Aug 08, 2020 Last Updated 3:42 AM, Aug 7, 2020

Quo vadis, lesbians?

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Bunga Jeumpa and Ulil

The progress of Indonesia's lesbian movement should not be measured by the yardstick of its gay movement. Nor by that of the Asian lesbian movement generally, even if they influence one another. It is honestly very difficult to build a movement for something that is so unpopular in the mainstream. Building socialist ideas is already difficult enough in Indonesia. During the New Order, just distributing Pramoedya's books was a battle.

The first lesbian group was formed in Jakarta in the 1980s. It was called Perlesin, short for Persatuan Lesbian Indonesia (Indonesian Lesbian Union). One of the curious features of this association is that it had a chapter of Dharma Wanita, usually reserved for the wives of bureaucrats. Saskia Wieringa, who has written about Perlesin, says they were a 'femme' group partnered with the butch group in Perlesin. Perlesin failed to reach the wider community, seemed to have no clear strategy, and folded soon after.

When the gay group Gaya Nusantara started in about 1986, lesbian groups began to orient themselves towards it through their activities as well as in their writing. The establishment of the Asian Lesbian Network (ALN) in 1989 inspired Indonesian lesbians to become more political. It led three people to set up the lesbian network Chandra Kirana in January 1993. Chandra Kirana published its own bulletin, which at the time was a big breakthrough to reduce alienation and widen public discourse.

Unfortunately the cooperative relationship with Gaya Nusantara did not last long. The gay men's movement did not provide enough space for a female group that had its own way of thinking. After the Second Lesbian and Gay Congress at the end of 1995, one protest letter from the lesbian community in Bandung (where the congress was held) said: 'There was not one session or workshop on lesbian issues, and the committee were all men. Why was Chandra Kirana ignored like that? That means we were all ignored.' An understanding that Gayatri felt she had with Dede Oetomo was also ignored. From that moment, Chandra Kirana tried to organise independently of the gay men's network.

Actually the organisation is not free from internal problems. The classic one is losing volunteers because of intervention from their own families. One was sent to Ambon just so she would be as far away from lesbian activities as possible. Others have been subjected to pressure or even violence from their families to make them 'return to normality'.

Nevertheless, the group continues to do its work. It wants to encourage more discussion of its way of life. One result is a book of short stories entitled Lines, written by Ratri M (2000), which tells about lesbian life in Indonesia. Lines is another word for lesbian in Indonesian.

None of this could have been achieved without Gayatri, the backbone of the group, one of its founders who remains true to her commitment. At the Indonesian Women's Coalition Congress held in Yogyakarta in December 1998, she was the only lesbian who dared to stand up and argue that lesbian concerns should become an advocacy issue for the Women's Coalition. One of the other founders, meanwhile, stayed still in her seat, Gayatri said afterwards.

With this recognition at a national level the lesbian movement entered a new era, that is, of political struggle within a gender framework. Not that this has stopped its activists from facing rejection. The poem (see box) is an illustration of that.

As activists within Chandra Kirana, we often wonder where our place really is. If we join the gay men's movement, we become the Second Sex and are coopted. If we join the Indonesian women's movement, we become like garlic among the onions - step sisters of the women's movement. Where do Indonesian lesbians want to go from here?

Bunga Jeumpa ( is the coordinator of Chandra Kirana (


I just want to offer peace
So the path we know will not lose its meaning
How happy I would be to know you do not see a leper before you
Nervously groping with her rotten finger
Making a space between us
Or perhaps I am just a flower eater to you
With savage passion devouring every breast or thigh I see
So you can do disgusting things next to me

I am no homophobe, you say cheerfully
But I don't see the sign of honesty in your eyes
All I see is your imagination screening pictures like a television
About how good you would feel caught up at the end of my bootlaces
And the fingers you spread out are invisible barriers
To stop me from opening them
Or about the 1000 men on your bed
And the 1000 women under your bed

Never mind!
Let's make peace, leave behind
The skin of hypocrisy and change the music
So full of our sexual preference distinctions,
Help me answer their question,
How to eliminate the discrimination within anti-discrimination

(To a friend who often shares paper and pencil with me: BJD Gayatri)

Inside Indonesia 66: Apr - Jun 2001

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar