The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, November 19, 2006



Sydney may have led Australia in promoting its Mardi Gras marches, but that doesn’t mean widespread acceptance of sexual difference in the country next door. ‘Poofter-bashing’ is still a hazard for homosexuals in some parts of a nation that claims to be liberal and progressive.

So what about Indonesia, a land rigid with religion, tense with taboos? Some prejudice, but no fear or repressive laws, according to Dede Oetomo the nation’s leading gay rights activist. He spoke to Duncan Graham in Surabaya:

It will be a quarter century next year that academic Dede Oetomo, fresh from studies overseas, and a couple of friends published the first newsletter for Indonesian homosexuals. This was during the repressive Orde Baru administration when the government banned transvestites from appearing on TV and sexual issues were seldom discussed.

One woman minister famously said there were no lesbians in Indonesia, though most research suggests about ten per cent of the population anywhere in the world naturally seeks same-sex relationships. The official line was to deny that the Republic had been infected by ‘deviants.’

These creatures were fiends from the decadent West, which is where the bright young man from East Java had spent the previous five years. He’d been studying for a doctorate at the prestigious Cornell University in New York, the centre for scholarship on Indonesian issues. Here he’d become part of a campus gay group.

So it wasn’t surprising that some people said he was importing American ideas on sexuality that had no place in Eastern culture. What was unexpected was that this criticism came from the academic gays Dede had met in the United States, not from the locals who were trying to define their desires.

It was an intellectual argument: The outsiders thought Indonesian gays should build their own Asian culture of difference based on traditional practices. (See Sidebar)

But the men and women wrestling with notions that didn’t fit the government approved model of marriage and two kids welcomed Dede’s initiative. They didn’t care where information had come from, as long as it provided help.

“We were really young and naïve and just thought that producing a newsletter was the right thing to do,” said Dede.

“Apart from Surabaya and one or two people in Malang, Solo and Jakarta, the openly gay community was tiny. Looking back I now realise our actions were quite subversive.

“Around 1981 two lesbians ‘married’ in Jakarta and this caused a major media storm. It raised many questions about sexual preference that I felt had to be addressed. I wrote a letter to Tempo magazine and suggested other gays might want to contact me. They did – with up to 40 letters a week.”

After the newsletter Dede and friends started Indonesia’s first gay organisation, Lambda Indonesia – later to become Gaya Nusantara. This is a national rights group now famous internationally not just for linking people, but also for advocating safe sex and fighting Aids, and combating discrimination.

That’s not so difficult in Islamic Indonesia. Unlike Australia and many other Western countries with a Christian heritage, the Republic hasn’t made homosexuality illegal. So the searing debates on whether the law should be changed haven’t happened here, though there is a discrimination issue with age. Heterosexual relations are legal over the age of 16 – but for homosexuals it’s 18.

In Singapore and Malaysia homosexuality is still illegal. These countries inherited their laws from Britain.

“I think there’s more tolerance among the moderate Muslims than the Christians,” said Dede. “Occasionally some radical Islamic group will try and disrupt a meeting, but usually they just want to make a point and then go. At one recent event in Central Java they went home after we paid them Rp 500,000 (US $54).”

In his role as an advocate for gay rights for men and women, and open education on sex, Dede has travelled widely overseas and often works as consultant on health programs for aid agencies.

Dede Oetomo was born in Pasuran, East Java in 1953, the eldest of four children in a bookish Indonesian Chinese upper middle class family. Dede said his siblings are all heterosexual – “as far as I know.”

His father, who worked for a multinational, had dabbled in the Pentecostal Church. His mother had a Catholic background. The family believed in education, open discussion and arguing with older people. There’s an element of zeal in his upbringing.

His mother cautioned him against listening to the “mumbo-jumbo” spook stories of the superstitious maids. She urged him to take a rational and scientific approach to life – and to challenge myth from whatever source. He went to a Catholic school but his education was largely secular.

“I realised I was homosexual when I was about 12,” he said. “I thought I could change. I went to see psychologists, but these sessions were more discussions than counselling. Thank God I wasn’t given electric shock treatment. (A common medical procedure at the time when it was thought homosexuality could be cured.)

“I read widely and realised that this was how I was, and that things were not going to change.

“However I didn’t come out with my family till I was in my 20s. It took them about a year to realise that I wouldn’t be supplying any grandchildren and accept me for what I am. Fortunately my parents have never been into melodramatics. Instead they said it would be a good idea if I could help others. I think I come from a fairly unusual family.”

