Review: This book is an important and timely discussion of how nation, belonging, same-gender/same-sex identity and desire as well as geography all intersect in Indonesia
This book examines homosexuality in Indonesia in a comprehensive and astute manner. It is the first in depth scholarly analysis on the history and contemporary context of same-gender desires, love and identity in the Indonesian archipelago. Boellstorff, a gay cultural anthropologist and linguist, has spent extensive periods of time over twelve years (1992-2004) in fieldwork that took him specifically to Surabaya, Makassar and Bali. The results of his study are not only insightful about the Indonesian experience of homosexuality and same-gender desire, but are likely to set new standards in how human sexuality is understood across different cultures.
The structure of the book is well designed. The introduction fascinates the reader as it engages with ethical concerns of research on contemporary gay and lesbi experience, culture and everyday life. Central to Boellstorff’s study is a focus on the personal experiences and thoughts of his interviewees: traditional banci and waria (both mean transvestite homosexual), but particularly those people in Indonesia who refer to themselves as gay or lesbi, something that has happened only since the 1970s. The book helps us under stand what it means to be gay or lesbi.
After an historical overview of homosexuality in Indonesia, the book explores the emergence of gay and lesbi identities. A theoretical model — dubbing culture — provides a useful way of understanding the complex interaction between the local, national and global experience of same-gender desire. Throughout the book this notion of dubbing culture is present, for example, in the very italicisation of the terms gay and lesbi, to distinguish from the Western forms of gay and lesbian. In a nutshell, the personal lives of gay and lesbi people demonstrate ‘the paradoxes of sexuality and nation in postcolonial Indonesia’ (p 59). It’s almost like saying gay and lesbi are similar terms to their Western cousins, but not in synch.
Boellstorff’s analysis shows that the role of mainstream mass media has been crucial to the ways in which gay and lesbi people come to see themselves in relation to same-gender desire and love. He identifies print media as the primary source of knowledge about the terms gay and lesbi, for example, through women’s magazines like Kartini and Femina.
The fascinating irony of the New Order era of Suharto, according to the book, is that gay and lesbi people ‘think of themselves as Indonesians with regard to their sexualities’ (p 72). That is, the personal understanding of being gay and lesbi is not through their local belonging but their national belonging. This quirk of success (of the Suharto regime) is linked to the legacy of the national ideology of the family prin ciple (azas kekeluargaan), in which hetero sexual marriage and family are folded into the national consciousness as the binding agent for the archi pelago, more powerful than notions of citizenship. Gay and lesbi people reveal consistently through their personal stories in the book that marriage and having children is intrinsic to national belonging, and consequently their sense of belonging. Sustaining the family principle is fundamental to acts or performance of deeds (prestasi), which bring respect and recognition of being truly Indonesian. Boellstorff illustrates how the gay or lesbi person lives with several, often contradictory personal stories, which he calls the ‘archipelagic self’ in contrast to Western gay and lesbian experience, which is a single (‘coming out’) self. He relates how many of his interviewees are amazed, sometimes appalled, that he won’t be marrying a woman and having children.
The book demonstrates how gay and lesbi Indonesians ‘are the truest children of the archipelago’ (p 202). Using the metaphor of archipelago, which has enormous meaning in Indonesian history, culture and polity, the author argues that the essence of the nationalist ideology can be found in gay and lesbi people. He says that this is in spite of the fact that gay and lesbi people are not permitted ‘national belonging, authenticity, and recognition’ (p 203).
The Gay Archipelago is an important and timely discussion of how nation, belonging, same-gender/same-sex identity and desire as well as geography all intersect in Indonesia. The book provides a truly intimate account of the personal life-worlds of gay and lesbi folk, and tells us much about how contemporary Indonesian culture is changed, challenged and transformed through its archipelagic logic. Boells torff has successfully shown in this book that understanding gay and lesbi lives goes beyond traditional notions of same-gender desire in Indonesia. He has also challenged recent scholarly thought ‘that culture is by default local’ (p 218). This book will become a classic in Indonesian and sexuality studies.
Tom Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN 0691123349, A$41.36 (paperback)
Baden Offord (email@example.com ) is the author of Homosexual Rights as Human Rights: Activism in Indonesia Singapore and Australia (Peter Lane, 2003).