Gender & Sexuality in Indonesia: A Short Introduction

By Charissa Dechène

“Anthropology’s greatest potential contribution to queer studies is not to ethnographize it or transnationalize it, but to anthropologize it. (Boellstorff 2007: 3).

In 2012 I wrote my BA thesis (in Dutch) “Waria, Gay and Lesbi: Queer (Re)Presentations in Indonesian Cinema”.
With the recent proposal from the Indonesian parliamentary committee to censor media related LGBTQ issues in the nation-state, including a ban on same-sex emoji’s from apps, I felt the need to dust off my thesis and write a blog about it.

This blog is the first in a series of five different articles. In this first piece I will explain how and why I am using the chosen concepts. I will also give a short introduction of Indonesia and alternative forms of gender and sexuality and how they are generally perceived in the nation-state. The second blog will be a general history of Indonesian cinema, (re)presentations of ‘queer’ therein and queer film festivals in Indonesia. Then I will write three in-depth blogs in which I will further describe and analyse each queer subjectposition (waria, gay and lesbi) and their representations in Indonesian cinema.

The movies which I will analyse in relation to the subject positions are the same as I used for my thesis. These are not all Indonesian productions, but were made in corporation with Indonesians. ‘Queer’ refers here mostly to queer sexuality as is explained by Professor of English Ellis Hanson:

“By ‘queer’, I mean the odd, the uncanny, the undecidable. But, more importantly, I refer to ‘queer’ sexuality, that no-man’s land beyond the heterosexual norm, that categorical domain virtually synonymous with homosexuality and yet wonderfully suggestive of a whole range of sexual possibilities (deemed perverse or deviant in classical psychoanalysis) that challenge the familiar distinctions between normal and pathological, straight and gay. masculine men and feminine women.” (Hanson 1993: 137-8)

Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world with an estimated 255 million people, who live across 17500 islands (6000 are inhabited) and speak around 700 local languages besides the national language Bahasa Indonesia. The archipelago also has the largest Muslim-majority in the world.
Because of the enormous diversity in culture throughout the islands, it is no wonder that there are a lot of different opinions and perspectives about gender and sexuality in Indonesia. Ideas of gender and sexuality are determined by space and time and are thus culturally and historically fixed, as is also the case in Indonesia.
Sexuality in Islam is organised from the central premise of a heterosexual marriage (nikah) (Boellstorff 2005a: 578). This is also the most important foundation in the Indonesian nation-state. The concept of ‘azas kekeluargaan’, the ‘family principle’, stresses that Indonesia consists of heterosexual, nuclear families and not of individuals. This state ideology regulates, mostly, female sexuality.

“National belonging and heterosexuality are mutually defining and supporting, and those who fall outside official sexual norms are failed citizens.” (Boellstorff 2005a: 578).

Heterosexuality is thus the normative gender construction in Indonesia, whereas people who identify as being LGBTQ fall into the non-normative or alternative gender constructions. You could also see them as being the ‘third gender’ in Indonesia.
I am adressing the alternative subject positions of waria, gay and lesbi in this blog series.

I will write gay and lesbi in cursive, because the concepts do not have the same meaning as they do in English. I thereby draw upon how the terms are interpreted by Professor of Anthropology Tom Boellstorff’s. He used his ‘dubbing culture’ theory to explain why the concepts should be written in cursive. The theory came to be in the late 1990’s when the dubbing of Western television programs into Bahasa Indonesia was prohibited. This was done with the idea that the Indonesian people would no longer be able to make a distinction between where their culture ended and the authentic Indonesian culture began if Western people on TV could speak Bahasa Indonesia. Boellstorff states that:

“dubbing culture provides a rubric for rethinking globalization without relying on biogenetic (and, arguable, heteronormative) metaphors […] which imply prior unities and originary points of dispersion. In dubbing culture two elements are held together in productive tension without the expectation that they will resolve into one. […] “Dubbing culture” is queer: with dubbing, there can never be a “faithful” translation.” (Boellstorff 2005b: 5)

The terms gay and lesbi are thus not ‘just’ English words with an Indonesian accent, they have been interpreted locally and are not a “faithful” translation of the English meaning. Just think of how meanings and humor is changed when you watch a dubbed movie or serie. I will give a more extensive meaning of the concepts in the fourth and fifth blog.

The ‘third gender’ concept is a category which is criticised by analytics, because they feel like it is too often limitedly described and therefore not always applicable to all alternative forms of gender and sexuality (Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 23, Boellstorff 2007: 82). However, the term is often used by people who place themselves within this group. I agree with Indonesian LGBTIQ activist and founder of GAYa Nusantara Dédé Oetomo who has stressed that the concept of a ‘third gender’ should be included in scientific analyses when respondents place themselves within this category (Oetomo 1996: 267). People who identify as being ‘third gender’ have a biological male or female body, but do not see or associate themselves with the (socio-culturally) accompanying gender roles. They see themselves as a gender category outside the two binary categories of male and female.

In Indonesia a well-known ‘third gender’ construct is banci, however this term is often used as derogatory and they therefore prefer to be called and call themselves waria (as will I). Waria is a combination of the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria). This indicates that they incorporate both masculinity and femininity. They describe themselves as having a male body with a female soul. Waria are much more visible in contemporary Indonesia than gay and lesbi, although both have a negative stigma. Waria have socially accepted roles, such as hairdressers and appear sometimes on TV, but also work in prostitution. I will go more into waria in the third blog of this series.

In contrast to waria is homosexuality rarely mentioned or visible in Indonesian mass media. When it is mentioned it is often negative or about lesbi, which possibly has to do with the more strictly regulated control on female sexuality in general. Psychologists in the archipelago even refer to homosexuality as a pathology. Homosexuality in Indonesia is often portrayed as a stereotypical lifestyle with lots of criminality, drugs, promiscuity and diseases (Coppens in Michalik & Coppens 2009: 177). It is also seen as a lifestyle which young people want to adapt to be trendy, especially in urban areas (Coppens in Michalik & Coppens 2009: 177).

Although there are some socially accepted roles for male-to-female subjects, as waria,

transgenderism and homosexuality hardly valorized in contemporary Indonesian society [are] condemned as sinful and incompatible with “Indonesian tradition.”(Boellstorff 2003: 28).

This view is one I have heard a few times during my fieldwork in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I remember some people refer to waria and gay as being “disgusting”, “unnatural”, “weird” and “not Indonesian”. Fortunately I also heard a lot of positive views about alternative forms of gender and sexuality.

Movies, visual images, queer film festivals and online platforms can contribute to different, and more positive, perspectives and information on LGBTQ in Indonesia and are therefore really important for (public) awareness, but also for self-identification. This will be prohibited when the controversial proposal is accepted.

*You can read part two here.

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