Dede’s parents hoped he’d become a doctor or engineer – he wanted to be an historian, but ended up as a linguist. He enrolled at the Malang IKIP (teachers’ training college, now the University of Malang) where his intelligence attracted lecturers with US contacts.

He was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship and headed for the states. His PhD thesis was on the language and identity of the Chinese community in Pasuran. When not studying he taught Indonesian to some of America’s top scholars.

Back in East Java he was hit by some covert prejudice when he first sought academic work, finding doors closed despite his high qualifications.

He got a teaching job at the prestigious Airlangga University and started a relationship with a man which lasted 21 years. During this time he wrote extensively for the international media and became the voice of the Indonesian homosexual community.

Now the days of having to meet after nightfall in the yard of a Surabayan government high school have gone. If you’re looking for a partner there are hairdressers, beauty salons, dance studios - and a restaurant in a five star hotel which is well known to be a gay hang out. But it costs Rp 80,000 (US $9) just to get in, limiting access to the rich.

The ‘pink dollar’ phenomenon which has swept the West with hotels, tour agencies, fashion shops and magazines competing for rich gay clients with high disposable incomes has yet to appear in Indonesia.

The shock-horror tabloid headlines full of contrived moral outrage have faded and in their place is factual comment. Much of this has been driven by the needs of public education regarding sexually transmitted diseases, and the emotional problems facing people whose genes have determined their sexual choice.

Dede is no longer the demon in the dark. His academic credibility, ease with the media, reasoned arguments and acceptance internationally have put him in the mainstream. He’s twice stood as a political candidate on a “rainbow platform” of enhancing the rights of minorities. Though unsuccessful, in the 2004 election for the local legislature he scored 235,000 votes.

The Internet has given enormous freedom to people with different sexual needs. The furtiveness has largely vanished, though gays and lesbians still keep a low public profile. A recent lesbian ‘wedding’ in a Surabayan hotel attracted no media coverage.

How much of this change can be attributed to Dede and Gaya Nusantara?

“I agree with those who criticise us because we are communicating with the better educated, media-savvy people in society, rather than those with limited schooling and living in isolated areas,” he said.

“But information is now getting out to the wider community because the topic is no longer taboo in newspapers.

“Some say we haven’t done much and that change would have arrived anyway through globalisation. That may or may not be so, but we’ve given space to people, we’ve opened up the debate. Being gay now is completely different – but also more complex.

“We run a help line, organise face-to-face counselling and offer other services. There’s still a lot more to do. The issue of domestic violence in gay relationships has not been addressed.

“I wouldn’t want to walk home alone in the dark from Sydney’s Mardi Gras Festival, particularly as I’m an Asian. But I feel quite safe in Indonesia. However there are reports of violence by low-ranking military personnel against men who look effeminate

“Now the challenge is to build a new generation of leaders, and reach gay men and women who aren’t at the top end of society to educate them on health issues. The statistics are two years old, apply only in Jakarta and are a bit suspect. But they are all we have to go on.

“The figures for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection are 22 per cent of waria (wanita – pria = transsexual), five per cent for male sex workers and 2.5 per cent for gay men. Overall gay men in Indonesia are aware of the risks, use condoms and lubricants and are responsible.

(In Australia HIV cases among gay men are reported to have surged to a 10 year high, after a slump in infections. It’s believed the younger generation, no longer bombarded by safe sex messages, has become lax in taking precautions.)

“There’s still some prejudice in society but in international terms we’re ahead. Where it’s really difficult is for men and women who want to come out yet love their family and want to keep that love. We also want happy families. But not the government model.”


The idea that homosexuality is alien to Indonesian culture has been dashed by research conducted by Dede into the warok-gemblakan tradition in the East Java town of Ponorogo.

Here older men called warok, who take a leading role in the Reyog Ponorogo dance, have sex with young boys (gemblakan) in their bid for prowess.

The dance requires the warok, who are usually the local strong men, to wear a huge headdress of a tiger mask surrounded by a mane of peacock feathers.

Dede said he planned to review his research soon. Although the men’s behavior would be classified as homosexual it would be wrong to say that there was a homosexual community in the town as the men may also be married. The tradition has an economic component, for the men had to compensate the boys’ parents with significant and costly gifts.

In South Sulawesi there’s the bissu, a male or female court official who cross-dresses and has sex with people of the same gender. There’s also evidence that in the past people who practised alternative sex were considered healers with special powers – a tradition being continued as the gay community is a leader in promoting safe sex.

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(First published in The Sunday Post 19 November 2006)


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