Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006
Poems from Amsterdam
by J. Neil C. Garcia
This city tolerates soft drugs and sex,
so why shouldn’t it tolerate gayness?
It’s not called The World’s Gay Capital
for nothing. Gay saunas, S & M leather
hotels, bookstores, condomeries:
all havens for the other persuasion.
Along any busy straat or in any plein,
they semaphor to the lost and looking
with the universal signal of pride:
flapping pennants of the queer rainbow.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way,
as the Homomonument in Wester Markt
affectingly reminds us. Sodomites burned
or fed to dogs in Europe and the Americas.
Same-sex offenders exorcised, lobotomized,
or electrically convulsed by self-hating shrinks
and hysterical priests. Women-loving women
and men-loving men banished from hearth
and home, denied the bracing sunlight, cheated
of all creature comfort. A whole humanity
shoved by bigoted hearts to the margin:
all the wide-eyed lives ruined, despoiled,
whose memory this trigonometric shrine
lapped by canal water does lovingly honor...
But who, to be honest, is looking anymore?
Gayness is too everywhere in this city it is
practically invisible, like this salmon-pink
testament itself, tucked at the back of a tower,
and aptly fringed, I suppose, by an outdoor urinal.
Where, in this country of homosexual marriages,
religious tolerance, marijuana, can gay pride stake
its ramrod claim? I must confess it feels different
from my own anguished context, where we still
shriek our heads off for a few laughs on TV,
pay real men for their orgasms, put up our parents,
fatten our siblings, and through it all suffer
the fate of being unreal, even if not especially
to ourselves. Our country’s laws do not mention us,
but by this same token they do not protect us.
Thus are we miserable, but also, strangely,
rousingly perky inside the poor little corners
of our poor little lives: delirious in the dark
license of the cinemas, the comfort rooms of malls,
in the bath houses and back rooms that stay open
only because a policeman or politician owns them.
Every year, in June, we parade to the cameras
and tourists a brave unfurled hope, hold readings,
attend film festivals, throw dusk-to-dawn parties.
In my sultry Catholic country we are proud
to be gay, despite or precisely because of ourselves.
And so, what do all these say? Perhaps, only this:
Pride is the handmaid of that old devil Tyranny,
for and against whom she exists. Thus, the margin
is not the margin, merely. It is also the radical edge.
– for Gert Hekma
Of course, I know the strategy:
to enfold the moment in sound,
earmark it with rhythm, file it
into the mind with the textures,
syncopations, and airs of a song.
Julius, visiting the lovely De Krijtberg
and its goldleafed nave and altarpiece,
its stained glass, the saints poised delicately
under tiered canopies carved into the walls,
the woodsy scent of incense, tapers softly lit
at the foot of a smiling Madonna and Child—
made sure his iPod played a tune
with which to brand the experience
dark against his memory’s milky skin.
Thus tethered, it can thereafter
be summoned at the merest whim:
nostalgia triggered by the mood
deliberately chosen noise calls forth.
He’s since recurred to his adopted Canberra
where, he writes, it’s bitterly cold these days.
I can almost see him plugging into his machine,
to bask in vicarious, melodic warmth.
Astonishingly enough, here, with me,
it’s no different. Late-night TV in this city
is a redundancy of “quick sex” commercials:
Red-Light women moaning lekker,
an all-purpose Dutch word, it would appear,
for anything nice, delicious, tempting, or great,
in between puckering up, licking a fat dildo,
stroking their breasts with pink-tipped fingers,
and rearing their scantily clad haunches
up at the camera’s snoopy gaze.
It was interesting the first few seconds, but
not much after that. Luckily, a music channel
called The Box plays purely “classic” stuff.
A veritable box of found memories:
videos dusted off from the eighties
by singers and bands with overblown hair,
silly repeating lyrics, and outlandish makeup,
especially around the fiery lips and eyes—
the sights and sounds of my own salad days.
Which is to say: high school, arguably
the best episode, thus far, in my uneventful life,
steeped in brash fun with like-minded friends.
Gifted with panache, we flaunted our sissiness
and our devotion to MTV’s undisputed queens:
the tinny-voiced Madonna in all her trashiness,
Tina with a big mouth and an even bigger coif,
the neon-haired Cyndi and her bizarre tutus,
percussive Sheila E. and her one glamorous hit.
And my own cool favorite, the smoky Sade,
with full African lips, silver hoop earrings,
and sloe eyes that edged from a taut ponytail.
Needless to say, we loved our girls to bits
because we loved the idea of being like them.
They were gorgeous and admired by all,
as we believed we too were, by our classmates
in our Catholic school for boys. You see:
we excelled in everything we indulged in—
academics, conduct, extracurriculars, sex.
Mock-religiously, some of us kept a Top Ten
of favored crushes for the week, in imitation
of pop radio’s awaited countdown—
its singles debuting, blazing a trail up,
sliding or dropping from the chart altogether.
In this case, the movement depended solely
on whether and how the crush smiled, talked to,
touched, or retouched us. With me, however,
it wasn’t like that at all. Up to now, I’m proud:
all those charmed years, I loved only one boy—
a babyfaced classmate, both a bully and a wag.
Grinning gamely, he escorted me up the stage
as our graduating batch hooted and cheered.
