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Neil Miller, 1994

A Global Community: Exploring Gay and Lesbian Life Worldwide with Neil Miller

By Owen Keehnen

In 1991 Neil Miller won a Lambda Literary Award for his thought-provoking study In Search of Gay America. In this engrossing and eye-opening work, Miller traversed the country, exploring the lives and realities of gay men and lesbians nationwide. Upon finishing this book, Miller promptly packed his suitcase for the next logical step in his studies, which meant additional (and even more extensive) travel. The product of his newest journey, Out in the World: Gay and Lesbian Life from Buenos Aires to Bangkok (1992) has just been released in paperback.

Out in the World is a brilliant global time capsule of social and cultural attitudes towards gay men and lesbians. In his ongoing quest for journalistic excellence, Miller traveled the world from South Africa to Japan and from Australia to Czechoslovakia examining radically varied cultures whose approach to sexual orientation extended from medieval to blatant denial and from underground networks to profoundly progressive. It was a remarkable journey and it was especially fascinating to discover what was and was not inherent in gay life, what behaviors are culturally acquired, what we should be grateful for, and what we could learn from the more progressive areas on the planet.

Out in the World succeeds on many levels. One of the most important topics of the book is showing just how different "gay and lesbian experience" is around the world. It seems especially important to assume no longer that the entire world is in step with our agenda. The challenges of being gay or lesbian differ wildly--and to presume any differently is dismissive of any experience but our own. This book opens our eyes to some of those amazing differences.

Keehnen: When you ventured into more repressive societies, weren't the gay men and lesbians there suspicious of you?

Miller: In a place like Egypt people didn't have much of a concept of a journalist writing about them. Homosexuality was such a taboo subject to speak about that they couldn't really conceive of anyone writing about it, so people tended to be much more open. In a country like Argentina things were different. They tended to be suspicious of me, plus there is a degree of anti-Americanism and just a general suspicion in that country. The key to doing a good chapter on a country like that was hooking up with someone already there.

Keehnen: I would think another huge obstacle would be the language.

Miller: Yeah. In a sense that made it much harder to get intimate interviews. Many times if you're working through a translator, it can be very stiff. Without the intimacy of a common language, you really are sort of on the outside.

Keehnen: In the introduction to Out in the World, you mention that the book was inspired by progressive change in Israel. Was any other country you visited advancing at that rapid a pace?

Miller: A country like South Africa seemed to be changing a lot with the liberalization that was happening with the end of apartheid. A month before I went there, they had their first gay pride parade. There was a multi-racial gay organization called GLOW (Gays and Lesbians of Witwatersrand) that was gaining a lot of speed. With all the change going on in that country, gays and lesbians were getting on the bandwagon basically. Thailand and Japan were changing too, though not at that speed because there seemed to be more cultural questions in those countries. In Eastern Europe, Prague specifically (I was there a couple years after the revolution), a lesbian group was forming, and there was a newspaper where they were defining all these terms like "ACT-UP" and "Christopher Street." There I actually thought things would move faster than they actually were, but people were cautious.

Keehnen: Were there common characteristics about gay and lesbian life under former communist regimes? What did you find common to both Germany and Czechoslovakia?

Miller: Because of its proximity to the west and western media and its more liberal society during the 1980s, East Germany was sort of ahead of the game. The common thing in both societies was primarily that gay life had been very quiet, centering around people's homes and visiting friends, low key. You had to very careful in dealing with the authorities. Also in both countries, particularly Czechoslavakia, the women tended to be more isolated.

Keehnen: There is so much I'm curious about. How universal is safe sex information?

Miller: It varies. In Japan I found people had the idea that AIDS was a disease of westerners, and as long as you didn't have sex with a foreigner you would be OK. On the other hand there was a lot of awareness in Australia. In Thailand they were just working on safe sex awareness. There is so much AIDS in Thailand that they are making awareness a priority.

Keehnen: Back to Australia. I've heard some incredible things about their policies.

Miller: Well, there the government funds all the AIDS service organizations. As part of its AIDS prevention program, groups for gay teenagers were also funded. Their argument was that if people felt comfortable with their sexual identity they would be more apt to practice safe sex.

Keehnen: Another extremely progressive country for gay men and lesbians has been Denmark; since 1989 it has been the only country in the world to legalize gay and lesbian marriage.

