In its struggle to confront LGBT identities, the Indonesian state is now making its citizens more open to them. But this also has consequences for other long-standing non-normative sexual identities like ‘waria’ and ‘bissu’, writes Hendri Yulius.
2016 was a pivotal year for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in Indonesia.
While in previous decades people of non-normative genders and sexualities were constantly under threat by religious vigilante groups, in 2016 a number of government representatives and politicians explicitly issued public statements condemning what they call as “LGBT persons and behaviours.” These negative sentiments were then followed by legal steps by an Islamic pro-family group, Family Love Alliance [Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/AILA] to outlaw homosexual practices, identity, and adultery. Meanwhile, public attitudes became increasingly hostile toward people with non-normative gender expressions.
Even though the public’s rage has now shifted to Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahja Purnama and ethnic Indonesian-Chinese due to his alleged blasphemy, the war against homosexuality has not ended. In the latest attempt by politicians to protect the moral fibre of young Indonesians, lawmakers are planning to amend the 2002 Broadcasting Law to ban ads and programs on TV and radio displaying LGBT talent and expressions that, in addition to same-sex attraction, refer to non-normative gender expressions.
In a similar vein, on 19 January, the South Sulawesi police force disbanded the sports and arts week event [Pekan Olahraga dan Seni/ Porseni] of waria and bissu [male-to female transgender] to be held in the district of Soppeng. The festival preserves and respects the indigenous bissu culture that is known for its diverse gender identities and expressions beyond the binary model of male-female.
It is interesting to see how waria and bissu—two local elements of gender and sexual identities—have also increasingly been conflated with Western LGBT identity in Indonesia.
The term waria [wanita-pria/female-male] often frivolously translated as male-to-female transgender, was introduced by the Indonesian government in 1978 to replace the term wadam [Wanita Adam/female-Adam] because of protests from Muslim clerics complaining of the inappropriateness in using a prophet’s name — Adam.
Different from waria, the term bissu held a special status in Bugis society that instilled androgyny with a sacred meaning — a God can descend only to a gender-free body. Hence, bissu embraces both male and female elements. They were respected as priests and healers, although their social and spiritual status has nowadays been degraded to that of social pariahs.
These local identities and indigenous practices definitely provide strong justification to the contemporary Indonesian LGBT movements to demonstrate that non-normative gender and sexual expressions and identities do not originate from the West as Indonesian conservatives believe and often claim.
More significantly, the emergence of the term LGBT in Indonesia last year has inadvertently changed the way people see non-normative gender expressions and identities. Besides entering everyday language, the Indonesian public now increasingly associates men with feminine mannerism with being LGBT.
When a motorbike taxi [ojek] driver recently learnt that I am studying gender issues, he suddenly replied, “Oh, so you are studying transgender!” I asked him to explain why he thought that, he said he knew the term transgender and LGBT from last year’s debate about LGBT issues on television. He told me that transgender is waria and other men with feminine mannerism as commonly portrayed in comedy and other shows on television.
A similar story came s from a friend of mine who is working in gender activism. Her close friend is a lesbian with short hair and a masculine appearance. When she was queuing by the cashier of a convenient store, a lady with a headscarf whispered to her husband, “Look, she must be LGBT!”
In Indonesia, gender expressions and physical appearance have now become primary markers of sexuality, ignoring the fact that gender expressions and sexual orientations are two different things. A feminine man does not mean that he is gay, while a woman with masculine appearance does not always signify a lesbian.
Another interesting development is that the term LGBT is now being used as a single category to address a person with non-normative gender and sexuality, instead of an acronym describing a variety of gender and/or sexual identities. For example, people now address me as LGBT, instead of gay or homosexual. LGBT has become a new ‘species’ that now needs to be captured and policed.
While in the late 1970s onwards the term gay and lesbi [Indonesian derogatory term for lesbian] was popular to denote male and female homosexual identity, the LGBT term began to circulate among activists and gay and lesbian communities due to transnational connections with activists and organisations overseas, as well as an influx of foreign funding for LGBT rights movements. Since 2016, the term has been picked up by the Indonesian State.
For example, the 2016 Ministry of Youth and Sports’ Creative Youth Ambassador Selection even required participants to submit a medical certificate, stating that they are not involved in LGBT. It is not difficult to see how the circulation of the term is not accompanied by adequate knowledge on gender and sexuality and hence, unsurprisingly, causes confusion and misjudgment among the general public.
On the other hand, we are now witnessing moves to label same-sex practices and other gender diverse indigenous culture as ‘LGBT’, while they actually carry different socio-cultural contexts and subjectivities from contemporary and Western sexual identities. Despite the positive intentions to justify the normality of LGBT people and eradicate the Western stigma attached to these identities, it runs the risk of erasing local and indigenous practices and reducing them to LGBT identity.
When LGBT has been associated with negative attributes, waria and bissu identity has also increasingly been treated similarly. Since waria and other people with non-normative gender expressions are obviously challenging traditional gender norms, they are easily accused of being LGBT and hence, become the main target of stigma, violence, and discrimination.
Hendri Yulius is the author of Coming Out (2015) and obtained Masters of Public Policy from the National University of Singapore. He is currently pursuing his second Master’s in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.