had not yet identified their sexual orientation to their parents for fear of reprisals, particularly from their fathers. Despite examining issues of sexuality with counsellors, all of the men had progressed to the point where they could identify themselves as being gay and had come to terms with their sexuality. Each had or was at the time of the interviews undertaking tertiary studies at university. This was an important factor as level of education had implications with respect to understanding health issues, body identity, and one's masculinity.
I met with the young men on an individual basis at a locality that was central, easily accessible, and one in which the participant felt comfortable and at ease. All initial meetings occurred at a variety of cafes. Some of the men felt comfortable about being interviewed at the cafe while others preferred quieter and less obtrusive locations. Individual interviews lasted from between one-and-a-half and two hours. They were audiotaped and then transcribed verbatim. Each of the men provided his contact details should follow-up questions for additional information be necessary. It also provided opportunity for clarification of particular issues, which in turn acted as a validity check.
After the interviews were transcribed, they were open coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and analysed inductively. According to Patton (2002), inductive analysis allows for "categories or dimensions to emerge from open-ended observations as the inquirer comes to understand patterns that exist in the phenomenon being investigated" (p. 56). Essentially, as Patton (2002) notes, this type of analysis involves identifying categories, patterns, and themes in one's data through one's interaction with the data. After this analysis, similarities and differences were documented based on my personal understanding, professional knowledge, and the literature (Strauss, 1987).
Three dominant themes emerged from the analysis: "Asianess," sexuality, masculinity, and the body; coming out in a masculine domain; and the Asian Orchid project. These are discussed below.
"ASIANESS," SEXUALITY, MASCULINITY AND THE BODY
The men in this research noted that their "Asianess," or being Asian gay men, had created numerous difficulties compared with what they saw as the seemingly smooth transition into manhood experienced by most heterosexual Western cultural males. However, having interviewed many heterosexual males on issues of sexuality, masculinity, and the body in other research projects and witnessing the struggle these males have with understanding their own masculine identity, it became quite evident to me that the men in this research had reached a crucial developmental stage of conceptual analysis around their own sexuality, masculinity, and the body. It is arguable that having to think about and analyse these elements on a regular basis, particularly during the developmental adolescent years, has provided a basis upon which these men have come to understand themselves in terms of their social and cultural position. Evidence of such thought is identified in one of the men's comments:
For me it's always been like masculinity has got so many levels, like the physical, the psychological, and also the body. It does something. Like the male masculinity has always been more physical, more to do with function. I always see the female body as being more curvaceous and not having to do much. That's the way I see it. Masculinity is also very self-focused, very self-direct, self-personality. I look at some guys, and I say, "They're really masculine." And when I get to know them, then that's when other stuff comes into play. And then from there, I reevaluate everything. It becomes personality. It's also that inner confidence and strength.
In terms of positioning their own masculinity within contemporary Western society, the men struggled with the notion of themselves portraying a masculine presence. Indeed, it was their Asian appearance that influenced this cultural perception. This is reinforced by Ayres (1999) as well as Chuang (1999), noting the discrimination toward Asian gay men within Australia's gay culture. The men is this research identified issues relating to feelings associated with being inferior to Australian and European gay men, particularly with respect to bodily aesthetics. One of the men reinforced this notion by claiming:
I have not been able to fit society's model of masculinity very well. I'm not too sure about this, but I guess in the Asian perspective masculinity would be more perceived as an ability to take care of a family, to protect them, to provide for them. It is not really in terms of physical build, going to the gym and stuff like that, you know, so my body is not muscular or anything like that. So I wouldn't think I'm masculine.
Similarly, another participant acknowledged the stigma attached to being an Asian gay male as well as being skinny and lacking musculature within the highly (Australian) aesthetically driven gay culture. However, he also identified his coping mechanism, which has evolved with the maturation process and his time spent with counsellors:
Regarding masculinity, before I would go, "I'm too skinny." And it was also the "Asian thing." And then if I got rejected it was a lot more painful. I couldn't handle it well, so I didn't dare make the first move. But now it's like, "I can handle rejection. I don't care. If you don't like me, that's fine. I will pick up somebody else I like. I will meet somebody else. It's not a problem. I've done the best I can."
However, the following line of enquiry and responses from one of the men typifies the way in which the Asian men in this research perceived their standing in the Australian gay community. This ultimately affected their masculine and body identity:
Q: In terms of masculinity how do you perceive your body?
