Arozak (Ozak) Salam’s I Am that Unicorn: Memoir of An Indonesian Queer (2023) depicts the journey of an Indonesian gay man from Bandung, who decides to move to Australia to live a more open life.
The book starts with him applying for a youth exchange and being granted a place as a participant of the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP). Ozak relates both the activities of the program and his (short-lived) romance with one of the Australian delegates. Initially, Australia had been on the bottom of Ozak’s list, but after AIYEP, he decides to make Australia his home.
Back in Indonesia, following a stint with a construction company in a jungle in Sumatra, Ozak applies for a skilled, temporary visa for Australia. As Ozak comments, ‘I saw myself as a checklist object, thinking about my language ability and having good character and health’.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about the book was that it covered all aspects of Ozak’s life. This ranged from his visa applications to his hunt for accommodation, work, leisure, friends and a partner.sex
Ozak shows remarkable determination, ingenuity and resilience. His search for work, for example, takes him from working at Victoria Market and in a Malaysian restaurant to becoming an engineer in Western Australia. In Perth, after numerous knockbacks, he uses a gay dating website to find a door that will open for him in his preferred career as a subsea engineer, although ultimately, he finds a position through cold calling several firms.
His search for entertainment takes him to the hippy ConFest near Moulamein in New South Wales, then the Rainbow Gathering in the Cradle Mountains in Tasmania, to bush walking. Alongside his day job, Ozak becomes involved in performance, from being a marching boy at the Mardi Gras in Sydney, busking, open mike nights, experimenting with costumes with Camp Unicorn at Blazing Swan (a version of Burning Man), representing Indonesia in Mr Gay World in Rome, to developing burlesque acts and performing at the Vienna Boylesque Festival.
Like most of us, Ozak has a bumpy ride through life. I like the fact that the memoir is not a linear progression toward a happy ending but rather a tale of two steps forward, one step back. As soon as life starts to get cozy, the carpet is whipped out from under Ozak’s feet and he seeks out something new. Ozak comments, ‘How bizarre to think that life is cyclical; that my finishing line was also my starting point’.
Indonesia and Australia compared
Over the course of the book, Ozak also makes two trips back to see his family and looks at Indonesia with new eyes. He is honest about the problems in both Indonesia and Australia. He discusses the racism in the Australian gay scene and the homophobia in Indonesia.
The memoir made me reflect on my own life in reverse, that is, going from Australia to Indonesia. I attended a waria (transvestite) beauty contest in Semarang (Central Java) on my third trip to Indonesia in 1981 and was amazed to see that the well-attended event was opened by a local government official, and that the audience was filled with the contestants’ parents, nieces, nephews and friends. I could not imagine this in Australia at the time. In Victoria, the fight for homosexual law reform had only just been won and the law to decriminalise male homosexual activity had just come into effect in March 1981. While Indonesia was not an LGBT haven in the 1980s, it seemed more tolerant than Australia.
That Unicorn is primarily set in the years 2010 to 2017. This includes the year 2016, when there were numerous hate speech attacks on LGBT people in Indonesia, both online and offline. By contrast, in Australia in 2017 there was a postal survey and subsequent marriage equality legislation. Over a relatively short period, Australia has made remarkable advances in acceptance, while Indonesia has become increasingly intolerant.
Hopefully Ozak’s frank memoir will go some way toward breaking down stereotypes, which are the basis of homophobia in Indonesia and racism in Australia.
Helen Pausacker (email@example.com) is Deputy Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.