Gay Jakarta: Defining the Emerging Community

Justin Ellis

Watch any television channel in Indonesia for more than half an hour and it’s obvious that waria (male-to-female transvestites) are tolerated throughout the country. Despite contradicting the status quo lifestyle of matrimony and child rearing, warias’ social position is shifting from the periphery to the mainstream (see Kyoto Journal 64: Unbound, Gender in Asia, “Waria,” pp 80-81). Nevertheless, to be an out gay man in this island republic remains taboo. The proliferation of media after the crumbling of Suharto’s New Order has led to a vilification of gay men, to an unprecedented degree. At the same time, unease persists about the proposed anti-pornography law that will be a benchmark of the government’s commitment to civil rights. Yet despite all the controversy and negative press, a high profile gay community is emerging in Jakarta, challenging Indonesia’s heterosexist, and seemingly contradictory, traditions.

The moral guardians of Indonesia have been busy over the past eighteen months. In June 2005 members of Front Pembela Islam (FPI-Islamic Defenders Front) barged into the “Miss Waria Indonesia 2005” beauty pageant and harassed contestants. In November 2005, the Jakarta Biennale was forced to close because of objections to the display of “Pinkswing Park,” an exhibit that depicted semi-clad actors and actresses in a fictional Garden of Eden. After the launch of Playboy Indonesia in April 2006, the Playboy offices in Jakarta were pelted with rocks and the foyer smashed.

This series of physical attacks and intimidation has bypassed the gay community in Jakarta, partly because until recently it wasn’t so easy to determine exactly what a gay bar was. The opening of the nightclub Heaven in August 2005, in one of Jakarta’s ubiquitous shopping malls, has begun to clarify some of the ambiguity. Pulsating with go-go boys and house music at weekends, Heaven is a new phenomenon in Jakarta: a gay bar with no pretensions of being anything else. “We have a ‘don’t look, don’t tell’ policy,” says Heaven’s manager, Tino Mandagi. “It’s a club where people can get together. There are those who want a gay lifestyle, and those who don’t, and we’re catering to those that do.” But there is more to Heaven than g-strings and groovy music. It’s also about creating an identity and a place where people can be themselves. After three years in Los Angeles, filmmaker Lucky Kuswandi enjoys the intimacy of the scene in Jakarta. “It’s more friendly here,” he says. “There’s less attitude compared to gay scenes in other big cities.”

“Before we opened Heaven,” Mandagi explains, “there were other bars, but none of them were ‘gay’ bars. It’s about building a community.” So while the litany of references to gay pendosa (sinners) and penyimpangan seksualitas (sexual deviants) continues in the media, Mandagi is focused on the future. “We have just launched the Heaven Bulletin and there are plans to start a magazine, so we will see where it goes from here,” he says optimistically.

[pullquote]Growing up gay under the Suharto dictatorship was a surreptitious world of liaisons tinged with fear of exposure and recrimination. However, public scrutiny of gay men and their lifestyles was rare. Visibility has brought prejudice. [/pullquote]

The release of the film Arisan! in 2003 was a defining moment for gay men in Jakarta and a prelude to the visible role the community is shaping for itself today. A comedy about the excesses of the city’s leisured classes, the movie was hailed as a breakthrough not only for its contents, but because an on-screen gay kiss evaded the knife of the capricious Indonesian Film Censorship Board (LSF). Nia Dinata, the film’s director, was overjoyed when her movie was approved almost completely uncut. “I was also very excited that this kind of creative freedom was being allowed,” she says. For screenwriter Joko Anwar, Arisan! had personal significance as he was coming out while writing it. “Arisan! is something that out gay men can identify with and I think it has definitely made the gay scene more obvious,” he says. “It’s very middle class.”

In which case, did the movie cross class boundaries? “Three million people saw the Indonesian teen romance Eiffel I’m in Love, the most popular movie to date in Indonesia,” says Dinata. “So, for a mature audience film, Arisan! was popular, with around 600,000 viewers.” But even though the movie has been reissued twice on DVD and has spawned a television series of the same name, its appeal is overshadowed by the loud and intimidating voices of groups who are opposed to ‘indecency’ on a myriad of levels. “We are witnessing a huge reversal of tolerance in Indonesia,” says Dinata. However, the making of Arisan! did break the cycle of the “pathological gay” character in Indonesian cinema. By way of comparison, Istana Kecantikan (Beauty Palace), released in 1987, ends with the imprisonment of the lead character for the murder of his boyfriend and in the 1998 film Kuldesak (Cul-de-sac), the gay characters are ostracized by their community (and the gay kiss was blurred on screen).