A: Probably feminine. Asians tend to have that in the gay culture.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Asians are probably perceived as more feminine than anything else. A typical thing that you might see, if you're on the gay scene, is, say, an older white guy and a younger Asian guy. The white guy would assume to be more dominant, and the Asian guy would be more passive.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: It's just what happens; I don't know. It's probably true. It's probably half true. It's stereotyped, so everyone just assumes that when you've got a white guy and an Asian guy the white guy's masculine and the Asian guy's submissive. It's how it happens, and to be honest I kind of fit that, not in the passive and the dominant role--more so, I'd actually go for a white guy, and I think that we do tend to be quite feminine, especially gay Asians. Oh, and as muscle bulk is quite frail on Asian boys, it's really bad.
Despite all of the men lusting over and "going for white guys," particularly those with the physiques and aesthetics of the men who adorn the cover of Men's Health magazine, ultimately it was easier to develop long-term relationships with other Asian men. That is to say, the men interviewed here ended up being, or having to be, "attracted to [other] Asians." Clearly, this is a response to racism within the gay community. Consequently, the participants explained that, rather than attempt to break the obvious racial barriers that exist within the gay culture, it was easier to develop and maintain friendships, including sexual partners, within the Asian gay community. One man identified the importance of the Asian gay community by claiming:
In the gay scene I have more Asian gay male friends than Caucasians, and that's because we come from Asia. We are all students who understand each other, and being in Adelaide in a different culture we have to stick together.
However, they claimed that being an Asian gay man had its benefits in a city such as Adelaide. Some of the men identified being able to "get away" with their sexuality as a consequence of a Western cultural perception that heterosexual Asian men can be more flamboyant with respect to clothes and hairstyles and maintain a diverse masculine image. One of the men articulated this point by stating:
Because I'm Asian, in Australia I tend to get away with things easier (than in Malaysia) because I'm Asian. Like Japanese and Hong Kong people, the guys have strange fashions. Like, if you go to Hong Kong or you go to Japan, you can look and you can find lots of guys that look like girls. Long hair and dress up very funky, so that's our advantage. I can use that, you know. They can see Asia has strange fashions.
COMING OUT IN A MASCULINE DOMAIN
All of the men quickly identified that their culture is a masculinised domain in which the father is the dominant family member. One of the men explained this notion when he claimed:
Sometimes you're upset and crying, especially in front of parents, and your parents say, "You know men are not supposed to cry," and "You've got to stop." But a lot of stuff you are not supposed to show, like caring and being sexy. You are just not allowed to show affection, you know. You have to always act tough, and everything will be all right, but as a matter of fact, everything is not going to be all right. You can't fix everything, but the weight of society is on men. Man is a master, and you know everything is going to be fine. You have the power to solve everything, but I don't think this is the fact.
Further, the men claimed that those males who do not fit the cultural masculine ideal are marginalised and stigmatised. Thus, a significant dilemma exists for Asian gay men in coming out. While the men claim to be able to find friends and confidants in which to confide, it is their fathers' homophobia and resultant anguish that pose the biggest threat to ongoing family happiness. In some respects the men also identified their mothers as having to take on a similar viewpoint to placate the fathers' masculinised stance. As one man claimed, "If my father knew [i.e., son's gay orientation], he would kill me." This same man is midway through his second degree studying medicine and plans to specialise in an area of medicine on completing his degree. He stated that, while he enjoys medicine, part of the reason for studying in Australia is to avoid going home and having to come out to his father. When asked how he felt about finishing his studies, he said, "I do worry about that, (because) I feel safe while I am studying."
While this theme is not directly related to body image per se, it does have relevance to the way in which these Asian gay men perceived themselves and their bodies, particularly with respect to the way in which they use their bodies and display them to society and their parents. The participant who was studying to avoid going home is further evidence of such a phenomenon. Despite being 25 years of age, he does not feel as though he is "grown up." This ultimately affects the way in which he perceives himself, his body, and his masculine identity. When asked whether he was able to talk to counsellors about his issues, he claimed:
At first I was a bit reluctant [to talk to counselors] because I thought, "Oh my god, I have to, you know, speak about the whole ugly stuff again and again," and this sort of thing. But I knew that if I come from [a perspective of] denial, then everything would be fine. I think sometimes you do sort of deny. The main issue is that it's a masculine identity, and I'm afraid to admit that I've got some issues with this myself.