Miller: I believe Norway has passed the registering of partnerships now as well. But Copenhagen was a really funny place because I found it to be less open in terms of gay life than I anticipated. On the streets you didn't get the feeling of gay life in the city, but Scandinavia tends to be more subdued in general. It makes perfect sense that legalized marriage is what gay and lesbian groups there have pushed for. It was their major priority for years, going along perfectly with their society and those long winters...

Keehnen: Something else I find intriguing is the notion that "gay" and "straight" are not opposing terms in many parts of the world. Would you explain?

Miller: Yes, in Islamic cultures that is common; and in Latin cultures, too, there isn't a sense of homosexuality here and heterosexuality there. You're not defined by whom you have sex with if you're the active person. The basic idea is the orgasm. A lot of people in Egypt thought gay meant male prostitute because they didn't have a concept of what it was. The lack of strict definition was true in Thailand as well. The only people who were defined as gay, though the word was never used, were transvestites. AIDS in many ways brought gay people an identity there because they were the ones at risk. Lesbianism doesn't exist in these places, certainly not in people's minds.

Keehnen: The lesbian movement is closely aligned with women's equality. Were there any glimmers of hope in the more repressed societies?

Miller: There didn't seem to be too much hope in Egypt, which was going backwards if anything with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In a country like Japan women are making great progress, which is somewhat true in Thailand as well.

Keehnen: So in countries where the social status of women is low there is no real conceivable way for them to live together as lesbians.

Miller: Unless they're very rich. It's basically unheard of. You live with your family until you get married and if you don't get married you stay with your family. There is no independence.

Keehnen: What a nightmare! I know Australia, for example, tends to have a great number of lesbian separatists; combined with the Islamic cultures, is it safe to say that the notion of "a gay and lesbian community" is more an exception than a rule?

Miller: In most non-western cultures, they often have little or no idea of lesbian at all. They tend to think of homosexuality as male.

Keehnen: What gay details did you see repeated to the point of being universals? Cruising, camp, clustering around the arts?

Miller: Cruising is definitely universal, and clustering around the arts seemed to be universal as well, though in Egypt I must say I didn't get a sense of camp.

Keehnen: It sounds so controlling. Were there common elements in the places you visited where the social structures were changing drastically or rapidly, such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia, South Africa with the end of apartheid, and Hong Kong with its pending end as a colony?

Miller: Definitely in South Africa there was exhilaration. In Eastern Europe things were better for people and they were excited about that, but mainly they were focused on economic uncertainties. In Hong Kong it was more of a fear of the future that the Chinese were going to come and clamp down on everything, so everybody was trying to get out. For gays that certainly meant the fear of Chinese repression. That was one of the reasons they were working to get the sodomy law off the books, which they succeeded in doing. It was very much a sense of let's democratize as much as possible before the Chinese come in.

Keehnen: You mentioned this earlier, but I'm curious, how widespread is the notion in the east that homosexuality is a western contamination?

Miller: Not the Thais, but the Japanese definitely. It's odd because a lot of these countries have had long traditions of homosexuality, specifically China and Japan. Then western powers came in the late nineteenth century; they were very anti-gay and the missionaries taught that it was bad. China put their sodomy law on the books in the 1880s. There was a real western influence in a negative way against traditional tolerance; and now one hundred years later, it's suddenly the west saying, "Now this is OK."

Keehnen: In countries where the social structure is strong and the family wishes paramount, was the closet basically the gay lifestyle?

Miller: Yes, particularly in Chinese culture. There's ancestor worship: you must have children to say prayers for the ancestors, so marriage is very much insisted upon. In these cultures people have a very difficult time going against the wishes of family. That is true in Japanese culture as well.

Keehnen: Is the higher "prestige" of the dominant male in gay sex universal?

Miller: That's my impression, yeah, more so in other cultures than in our own--definitely in Latin and Islamic countries. It probably reflects the fact that those cultures have much stricter roles for heterosexuals as well.

Keehnen: Did you find it difficult to remain objective in a lot of these situations?

Miller: Oh yes. Being an urban gay man from an urban area, I have a view of what gay identity is and a sense of gay relationships and communities and institutions, and the feeling that these things are important. To go to a country where things are seen completely differently is a shock. We definitely bring our cultural baggage along.

Keehnen: Thanks so much for talking with me, Neil. It's an important study and an absolutely fascinating book.

Miller: Well, thank you, Owen. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
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