Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Gay identities

Modern gay men in Indonesia learn to live alongside traditional concepts of homosexuality. DEDE OETOMO explains.

Dede Oetomo

I was involved with two other people setting up Indonesia's first gay organisation, Lambda Indonesia, in 1982. As far as I know Lambda Indonesia was one of the first groups in Asia to organise openly. The group started in response to an increasing discourse on homosexuality in the press. A few incidents had been reported such as two lesbian women who celebrated their 'marriage' in Jakarta. Some magazines ran their story without even asking the women concerned. Obviously the press didn't know it was something that should be kept private. As a result a number of letters appeared in the psychology or 'agony aunt' columns in the press. The three of us felt that we needed to address the kinds of questions that came up in these 'agony aunt' columns from our own point of view, instead of them being responded to by some outsider. Replies in these columns tended to be along the lines of 'Get pure', 'Find a shrink', or 'Pray more' and things like that.

We started by publishing a newsletter. Clearly the nameLambda Indonesia has the connotations of Stonewall, Gay Liberation and all that. I was then in upstate New York in Cornell, where I came out and I was influenced by all the gay liberation literature at the time. I was part of a campus gay group and so my concepts were very Western. From the very beginning I was criticised by gay, Western Indonesianists and by a professor of Anthropology in Surabaya I met around that time. These people asked, 'Why the Western model?'. They argued that in many parts of Indonesia, men have always had relationships with men - not only just casual sex but relationships - and there has never been a problem, so why set up something like this?'

We replied to the criticism by pointing out how many letters we were getting. As soon as we announced our PO Box number in many of the leading print media, we got ten, twenty, sometimes 40 letters a week from people in different places. People obviously needed a newsletter and needed to get to know each other. We quickly identified that the majority of people at least in those days were not in the 'stereotypical gay spheres': the beauty parlours, the entertainment industry, the hotel business, where there were many gays.

We started looking around and quickly found that especially in those days, the early 80s, there was a clear distinction between the men who were homo and gay (the term 'gay' was starting to be used in Indonesia by then) and waria/banci ('transgendered people'? - some of them have had operations, some are transvestites). Particularly around 1981, the men in the homo communities said that they only liked to sleep with laki-laki asli (real men/ macho men/ genuine men). If a homo slept with anotherhomo then the two men would be considered 'lesbian'. People did it, but it wasn't acceptable! In Surabaya where I live the homo community at that time was gathering at nights (especially on Thursday and Saturday nights) in a school yard. And around the corner would be the banci or the waria.


Traditionally in Indonesia banci have been quite public: singing in the streets or in other performance acts. An uncle of mine who was a magazine editor introduced me to awaria who was the chairperson of the waria organisation in Surabaya and she actually was quite instrumental in giving us hints on how to set up our organisation, telling us where people hung out and helping us distribute the newsletter. At the time she said, 'Oh, my people aren't going to read it - they're mainly illiterate'. But she herself would read it and she wasn't critical like the Western Indonesianists or this professor of Anthropology. She knew it was a good thing. She would also come to our parties.

In general, however, the relationship between thewaria community and the homo community wasn't very good. Many homos paid for laki-laki asli to have sex with them, whereas laki-laki asli usually paid the waria for sex. This was a source of tension at the beginning, but the chairperson of the waria organisation was willing to sit down and talk it over. Within about two or three years the two groups were getting along very well, although we organised very separately.

All of the waria in those days were poor, they lived in the kampung (in the side alley ways). They rode very cheap transportation (not bicycles), whereas the homo men travelled by car or motorbike. For a while we thought the choice of whether someone became a gay man or a waria was based on class difference.

The mid-80s

The first newsletter folded in 1984. Gaya Nusantara, which my partner and I started in 1987 was, in many ways, a continuation of the first newsletter under a different name.

In the mid-80s we heard of HIV/AIDS. We quickly knew that we had to do something about it. We had to decide what kind of education we needed to do. In Indonesia, especially after Rock Hudson died, there was much discussion about homosexuality. The tabloids loved us and some of us felt there was no harm in giving interviews. We were out to our families, we were out at work, so what was the problem? Around 1987-89 there was coverage on HIV/AIDS almost every month. Because of the accusation that AIDS was a gay disease, the press would think, 'Let's interview the gay group'. We'd have to explain that it wasn't a gay disease and give them the facts about AIDS. At first many of our statements were censored - the term 'anal sex' couldn't be printed - it was abbreviated to just 'sex' and then people were confused. After about three or four years, the journalists became desensitised with all this talk about sex. Eventually even the word 'lubricant' could be printed in a respectable Catholic newspaper likeKompas.

The 90s

By 1991-92 more groups started organising in Indonesia. Up until then, there were only groups in Surabaya and Yogya. In some places a group of friends who already did things socially together would write to us and say, 'We declare ourselves an organisation. We have a PO Box number or an address or (in some cases) even a phone number. Please list us in the magazine'.

In other instances the impetus for new groups was research projects. In Bali for example, a research project sponsored by the Ford Foundation identified that the risk groups that needed to be prioritised were gay men, waria, and the so-called beach boys (men who have sex with Western or Japanese women on Bali's beaches). The organisers put on social functions, parties, get-togethers and picnics. At the end of the project the waria complained, 'So this is it, you're going to abandon us? You've given us all these neat materials, but what about the parties... can't you continue the parties?' After some discussion, the parties were continued and in early 1992 Bali had a gay group as a result of the research project.

We've repeated that in Ujung Pandang and in Jakarta. It was difficult to organise in Jakarta, maybe because of the size of the city - or there were so many brothels that anyone who could afford it, just paid for sex and didn't have the headache of dealing with whoever they slept with afterwards! Nowadays, though, Jakarta has a strong gay organisation.

