#RoleModelReading: An interview with Benjamin Law

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

Benjamin Law, pictured above with his boyfriend Scott, is one of those people destined to become a household name, at least in those households where he isn’t one already. He is generous, funny, insightful, candid and hardworking, and through extensive writing and public appearances has cemented himself as a favourite in the Australian writing and queer communities.

After a long chat with him, we’ve opted to edit lightly – you’ll need to set aside a good twenty minutes, at least, to get all the way through this interview. That said, we think it’s worth it. Ben talked with Homer’s founding editor Ashley Thomson about masculinities, role models, visibility, representation, integrity and the things he loves—and here’s what he had to say.

Ashley: In my approaches to interview candidates such as yourself, I’ve been clear about wanting to talk about masculinity and wanting to debunk mainstream ideas of what it means to be a man, so my first question is why did you take this interview, why does this idea matter to you?

Ben: I always feel like when it comes to mainstream ideas of masculinity, I’ve always been an outsider. I mean, first of all, because of my ethnicity. You don’t even see representations of what an Asian dude or Asians in general look like in Australia, which is weird considering that one in ten Australians have significant Asian ancestry.

And I guess the other thing beyond that is, being gay, those typical notions of masculinity go out the door. But even within the gay scene I think there is a mainstream that kind of rejects people on the basis of their race or their perceived body type or their masculinity. So being an Asian gay dude in the gay scene is … is odd, and can be an outsider’s experience, and being an Asian dude in—y’know, from basically every sort of angle, I feel like I’m slightly not quite the mainstream masculinity, whether it’s within straight white Australian masculine society or even gay mainstream Australian society, so it’s actually something that I’ve thought about for a really long time. I’m not sure what conclusions I’ve come to.

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A: When you think of the years that were particularly formative to your sense of self, be it to your younger self or the man you are now, where do they fall in your life?

B: Y’know, I think even going back through childhood—because my dad was such a present dad in some ways, in that he was breadwinner, he was the person who worked seven nights a week, so he really was at the centre of the family. Like seeing him work so hard was very much at the forefront of our lives and what a dad is, I guess what a man is as well. On the other hand, the fact that he worked seven days and nights a week meant that he was incredibly absent as well, you know what I mean?

At the same time, I had an older brother—like, my older brother is super straight. In my mind, I kinda make a joke that he stole every last bit of conventional heterosexual masculinity from the womb and I am what is left behind, I am the dregs of conventional masculinity. Like, he drives a fast car, he’s really into luxury cars, his overt displays of heterosexuality when he’s got a girl, caught on social media, are very, very, almost aggressively straight, like look at us, we’re dining in this thing, bla bla bla. And I’m just not that person, even though my brother and I get alone quite fine.

He stole every last bit of conventional heterosexual masculinity from the womb and I am what is left behind, I am the dregs of conventional masculinity

So even in childhood, I had these two dudes, y’know? And my dad was such a respected pillar of the community, the business and the Chinese Australian community, and then my brother was kind of an athlete and a sports star, and I was not either of those kind of models of manhood. I was kind of my own freak, but y’know, in a way happily so. I’m not sure if that answers your question.

A: No, of course it does. And I mean, these pillars that our fathers and brothers and generally men in the community can represent—do you remember thinking that your father was a role model, or avoiding the idea that your father was a role model?

B: Yeah, no, I did look up to my dad. I mean, Dad worked so bloody hard that—I think maybe this is a slightly migrant experience as well, but with both of my parents, my mum took care of the ins and outs of raising five kids every day, my dad worked five days a week. Like, I think we had huge respect and gratitude for the hard work, because my parents both demonstrated it. I don’t think they even needed to instil that in us. I guess that kind of, what other people would say is a Protestant work ethic (we weren’t Protestant), a very Asian work ethic, is something that I value. But I don’t think it was just seeing my dad do that, I think it was seeing how hard my mum worked on a domestic level as well. I think maybe other people in other families would differentiate the two, like that domestic labour is not the same as paid labour, but I always felt a pretty healthy respect for both, and I thought they were quite equal.

A: Do you remember being told to behave in different ways, your brother and yourself, as compared to your three sisters?