It is the comparatively more understanding Australian gay culture that each of these men claimed to be a significant factor in allowing them to feel comfortable about coming out. While they acknowledged there are still many homophobic issues to contend with in Australian culture in general, there are at least counsellors and other forms of social service assistance to ease personal emotional issues. One of the men made this clear when he noted:
We don't have any support back home in Malaysia; we don't have a service like that. In Malaysia being gay is a bit of a "no-no." No-one gives support.
ASIAN ORCHID PROJECT
Importantly, all of the Asian men involved in this research project engaged in a counselling service specifically devoted to Asian gay males. The project, for the sake of this paper, is titled the Asian Orchid Project, which is a well-regarded service in Adelaide created and organised by a branch of the Department of Human Services. Each of the men spoke highly of the project and identified numerous aspects that had enabled them to grow and develop emotionally as well as providing them with a safe haven, thus allowing them to feel secure at times when they may feel threatened and vulnerable. The project provided them with a means by which they could talk about their bodies in an "open and relaxed" forum. It also allowed them to feel comfortable about attending as much or as little as possible. They all claimed to have used the service extensively in the beginning, particularly when they were coming to terms with their own sexuality or having to deal with a number of life-defining issues at such a young age. As one of the men stated:
When I first joined I visited frequently. Back then I had a lot of personal issues I needed to sort out, and as time progressed I became more independent. So now it's like perhaps once a month.
This was a typical claim made by each man. The positive aspect of this was that the men, despite not feeling they had to utilise the service a good deal any more, still frequented the project and maintained links with the counsellors. As a consequence they become the models that other young Asian gay men, beginning the process of coming out, could use as templates for success. However, while the project deals with young gay men's sexuality and body identity, it is the overt cultural target group that it is intending to engage. As one of the men identified, the Asian Orchid Project:
... has a different feel to it. You are around a whole bunch of similar people. I guess it is a bit more relaxed and a lot less stressful. You can also be more direct. It is more understanding and just has a different vibe. It's a cultural thing.
Bearing in mind an Asian-based racism within the gay culture, the Asian Orchid Project offered these men opportunities for friendship and camaraderie beyond the sexuality counselling service it provides. Each of the men acknowledged the project gave them alternative avenues to meet other Asian gay men in similar situations. One man emphasised such claims by stating:
All my gay life has happened at the Asian Orchid, like I met my friends there, I mean two other really good Asian friends, and they have been here longer than me. They brought me out with them, and then after that I didn't have to fight my way through everything. It went smoothly.
The Asian Orchid is an important service for Asian gay men in Adelaide. The men recognised this and viewed it as an important mechanism by which they could discuss their bodies, their sexuality, and issues of masculinity with respect to their cultural heritage in an understanding, compliant setting.
Asian gay men appear to be both marginalised and stigmatised within the gay culture. According to the men in this research project, there are specific body identity concerns that Asian gay men must confront. These males must not only come to terms with their sexuality and the racism within but also attempt to understand their "Asianess" within a white, anglo, heterosexual culture. On top of this they must then attempt to position themselves in a cultural and family heritage that is highly masculinised, whereby the father is perceived as the dominant figure. Ultimately, this leads the men to question their bodies with respect to function, role, and aesthetics in an acutely "looks-oriented" gay culture.
As the Asian gay men in this research identified, bodies, body image, and body identity play a significant role in their functioning on a daily basis. While for many of us the term body image immediately conjures up thoughts surrounding attempting to look thin and attractive, for these men body image has come to develop a raft of meanings--most importantly, trying to fit in. The problem is trying to have a body image that simultaneously fits into the gay culture, the Australian heterosexual culture, and their Asian masculinised culture. This is quite problematic for these men.
Importantly, as the men identified, there are beneficial counselling services in Adelaide available to Asian gay men. These go beyond the counselling process as they provide a means by which these young men can engage with other similar males and gain strength and support from one another. Initiatives such as the Asian Orchid Project are crucial in the construction of ongoing sustainable services for young gay males. As the men claimed, the Asian Orchid Project provided them with the opportunity to grow into men and understand their bodies, their sexuality, and their masculinity. This research identifies the need for services beyond those provided for Western cultural gay men addressing masculine and body identity and provides a basis for such initiatives.
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MURRAY J.N. DRUMMOND
University of South Australia
Correspondence for this article should be sent to Murray J.N. Drummond, University of South Australia, School of Health Sciences, City East Campus, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia 5000. Electronic mail: Murray.Drummond@unisa.edu.au.
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|Author:||Drummond, Murray J.N.|
|Publication:||The Journal of Men's Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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