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This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Thursday, June 5, 8:30 p.m.
I’m seated in the front row of Royal Brunei Airways flight 517, on a rather threadbare airbus that appears to have been built sometime in the 1980s. As we rattle down the central runway of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, tiny screens deploy from the ceiling bearing the Brunei flag, while a Muslim prayer begins playing through the sound system, some sort of supplication for safe travel, I can only guess. The prayer ends, the screens flash twice and episodes from the first season of Friends play for the duration. In between episodes, a graphic pops onto the screen showing the layout of the plane, bisected by an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca.
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As I’m reading up about recent Bruneian history and arcana, I sense that the young male passenger an aisle over has taken an interest in me. After I look up and make eye contact, he politely asks where I’m from and if I’d mind sharing why I’m going to Brunei. “I’m from the U.S., but I live in Thailand. I’m just going to check it out,” I tell him, accurately but opaquely. We get to talking. James (all names have been changed) is in his mid-20s and grew up near Seria, the biggest oil-producing region in the 2,226-square-mile Brunei and home to the country’s Billionth Barrel Monument, a towering four-pillared arabesque statue built by the sultan in 1991 — to commemorate exactly what it sounds like. James has just taken his first job working in a hotel, and he is on his way back from a hospitality training course he attended in Bangkok. He explains that his family is Chinese Bruneian, the country’s second-largest ethnic group — about 10 percent, behind the 65 to 70 percent Muslim Malay majority. As we’re about to touch down in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, I ask him if he can recommend a decent hotel near the center of the city. He’s surprised to hear I don’t have a reservation. Local public transport is apparently terrible, since everyone drives, and taxis are hard to find at night — even at the airport. “Why don’t you just stay at my house for the night,” he offers, adding, “I can show you around in the morning and take you to a hotel. We have a guest room.” Apprehensive, but intrigued, I accept.
Friday, June 6, 12:30 a.m.
James’ family house is large by Asian standards, and any middle-class American family would be comfortable here. After assuring me he is not rich — his father owns a bakery — we take off our shoes by the door and James leads me through the house to an upstairs landing where a foot-tall blue and green parrot sits in a large cage in the middle of the room. He points me toward the guest room and politely wishes me a good night’s sleep as he feeds his pet bird.
Muslims work the counter at a local multiplex. All films must go through a censorship board, which is on the lookout for nudity, heavy violence and Christian or Jewish themes.
The next day, James gives me a tour of the town. I’m impressed by how green the city seems to be. Everywhere we go outside the city center, drooping trees are accessorized with big puffy epiphytes — what James identifies as birds’ nest ferns — that reach out over the wide roads.
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We pull up in front of a gleaming, silver-domed government building that strikes me as U.S. Capitol building meets Dune. James informs me it’s the Prime Minister’s Office of Brunei and was built just a couple of years ago. “Oh, so Brunei also has a prime minister?” I ask, idiotically.
“The sultan is the Prime Minister.”
“It’s interesting being here right now, since Brunei has been in the news so much lately,” I later venture. “Have you heard about the protests of the sultan’s hotels in the United States?”
“Yes, everyone here has heard about it — from the Internet and Facebook — but we don’t talk about it,” James replies, eyes on the road (despite a total blackout in local media, everyone I eventually speak with in Brunei is aware of the Los Angeles protests over the sultan’s recent decision to phase in sharia law, which calls for the stoning of gays and adulterers).
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I decide to give it a rest for now. We pull up for gas at a Shell station (every gas station in Brunei is Shell). As an attendant pumps the gas for us, I check the price on the meter: B$.53 a liter (about $1.64 a gallon). Curious, I get out and go buy a 1-liter bottle of water inside the station. It costs B$1 — nearly twice as much as the gas outside.
Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei.
We’re at a scenic riverside park, from which one can see the pure gold central dome of the sultan’s 2.15 million-square-foot palace peeking above the trees, far off beyond the opposite bank. I’ve explained to James my take on why the people are protesting the sultan’s hotels abroad. He gets it but seems a little impatient. I ask if there are any gay people here and whether he thinks they are worried about the new laws.
“There are gay people here, but it’s not as bad as people think. There’s no hate crime. This is a pretty safe, peaceful place — no one can picture them actually stoning someone.”
Then he asks if I’m gay.
“I’m not,” I say, adding the classically lame, “but I have a lot of gay friends.” I tell him that I get the impression that he probably is. He’s startled but also amused. He smiles and nods yes. I come out with the fact that I work for a magazine and would be interested in sharing his story and views, and that I’d be happy to change his name.
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The particulars of James’ story surprise me: He has a 27-year-old boyfriend who lives in Redlands, Calif., whom he met on Instagram about two years ago. “I love to take pictures and he started following me and we started chatting, and it just kind of grew from there,” he explains. James spent two weeks visiting his boyfriend a year and a half ago and plans to fly back to California at the end of the month to apply to several local colleges in the hopes of getting accepted to study biology in the spring. He and his boyfriend have discussed getting married — in part so James can stay in California. “I want him to visit me here, so he can try all the awesome food, but he’s like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you want us to get shot?’ “
I ask him if he is afraid of the new law. “I don’t think they will stone anyone,” he says. “Also, it’s an open secret that [people in the sultan’s circle] are gay. As a non-Muslim, I find it ridiculous. I have a gay Muslim friend. You should talk to him.”