B: Oh sure, but I feel like that was my brother telling me, rather than anyone telling my brother and me. Like I think my dad was probably happily baffled by the boy that I was, this kind of strange, slightly introverted in some ways, but on the other hand desperately attention-seeking boy. Whereas I think my brother, because he was the athlete, because he knew how to drive cars, because he went to karate classes (and took me along unwillingly a lot), because he was that guy, I feel like he kind of called the shots in terms of what being a man should be. I think Dad landed in a different culture altogether. He couldn’t really care—like he was an outsider coming here. I don’t think he really cared about Australian masculinity or the fact that you should play some code of football and smoke and drink, he wasn’t big on any of those things, really.

Whereas I feel like because my brother was born and raised here, he had ideas of, y’know, that’s gay, that’s gay—which, y’know, was all true in the end, all those things were gay, but yeah, him picking on me and bullying me, as all older brothers do, I think that was kind of his policing of what was and what wasn’t an acceptable model of man. Y’know, the TV shows that we would watch, I loved watching Man Oh Man with my sisters because it was just—I don’t know how old you are, Ashley, whether you remember Man Oh Man. How old are you?

A: I’m twenty-seven but we didn’t have a TV until I was eleven, so I missed a lot.

B: Ah, there are so many reasons you wouldn’t remember Man Oh Man. I also think you’re a bit young, generally, even if you had a TV. It was like this male beauty pageant show. It was really camp and I loved it. Andrew would always call me out on that. I think the only thing we could agree on was this show called Gladiators. Ashley, these people dressed in very, very gay costumes, but because there was an element of sport as well, we all watched Gladiators. It was one of the few things my family could agree on.

A: So you touched on this before: ideals of manliness and masculinity tend to pretty conflicted as it is, but between your family, Australian hyper-masculine ideas of masculinity and the Australian queer community, do you feel that models of masculinity were especially difficult to navigate for you?

B: Yeah, totally. I think, the first thing – because, like, fucking lasagne of minorities – but in the first instance being Asian. And I grew up in a super white part of Australia, like I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, and even now when I go back I’m like fuck, how did we grow up here? Because it’s one of the biggest monocultures I’ve ever experienced, and so unlike a lot of Australia, like even a lot of regional Australia’s far more multicultural than where we grew up. So I feel like that in itself—the fact that I was Chinese, or Asian in general, that probably set me apart? But I think people took that on face value. It wasn’t that strange or controversial, even though I went to high school in Pauline Hanson’s years. Sometimes it would up come up, but people tried to see through it. Y’know that very Australian compulsion to be colourblind? Oh, I don’t see race. I think that was more a thing.

Yeah, and then, look, I came out as gay at seventeen, and then I moved to Brisbane because you graduate a bit younger in Queensland. I felt like I didn’t fit in there either in some ways, because y’know, there is kind of a cliché that gay dudes essentially want to look like and become like the people who bullied them at school. You really wanna look like the hot jock with abs on the cover of DNA, which in real life isn’t even my thing and what I’m attracted to anyway, which is strange, but y’know, I was almost kind of underweight for most of my life, and not because I was ill, but that was just how my body was made, and so I was always self-conscious about that, I didn’t have an average build, I didn’t have the look of what was attractive.

And like, even mentioning DNA magazine—that had a not-white model on its cover once. This is kind of an example of what I think of mainstream gay culture in Australia, like the most circulated, the only circulated commercial magazine, invisibilises so much of its population, to the point where you can’t possibly be attractive in all of that. I think a lot of queer guys struggle with body image and their self-esteem in that sense, and I think when you’re an ethnic minority that’s kind of compounded by the lack of visibility of your own kind, to the point where, y’know, I talk to some other gay Asian guys, but you kind of compete against each other for the same guys, rather than seeing each other as attractive.

When you talk about turning points, actually, one of the big turning points was traveling more, and I realised, oh my god, I’ve got currency in other countries, and oh my god, I’m finding other guys attractive I never realised I would’ve in the Australian environment. I think traveling the world opened up my eyes towards my self-perception, and perception of others.

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A: Do you see any increasing fluidity, any sort of, I guess, infractions of those kinds of ideas on Australian culture and the Australian gay community?

B: Yeah, I think as time goes on we’re starting to call out things, like if there’s no non-white representation, I think most Australians are starting to agree that it’s a problem. I think for most of Australian history, probably right up until two years ago, most people wouldn’t have thought it was a huge problem. I think the difference is that white people now also think it’s a problem.

