Gender & Sexuality in Indonesia: Gay

By Charissa Dechène
This is the fourth article in a blogseries on gender and sexuality in Indonesia. You can read the other parts here: part 1, part 2 and part 3.


In Indonesia people have been calling themselves gay or lesbi since the 1970’s. As I have mentioned in my previous blog in this series, gay and lesbi persons in Indonesia often ‘learn’ their sexual and gender identity through the recognition of representations in mass media. Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff has argued that they learn about their subject position not through their community or traditions, but that there is a “reception and transformation of ideas required from outside the home” (Boellstorff 2005b: 67). As I have explained in the second article of this series gay and lesbi Indonesians divide their world into three worlds: dunia gay (gay world), dunia lesbi (lesbi world) and dunia normal (normal world). The dunia gay and dunia lesbi can be seen as a transnational imagined community in which they can be terbuka (open) and can behave and talk differently than in the dunia normal. The dunia normal is where they have to behave ‘normal’ and where they can’t be terbuka, but are ‘closeted’.

That Indonesians who identify as gay are not always comfortable of being out in their everyday lives is probably related to the negative stigma’s around alternative gender and sexuality in the archipelago. A survey from 2012, by the private surveyor and political consultancy agency Lingkaran Survei Indonesia, who wants a better Indonesia, revealed that a majority of the Indonesian citizens (80.6%) do not wish to have a queer neighbour.

During my fieldwork in Yogyakarta, Indonesia I had the pleasure of going to a gay (or also known as bro) night at a local club. I was, of course, very happy to be able to go there because I had made some friends who could take me there. My friend told me that there is usually one gay/bro night at the particular club per month. I felt very excited to go there and put on some red lipstick (reading back in my fieldwork notes I had written that I very much missed to be able to wear red lipstick at the time). In a way, the night was also a chance for me to freely look how I would usually dress and look as I had been adjusting the way I dressed.

This safe space the club offers for LGBTQ Indonesians allows them to be terbuka and enjoy a carefree night with lots of entertainment, music, dance and of course flirtations. The organisation of the evening felt very secretive to me, because the promotion of the event was done on Facebook and to be on the safe side my friend adviced me to not openly tell everyone where exactly I was going that night.

A performance of a waria and a guy
The waria host and ‘sexy shotboys’ giving shots of alcohol to the audience
Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta, an Indonesian author living in LA has written a book called “Gentlemen Prefer Asians: Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages”, (which he asked me to review on my website and will be up by next week) has had a similar realization when he did research in several gay clubs in Indonesia for his thesis on drag queens. He writes:

“In a country where queers still live in a hush-hush condition, gay clubs are one of the few places where we can comfortably show our sexuality. These are safe heavens, little pockets with no pressure from religions and heterosexual norms, and everything else that’s considered “normal” in this country.” (Tuanakotta 2016: 42)

The importance of a safe space for LGBTQ people has become painfully clear after the horrific shooting in a gay club in Orlando, The United States on June 12th where 49 people were murdered. The shooting also beautifully illustrated the strong and worldwide connectivity of the imagined community of the LGBTQIA-community (and their alleys) all over the world.

Gay Indonesians usually have two perspectives regarding their sexuality. The first is that it is a sin, the second is that it is not a sin and if it was it would be easily forgiven by God (Boellstorff 2005b: 183). The latter is, because they believe God created them and that He made them the way they are and are therefore not sinners (Boellstorff 2005a: 579). The first perspective has a dichotomy. A part of the people who have this point of view believes that being gay or gayness is sinful, e.g. the longing to be with the same. Another part of this group believes that they will be sinners if they act upon those feelings. As a consequence thereof a large part of this group avoids sexual acts, in particular penis-anal sex (Boellstorff 2005a: 579). Another result is that this group of gay Indonesians marry heterosexually, which may also be connected to the strong heteronormative family principle of azas kekeluargaan.

To take a look at how gay has been represented in Indonesian cinema I will look at two movies: “Arisan” (2003) and “Coklat Stroberi” (2007).

“Arisan” (The Gathering) is directed by Nia Dinata and is praised for being the first Indonesian movie that discusses male homosexuality in a positive way. The movie includes an alternative sexuality next to other storylines and with that shows that the inclusion of an alternative sexuality is not a threat perse to its commercial success (Murtagh 2008). Moreover, it is the first Indonesian film that shows a same-sex kiss on screen (uncensored!). For my discussion in this blog I will focus on one of the lead characters in the movie: Sakti (Tora Sudiro). He is a 30-something handsome Batak (from Sumatra) and works as an architect in Jakarta. He is part of the upper-class and what I thought was interesting is that he has several tattoos. This is interesting, because tattoos are in contemporary Indonesia often associated with lower classes and criminality. In the movie he tells his friend MeiMei (Cut Mini Theo) that he thinks of his tattoos as works of art.

Sakti is aware of his sexual orientation and has been going, in secret, to a psychiatrist. The female psychiatrist is actually encouraging him to get out of the closet. This can be viewed as ground-breaking, especially when realising that a lot of Indonesian psychiatrists and other mental health physicians are claiming that homosexuality is a pathology. In the movie Sakti says: “The bottom line is I have to be normal. Why can’t I be normal?” and his psychiatrist replies with “Today, being gay is not considered abnormal.”
Sakti stresses that it is important for him to be normal because his father has passed away, his ethnicity and the fact that he as the only child has to make sure his family name doesn’t disappear. Moreover, he says that he worries of what his mother will think of the fact that he is gay, he thinks she will hang herself.

