Interview: Dr Travis Kong - Oral History of Older Gay Men

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Jayson Albano talks to Dr Travis Kong about his new book, Oral History of Older Gay Men, and how the ageing gay male community is overlooked in Hong Kong

There’s a huge gap between gay men who were born post-war and those who were born earlier. What’s more they’re dying,” says Dr Travis Kong, author of new book, Oral History of Older Gay Men. The book (published in Chinese) documents the lives of 12 elderly gay men between the ages of 63 and 89. “I thought I’d have to record their stories now or this history will be lost forever.”

An associate professor in the department of sociology at HKU, Kong received funding for his project in 2009 and had been writing his book for nearly five years. His goal was to link sexuality with ageing, because to Kong, elderly men are deemed by society as not having any sexual needs or erotic desires. This, together with the fact that most discourses on cultural identity took the heterosexual male figure as the main representative of the population, became Kong’s impetus to shed light on the reality of sexuality among the elderly gay community.

While his initial search for respondents proved futile, he found luck after contacting NGOs such as the AIDS Foundation, Rainbow of Hong Kong and Midnight Blue. It only snowballed from there, with respondents bringing in more people for Kong to speak to. Kong was surprised at how articulate the respondents were because they’d never told anyone their story before. “I think they’ve been repeating their story in their heads thousands of times. In a way, this is the coming out story that they never had,” says Kong. “Half of them cried in front of me. One of the respondents was a Communist. Can you imagine, a gay Communist?” Evidently, there were a lot of strong emotions that had been buried for so long, and telling their life stories proved cathartic for the elderly men.

One of Kong’s respondents only came out to himself late into his 50s. This story was not uncommon among the other respondents. “They sacrifice themselves and their sexuality in order to marry a woman and to start a family to satisfy the responsibility of being a good son and the social expectations that come with being a Chinese man. Only after fulfilling all these expectations did they really have the time to think about their own being.”

Back in the 60s and 70s, gay-specific venues were unheard of. And without the internet or social apps like Grindr, meeting possible love interests was a huge problem for gay men. One option was to go to public toilets to seek out other men. It was only a matter of time before the media hyped up these occurrences. “In the past, the media exaggerated how gay men were all sex maniacs, that they had sex shamelessly in public toilets. But imagine, at the time, there were no other places for them to go. This was the only space for them to go,” Kong says. “And during these meet-ups, they didn’t actually have sex. A lot of them went there to catch up on gossip, or to see friends. Their public toilets were our Starbucks at that time.”

Some even met their long-term partners within the confines of the public toilet. “Hong Kong society at that time was poor and underdeveloped. Most people had to live in tiny apartments with lots of people,” Kong explained. “The idea of family was supposed to be private but it was also very communal. In a way, these gay men could only find privacy in public. That was life.”

Today, the problems that the LGBTI community generally face have been greatly alleviated. Yet older gay men have not been able to benefit from these changes. “They are the minority of the minority. They encounter a lot of discrimination within the gay community. We have a certain ideal perception of gay men, as if they’re all good-looking, have nice bodies, are rich and have a good command of English. We have all kinds of assumptions on gay men, but it’s not true. There are a lot of old gay men who don’t know how to speak English and could be really poor, living in tiny little apartments,” says Kong.

The LGBTI community of today is an established market for Hong Kong businesses to cater to. But typically this applies to the younger generation of LGBTI. “Ageing gay men would be refused entry to gay saunas that only let young and good-looking gay men in,” Kong says. “It’s harder to say if it’s easier now than it was before for them.” Three of the men that Kong interviewed passed away before the publishing of this book, but they were glad they had an opportunity to share their coming out stories, something they wished they had been able to do earlier in their lives.

Oral History of Older Gay Men (男男正傳:香港年長男同志口述史), published by Step Forward Multi Media, priced at $90. Available at commericalpress.com.hk.

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