Gender and Sexuality in Indonesia: Lesbi

By Charissa Dechène

Here is the long awaited final blog in my series on gender and sexuality in Indonesia. My apologies it took so long. You can read the previous blogs here: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.


In this blog I will explore the lesbi subjectposition by using literature and a queer movie. The movie which I will be analysing and which will illustrate the subject position is “Children of Srikandi” (Srikandi Films, 2011). The movie was a spontaneous collective collaboration between film-maker and visual anthropologist Laura Coppens, film-maker Angelika Levi and eight queer women in Indonesia, which started after a film-workshop. The movie is the first of its kind to give queer women in Indonesia a voice and which offers them room and material to represent themselves. It tells the story of eight women who offer the spectator a glimpse into their lives as a queer woman living in Indonesia. The movie thus consists of eight movies in which the women are the director and (re)present themselves they want to be seen. The film is a combination of, and transcends the anthology of, documentary, fiction and experimental film. The stories of the women are interspersed by wayang. “Srikandi is a female figure from the Indian Mahabharata epic that changes gender to live and fight as an equal among men.” (Coppens during the Q&A at the filmscreening in Amsterdam on June 8, 2012).

Trailer “Children of Srikandi”

As I have mentioned in my previous blogs in this series on gender and sexuality in Indonesia, Indonesians have been calling themselves gay and lesbi since the 1970’s. Sociologist Saskia Wieringa, who is professor of Gender and Women’s Same-Sex Relations Cross culturally at the University of Amsterdam, stated that since the 1980’s the subject was also mentioned in the media. In these media articles the love between two women was told in a sensational manner, Wieringa said (Wieringa 2000: 450). The articles portrayed the women as stereotypical and their sexuality was seen as deviant from the ‘normal heterosexuality’ (Wieringa 2000: 450). Moreover, it was suggested that these ‘perverse’ and ‘exotic’ uses were introduced by the decadent West in ‘innocent’ Indonesia. As with male homosexuality, lesbianism was also seen as a disease which could be cured with the right form of treatment by a qualified psychotherapist.

As you may have read in my previous blogs, same-sex activities were linked to prostitution, promiscuity and other ‘modern’ and urban virtues, like discos, drug use and ‘wild nightlife’ (Coppens in Michalik & Coppens 2009: 177, Wieringa 2000: 450). That this is a very stereotypical view and not (always) the case is illustrated by the story of Eggie Dian in the movie “Children of Srikandi”. Her story confronts the spectator with the everyday dangers of living in Indonesia as a lesbian. In the first scene she sits on a bench which she calls her home and tells that she had lived there for almost half her life. The reason she ended up living on the street she says, is that she is gay and her family rejected her because of it (11”). She talks about how violence is a part of her daily routine. She has been abused twice, both physically and sexually by a local religious male group. Eggie tells that she was put in a car and that they hit her until she bled and put out cigarettes on her. The car happened to be on its way to a police station in which she was further tortured. She was then 16years old and wrongfully accused, but was held prison for several days. When she was released she had to sign a letter stating that she would not sue, if she refused she and her family would be murdered.

This story shows that the sexuality of women, and specifically lesbian women, in Indonesia is being regulated and governed by the authorities. Moreover, Eggie’s story displays that this may happen with a lot of violence (see also Murray 2001). But, violence does not only occur outside the lesbi-community. In the movie one of the women addresses that there is a real threat of verbal, economical and emotional violence from inside the lesbi-community which she fears most. Because, she states, if there is violence from certain extremist religious groups, they can appeal to the law and organisations.

However, if the violence comes from the community itself, by their lesbi friends, there is nothing they can do. As an example she said that she, and other lesbi she knows, who are poor and often uneducated are being underestimated, which makes them invisible. When she was living on the street, no one listened to her, but when the queer events were attacked the “poor lesbis” were reintegrated in the name of sisterhood in the lesbi-community, she says. “But, what kind of sisterhood is this” she asked critically. This can be connected to what Murray has written about the differences in class among lesbi in Indonesia, namely that

Lower-class lesbians are excluded from the global movement by the lack of two essentials: money and the English language” (Murray in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 148).

