Celebrity gossip shows denigrate homosexuality, but at least they talk about it
Hot Shot peddles hot gossip
‘The shocking confession of Yupiter Fourtisimo about his deviant sexual behaviour is still fresh in the public memory. Now, another celebrity is thought to suffer too from such sexual deviance. This case is even more surprising because that celebrity is Evan Sanders, a handsome man with an athletic body, a macho man. And it comes despite his recent statement that he just found the girl of his dreams.’
This breathless statement opened a news item on the television infotainment program Hot Shot, broadcast by SCTV on 14 March 2008. It’s typical of the way in which homosexuality has become a regular topic to spice up these shows, breaking old taboos - but in ways designed to titillate and scandalise the audience.
Evan Sanders is only one of many Indonesian artists who have featured on Indonesian infotainment programs as subjects of gossip about their alleged homosexuality. In the infotainment programs such gossip is turned into a spectacle. Is he gay? If not, why is he still single? Why are they so close? Are they lesbians? The hosts of such programs typically pose these questions in the special celebrity gossip segments of television infotainment programs. ‘Evidence’ is presented to spice up the story, from photographs to love letters.
Infotainment programs are very popular in Indonesia. There are dozens of shows per week broadcasted by ten different national television stations, from early in the morning till late at night. Such programs present gossip about the lives of Indonesian celebrities: who’s dating who, weddings, relationship going sour, and all the rest. They rely on sensational news to attract viewers. In a society where taboos and stigmas still attach to homosexuality, being homosexual is often considered scandalous, especially when a famous person is involved. This explains why news related to homosexuality often appears in infotainment programs.
While news about gays and lesbians has been appearing in the Indonesian print media since the late 1970s, it was not until recently that such news began to appear on Indonesian television. Although often criticised for lacking journalistic values, infotainment programs can play a crucial role in the construction and dissemination of knowledge about homosexuality in Indonesian society.
Celebrity gossip shows reveal deep tensions in defining the meaning and place of homosexuality in contemporary Indonesia. On the one hand, these shows reproduce many negative myths about homosexuality, on the other hand, by introducing discussion of homosexuality into the public sphere, they are normalising it.
A contested topic
On the International Day against Homophobia a few years back, gay and lesbian Indonesians were demonstrating at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout right in the heart of central Jakarta. With posters and banners they demanded recognition and protection of their rights. As one of the coordinators of the demonstration puts it to the national newspaper, Kompas: ‘No matter how hard is the effort to diminish our existence, we will stay breathing and be there. We are Indonesian citizens, no more, and no less.’ This demonstration illustrates how the new democratic system has opened up the space for the proliferation of gay and lesbian identity politics in Indonesia. In the last decade, the taboo about discussing homosexuality in the public sphere has been broken.
Since the turn of the millennium, gay and lesbian identity politics have also slowly become visible in various media outlets, from novels to films. These media products represent homosexuality as a good experience by affirming the worth of being gay or lesbian. Blockbuster film Arisan is an example, with the plotline depicting a homosexual relationship in a romantic and approving way.
This development, however, has been paralleled by the rise of a version of political Islam that denies the inclusion of homosexuality as part of a morally imagined nation. The introduction of local by-laws informed by sharia law in some regions in Indonesia has involved criminalisation of homosexuality. In the by-law on the eradication of prostitution enacted by the city of Palembang, for instance, homosexuality is defined as an act of prostitution and thus prohibited.
This backlash justifies, in the minds of some, violence against homosexual people. In the last decade there have been several incidents of homophobic violence, something that hardly ever happened in the past. Attack on participants in an international gay and lesbian conference in Surabaya in 2010 was one example (see ‘Homophobia on the rise’ by Jamison Liang); another more recent example was attacks on participants in discussions with Canadian lesbian Muslim author Irshad Manji in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. LGBT organisation 'Arus Pelangi' reports that there have been many other cases of violence against homosexual people in Indonesia. It is nevertheless difficult to find the exact number because many victims are afraid to report.
In post-Suharto Indonesia, a complex process of both acceptance and rejection thus characterises public discussion of homosexuality. Celebrity gossip about Indonesian artists who are thought to be homosexual reveals some of the tensions involved. By presenting such gossip, infotainment programs play an ambivalent role in creating a new public discourse on homosexuality. While becoming part of the dominant discourse that rejects and stigmatises homosexuality as ‘deviant sexuality’, infotainment programs also bring knowledge about homosexuality to a very wide audience.
One person who has been the subject of gossip about his sexuality is Thomas Djorghi, a singer/actor, who some shows said was in a homosexual relationship with a businessman. In the views of the presenters of the show concerned, the fact that he was 37 years old and still single was cause for ‘suspicion’. As the narrator of the infotainment show, Hot Shot on SCTV, put it, ‘Poor Thomas Djorghi, at the age of 37 this sexy man has not yet introduced his girlfriend [to the public].’
In celebrity gossip, a heterosexual relationship is the norm to which every individual is expected to comply. As the gossip about Thomas Djorghi illustrates, any ‘deviation’ from the heteronormative expectation is considered a failure.
Celebrities who have been the subject of such gossip invariably claim to have a heterosexual relationship. ‘I have a girlfriend. She’s just an ordinary girl, not a celebrity. It’s enough to have one celebrity in a relationship,’ says Evan Sanders. Thomas Djorghi responded in a similar way: ‘I am happy with the way my relationship goes. My girlfriend does not want to be exposed.’ Similar statements have also been made by other artists, like Lukman Sardi (Bibir Plus, broadcast 13 December 2006); Olga Syahputra (Otista, broadcast 20 April 2007); Krisna Mukti (Ada Gosip, broadcast 12 May 2008). The gossip, in some reports, is then neutralised after the girlfriend, together with the artist, give an interview about their relationship. By doing so, as in the dominant discourse, they reject homosexuality.
To make matters worse, in infotainment programs, as in most media in Indonesia, homosexuals are often described as ‘sick’ or ‘dangerous’ individuals. And as the quotation at the beginning of this article shows, homosexuality is commonly described as ‘penyimpangan seksual’ (sexual deviance). Another common term is ‘kelainan seksual’ (sexual abnormality). Program hosts and commentators often call homosexual relationships ‘hubungan terlarang’ (a forbidden relationship) or ‘hubungan tak lazim’ (a peculiar relationship).
This helps explains why all artists deny the gossip about their homosexuality. As Evan Sanders puts it, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t make up things!’ Indeed, it is notable that among all the artists and celebrities who have been the subject of such gossip, not a single one has come out and agreed that they are gay or lesbian. This reflects a much wider pattern in which there are very few out lesbians or gay men in Indonesian public life. The only actor who indeed ‘came out’ in an infotainment program was Jupiter Fourtisimo (Halo Selebriti, 28 January 2008). He, nevertheless, stated that he is no longer a homosexual. In the interview, he said that being a homosexual was a mistake and part of his ‘dark’ past. In the news story about Jupiter Fourtisimo, the music, the image and the narration construct the idea that being gay was wrong because it was against man’s kodrat (destiny) and that one has to leave such a life in order to have a peaceful life. At the end of the story, a female artist commented on the actor’s decision to ‘leave his gay life’: 'He is now free, no burden anymore, he is happy', she said.
Why does gossip about one’s homosexuality matter? The question is not about whether or not particular gossip is true. It is more important to ask why and how such gossip is constructed. Gossip has a social function in drawing the symbolic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Gossip about one’s homosexuality can be seen as a means of social control. It separates acceptable from unacceptable sexuality, and reinforces the position of heterosexuality as the norm. And as long as this norm remains so deeply engrained in public discussion, public acceptance of homosexuality or other non-normative sexualities will be difficult.
‘I’m an open minded person. I never have any problem with gays. I mean homosexuals or lesbian. I have many gay and lesbian friends. It’s never been an issue for me. I know myself. I’m straight. So, it’s not a problem’, said Rachel Maryam, a film actress (and later a member of parliament), in SCTV’s Hot Shot program (4 January 2004).
Yet again, Rachel Maryam made this statement to respond to gossip that she was in a same-sex relationship. However, rather than only denying the story, she took the trouble to make positive remarks about gay and lesbian people. Such positive attitudes are still rare, but they indicate that cracks are appearing in the dominant negative public depictions of homosexuality in Indonesia. After all, as Rachel Maryam suggests, most prominent artists and entertainers do indeed know many gay and lesbian people in their private and professional lives, and many of them are becoming increasingly international in their outlook, picking up on changing attitudes toward gay and lesbian people overseas. So it’s no surprise that more positive views are leaking into the mainstream.
To create sensation, tabloid television news programs rely on controversy. Sometimes, this is achieved by juxtaposing different views on homosexuality in ways that on rare occasions allow proponents of gay and lesbian rights to make an appearance. On 2 July 2005, infotainment program Hot Shot broadcast gossip about an Indonesian transgender artist, Avi, who was planning to marry a man. Avi became famous after her appearance in the video clip of a popular band Naif. Her plan to marry a man had led to controversy and invited condemnation, among others, from the Islam Defenders Front (FPI). Aside from interviewing people who were against same-sex marriage, Hot Shot also showed an interview with Guruh Sukarnoputra, the famous choreographer and brother of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri in which he advocated the right to same-sex marriage.
Another example is a news story about Ryan the Slaughterer, a notorious homosexual killer who brutally murdered 11 people and buried them in his backyard in Jombang, East Java. While most media commentators held homosexuality accountable for explaining the sadistic crimes committed by Ryan, on 2 August 2008 Hot Shot offered a space to counter such arguments. Some celebrities were asked their opinion of whether or not Ryan’s homosexuality was relevant. All celebrities said that homosexuality had nothing to do with his crimes. As one artist puts it, ‘it has nothing to do with that [homosexuality]. I don’t think there is any correlation whether he is a homosexual or straight. He is crazy. We don’t have to make any connection with that [homosexuality]'. A gay activist from Arus Pelangi was also given a chance to make the same statement.
Even the more negative gossip shows speculating about hidden homosexual relationships indicate that taboos about public discussion of homosexuality are breaking down. By interviewing celebrities with positive attitudes towards homosexuality, some infotainment programs unintentionally go a step further. Considering the popularity of this television genre, tabloid television might, just might, play a crucial role in disseminating a discourse of acceptance towards sexual difference in Indonesia.
Bram Hendrawan (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He received a prestigious Mosaic Grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to conduct a research on Indonesian local television.