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Exiles in the Heartland

Tale of exile in Malaysia by Kwazee Wabbitt

TO ME, MAIN STREET WAS NEVER more than a pathetic imitation of a gay bar, a fractured parody of the demimonde. The outdated disco music and the de rigueur mirrored ball that spun wearily over the dance' floor tried but failed to create an atmosphere of big city sophistication in that heart of southern, rural darkness. To others, however, Main Street was a glittering Oz, a fabled land of dreams come true, a taste of paradise.

The only gay bar for a radius of a hundred miles, it was the far flung outpost of Queer culture. Back home in Chicago, 350 miles north of the Ozarks, gay bars--there were over a hundred in the city-- specialized and had highly specific clienteles: leather bars, preppy bars (aka "S & M" or "Stand and Model" bars), "Gentlemen's" bars (i.e., for rich old daddies and young hustlers), cruise bars, etc. Not so in Carbondale, where it was one size fits all. Main Street hosted men and women, students from the University and locals, drag queens and hat boys, hicks and Internationals.

Khan Chang could usually be found on what I sometimes called the Flight Deck, because it was so often host to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. It was a raised wooden platform to the right of the bar; opposite it was another platform containing the pool table. (This was, obviously, the center of lesbian activity in the bar and was known as the "Dyke Deck.") It was only natural that Southern Illinois University, with its well-developed outreach to Moslem Asia and its world-class aviation and aviatronics departments, should train the entire Royal Malaysian Air Force. What was less natural-or at least less obvious--was that so many of the RMAF cadre should be queer.

The oligarchies of Moslem Asia are not famous for their open-mindedness in general,let alone on matters of sexuality. Indeed, part of the reason they sent their sons (daughters were kept at home) to bucolic Carbondale was its (relative) remoteness from corrupt, decadent, irreligious Western culture. On the one hand they needed the intellectual products of that dangerously secular civilization; on the other, they feared their offspring would be seduced by its siren call. This fear was well founded, and they took what measures they could to contain this threat.

Khan's family, like most others, had signed a contract with the Malaysian government to cover the cost of his degree. Big Brother would pay for the bulk of Khan's education as a mechanical engineer, tuition and some living expenses (generously supplemented by his obscenely wealthy family); in return, Khan would serve the government at the ratio of four years of work for each year of school. Thus, the average four year degree would commit him to 16 years of government service.

Alas, Khan had discovered: a) that he was queer; b) that he hated mechanical engineering, Islam, Malaysia, and his family (not necessarily in that order); and c) that his True Calling was to move to New York City and become a Famous Fashion Designer. These were not unrelated discoveries, but the bottom line was that if he welshed on the deal his parents had cut they would be stuck with the tab for his years at SIU and he would be persona non grata with his family and the Malaysian Government, both orthodox Moslem outfits with impressive grudge-holding skills.

For Khan this was such a good deal that he never looked back. "There's no 'gay life' in Malaysia," he explained to me. "Some dirty old men hanging out in parks. Yuck!" It wasn't just gay sex he wanted (though he wanted plenty of that, from all reports), it was a "Lifestyle."

"In Malaysia you have to have a family, a wife and kids. Your life is supposed to center around them. Family is everything." He shrugged. To him, family was nothing, now, not compared to the glamor of Main Street and the rumored grandness of fabled New York. But he was atypical in that regard. Most of his gay Malaysian friends were too well bound up with moral and financial obligations, and by family ties, to consider defecting. They were content with camping it up on Main Street for a few years, and then holding out for occasional business trips to the U.S. and its gay scene.

The Lure of the West

Carbondale's gay community was clearly a foreign element, an obvious import of urban perversity into the Heartland (as the local TV stations like to call it). It was grudgingly tolerated as an unpleasant but unavoidable byproduct of the University, like toxic waste from a job-producing heavy industry.

What the locals disliked most about this queer colonial enclave was its remarkable ability to encourage defection and conversion, no less from among the local, conservative Christian population than from the conservative Moslem Asian temporary residents. These converts usually soon departed C-dale for one of the Gay Urban Meccas (which by regional standards included Memphis and St. Louis, southern backwaters in my jaded opinion). Their families far preferred it that way; nothing could be more humiliating that an openly gay relative lacking the shame to either hide or flee.

