Seven Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality in Indonesia


I heard the raucous bells before I saw the people shaking them, so I admit that my first reaction was vague annoyance. I just wanted to eat my vegan, fake meat in peace. I didn’t want to have to decide whether to play the role of the clueless foreigner, the clued-in foreigner, or the local.

Then the singing started—low-pitched and incomprehensible—and I looked up. Standing at the table next to me, wearing a yellow top and a jean skirt, was a waria.

I dug in my backpack for some money.

“You’re pretty,” the waria said to me in Indoneisan, coming over to my table.

I smiled.


“For one thing,” I said, “Hormones are expensive. Some people can’t afford them.”

Nods around my classroom.

“Also, some people feel like, ‘This is how God made me.’ So maybe they feel like their gender identity is different than their birth sex, but they feel like God made them that way. God gave them those feelings and their body. They don’t need to change the way God made them.”

Sounds of understanding. More nods.

This explanation actually made sense to my class, a class that often sat and stared at me as I babbled on in too-quick English about American culture. But bringing God into a conversation about transgendered people? That made perfect sense.

“Good,” I said, looking around. “Any other questions?”

This semester, we’re talking about stereotypes: ethnicity, gender, sexuality. Big topics like that. At best, thinking and talking about them makes my students uncomfortable. At worst, they’re just confused. Usually, things fall somewhere in the middle.

My students aren’t just confused about these issues in an American context. Discussions about gender and sexuality in Indonesia generate just as much confusion and misconceptions. When I asked my students about gay marriage, many of them cited a case in which a woman disguised as a man almost married another woman. I then had to try to explain how that case wasn’t about gay marriage at all.

At the end of every class, I ask my students if they have any questions. They usually manage to come up with one or two, but most of them just look at me, shell-shocked. Because of this, part of their homework always includes writing one question for me.

I answer every question, everything from I’m sorry, why is same-sex marriage good for America? to In my religion, Islam clearly said that everyone will carry their own consequences for what they’ve done, as mentioned in Al-Qur’an “I live on my life, and you live on yours”. So, I can say it’s okay for people to do SSM1 because we don’t have any rights to do with their lives. And my question is what about you Zoe? Will you support SSM or against it?


It was still early in the year, before I’d learned to see the clues about what was going to happen next—are they going to dance some more? have rehearsal? go home?—so I just sat at the edge of everything, waiting to see what would happen.

He came into the dance room, his face painted over in women’s makeup. He went to the back corner, took out a bottle and a bag of cottons swabs and sat at the mirror. Methodically, he removed his makeup, wiping at his face in slow, even strokes. When he finished, he stood, returned the makeup remover, corrected the position of one girl’s arms as she danced, and left.

Or he directed us as we practiced a dance, setting up our formation so that we looked like the girls in the video. “You stand there,” he told me, pointing at the spot across from him.

Or he came in and dressed himself in a jarik, the material pulled tight around his hips. He pinned the bodice in place. The black velvet contrasted with his skin. He asked a girl to take photos of him—just from the neck down.

Or he showed me a photo of himself, dressed in women’s clothes and full makeup and asked, “Who’s this?”

Or he was dancing another fight scene, a fight scene that I’d seen so many times but that I watched again because he’s good at dancing, his gaze hard as he and the demon exchanged blows, as he reached out to flick the yellow scarf at his waist.


Two weeks ago, I watched while the university shut down a talk that had been scheduled by one of the departments where I teach. The Indonesian translation of Irshad Manji‘s latest book was just released, so she’d been visiting Indonesia. Since she had two other events planned in Yogyakarta, my department invited her to come speak at UGM as well. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Her time in Jakarta was troubled by protests and UGM’s rector, fearing a similar reaction, cancelled the event.

Regardless, many people showed up to hear Irshad Manji speak. She made a brief statement to them and to the media, saying that silencing minority voices for the common good assumes that it’s those minority voices that are the ones causing the problems and the disruptions.

Surrounded by a crowd of people who had no idea what I was doing, I co-op knocked2 to show my agreement.

Twenty minutes later, I was on my motorbike pulling out of the graduate school campus to go to Immigration. As I drove away, I felt my throat tighten.