To an extent, I think that’s traveling through to the queer community as well. I also feel like it really depends on the parties you go to. For instance, one of my friends, Malcolm, who’s Chinese on his mum’s side, he’s a big gay partygoer. I’m not so much nowadays, I think partly because I’m not single, but when we go out with Malcolm, he’ll flag with us like, oh, it’s kind of a more diverse, alternative crowd, because he knows that if it’s not, which is most queer parties, I’m just not interested. I just think it’s really boring and slightly ostracising and sad, and even if there are a lot of Asian gay dudes there, they all have the same look and they’re ogling just the white guys, and it’s kind of this weird, hierarchical, weirdly strange, sci-fi, dystopian pecking order that really fucking depresses me.

A: Sorry, can you just—do you mind describing for me what that looks like, that party that you don’t want to be at?

B: Oh, probably like a lot of gay clubs, especially in Sydney, where you do have a lot of Asian dudes there, just because the Asian queer population is big in Sydney. The Asian guys are all really buff, they’re all very kempt, and then you’ve got the white guys, who are either rejecting them or fetishising them.

There’s a very sort of—it’s almost like an Attenborough documentary, that people are picked by their race almost alone, in an of itself. Whereas there are some occasional queer parties that I really, really love, where the diversity’s so incidental, everyone looks their own way, and sure there are some really, really kempt, other people are really unkempt, like no one’s really locked into a type. The difference is kind of like Grindr asking what category you belong to: twink, bear, otter, that sort of stuff. And I think that stuff’s super handy up to a point, but I think a lot of the mainstream queer scene, that’s kind of it, how you’d really distinguish yourself. And I feel like some of the good queer parties I go to, everyone’s in sort of a hot mess together, and you might be distinguished as much by, I dunno, other elements of yourself, rather than your ethnicity and your body build. You might be distinguished by the clothes that you wear that indicate your fandom in a certain band, stuff like that.

A: Personally, do you hang on to any ideals of masculinity or find them useful now? For one, I notice that you’re an extraordinarily well dressed, well presented man, like you always look excellent.

B: Aw, thanks. I mean, you’re not looking at me right now, but I like that you assume that I am right now as well.

A: And I notice you wrote about how you still perform a male role sometimes, like being protective of your sisters, things like that.

B: It’s funny you bring that up, because I think, when I think about masculinity the most is, one, when I’m thinking about queerness and when I’m out in queer spaces.

I guess walking through Australia in a daily sense is kind of an exercise in thinking about masculinity as well, because I think Australia does have this weird hyper-masculinised version of masculinity, that—y’know the writer Roxane Gay? The American feminist writer? I loved when she was in town and she was tweeting all these observations about Australia. It was her first time in Australia and she was like, there is this really intense version of masculinity in Australia, like Uncle Toby’s? Whoever Uncle Toby is is particularly intense. Y’know, that super bulky macho dude that we take for granted as being the neutral model of masculinity, it was interesting to see an American person come into our space. It’s like wow, this super, almost over-the-top butch, that’s what’s valorised in Australian society.

And I guess the third part is when I’m with women, and y’know, the majority of my family members are women. I’ve got three sisters and one brother, so they outnumber us, and they’re constantly talking about—like, seriously, get my sisters in a room together—constantly talking about their pussies, and their periods, and their discharge, and they are just, they’re rank, and I kind of love it. All that stuff that gay guys are traditionally supposed to be scared of, like ew, vaginas, gross! They’re talking about it so much that I just embrace how hideous their conversation has become, and I think it’s really charming. And yeah, I do feel really protective of my sisters, especially my two younger sisters as well. I do have that thing where, yeah, it’s kind of strange that I do slip into that traditional role of protective older brother because I think that’s kind of a cliche, but I do find myself in that, whether it’s to do with their work or their partners or how they’re treated.

A: What is that? Do you think that’s about protecting them from what you see as a typically harmful, predatory kind of masculinity?

B: I think it’s almost a how dare you thing. And as much as it’s about my sisters, I think I’d probably feel the same about my brother as well if I wasn’t so confident that my brother is such a macho dude that he can take care of himself. I think it’s more about no one touches my family rather than purely about protecting the lily-white virtue of my sisters, because I’ll tell you now, that lily-white virtue doesn’t exist when it comes to my sisters. So maybe it’s a biological tic or something, but I do feel that more about my two younger sisters.

A: Being raised as part of the minority in your household, men to women, did you find that there were areas of emotional vulnerability and self-reflexiveness that went with that territory, along with the extreme disclosures of bodily functions?

