Ivan Yeo learnt soon after his arrival in New Zealand that he was not going to be a hot item in the gay world. A friend told him.
“He told me there was a hierarchy of being gay, what colour plays on the top and which one is the lower. Unless you’re white, young, blonde, then you’ll be the top line of meat,” he laughs. “Being Asian is down in the food chain, and he said I’d most likely end up with an older white male.”
In his late twenties, Ivan escaped his oppressive and homophobic home country of Malaysia to come to New Zealand. Being able to express himself as a gay man without having to lie to his parents or friends about what he got up to at the weekend was like living in a “wonderland”, but he hadn’t counted on the responses that’d face him whenever he logged into dating websites.
You’ll still see it now if you venture into smartphone hookup apps, often in capital letters on the more obnoxious profiles: NO ASIANS. It left a sour taste.
“I have to say, growing up, being someone who never felt like they were good enough…and then to go to another world and having all these negative messages just reinforced that,” Ivan says. “I’m not good enough because I’m gay, I’m not good enough because I’m Asian, I’m not good enough anywhere I turn to.”
When Ivan was growing up, sexuality was not discussed at all. The idea of living your life with another man was a complete fantasy. Society expected you to grow up, marry and have children to continue your family tree. Ivan realised when he was a teenager that he was gay, and the thought of not being able to fit the mould made him deeply depressed.
“I remember when I was younger, like twelve or thirteen, questioning my mum and saying, ‘why did you give birth to me?’ I hated myself, I hated the world. I didn’t know how I could live as myself, so why would they want to bring me into a society knowing that I could never fulfil the obligations society has set me up to do?”
Coming to New Zealand was a revelation for him. His first friends were a gay couple who showed him that two men could actually live together and be happy. It was a dream he’d pretty much given up on by the time he had a chance encounter at a bus stop one afternoon.
Then at university, Ivan’s classes had finished for the day. His mind raced with thoughts of assignments, and he was preoccupied. He’d not done well at school growing up, and had always felt “stupid” in class.
A handsome man asked him where the next bus was going. Ivan answered the question and thought nothing of it.
“Honestly, I had no clue. First, that he was gay, secondly that he actually thought I was cute. I didn’t associate cuteness with myself, I didn’t think people actually found me attractive,” he laughs.
The bus arrived, and the mystery man motioned for Ivan to sit next to him. He didn’t find out till later that Gerry (for that was his name) was actually just looking for any excuse to talk to him.
They married in a civil union ceremony two years ago. It proved to be a pivotal point in Ivan’s life, not only in terms of feeling a safety, security and love that he’d never experienced before, but in opening a new chapter with his family.
Ivan had come out to his family after moving to New Zealand, and initially things had not gone well. By the time he married Gerry and they made their first trip back to Malaysia together, things were very different.
“It changed the whole dynamic,” Ivan says. “The concept of having someone to look after your son or daughter is so important in Chinese culture. They were happy for me and Gerry because they felt we had somewhere we could both call home.”
It’s evident from the beaming holiday photos of Ivan and Gerry together with parents, cousins, nephews and nieces that they are very much part of the family.
In Chinese culture, things are seen as collective rather than individual. This can have its negative aspects with regards to prejudice around homosexuality and mental illness: one person’s “affliction” can bring shame on the whole family.
But Ivan has managed to turn that collective worldview into a positive as part of life in New Zealand. It is what keeps him well.
“I will do things for other people, because my father taught me this,” he says. “You live for other people, and other people will live for you. Anyone who’s my friend, I will try my best as a friend to take care of them, and I’m still doing it.”
Ivan’s full story can be found in the feature-length documentary Men Like Us, now available on DVD on digital download.