Coming from the US, I have privilege. I’m aware of this. I was aware of this when I was living in the US too. Education, the ability to travel, etc., etc. I have all of this. But there’s one other privilege that I didn’t spend much time thinking about: freedom. I can state my opinion without risking anything. I stood in a corner of the room and watch as the head of my department tried to negotiate whether or not the talk could go on and I risked nothing. I had the support of my department behind me. They wanted the event to happen. They spoke for me.

When I came back to the office later in the day, I heard about things that happened after I left—scary things concerning free speech, things that I don’t want to repeat here, not because I’d be risking my safety but because it might compromise the safety of other people. Because that’s another giant privilege that I have: I won’t be living here forever. Sure, my actions still have consequences, but not in the same way they would if I were living here forever. And in the place where I am living forever? I can say almost anything there and not worry.

That’s privilege.


My senior fellow once said that she feels bad for the waria. I understand what she means. The waria make up Indonesia’s male-to-female transgender community. You see them everywhere—from street corners to beauty salons. Obama’s former nanny is a waria. But though they are extremely visible, they also exist on the outskirts of society. Depending on the situation, they are accepted, tolerated, or met with prejudice.

I, myself, have no idea how to think about the waria. My perceptions are always clouded by Oberlin thoughts about gender and sexuality but, as this podcast put it, if someone from the US saw a group of waria, that person wouldn’t know what to think. Or, rather, that person wouldn’t know what label to use: gay men, people who are transgender, what? The same questions, this same need to label, goes through my head every time I see a waria, and I hate it.

Gender and sexuality are more than your Western concepts, I wrote in my notes for this post.


“There was something I was going to ask you,” one of my fellow teachers said.

She’s the only teacher I use informal Indonesian with. I was putting in my office socializing time and, like usual, I’d ended up talking to her.

“Was it about dance?” I asked. “Because that’s all I do.”

She laughed. “No, it wasn’t about dance.”

We looked at each other, thinking, and both got there at the same time: it was about something serious, and what’s more serious than politics? Which was how I ended up making a small speech about women’s rights and the Republican Party and abortion.

As the word abortion left my mouth, I was suddenly very aware of my surroundings. Abortion is illegal in Indonesia and here I was, in the most formal of my three departments, saying I felt personally affected by the judgements Republicans continue to make concerning abortion rights.


“Are you a lesbian?” one of my friends asked me the other day while several of us were hanging out in the dance room.

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. At the time, I had a girl’s head resting on my lap, my arm slung carelessly across her lower back. This is normal behavior in Indonesia. People of the same sex hold hands or lean against each other or put their arms over each other’s shoulders and it’s perfectly normal. Sara likes to say how much she enjoys seeing men driving down the street, the one on the back with one arm draped over his friend’s shoulder and the other around his friend’s waist.

And for those of you who know I’m not that into physical contact, let me just say this: throw a language barrier into the mix and all bets are off. I often find myself judging how much a person really likes me based on how much she touches me. And of course I respond in kind—if I like you, I’ll put my head on my shoulder; I’ll thread my arm through yours.

So when my friend asked after my sexual orientation, I didn’t know what prompted the question, and once I’d run all the this-is-Indonesia-what-should-I-say thoughts through my head, that was going to be my response: “Why are you asking?”

The girl on my lap beat me to it. “Yes!” she said.

People laughed, the conversation moved on, and I was left wondering what would have happened if I’d said yes.

1Same-sex marriage.
2Co-op discussions at Oberlin can quickly get complicated, with a running list of who gets to speak next. One of the most annoying things about discussions is when you have several people who all make the same point while you’re waiting and waiting to make a different argument. To alleviate this problem, instead of adding their name to the stack of people waiting to speak, agreement can be voiced simply by knocking in the air.


4 thoughts on “Seven Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality in Indonesia

  1. Have just found this blog through blogwalking, and I am impressed that you have beautifully adressed various topics on gender issues in Indonesia in one single post, with your own experience as tangible example…. I would like to read more of your writing! :-)

    I initially thought that we Indonesian are (at least starting to be more) pretty open-minded about gender issues and freedom of experession, but the ban on Irshad Manji and Lady Gaga made me doubtful..

    I have mixed feeling about street-singer waria, tough.. People are generally afraid of them, because some of them tend to act hostile if they don’t get money (or because they look intimidating)… But then it give them comparative advantage from other street singer; People tend to give them more money… I don’t know if I should be glad for them or just sad…

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! And yes, I think the question of street-singer waria is a complex one. I guess usually I’m a bit sad…

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