In the 90s with more groups emerging, we keep good contact between the different groups because people like me have more money to travel for AIDS work, attending seminars and such like. In the past we didn't make a conscious effort to organise nationally because we didn't have the money.


Initially at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the Indonesian Ministry of Health was quite supportive. Indonesia was the only country in the Southeast Asian region of World Health Organisation (WHO) to send gay organisations to Deli for the first meeting of AIDS Non-Government Organisations (NGOs). But they quickly regretted what they had done because they were blasted by the ulamas (Muslim religious leaders), by some of the Christian leaders and by the middle classes. Increasingly we lost the support of the Indonesian Ministry of Health. It's got to the point where the Indonesian National AIDS Commission has informally discouraged funding agencies from funding gay-related projects - not even gay organisations - gay-related projects. One of the projects will be a $30 million Australian dollar project for five years in Ujung Pandang, Kupang and Denpasar. I'm worried that the money is finally going to be given to the government because the government will say that it hasn't found any NGO in Ujung Pandang. There is an NGO there, but it is a gay organisation.

Gays and waria

At this point I should say that with the exception of Indonesians who are very Westernised and very educated, most Indonesians in the wider communities would think of all people in our organisation as waria. My partner and I for example are well accepted in our neighbourhood to the point that for next end of Ramadan, we are supposed to train the young people there to go in a drag show. The boys will go in drag, and the girls will watch and play music. I think they can accept us because they think we're waria orbanci. When they see the word 'gay' printed in the media or mentioned on television they probably think that's the English translation for waria.

In the past few years, we started noticing some variation in social patterns amongst the gay men and waria communities. A lot of Indonesian gay men - not all obviously - are beginning to have more disposable income, so they can travel more. Kuta beach on Bali is becoming a popular destination for gay men from Java, even Sumatra and the other islands.

Almost all waria used to be poor and illiterate. Many have increased their income and social status, especially those who run beauty parlours or are entertainment artists or dance teachers - modern dance teachers especially arewaria these days. Consequently you might find awaria celebrating her birthday with a mock wedding party, in the most expensive restaurant in Surabaya. The audience would be waria and gay men, and some of the gay men would go in drag. The laki-laki asli would also be there (they are the group that is most shy and reserved!)

Some of the younger waria, now that they're more educated are alienated by the uneducated older warias, and prefer to be members of what we would call the gay network. We think that this change in society has happened because there's more androgyny in popular culture - what you see on television - and a lot of gay-identified men have also gone into drag. The situation arises where the winner of Miss Waria, East Java, might be a gay man who just that night is in drag. There is a lot of tension between gay men andwaria now in this domain of beauty contests, which used to be monopolised by waria. Some warias have also asked to be on the cover of our magazine, Gaya Nusantara. We've had to seriously discuss these sort of issues - do we put a waria on the cover of a magazine? What about a gay man who wants to appear in drag on the cover? We've agreed to both of these groups appearing.


With our activists actually getting to their 20s and 30s, some are getting married. People are very supportive, they're very nice, you know they say,
- Could we come to your wedding?
- No.
- Oh alright... could we give you a wedding gift?
- Yes, but please don't come!
The activists tend to be very androgynous. Many of those who have got married still come to organisational meetings. They can still hold offices in the organisation and they sometimes bring the baby along.

The Indonesian state has become obsessed with the happy family - the happy Indonesian family, mummy, daddy and two kids - ya, dua saja! ('just two!'). The response from the gay people is: we want a family, but our own family. The obsession with the family means that most people who are in our organisations, or even those who just subscribe to, or read our magazine, come out to their families. We don't even encourage people to come out, we're actually very low profile in terms of what people need to do. We're actually very liberal: you can get married, you can come out, you can stay in the closet or whatever, as long as you're happy, you feel good. Yet it is becoming more apparent that people do come out to their families, more people are obsessed with actually finding a partner and forming a relationship. There's no discussion yet about legalising the partnership. Japanese groups are starting to challenge the Japanese government, seeking a legalisation of gay partnerships. This will have an impact on other parts of Asia, but if it ever happens, I think it will be many years now.

Southeast Asian tolerance

Nevertheless, in Southeast Asia in general, the old tolerance is still there. There is no queer bashing although there is police extortion. The police might round up about 25 people, have sex with them in the police station and that's significant and then ask for money. I'm not saying the police are always the penetrators, the police can be penetrated, the army guys can be penetrated, and they ask to be penetrated sometimes.

The Indonesian criminal code was revised when the Dutch East Indies was a French colony under Napoleon, so we've never had to decriminalise homosexual acts. Some of the fundamentalist Muslims would like to criminalise it, but I think it's not going to happen.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are not aggressive towards us. If someone like me is giving a talk, the Islamic fundamentalists might give a very harsh comment, saying things like, 'You should be in hell'. But that would be one out of 300 people in the room. In one instance in Bandung a guy who made remarks like that was told to sit down by other members of the audience. In Southeast Asian culture it is considered more impolite to make such comments, than for somebody like me, a gay man, to be speaking in a public function. In Indonesia there are many varieties of Islam. If you can get orthodox Muslims - men and women - from Java, and maybe from West Sumatra, to be honest about their sex lives when they were young, they have actually performed a lot of homosexual acts.     ii

Dede Oetomo is National Coordinator of Indonesia's gay network Gaya Nusantara, and a member of the Council of Representatives, Asia-Pacific Council of AIDS Service Organisations. This article is extracted from Gayzette, published in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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