The stridently militant, anti-closet proselytizing, nationalist attitude of big city Queers, which flavored the campus gay group, was considered derangedly political by the indigenous Queers who dominated Main Street and tended more towards a pre-Stonewall, Southern drag-queen culture. There was a feminist-separatist community, held over from the seventies, which avoided the campus group as sexist and the bar as promoting addiction. A local Metropolitan Community Church (a national gay ministry) advocated a fusion of fundamentalism and homosexuality--a fusion vociferously denounced from both sides--but, naturally, denounced the bar as sinful, the campus group as irreligious, and the separatists as pagans.The Pit was an example of the crazy contradictions governing the very limited queer and queer-safe space in Southern Illinois. It was a pit mine a dozen miles north of the campus, which had been abandoned when it struck a spring and flooded with water. Now it was the best swimming hole of the region, and all on private land owned by Nick, a prosperous fireworks salesman. Nick liked having nekkid women hanging around at his swimmin' hole, and gave highly coveted keys to selected gatekeepers of the local lesbian community. On a hot summer weekend the secluded park would overflow with dozens of nude lesbians, a few of their fag friends, and Nick himself, naked except for a big .38 strapped to his waist.

Nick was a blatant sexist, and often ran around taking pictures of the women's bare tits and asses. They didn't chastise him for objectifying them; they howled with glee and demanded copies. Besides, it was his pool and one of the few safe places for queers to gather. The bar was a target for fag-bashers, the local rest-stop cruisy area the prey of local cops, thugs, and occasional murderers (including a husband-and-wife team that chainsawed their victim into pieces, and only got caught because they used his credit cards at a local furniture store). If you wanted to be picky about the Political Correctness of your host, you'd be better off returning to your Gay Urban Mecca.

How I Got There

I wanted nothing more than to return to Civilization, but like Khan Chang and most other students I'd accepted Exile as the price of an affordable education. It was my determination to avoid working for a living that led me, naturally enough, to consider a career in academics, and ultimately to C-dale. I'd finished up my long-neglected bachelor's degree and finagled a slot in SIU's graduate program in Counseling Psychology. I gleefully gave short notice to my boss (see "Progressive Pretensions, PW 26), tucked the "Dr. K. Wabbit, Ph.D" plaque (a going away gift from my co-workers) under my arm, and set off for the South.

It was no small accomplishment to be accepted for such a cushy spot at all, and I was fully aware of how marginal a candidate I was for it, what with my long and checkered undergraduate career. I had the lowest grade point average of anyone ever accepted in the program, squeaking in despite my original ranking as "eighth alternate." In return for working 20 hours a week, at an hourly rate comparable to what I'd generally earned in the Real World, I got a tuition waiver (otherwise $4K per year), and training as both an academic and a shrink. Such a deal!

There was bound to be an "Ivory Tower" effect, I figured, to offset the otherwise bucolic nature of the region. After only four years of Exile, living cheap in the sultry south, I would metamorphose into a full-fledged, well-paid Professional doing Meaningful Work. I would be a Guppy (Gay Urban Professional) at last!

It didn't work out quite that way. But I still say school beats working for a living, nine times out of ten.

Social Geography

Everyone was an outcast in Carbondale; it was a place of universal exile. The majority of its population were aliens, isolated in a strange land, and even the natives seemed dislocated by the cultural-imperialist intrusion of The University. For most of us the Ivory Tower was in fact a tiny ghetto surrounded by a vast and hostile wilderness (and for most of the rest it was an invading, colonial enclave).

The student body was an interesting mix. SIU was at the bottom of the state's educational hierarchy. All the really top-notch students (who couldn't afford private schools, that is) went to the world-famous University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (or Shampoo-Banana, as we called it). Middle class whites with less obvious academic talent and the better-off blacks went to Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, just a couple hours outside the city; the hat boys could drive in for the weekends. Distant C-dale, 350 miles South of Chicago, got the leftovers; party animals (we had an outdated rep as a "party-hearty" school held over from the '60s), poor blacks from Chicago's South Side and from East St. Louis, where there was a branch campus, and assorted semi-rural low-brow Aggies and Techies from mid-state. Like so many American schools, SIU got its big boost after World War II, when any degree-granting institution could expand ten-fold on the glut of veteran's benefited students. Right after that came the "Sputnik" scare of the '50s, the fear that the Russkies were going to win the "race for the stars" because they got their rockets off the ground before we did (having snagged the better German rocket scientists, while we got Werner von Braun). Huge bucks were poured into the education system to offset this (imaginary) deficit; besides, they figured--correctly-- it'll keep kids off the streets and out of the job market.