However, when I interviewed the film-maker Laura Coppens, it became clear that the participants often spoke English. This also highlights the underexposed position of lesbians within the global LGBT-community.

Same-sex activities between women is not something that just emerged in Indonesia, however there is even less knowledge about this than about male homosexuality. Wieringa has given two possible reasons in comparing the two. Firstly, that female sexuality often is not seen as something which is compatible with perspectives about the female gender: they have to be friendly, meek and sexually shy. Whereas men are often encouraged to be sexually aggressive, rough and extrovert (Wieringa 2000: 451). Secondly, observers were often male who ignored the intimate domains of women or were denied access therein (Wieringa 2000: 451 and 1990).

Female homosexuality has also been widely ignored within anthropology. Wieringa gives three explanations which can enlighten why it was perceived as a taboo subject. Firstly that the (male) anthropologist was strongly influenced by the  value judgements of their peers of the interpretation and significance of the subject; secondly that the subject matter would gain low scientific value; and lastly the life and work of anthropologist Margaret Mead, because she researched sexuality and also had a few female lovers while being married to a man (Wieringa 1990: 3- 4). However, the latter also raises questions in Wieringa and myself. Why did only Mead’s escapades trigger such negativity? And did Mead’s personal life really change or highlight a negative attitude towards the subject? Why did it not raise more interest into the subject matter?

However, I will get back to the lesbi subject position in Indonesia. As I have stated before I am using the terms in italic, as anthropologist Tom Boellstorff introduced.
The umbrella term lesbi, according to Boellstorff, includes

not only feminine women, but also masculine women who sometimes think of themselves as women with men’s souls.” (Boellstorff 2005: 5).

The term lesbi therefore not only refers to one’s sexuality, but also to their appearance. The differences between a feminine person with a female body and the masculine persons with a female body is best to understand in the different terms they themselves use to describe their identities.
In the West these differences are often named/labelled as ‘butch/butchy’ (masculine) and ‘femme’ (feminine). In Indonesia feminine lesbi are often called ‘cewek’ and masculine lesbihunter’ of ‘cowok’.
Another popular used term for masculine lesbi, women who dress as a man, is tomboi or tomboy (Blackwood 1999: 81 & Boellstorff 2005: 5).

Blackwood stated that this term is used for women who act in a manly manner (gaya laki-laki) (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 181). Tombois, in this understanding, thus assume the clothing style, behaviours, occupations and other customs of the ‘male’ in society. Blackwood stresses that the tomboi is not the Indonesian version of butch is, but that they are men. This she concludes from her own personal experiences with her girlfriend. Her girlfriend identified as male and wanted to be one. Blackwood also was asked to approach him as male, for example use gagah (handsome, used for men) instead of cantik (pretty, used for women) (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 186).

Tombois are proud that they can do things and act as a male: they can play koa (a kind of poker), smoke as a man, can go out alone (especially at night) and drive motorcycles. Moreover, they view childbearing as something excessive, because they are male (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 188). Because tombois construct themselves as male and their relations as heterosexual, Blackwood argues that they are gender transgressors. She stresses however, that this also raises the question of the relation between gender ideology and gender transgression. She goes against claims of other theorists that women ‘become’ men due to their sexual desires for women. This would mean that

’women’ are not allowed ‘freedom of sexuality’, they are forced to pass as men […] in order to be with women. […] the constraints on their sexual desire, which arise from an ideology of male dominance and men’s control of sexuality, force women to transgress.” (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 190).

Blackwood does not deny that in some cultures this is the case, but finds it highly unlikely for tombois in Indonesia. She argues that tombois often already established a male gender identity before they were aware of their sexual desires, which indicates that it is not their (sexual) longing for women that ‘drove’ them to this identity (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 190).

Tombois present themselves as male, but there is a contradiction between how they define themselves and how the majority of the Indonesian society describes them. The constant pressure to marry heterosexually and the threat of a forced marriage, shows that in Indonesia the body determines the gender roles. Within the ruling sex/ gender-system denial of the female body is prohibited. As a consequence thereof the tomboi is rejected, by others, to take part in family- and community life as male. This shows that the gender identity tomboi is seen as deviant, as a transgression which is illegitimate. Their masculinity is missing cultural validation (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 193).