He wasn’t very smart, but was hornier than most,
although being pimpled and hormonally piqued
we must’ve all been pretty horny indeed:
late-night sex raids during weekend bivouacs,
nipple-pinching wars in the darkened retreat house,
the solicited help of hands moving expeditiously
under the workshop table, a slurred blow-job or two
between periods inside a comfort room cubicle.
As with others, I suppose, it was the heyday
of our own pink and heedless adolescence—
when feelings wielded their sharpest points,
when the body was new and its parts well-oiled,
when the world was dolled up in shrieking colors,
and when the future was a promise whose word
we could trust. Closest to our true selves—
we didn’t know this, then; frivolous to a fault,
we couldn’t see we’d never be this happy again.
On The Box, it’s Phil Collins’s turn: Take, take me home,
he sings still with a full head of hair, as landmarks
from famous cities beckon behind him, including,
I’m surprised to see, just now, an old windmill,
its arms whipping the sky thick beside the water—
the Amstel, most probably. It’s a painful thought,
but it may well be true: there’s really no home
I can return to in about a month and a half.
Understand that home isn’t space, but time.
And like all fond and resonant music,
it departs and always already departed us.
– For Julius Bautista and "The Big Six"
It reaches my hearing, now and then—
the suavely mouthed proposition
from one of the Red Light sentries,
chiefly of African extraction,
keeping hawkeyed watch on nooks
and along the urine-daubed streets.
They must stand there for hours on end,
seeking out the curious-looking tourist
who’s out for a fine time, good as cash.
But today it was different, for the word
mumbled through thick indigo lips
was supple and ribbed and musk-scented,
enticing in its own gauche way—
Ecstasy, the bespectacled man moaned,
his teeth disarmingly white on his face.
I don’t think he knew what he gave me,
for which I didn’t even need to pay.
In this city, metaphors are for the picking
every time something new calls the eye,
or in this case, the ear. I could’ve told him,
No thanks, I get ecstatic on my own terms.
As in, literally: the words that are my home
here and back in my own prosy city—
words coaxed out of the pullulating air
that rouse and tease and chafe the senses,
clarify the mind so it gleams like a mirror
on which the body can see its own glimmer
once more; an afterglow, we might say.
Nonetheless, there it is: the reckless gift
quickening the heartbeat of my language,
and pushing it back into song. And so,
Mr. Pusher, I end with my thanks, after all.
Anywhere in the world, you can expect
National Geographic to showcase exotica.
And tonight, in fact, it does:
gender-crossers, from Thailand and India,
telling their journeys of transformation,
as helped by their cultures’ prodding hands.
In Thailand, there’s the kickboxing Nong Toom,
who fought and won over buffed thugs in the ring,
all the way from her dusty village near Chiangmai
to Bangkok’s dark and cutthroat arenas.
There, she refused to strip for the weigh in
and to replace her silk thong with plain trunks.
Struck by the blows of financial misfortune,
her countrymen found themselves cheering her on,
for as she strained to punt and punch her rivals,
in championing herself, she championed them all.
A Buddhist, she believes this to be her karma—
born with a man’s fist, but woman-hearted.
A kathoey has the God-ordained right to be,
as Scripture from a northern temple intones it,
in a creation story tempting all to compassion:
remember that souls tramp the same worn path
to illumination’s genderless escape. In India,
there’s the puzzling and eunuched hijra,
destined to leave her own family for the city,
to reside in the oozing slums with her sisters
whose penises are ritually excised with a blade—
a crude procedure that’s a jagged rite of passage
only a brave handful of them manage to survive.
Those who do burn incense to the goddess Mata,
and carry her bowl of milk upon veiled heads.
It cleans and gives life as it’s poured into the river,
in a ceremony that marks the hijra’s new birth.
Henceforth, she wields the power to hex or to heal
at birthdays, weddings, and other such affairs,
where she’s paid food or a pittance for her time.
Otherwise, she’s on the street begging for a living,
or offering up her body to drunk lechers for a fee.
But the feature takes care to remind the viewer
hijras did enjoy their own Golden Age, after all,
during the Moguls’ imperious reign. Then,
they managed the harem, nursed royal children,
and pushed the popular interest as governors—
as Shadol’s mayor, Shabnam Mausi, now does.
She was voted by her people as a joke, or a protest,
but after only three years there’s nobody laughing,
for she’s proven herself the real thing: building schools
and roads for once, drilling for water in a poor village,
where turbaned men clap and dance at her arrival,
and where she warmly accepts their crisp welcome
in their fourteen trilling tongues. To the camera
she smiles, but after a short while sheds a tear,
saying she knows she’s as curious as an elephant,
and was elected for that. But she doesn’t mind, really,
wiping her kohl eyes with a stub-fingered hand,
for she was born to help, give hope to the hopeless—
to serve her public, who she knows are the children
God willed for her to love. Without her own offspring,
a slight-cheeked bus driver announces, she’s bound
to attend to others’ concerns. This wisdom holds true
for the hijra and kathoey, and for my country’s bakla:
the unmarried one who looks after aging parents,
provides for the schooling of nephews and nieces,
and immolates herself on romantic love’s altar,
stabbed in the heart by a grinning young man.
In Asia, crossing genders is a journey for the willing.
As with all journeys, the price is the loss of the self.
This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.
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