Then there were the upheavals of the '60s, when many public schools adopted virtual open admissions standards. The tab, in those days not very steep, would be picked up by generous Federal financial aid, rounded out with low interest, government guaranteed loans.

This lovely gravy train, despite 35 years of momentum, was abruptly derailed with the advent of the Reagan/Bush regime. State schools all over the country felt the crunch, but SIU had hedged its bets cleverly. Led by a visionary president, the school had created and promoted special outreach programs to both foreign (officially "International") students and to disabled people.

Both groups paid premium tuition, about four times the standard for residents of Illinois. They flooded special programs, and required all sorts of expert services and tutoring, for which they paid top dollar (incidentally providing employment -- usually subsidized by Federal money--for other students). They were also more vulnerable to gouging by the locals than ordinary students, so the private sector got its share of the goodies. Unlike state residents, who stayed away from school in bad times, these lucrative constituencies held stable and even increased. C-dale's well-developed programs in agriculture and technology, sneered at by the more academically inclined upstate schools, were quite attractive to students from Third World countries.

The initial outlay wasn't too bad. The entire campus had to be made handicapped accessible, but there were lots of federal dollars for stuff like that, and it's great PR. We had a mobile wheelchair repair unit that could get anywhere on campus in 15 minutes. Catering to foreign students was even easier. The registrar developed a muscular and experienced visa department that specialized in pushing through the passport paperwork. SIU was often the only, or at least the easiest, place for foreign students to study in the U.S.

When I went there, C-dale had the second largest number of"international" students of any campus in the country. They were mostly from the less developed countries, but particularly from Moslem Asia, e.g., Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia. There were also lots of students from Africa. For them the only other choice, most of the time, was China, where African students live fifteen to a room in hovels without plumbing-and end up with cheesy degrees in obsolete technology. Attending SIU was the chance of a lifetime for them, an interesting contrast to the average lackadaisical hat boys, who drifted on a haze of beer for four years at SIU for lack of anything better to do.

The various exile communities lived peaceably side by side, mostly ignoring each other entirely. We didn't come there to socialize, after all, but rather in pursuit of some higher cause: Truth, or a lucrative career, or training in how to transform the world, or a few years of subsidized leisure away from nagging parents, or all of the above. After four years my term expired and classwork, thesis, and major exams completed, I departed to do my yearlong, paid clinical internship at the University of California at Irvine in Orange County. This is another tale of toil and Exile by itself. If I ever actually bother to do my dissertation--which is what I should be doing instead of writing subversive trash like this--I will officially be Dr. K. Wabbit, Ph.D.

Was it worth it, that long, painful and costly exile? Most of my cohorts feel so now, as they climb their way up out of the ranks of the junior faculty at various minor mid-western state schools. Rapid advancement depends largely upon a willingness to accept further exile in the form of "good" positions at out-of-theway institutions. I myself turned down a position in the Counseling Center at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, because by that time I'd been diagnosed with AIDS and felt myself to be exiled to San Francisco by virtue of medical necessity. I can't think of any place I'd rather be exiled to, and anyway, my diagnosis rapidly eroded my lingering urge to merge with the mainstream via a "good"job.

The premise of graduate work is that it's a good deal in the long run, albeit merciless exploitation in the beginning. I found it a tolerable deal in the short run, by virtue of my superior skills at shirking, coasting, and ad-libbing, but clearly most others did not. They endured exile plus unreasonable work loads because it was one of very few paths upward.

As to how Khan ended up, I don't know, not having much information on the New York fashion design scene. I'll bet he's much happier than he would be back home working for the government, and it was obvious that his prospects as a Designer were far brighter than any he'd had as a mechanical engineer. Once again the lure of decadent Western culture and the unrestrained freedom of the Capitalist Market triumphed over traditional values and a Planned Economy. For Khan, as for me now, what started as Exile ended as finding Home.

-- Kwazee Wabbit