The tomboi, on state level, can be seen as the rejection of the repressing gender ideology, says Blackwood. The Indonesian state ideology and a big part of its policy, are oriented on a nuclear family. Although there are other forms of family life, for example polygamy (see the movie “Berbagi Suami” by Nia Dinata, 2006). The state also argues that motherhood a traditional role is, even before Dutch colonization, for women in Indonesia. According to Gayatri this argument is used to discourage homosexuality (Gayatri 1993). The national and religious message for women in Indonesia is that it is their duty to marry and to be feminine.

This concept of the family is not representational but normative; it has been “aimed not at accurately representing the diverse social entities that we call families, but at presenting a model that all families are supposed to emulate, directed toward the furthering of goals that always exceed the boundaries of the family itself”” (Brenner in Boellstorff 2007: 198, see also Brenner 1998).

As I have written before, Islam is the religion most people in Indonesia have. In the film we also meet Yulia, an educated woman who, in her story, reflects on her sexuality by questioning her ideas about Allah and religion. Her story illustrates the complex process she, and presumingly other LGBTQ people in Indonesia struggle with in their religion and sexuality. She tells that she is also redefining herself constantly by learning new knowledge and personal experiences. She states that she after attending a scientific lecture about Islam, she held discussions in her school about critical and dialectic ways of thinking to understand the religion better. However, she was asked by a professor to stop, because in his opinion she was spreading western values which were wrong. She did not listen to him and continued the discussions. After that she explored her feelings and fell in love with a girl, only to realise that her religion was a big obstacle to further discover these feelings. She then decided that she would leave everything, remove her jilbab and start a new life. She could not tell her Muslim friends, because they had never touched on the subject of sexuality before. She states at the end of her story that she still does not know which religion is good or bad, or if God even exist. However, she is determined to

“deconstruct what is normal” (39:58”).

By using the discourse of modernity (education, careers, achieving middle class status) tombois can create a space in which it is possible to have a future (Blackwood in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 199-200). Blackwood stresses that tombois should not be seen as ­female-to-male transgenders. This is illustrated in the story of Afank Marianna in “Children of Srikandi”. She shows the viewer that identity-politics is not something which is vast, but that it is the person who identifies with certain labels. For her labels are not something simple or limited. This also overlaps with what Murray has written:

[…] Indonesian women do not like to use the label to describe themselves since it is connected with unpleasant stereotypes and the pathological view of deviance derived from Freudian psychology” (Murray in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 142).

She tells the viewer that she is part of a community and that she does a lot of things with her friends, but also that she is an individual who is constantly redefining herself. The different labels she assumes can somewhat be connected to what Murray has stated. Murray argued that adopting different identities can be a form of survival and that these originate by local power-structures and that these structures take form (in Jakarta) through class (Murray in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 154). However, Afank seems to define and redefine her identity in a more reflective way instead of a way to manage power-structures in her direct environment.

Blackwood argues that butch lesbi in Jakarta have similar characteristics in common with waria: they are born in a female body, but feel, usually from a very young age, that the female gender does not suit them. Like waria they believe that their transgenderism is caused by ‘natural’ factors:

They employ a medical, naturalized discourse about themselves, asserting that they are born like this.” (Wieringa in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 23).

They see themselves as neither male nor female and are in their appearance and behaviour more corresponding with masculine gender behaviour, but categorise themselves not as male, in contrast to the above described tomboi. The sexual desire they feel towards women is their greatest motivation, they take on the male role during sexual intercourse with femme lesbi and are not always happy about the fact that their female body sometimes makes this difficult (Wieringa in Blackwood & Wieringa 1999: 24).

The movie “Children of Srikandi” gives lesbi women in Indonesia a, much needed, voice and shows that they are struggling with love, life and religion like anyone else. It shows their humanity and the complexities they face in their everyday lives.

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