In contrast to the public presence of homosexuality in Indonesia today, John Badalu, founding director of Jakarta’s gay and lesbian Q! Film Festival, remembers a time when he had to rent a private post-box to receive clandestine copies of Indonesia’s first gay periodical, GAYa NUSANTARA. Growing up gay under the Suharto dictatorship was a surreptitious world of liaisons tinged with fear of exposure and recrimination. However, public scrutiny of gay men and their lifestyles was rare. Visibility has brought prejudice. So while lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people are recognized as a minority group within the National Plan of Action of Human Rights in Indonesia for 2004-2009, “the predominant image of homosexuals is still a negative one,” says Badalu. Sodomy is a crime only in cases of rape, yet he says people still associate homosexuals with sodomy crimes, pedophilia and HIV. Badalu experienced the prejudice firsthand when he launched the Q! Film Festival in 2001. The hosts of a television program jested about ransacking the Q! Film Festival office and burning the films. He also received death threats by phone.

John McGlynn, a long-term Jakarta resident and co-founder of the Lontar Foundation (a non-profit organization promoting the translation and publication of Indonesian literary works) says that while Indonesia is quite progressive legally, “by defying the traditions of a patrilineal society, being gay causes problems. People still go through sham marriages to produce children.” While homosexuality was and is prevalent in many cultural and literary works in Indonesia, and although same-sex relations existed before colonization, in conservative circles the West is now blamed for it. Literature since the early 20th century has been used to teach nationalism and to define the nation. Even though there is a huge amount of homosexual behavior in Indonesia, there are very few ‘gay’ people, and very little written about them.

So, while male-to-male sexual relations are nothing new in Indonesia and physical expressions of friendship between heterosexual men are of an intimacy unheard of in the West, marriage and children remain obligations hard to ignore. Tono Hermawan*, a hair and makeup artist in his fifties, expects he will be answering the question “Sudah kawin?” (Are you already married?) for the rest of his life. “People who know I’m gay will still ask me when I’m getting married,” says John McGlynn. The expectation of having children is often overcome through adoption, which is common among gay people in Indonesia. And as to whether the pressure is any lighter for the generation that straddled the end of the Suharto era and the beginning of the reformasi (the new political era), Lucky Kuswandi, in his mid-twenties, says, “I don’t feel restricted. There are no pressures to marry right now, but maybe by the time I’m thirty there will be.” For some men, the unequivocal answer to both questions is self-imposed exile overseas.

The Internet has extended the clandestine realms of the gay community that existed under Suharto but it has also developed an online support network. Back when Joko Anwar was searching the Web for information about being gay in Indonesia, all he could find were dating sites. In response, he established CyberCloset Indonesia in 1999. “Discussion can get very heated,” he says. “Coming out is always a topic, but the most controversial issue is gay relationships within marriage.” Touted as a “mailing list for intellectual Indonesian gays,” most of CyberCloset Indonesia’s typically middle-class members see heterosexual marriage and gay sex as incompatible.

“Men in the armed forces in particular are of the attitude that, ‘laws don’t apply to us so restrictions don’t either,’” says John McGlynn. “A lot of sexual practices are not considered as being unfaithful to your wife, because if it is gay sex, it doesn’t count.” But in a country where polygamy is on the rise after years of public condemnation by Suharto, it is difficult to gauge how widespread the practice of gay sex within marriage really is. What does seem certain is that rising HIV/AIDS infection rates can be attributed to ‘straight’ men who visit male prostitutes. HIV/AIDS awareness is widespread among high-risk groups and “if you check most guys’ wallets you will usually find a condom among the business cards,” says Heaven’s Tino Mandagi. “Fiesta condoms are one of our sponsors and we display and sell them on the bar.”

Across town from Heaven is an altogether different kind of bar: one that messily blurs the clear gender boundaries delineated at Heaven. On stage, waria belt out Indonesian pop music and Western top 40 hits while devotees put banknotes into the slight cleavages of their slender bodices. Binary gender classifications don’t apply at the Moonlight, in the same way they don’t in many facets of Indonesian culture. A looming wedding day creates a mélange of public duty and private desire that is not always seen as contradictory.

In contrast to the Indonesian media’s demonizing rhetoric of homosexuals today, the country’s respected newspaper Tempo has been running stories about same-sex marriage and the emergence of gay organizations in Indonesia since as long ago as the early 1980s. When Tempo printed a ten-page story about GAYa NUSANTARA and interviewed Dede Oetomo about his founding of that pioneering NGO, Oetomo asked the journalist why Tempo was interested in such stories. “Because this is the way of the future and part of a democratic process,” he replied. So even though the current draft of the anti-pornography law focuses on pornographic materials, rather than clothing, or physical acts like kissing, the law has become a symbol of uncertainty and polarization. That there is vocal public debate about such a law highlights the fact that, in the democratic reformasi era, Indonesians are keen to exercise their new freedoms of expression; the only problem being that some groups in Indonesia, primarily the Islamic Defenders Front, see intimidation as a form of expression in itself.

Underlying the emergence of a clearly defined and highly visible gay community in Jakarta is the creation of an identity that will serve to contradict the negative hyperbole of the media. True, there is nostalgia in Indonesia for ‘unity,’ but it is nostalgia for a time when political oppression united the populace against the state. And while John Badalu sometimes laments today’s segregation in the gay community, at least he’s no longer receiving death threats – and no one speaks of burning the films at the Q! Film Festival office anymore.

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Justin Ellis

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Images by Bagus Indahono