What is also interesting in this same scene is that the viewer is confronted with the availablity of several ‘remedies’ that are for sale to supress homosexual feelings. Sakti has bought an inhaler off the internet which he has to use when he gets aroused or excited. However he says that he still feels those feelings after he used the ‘remedy’. In a conversation with the openly gay Nino (Surya Saputra), Sakti tells about his fear of coming out: he is afraid his friends will leave him when they know he is gay and it becomes clear that he is not yet comfortable with his sexuality. He even tells Nino that he has not yet decided if he is gay or straight. Nino relates to his struggles and tells him that he recognizes these feelings of guilt and fear, but that telling he was gay felt like a burden has fallen off of his shoulders.

The movie tells the story of the coming out of Sakti and the struggles he faces in the process in Indonesia. The message of the filmmaker seems to be ‘be yourself’ and at the end of the movie Sakti is being accepted for who he is by his mother and his friends, who were not mad that he is gay but rather they were upset that he didn’t tell them he was.

Coklat Stroberi” (Chocolate Strawberry) is directed by Ardy Octiviand and written by Upi Avianto in 2007 and is a romantic comedy for teenagers. The movie can be viewed as ground-breaking for its focus on the relationship between Nesta (Nino Fernandez) and Aldi (Marrio Merdhithia) and thereby introduces gay sexuality to a younger audience than “Arisan”. The movie is thus the first teenage movie that tries to explore the theme of homosexuality in a progressive way. However the characters of the two young men, but also the romantic scenes are presented very stereotypically. Moreover the end of the movie illustrates the ambivalent attitude towards alternative genders and sexuality in Indonesia. Ambivalent, because Nesta chooses at the end of the movie to give in to his feelings for Key (Nadia Saphira) and thereby becomes normal.

On the one hand the movie presents a ‘stay true to yourself’ narrative and even seems to be celebrating alternative forms of sexuality. On the other hand the movie also demonstrates that teenagers might have doubts about their sexuality and that it will take the right person (in this case a beautiful young woman) to realise one is actually straight. I thought that even the name Key seems to be symbolic for becoming normal, she is the key to ‘cure’ him being gay. The misrepresentations may be connected to the limited access of the filmmakers in the dunia gay (Murtagh 2008). Because of this ambivalence the movie was received less positive by the queer audience than the bigger audience. Anthropologists Ben Murtagh and Laura Coppens also stated that the queer audience thought it was ‘strange’ that Aldi came out to his parents before he told his friends and that they had no interactions with the dunia gay (Murtagh 2010: 228 and Coppens 2008).

The story begins with two young women Citra (Marsha Timothy) and Key who already live together, however they are behind on their rent and their landlady decides to place two new renters in their house. The two young men Nesta and Aldi move in. The concept ‘coklat-stroberi’ is Nesta’s way of hiding his sexuality. In the movie he explains to Aldi, and the viewer, that coklat stands for masculine and heterosexual behaviour and that stroberi is gay behaviour.
The characters personality and appearance of Nesta and Aldi are also represented as coklat and stroberi. Nesta is presented as a tough (masculine) young man with a muscular body who seems to be occupied with appearing normal. Aldi is presented as more feminine, but attractive young man of a higher socio-economic class. The idea that there is a sense of a binary gender and heteronormative divide in a gay relationship is very stereotypical (e.g. that someone is the ‘female’and the other the ‘man’).

What is also interesting in the movie is that there are two coming-out moments.The first one is when Aldi decides it is time to tell his parents about his sexuality at dinner, because he is tired of hiding and he doesn’t understand why his sexuality would be wrong. He asks Nesta if he wants to join him during the dinner. Nesta does not want to do this and asks if Aldi has become crazy, he even suggests that his parents might get a heartattack when he tells them he is gay. Aldi stays determined to tell his parents and stresses that it is impossible for him to keep it a secret forever.

Nesta’s reaction can be seen as an illustration of the negative stigma around homosexuality and that it would be a pathology. As a viewer who was hopeful that the filmmakers would show a positive response of the parents, I got disappointed.

In the scene Aldi’s father starts a conversation about sports being good for one’s mental health. To which Aldi responds defensively and asks what is wrong with his and if his father is ashamed of him. His father says he thinks his son is still young and that his personality is still developing. This is the moment Aldi says that his father should accept his real identity and states that he is gay. His father gets a severe asthma attack when he hears his son speak those words and reacts with despair and shock. His mother leaves the room and takes his father home, but before she does she desperately asks her son to forget his words and become normal again.

The other coming-out scene is after Key and Citra walk in on Aldi and Nesta kissing (although the actual kiss is not visible in the movie). Citra confronts the two and wants to know what is going on. Nesta stresses that the kiss is not what they think it is, to which Aldi asks if he really wants to keep pretending. Aldi tells the women that he and Nesta are in a relationship. Citra has a really open response to the coming-out and states that she appreciates Aldi’s honesty and thinks that there are not many other people as brave as him. Aldi responds noteworthy by stating that he is not happy with the view on gay other people have created for him, and thus other gay Indonesians. With this the filmmakers point out the fact that the negative stigma is constructed by others (non-gay Indonesians) and not by themselves (gay Indonesians) and that this has major consequences for everyone who identifies as being gay.

“Coklat Stroberi” thus gives two ambivalent perspectives on homosexuality: on the one hand that all the fears of telling your parents are justified and that telling them will be hard. On the other hand the movie says that if you come out you will be more confident and your friends will accept you for who you are.

As with the representations of waria, positive depictions and visibility of gay Indonesians in media is important to be able to discuss alternative sexualities and create awareness and tolerance towards these still marginalized groups, eventhough the representations are not always close to the reality. And on a side note, places where Indonesians, or any other person in the world, who identify as LGBTQ can be safe and open  without fearing for their lives (which should be everywhere) is a human right.

Please stay tuned for the last blog of this series, in which I will address the lesbi  subject position. You can subscribe to this website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.

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