B: Oh yeah. The fact that women were the majority in our household—and y’know, I’ve always made the joke, but their periods synced up, it became like an abattoir in our house, everyone knew what was going on, y’know? When you’re in a household with three bedrooms and seven people, there are very few secrets, because you can’t even hide from each other.

I always think of single-sex schools with horror, at how my brain would have turned out if one, I went to a single-sex school and two, was raised in a single-sex or largely single-sex household. I went to a co-ed school where the majority of my friends were girls, I was raised in a family where the majority of the members were women. I think, to be honest, I’m more comfortable around women generally, which is strange to say. I just think I’m more productive around women, I get along better with them. I don’t know why.

A: Is there a flipside to that? Are there negative connotations or experiences that have marked your relationships or friendships or just basic cursory experiences with men?

B: That’s a really good question. It’s funny. There’s an ease around fellow queer men—y’know, I’ve only been in Sydney for the last three years, but I feel like in the last three years I’ve made my first really strong friendships with other queer men. I don’t think growing up in Brisbane really allowed me to, for some reason. Brisbane is a very lesbian-rich city, but the gay guys in Brisbane, or maybe the ones that I knew, weren’t necessarily my people.

I mean, I love my straight male friends—god, it’s making me sound like I’m talking about my good black friends or something

So it’s a more recent thing, having found a lot of close dudes who are gay in this new town. And there were straight dudes—it’s funny, if I break it down into a pie chart, maybe they’re the friends that I have the least of? I mean, I love my straight male friends—god, it’s making me sound like I’m talking about my good black friends or something, but I do love my straight male friends. But I tend to think I have fewer of them and I’m probably less close with them, which feels awful to say.

A: I mean, that’s kind of exactly why I’m myself interested in talking to other men about this, because it’s the exact same for me.

B: How?

A: Well, I just find myself more, sort of, emotionally guarded around men. I go into social contexts where straight men or even just any other men are around, and I find myself considerably less likely to open up. Or to probe—it’s a two-way street. And I find other men sort of accept that and go along with it. It’s a very rare man, in my experience, who takes the time to be emotionally vulnerable themselves or to invite the same in you.

B: Y’know I’ve kind of got a theory about this, Ashley? I find that the thing that gets leveled against gay or queer guys often is, why do they talk like that? Why do they behave like that? Why do they stand like that? As if it’s an act. And maybe to some guys it is an affect, an affectation, but I often find why it takes a while for me to be okay with a certain type of straight dude—this isn’t certainly most straight dudes, but some—is that I actually feel like there’s a lot of pageantry around how guys are supposed to greet each other or be with each other.

Like those weird handshakes? For a lot of guys a handshake’s too formal and a hug’s too intimate, and a kiss is way too intimate, so there’s that kind of bro-style handshake that I just have always been baffled by. I’m very curious about it, but I don’t really get it. And there’s this kind of chest-bumping posturing going on, that I watch and I’m like, that’s not me, I can’t really replicate that and I’m not even going to. It makes me feel tired, like I wanna take a nap.

A: Personally, when I read the statistics on depression, anxiety, suicide, social isolation, I find myself watching these men doing those exact rituals and thinking, it’s not really for them either. Like, they’re not enjoying this—they’re alone, and distanced even from the people they’re pretending to be close to.

B: Yeah, there’s a guardedness, and I’m sure there’s really good research about this, but it is probably a reason why men, especially, are prone to not just depression, because I think a lot of people are prone to depression, but a lack of communication which amplifies levels of depression as well.

Y’know, the skills that you need to be able to manage depression, or to come out the other side of it, I think we don’t encourage them in men—to share your emotions, to cry, to do any of that stuff is seen as weak. And I guess because I’ve grown up in a family where that wasn’t necessarily the case, except when my brother was telling me I was a pussy or whatever, crying—my sisters cried and I looked up to them far more, or I got along with them far better than I did my brother. I never felt that was off-limits for me and I’m really grateful for that, whereas I think there is kind of a barrier that a lot straight dudes can put up.

A: Do you find that that still exists in any capacity in your friendships with men now, or in yourself?

B: No, I think as I’ve gotten older I give less of a shit. Yeah, no, I think I’m pretty comfortable with myself. I know that sounds very Oprah-ish. I dunno.

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A: What do you value most right now? What do you love? What gives your life great meaning at the moment?

