Indonesian literature is increasingly open to LGBT stories but the struggle to be heard remains
Since the mid-2000s, there has been a notable increase in books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) themes or characters, mostly in the form of ‘pop novels’. In the 1990s, prominent and popular writers, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Mira W and Ayu Utami, portrayed homosexual characters and characters with non-normative gender and sexuality but it was the success of Andrei Aksana’s Lelaki Terindah (The Most Beautiful Man), in 2004, that encouraged more young writers to follow his path and write ‘gay romance’. Aksana’s novel, about two male lovers who accidentally meet and fall in love on their journey to Bangkok, became an instant best-selling novel and has been reprinted several times. In this novel, Aksana also bridged the gap between serious, highbrow literature and popular culture by combining poetry with popular fiction, something that had not been tried by previous writers.
Aksana’s success was followed by that of other writers including Andy Stevenio with his novels Percintaan di Antara Empat Lelaki (Love between Four Men) and Cinta tak Berkelamin (Love has no Genitalia), Herlinantiens’ Garis Tepi Seorang Lesbian (The Outline of a Lesbian), Alberthiene Endah’s Dicintai Jo (Loved by Jo), Clara Ng’s Gerhana Kembar (The Twin Eclipses) and Andy Lotex’s Bila Hasrat Tlah Usai (If the Desire has Subsided).
Some ‘celebrity’ Indonesian writers also joined the queer literary bandwagon, contributing to noticeable growth in the marketability of stories about same-sex and non-normative sexualities. In the early 2000s, Dewi ‘Dee’ Lestari published her best-selling Supernova series, Ksatria, Putri, dan Bintang Jatuh (The Knight, the Princess, and the Falling Star). Introducing a gay couple as one of key characters and interweaving contemporary issues with science, this novel successfully legitimises Lestari as one of the post-reformasi, Indonesian, female writers characterised primarily by their openness to sexuality issues.
In 2005, TV presenter Tamara Geraldine released her first anthology of short stories with the long, yet alluring, title of Kamu Sadar Saya Punya Alasan untuk Selingkuh ‘kan Sayang? (You Realise I have Reasons for Cheating on You, Don’t You Darling?). Despite the wide range of issues portrayed in the book, the key theme of Geraldine's book could be summarised as a critique of normative and hypocritical urban people who hide their own desires and identities to conform to the majority norms. In some of her short stories, readers find depictions of unhappy marriages and lesbian characters who hide their identities to conform to the heterosexual norms. Some other post-reformasi, Indonesian, female writers, like Nova Riyanti Yusuf and Fira Basuki, also have minor characters who are queer in their novels.
Recognising that LGBT themes had started becoming popular within the broader Indonesian literary scene, Is Mujiarso of Detik.com collected and edited an anthology of LGBT-themed short stories, Rahasia Bulan (The Secret of the Moon), published by Gramedia Pustaka Utama in 2006.
When it comes to non-fiction, it has been a slightly different story. There was an absence of representations of LGBT lives in non-fiction until 2007 when a popular gay blog orgasmingorganism was made into a book, Macho Man Ngomong Cong (Macho Man Screams Cong). The book was published under the pseudonym Fa (which stands for ‘Fabulous’) by the now-defunct FoU Media Publisher. Almost six years before Fa, notable gay activist Dede Oetomo published a collection of personal essays and reflections, Memberi Suara Pada yang Bisu (Giving Voices to the Silenced) depicting his journey to embracing his gay identity and activism beginning in the 1980s.
Lost in translation?
Apart from Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta’s Gentlemen Prefer Asians published in the United States, it is still difficult to find Indonesian gay fiction in English. In 2009, the co-founder of the Lontar Foundation, John H McGlynn, translated and published a collection of LGBT short stories and poems, entitled Menagerie 7, with Erza Setyadharma as a guest editor. It features an excerpt of Oka Rusmini’s most popular novel Tarian Bumi (Earth Dance), Djenar Maesa Ayu’s SMS and Gadis Arivia’s In the Republic of Morality. As McGlynn argues in the introduction, despite the intolerance faced by LGBT people in the country, this volume portrayed various queer characters who embrace their sexual and gender identity and actively resist bowing to the heteronormative values society demands. Another interesting thing about this book is that it features both queer and non-queer authors.
Most of the diverse mainstream literary works mentioned so far represent only upper-middle class and literate LGBT Indonesians who are familiar with Western pop-culture and constantly seeking acceptance of their sexual identities. Therefore, fashion-brands, shopping malls, gay clubs and bars, pop-divas and travel culture are common themes in these texts. These preoccupations are also central themes in Gentlemen Prefer Asians.
Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta writes of studying Fine Art in the US and living a life of bar hopping with his closest gay friends. He dumps his loyal Indonesian boyfriend before moving to San Francisco and marrying an American. Many Indonesians have to hide their sexuality but Tuanakotta's homosexuality is accepted by his family. Nonetheless, this acceptance does not automatically translate to his parents’ approval of Tuanakotta’s intention to have an official ‘husband’. His mother still thinks it a bit peculiar for her son to have a male spouse.
Tuanakotta interweaves themes of sexuality, national belonging, identity, race, and the story of his personal relationships. The story of his friendships with fellow gay Indonesians offers an intimate portrayal of the gay Indonesian’s constant search for belonging on foreign soil. Through the lives of his closest gay, Indonesian friends we see that migrating to the west does not always fulfill their desire for acceptance. Domestic violence, racism and the clash between ‘eastern and western values’ are realities for some.
