Since early 2014 an Indonesian-produced web series has attracted a remarkable following, primarily, but not exclusively among its target audience, the Indonesian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender LGBT community. Conq (or cong) is a slang term for gay men, and the CONQ web series follows the lives of gay best friends Lukas and Timo. Along the way it has engaged with issues relevant to the lives of many Indonesian urban-based gay men such as stereotypes, dating apps, familial pressure to marry heterosexually, discrimination in the workplace and HIV.
The series is produced with the support of the Kalyana Shira Foundation and Ford Foundation and written and directed by Lucky Kuswandi, a rising star of Indonesian cinema whose short film The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might recently played at Cannes. So far, ten of the planned 12 episodes are available to watch for free online. The series can be accessed directly on YouTube or via the CONQ website <conq.me>. The earlier episodes have so far had more than 80,000 views, with more than 5000 subscribers to the series as a whole.
A blog for LGBT Indonesians
The web series project evolved out of the CONQ website established in 2012 by Lucky Kuswandi and some friends, as explained on the website:
CONQ is a voluntary-based, communal blog that aims to be as well-rounded, colourful and casual, yet as relevant as possible. It is written by LGBT who are as passionate about politics, activism and human rights as they are about art, entertainment, books, fashion, food, travel, health and beauty … CONQ aims to prove to the public that being gay is not all about the stereotype. It’s also not just about the suffering of coming out, doomed romance, or endless bullying. According to CONQ, being gay is synonymous with being straight… or bisexual… or lesbian… or transgender… it’s about being human.
The site includes a diverse range of articles arranged according to themes such as ‘culture’, ‘health’, ‘travel’, ‘sex’ and ‘girls’. Review articles on film and theatre sit alongside articles on the pros and cons of poppers and a review of silicon-based lubricants.
Like the dialogue in the web-series, spoken in a mixture of English and Indonesian (and with English subtitles), the language of the articles on the site is also fairly evenly split. Many of the themes are distinctly urban and middle class, hinting at the demographic of the site’s founders and perhaps its target audience. The very nature of a web series means that viewers need a decent internet connection to access it, which implies audiences from the wealthier social classes. But it also means viewers can watch the show in the privacy – and perhaps also secrecy – of their own home. As Lucky Kuswandi told me, the series is aimed at ‘the community’, and given its urban feel, it is no surprise that it appeals to urban gay men. It is clear from online responses and questions sent in to the blog that this includes young adults. Nonetheless, the appeal of the web series seems to extend beyond the LGBT communities, appealing also to heterosexual women in particular. Lucky told me that fans stopping the actors on the streets have included straight women, some wearing a jilbab (Islamic headscarf).
Engaging lifestyle and activism
As the blurb on conq.me makes clear, for many gay men in Jakarta their identity is more about lifestyle than activism: ‘surrounding our lives in glam, glitter and a blinding rainbow neon sign, we are synonymous with the word “gay” itself: be merry, party hard and stay ignorant’. While this self-criticism may be a little harsh, it recognises − perhaps with an eye to more politicised movements elsewhere in the world, and also with a nod to some of the grassroots activists across Indonesia who have done important work in often difficult circumstances − that there is often a disconnect between LGBT identities and activism.
A positive take on HIV
Every viewer of the CONQ web series will have their favourite episodes, but for me the most powerful so far are those that dealt specifically with HIV.
In Episode 3 Lukas begins to get to know Aghi, a guy he has recently met on Grindr, the well-known dating app used by many gay Indonesians with a smartphone. While Lukas is concerned that once he removes his T-shirt Aghi will see there is no six-pack underneath, Aghi has something more serious to reveal. He is HIV-positive and has been for the last two years.
In line with the campaigning and educational aspect of the series, it does not descend into melodrama and misery in discussing HIV. Some stereotypes are turned on their heads, as we discover that Aghi, who has been on anti-retroviral treatment for some time and also works in HIV activism, is far fitter than Lukas and together they start working out and exercising. As Lukas says ‘Dating an HIV-positive guy brings so much positivity into my life. Instead of partying or getting wasted, Aghi prefers health conscious activities. However, I’m still getting used to a lifestyle like this’.
The next episode entitled ‘The Test’, sees Lukas and his friend, Timo, go for an HIV test. When Timo arrives one day to talk about a sauna he has been to, Aghi mentions that his NGO has offered HIV testing and advice there. Timo immediately cuts him off saying that a sauna is for pleasure and the last thing he would want there is to be lectured about ‘a deadly virus’. Then comes the statistic from Aghi – one in every four gay men in Jakarta is HIV positive. When Aghi suggests Timo should get tested, Timo feels accused.
The tension between Lukas’ old friend Timo and new boyfriend Aghi, works well as a narrative device. But it also highlights the series’ aim of bridging the gap between activists and the ‘LGBT living happily in a bubble of ignorance’. The conflict also foregrounds the vital intervention that the series makes on gay men’s health, and it does so in a way that no mainstream entertainment film has so far done in Indonesia. It talks about HIV as a particular crisis for gay men, addressing the dual problem of lack of knowledge and social stigma, which are challenges for those involved in HIV prevention work among gay men in Indonesia and beyond.
Part of this episode was filmed at Ruang Carlo, a Jakarta clinic that offers free HIV testing. The episode is very careful to show the realities of HIV testing in a matter-of-fact way. It is free of charge and you can give a false name. Results can be obtained the following day, still under a false name, and if you do test positive there is treatment and support available. The stresses and anxieties of testing are expressed through the character of Timo. But we also learn that Lukas, the more serious and supposedly responsible of the two friends, has never been tested either. Both are relieved to find they are negative. When speaking to Lucky Kuswandi about the episode he told me that testing levels at Ruang Carlo increased three fold after the episode went online.
In a later episode, we find out that Aghi once worked as a rent boy and Lukas and that Aghi eventually split up. Different readings are of course possible, and the director explained to me that the break up and Aghi’s past history as a rent boy were only introduced into the storyline because the actor wanted a release from the series due to other professional commitments. The episode’s stress is on the fact that everyone has a past, and questions of honesty, deception and acceptance are engagingly and humorously handled. Nonetheless it is perhaps unfortunate that a link is made between sex work and HIV when the aim of the episode is to encourage all gay men to take responsibility for knowing their HIV status. Once more it seems, certain types of gay characters have been marginalised on the Indonesian screen. In this light I interpreted the rejection of Aghi, the HIV-positive former sex worker, as a reflection of notions of the ‘queer unwanted’.
A new format for a targeted audience
The seminal place of this web series in the history of representations of LGBT Indonesian on screen seems evident. Perhaps most important, however, is its role in bridging a gap between entertainment, education and empowerment. While films aimed at LGBT communities have been made by NGOs and activists before, it is the scope and reach of this series that sets it apart. The sheer number and range of comments written in response to each episode are evidence of the appeal of the series; of its meaning for many LGBT Indonesians and of their desire to see their stories being told on screen. Comments online relating to the episode on HIV testing include questions and concerns about the practicalities of safer sex, mixed in with more predictable responses about the appearances of the actors, for example.
In using the web series format rather than more traditional screen media, Lucky Kuswandi and his team have been able to provide far less compromising stories than have so far been made for film or television. The series has engaged purposefully with issues of specific relevance to Indonesian LGBT communities, which are too often talked at and talked about, rather then allowed space to speak for themselves. With its high quality scripts and stylish production techniques, CONQ web series, like the blog as a whole, has succeeded in attracting audiences thirsty for an honest, yet sophisticated, engagement with issues that matter to them.
Ben Murtagh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in Indonesian and Malay at SOAS, University of London.