Tim, of ‘Tim & Leanne’ Gogglebox fame, tells OUTcast Podcast about being a gay Asian in the late 80s onwards and what it was like coming out to his Malaysian family.
Warning: this article contains some offensive language, quoted, in order to expose the intolerable racism our guest Tim has experienced.
When Tim Lai was ready to come out as gay, it was the tail end of the AIDS epidemic in Australia.
“One of the reasons I had such a hangup about my sexuality,” Tim tells Rosie on OUTcast, “was because when I was in high school coming to the point of wanting to come out, it was towards the ember end of the AIDS epidemic.
“Here in Australia there was this really God awful, bone-chilling advertisement that had the Grim Reaper spreading HIV and killing everyone.”
Being LGBTQ+ Australia at this time, which would have been the late 1980s, was very different from today.
“That was during my formative years. Anti-gay hate was at its absolute height then,” Tim explains.
“I grew up in a time when gays were bashed, beaten and murdered. And the police didn’t help, because some of the police were not innocent and were the ones who perpetrated a lot of the hate, in the name of law and decency,” he says.
Rosie describes having shivers down her spine as she hears Tim’s account on Episode 4 of OUTcast Podcast, out now.
Tim’s coming out story
Tim realised he was gay when he was around nine – purusing Myer and David Jones catelogues, of all things.
“I saw a few of the male models and I thought to myself, ‘ooh, they look good.’ It didn’t actually dawn on me what it actually meant, but I know that I wasn’t looking at the female models,” Tim smiles.
On OUTcast Podcast, Tim explains that his mum and dad were nonplussed about his sexuality, and much of his extended family – in Australia, and in Malaysia where he was born – were accepting as well.
In spite of the taboo around the LGBTQ+ communities experienced in 1980s and 1990s Australia and beyond, Tim was ready to come out when he was a teenager.
He spontaneously told his best friend’s aunt that he thought he might be gay, and she didn’t say anything but swiftly left the room the room instead.
“She just got up and marched out of the kitchen and I thought, ‘Oh crikey! What have I done?’ But then she came back, grabbed my mate who was still hungover, came in and she said, ‘you two need to talk, and be honest to each other’,” Tim says.
Support from a gay best friend
“So I told him I was gay and that I was struggling with it, and that I should have told him because I didn’t want to lose him as a friend,” he continues. “And at that point he then told me he was gay too!”
Tim’s coming out journey, then, became characterised by having the support and parallel experiences of his longtime best friend, and he was able to blossom into the proud gay man he is today – engaged and happily living in Melbourne with his partner Mark, and their beautiful Boston terrier, River.
Facing racism in Australia
Tim’s best friend was also incredibly supportive of Tim’s heritage and navigating the racism faced by many diverse people in Australia – throughout history and still today.
“I had this internalised racism against myself,” Tim poignantly reflects on the podcast. “I even recall recording Neighbours and Home and Away, and replaying the tape so that I could actually change my accent, so I sounded more Australian.”
“That’s how much I wanted to fundamentally change myself. And looking back in hindsight, that was absolutely so wrong.”
On top of the self hate caused by the despicable racism Tim reflects on, he also recounts how unaccepting the LGBTQ+ community in Australia was of non-white people.
”Discrimination within the LGBTQI community was even greater,” he emphasises. “And it’s hard to believe that when you’re on apps or you’re in clubs, that lines like ‘no Asians’, ‘no curries’, even ‘Gooks go home’ – I had that when I went to a gay club here in Melbourne – exist.”
Tim, who now works for the inclusive and diverse LGBTQ+ charity, The Pinnacle Foundation, shares his frustration that the community still lacks diverse representation.
“I just find it challenging, as well, when you look at boards and management teams and decision-makers for LGBTQ+ charities and not-for-profits, and the diversity ends with white cis-gendered men and women.”
He assures us things are getting better though. Slowly, but surely.
What can allies do to support the LGBTQIA community?
”I have an acronym for this,” Tim confides on OUTcast Podcast. “I call it my L.L.E., which is Learn, Listen and Educate.”
He explains: “Actively listen when someone comes out to you, or tells you about their life and their story; their struggles and tribulations.
“Be respectful when you ask your questions, and just use your own initiative and actually read up and learn about the LGBTQI+ community: about the struggles that we’ve had to face, and I think it’s through listening and educating yourself that you will put yourself in good stead with the LGBTQ+ community.”
Tim, who has starred in Gogglebox Australia since 2019 with his sister Leanne, has hope for the future.
What is the most hopeful thing about being LGBTQIA in Australia today?
“I’m proudly the byproduct of all my experiences: my trials, my tribulations, my pain,” he tells Rosie on OUTcast Podcast. “I’m the sum of my hangups, my self doubt, anxiety and victories, and if I change anything in my past, I’m not going to be who I am today.”
Tim lives in a traditionally non-diverse white suburban community in Melbourne, surrounded by retirees or young families with children.
“We’ve been embraced by everyone in my suburb and in this street,” he beams. “My neighbours have become my friends. We WhatsApp, we Facebook Chat, and we’re part of the street, we’re part of the community, and I think that’s what gives me hope.”
What a long way we have come.
Tim Lai stars in Gogglebox Australia with his sister Leanne, 7.30pm AEDT Wednesdays on Lifestyle and 8.30pm AEDT Thursdays on Network 10. Visit thepinnaclefoundation.org to find out about the LGBTQ+ charity’s work.