In 63 short chapters, Tuanakotta chronicles his relationships with his former Asian boyfriend, the Baker, and subsequent white boyfriends, the Pilot and the Musician. But he also tells the story of his friendships with gay Indonesians, Ario and Jaya, who are married to white men. The former is a ‘silverspoon’ gay Indonesian who feels unhappy with his current open-relationship status, while the latter represents a rag-to-riches tale. Jaya ended his receptionist career in a hotel in Bali after rescuing a rich Jewish gay man flagging in the heat. They later marry and his husband takes him home to a huge Malibu mansion.
The process of following the journey of these three main protagonists is disturbed by the fact that the structure, of multiple short chapters, does not work smoothly. The claim that the book is ‘a collection of personal essays’ in which every chapter is supposed to be a stand-alone essay that runs along a string with other chapters does not correspond to the reality of the text. I was left wondering, ‘So what?’
In Gentlemen Prefer Asians, the intersection between whiteness, migration, and Indonesian modern gay subjectivity appears clearly through the characters in this book. On the surface, Ario’s character can be a window to examine the colonial mindset of many gay Indonesians who dream of migrating to the west for liberation. At the same time, he was also aware of his objectification by the white hegemony:
‘We are exotic creatures. I don’t mind being fetishised if I’m given fair compensation. And on top of that, since we need these Americans, we’ll take whatever they throw at us – bones and crumbs – and we’ll wag our tails and say, “Thank you, Master. How very generous of you, Master. I will love you forever, Master”, which is expected of us, since they think we owe them for liberating us from a homophobic country.’
In his study, ‘Beautiful men in Jakarta and Bangkok: The pressure to conform in a recent Indonesian novel’, Ben Murtagh interrogates the very different portrayals of Jakarta and Bangkok. The former is painted as a sexually modern and progressive city, the latter as repressive, restricting and limiting. In Bangkok, the two male characters eventually embrace their love and same-sex desires; in Jakarta they had to face familial pressure to be heterosexual when their discreet relationship was exposed. Some queer theorists, like Hiram Perez, Tom Boellstorff, and Dennis Altman, critically explicate the inevitable influence of global forces and effects of transnational flows in shaping modern gay identities. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that travel culture, gay venues and bars, which depict cosmopolitanism, have significant roles in constituting modern gay identity.
Despite the increasing connection between cosmopolitanism and modern gay characters in Indonesian literature, some independent fiction writers, mostly coming from within grassroots community groups, actively challenge these portrayals. In 2010, Antok Serean, who worked in gay organisation, GAYa Nusantara, in Surabaya, published his collection of short stories, Ganteng (Handsome), independently through a print-on-demand publisher. Consisting of 10 short stories, Ganteng deals with gay characters who are proud of their sexuality and openly challenge the societal heteronormative pressures. Serean’s short story, 'Api dan air' (Fire and water) was first published in 2010 in the special edition of the Bhinneka Magazine about the cancelled lesbian and gay conference in Surabaya. The story portrays an intimate dialogue in a coffee shop between a gay man and his discreet male lover who is also part of the Islamic vigilante group planning to disrupt the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association Conference in Surabaya. One of the most active LGBT advocacy organisations, Suara Kita (Our Voice) is committed to improving understanding of LGBT issues and regularly publishes LGBT-themed short stories on their website. Suara Kita’s recent publication, Ibuku Lelaki (My Mother is a Man), is an anthology which offers a wide-ranging representation of LGBT characters imbued with political awareness.
In comparison with their lesbian and gay counterparts, transgender characters, or waria, have limited spaces and nuances in literature. In 2006, Yunathan Rahardjo's novel Taman Api (The Fire Garden) won the Jakarta Arts Council Novel Competition. This conspiracy–thriller reveals the dark sides and hypocrisy of organised capitalistic religion at the expense of trans people’s lives. Okky Madasari’s Pasung Jiwa (Bound), Bhina Wiriadinata's Aku Manusia, Kamu Bukan Tuhan (I Am Human, You Are Not God) and Ida R Yulia's Cermin Tak Pernah Berteriak (The Mirror Never Screams), published in 2013 and 2015, are three recent novels depicting male-to-female trans people or male transvestites, as in Yulia's novel. Significantly, the major national newspaper, Kompas, has made a major leap forward by selecting four short stories with characters with non-normative sexuality and gender identities in its 2015 selected short stories. One of them is Guntur Alam’s Upacara Hoe (The Hoe Ceremony) which depicts transgenderism against the backdrop of Chinese-Indonesian culture.
Acceptance and belonging remain major themes in Indonesian queer literature. Gentlemen Prefer Asians examines these from a different standpoint asking questions about sexuality and also racial and national belonging, which is a good reason to read this book.
With the rising intolerance toward non-heterosexuality perpetuated by religious hardliners, literature still can be a 'safe space' to discuss sexuality openly, though books do slip under the radar of the highly controversial and ambiguous anti-pornography bill. Nevertheless, while it seems there is openness toward sexuality in literature, some anti-LGBT books have also started to attract public attention. For example, in 2014 Sinyo Egie's Anakku Bertanya tentang LGBT (My Kids Ask About LGBT) gave readers advice on preventing homosexuality, warning that it is against Islamic principles. So, it is no exaggeration that wars over gender and sexuality will continue to define the modern Indonesia.
Hendri Yulius (email@example.com) is the author of Coming Out (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2015) and is currently pursuing his masters by research in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.