B: Aw. My boyfriend. We’ve been together for ages and it doesn’t feel like that at all, and I think when we started going out I was terrified by the idea that I was in a long-term relationship with someone, and now, y’know, it’s the one thing that I feel anchors me.

I feel like my family’s in a good place, which hasn’t been the case for a really long time for various reasons. But I feel like we’ve stabilised, and our relationships with each other are a bit less fraught. No one’s threatened to call the police in a very long time, which is good.

What else? And work. I mean, I’m not gonna have kids, Ashley, my boyfriend and I decided that a long time ago. Even if it was legal it was going to be expensive and even if we had the money I don’t really think it’s for me, even though I love kids. But I get a lot of meaning from work. And I get a lot out of my friends’ kids, actually. I’m thirty-three now, so my friends are popping out children prolifically. There was a period where it felt like a baby was being born every week. And getting to know some of these kids, who I’ve known since they were zygotes—some are turning four, some are even turning five this year, and the fact that I’ve known them this long and we can talk like human beings, I think is really magical, I think that’s really cool.

But yeah, mostly it’s work as well. I mean, you’re a writer as well, you know what it feels like to kind of crack something, and for it to—it’s so rare to write something and it’s like oh, that’s exactly exactly exactly what I wanted to say from the outset. When you hit that it feels kind of great, so I’m still always looking for that.

A: I have a last couple of questions that are kind of ‘Hail Mary’ questions. What kind of structural changes would you like to see made to the way people are taught, implicitly and explicitly, to view sexualities and gender?

B: Aw, okay. God, that’s a topical discussion. I just wish that homosexuality, queer, queer identity, trans identity, was seen as uncontroversial. I think that most kids understand it. Kids that are growing up with me and my boyfriend in their lives at the moment, they just get that we’re a couple. And they’re not thinking about the mechanics of how two men have intercourse! Y’know? They’re not concerned about that stuff, and I don’t think they’re thinking about how their parents have intercourse or anything like that. It’s just such a strange thing that so many people are frightened that kids will ask unanswerable questions. I just don’t really understand why we have to project our very adult anxieties onto kids who couldn’t care less.

Kids that are growing up with me and my boyfriend in their lives at the moment, they just get that we’re a couple

I think that it’s no mystery why there are higher rates of suicide and depression amongst young queer people. It’s because they are institutionally ostracised, for example in sex education, where they don’t have access to information that they should be having as they’re growing up. They come out of high school in a state of arrested development often, because as all their peers start to explore their sexuality and their romantic capacity, they aren’t necessarily given that allowance to.

I’m a bit older, obviously, but I hope—just as I was finishing high school, the internet came into our lives, like someone had invented fire or something, right? And I would hope that internet ultimately gives young people a way in. Like, for all of its faults, and I know that being online and so connected nowadays we create a whole other level of anxiety that I can’t even fathom, but I would hope that the benefits of being able to connect with other like-minded people in real time outweigh the horrors of what the internet must provide some people.

A: Who do you think you would have encouraged yourself to look up to or listen to, what behaviours to adopt or things to seek out, if you were a boy or a teenager today?

B: Oh, like who do I think are good role models for people now?

A: Sure.

B: To be honest, I feel like anyone can be—I feel like I didn’t have any people in my orbit who were openly gay when I was growing up or queer or anything like that. The celebrities that were there usually hammed it up and were the butt of everyone else’s jokes. But I think the fact that nowadays, athletes, politicians, actors, performers, creative people, whoever, y’know—you can have so many role models nowadays that I wouldn’t want to pick just one. I feel like the fact that there is more than one at all is just really fantastic, because I think it’s really hard to be positioned as a role model, to carry the burden of being the best representative of your entire fucking community.

I don’t wish that upon anyone, because as someone who’s been called out by some Asian Australian leaders for being a disgrace to my race, y’know, I don’t want anyone to put themselves in a position where they would have to feel like they represent anyone except themselves, but by representing yourself, period, what I feel like a lot of people – whether you’re Matthew Newton or Penny Wong or Dr Kerryn Phelps or Michael Kirby or David Marr or Josh Thomas or Tom Ballard or Joyce Ivan – just the fact that you are representing yourself I think is incredible.

So yeah, anyone with integrity who’s just doing what they do and doing what they do well is work looking up to.

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, and the co-author of Shit Asian Mothers Say with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. The first season of the TV show adaptation of The Family Law aired on SBS in early 2016. You can find out more about Ben and read his extensive and excellent writings at benjamin-law.com.

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