I mention that the sultan and Prince Jefri are said to be epic womanizers. “The people that are supposed to set the example have broken the law all over the place. They don’t follow the teachings, so why should we? Everyone knows they drink as well, but alcohol is illegal here.”
A local merchant sells vegetables. Bruneians receive an automatic $200 a month from the government after the age of 60.
Checked into a room at the Radisson Hotel, Brunei’s only international hospitality brand, I try to reach a contact passed to me by a journalist friend in Malaysia. I was told the individual is a liberal-minded Muslim who might be willing to speak with me about Sharia law and gay rights in Brunei. A voice answers in English, and I explain who I am and why I’m calling. “Where are you staying?” he asks. I tell him. “What room number?” I hesitate but tell him. The line goes dead. I never hear from him again and future calls go unanswered.
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Saturday, June 7, 5:30 p.m.
After a day spent interviewing contacts, many reluctant to discuss the protests or the sultan (a producer at one of the few local film companies brushes away the controversy — “The sultan is misunderstood,” she says), another contact from my Malaysian journalist friend proves extremely helpful. A young Chinese Bruneian woman, she’s agreed to share her views as a Christian (the country’s second-most-popular religion, but prohibited by law from proselytizing) on the ongoing adoption of Sharia. She’s also promised to take me to one of Brunei’s few remaining “underground” bars. On the way from my hotel to the speakeasy, we pass a set of sleek, interconnected warehouses. Each is about 50 yards long. “Those are the sultan’s oldest son’s garages. They’re filled with his car collection.”
We drive into the parking garage beneath an old hotel, which is lit up but almost entirely vacant. We take an elevator to the fourth floor and walk to the end of a long hallway. The carpet is stained and the wallpaper cracked. She rings a bell at a door at the end of the hall; I note the security camera peering down at us. I hear locks turn and the door opens. A Malay man glances at us disinterestedly and sits back down behind a desk, on top of which sits the security camera monitor. The door’s heavy locks click closed automatically behind us. Middle-aged Malay men sit at tables around the edge of the smoky room, drinking Tiger beer and whiskey on the rocks. A few nod as we make eye contact. A deserted pool table sits at the center of the room. We walk into the adjoining room and she greets a few friends seated around a square bar, worked by an elderly Malay bartender, who’s aggressively washing glasses with a cigarette dangling from his lip. We continue out to a balcony, where a muscular middle-aged guy in a business shirt is laughing loudly and holding court at a tableful of Malays. My friend stops and chats with him without introducing me. I sit at a nearby table and wait.
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“He’s an old childhood friend,” she says, lowering her voice as she sits down. “I only come when I know he is here. He’s CID — the Royal Criminal Investigation Department. It’s like our CIA. If he’s here, there’s not going to be any crackdown.”
She explains that there used to be several underground bars in Brunei — even a couple of full dance clubs — but most have been raided in recent months.
“This place used to be really crowded around this time with the afterwork crowd,” she adds. “But since the new law, people are … what do you say? Lying low.”
We drink a few beers and snack on French fries, discussing the law and its impact on gay life in Brunei. Despite being minority Christian, her views closely align with many Bruneians I’ve spoken with: She loves her sultan and feels bad he’s being criticized; the new law isn’t so terrible; and provided gays keep their “situation” private, nobody will get stoned. Roughly matching the answers I got from the film contacts, a waitress and statements made by a friendly shopkeeper near my hotel, this line is emerging as the dominant consensus. After she drops me off, I sit in the corner of my hotel’s lobby, illicitly buzzed, drinking water and trying to sober up before James arrives to take me to meet his gay Muslim friend.
The Sultan’s son, Prince Azim, with Naomi Campbell, has moved into film producing, recently debuting a Hilary Swank project in Cannes.
James drops me off at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and the friend is waiting for me out front, fidgeting with his phone. Fadli is just 22, but James says he’s been “adventurous” in Brunei’s gay scene. Fadli is short, slender and neatly dressed in a white button-down shirt, skinny jeans and loafers. His thick black hair is combed to the side, and he has a thin mustache. Before I can ask any questions, Fadli pulls out a piece of paper with notes on it and asks if I’m ready to hear his “speech.”
“Sure,” I say, sitting back and sipping my coffee.
His English is far from perfect, but Fadli keeps his eyes down at his notes and begins speaking — slowly and with purpose.
“Mostly we are discreet and we need to hide our gay identity. We use Grindr — it’s very popular. Inside Grindr, Bruneians are careful and choosy. Sometimes people make private parties — mostly gay artists and celebrities in Brunei do that. We are in a conservative Islamic country, so we need to be careful. There’s no holding hands in public — this is a Malay Islamic monarchy. We just have to follow one rule: Don’t put it out there. It may sound hypocritical from me, but I’m a Muslim. I respect the new law and I support it. Because what I’m doing now, as a gay, it’s not right for me to do. It’s against the religion. But I have to, because it just came to me. I believe I will go to hell. Sometimes I want to change to be straight — I’ve tried — but I can’t. Most of the people I have dated are married people with kids. We have this secret. What to do?”
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