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Saturday, June 23, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
'Imagining Gay Paradise': The history of gays in Southeast Asia
By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times
"It seems incredibly odd," wrote Margaret Mead in 1940, "to be working on details of the ritual behavior of the Balinese with all the world cracking about our heads ... "
She was writing to an influential gay German painter, Walter Spies, who was living in Bali when the Second World War broke out. Arrested by the Dutch as an enemy alien (Bali was part of the Dutch East Indies), he was unlucky enough to find himself on a merchant ship that was quickly torpedoed by the Japanese.
Only 46 when he drowned, Spies had escaped from the increasingly homophobic Europe in hopes of finding a more tolerant homeland in Southeast Asia. There were historical reasons for his optimism including, most famously, a Siamese king and father of dozens of children (Yul Brynner played him in "The King and I") whose heirs included a gay monarch who may have been familiar with Oscar Wilde.
But, as Gary L. Atkins demonstrates in his carefully researched new book, "Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore," there were other forces at work that would deny pro-gay sympathies until relatively recently.
A Seattle University professor who wrote "Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging" nearly a decade ago, Atkins covers more than a century of progress and defeat in the way homosexuals have been treated, skillfully connecting the stories of artists, anthropologists, businessmen and computer experts.
Some were imprisoned and tortured, some achieved great power and some had a major influence on the expansion of the Internet. One chapter is devoted to "Men of the Net."
Spies' paintings suggest color versions of the apparitions that inspired such German silent horror classics as "Nosferatu" (Spies was an assistant to its doomed gay director, F.W. Murnau) and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (whose star, Conrad Veidt, appeared in the 1918 German gay film "Different From the Others").
Several illustrations of Spies' expressionist images are included in the book, which also features photos of the lavish Bangkok bathhouse, Babylon, and the formal dining table where its creator, Khun Toc, often held forth.
Referred to as "a disciplined overachiever," and represented in interviews with Atkins, he may be the book's most memorable character. Babylon established a delicate balance between 1987 and 2002, keeping the authorities at bay even as it became a popular (and expensive) tourist attraction for adults.
Still, the book ends less than affirmatively, with a conversation between a pragmatic Singapore politician and a censored female playwright. His comments were broadcast not only in Singapore but internationally; they included his reluctant defense of homosexuals as necessary to a thriving culture.
"If we want creative people, then we've got to put up with their idiosyncrasies. So long as they don't infect the heartland."
John Hartl: email@example.com
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