A Rare Look at Lesbian Issues in Indonesia
In Indonesia, lesbian women, as well as gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals, often face intolerance and violence from religious fundamentalist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front.
Even though there have been many positive developments in recent years in terms of visibility, many people who belong to the LGBT community still hide their true identity for fear of the social stigma, which comes not only from groups like the FPI, but often from one’s own family, friends and immediate surroundings as well.
A book by Evelyn Blackwood, a professor of cultural anthropology at Purdue University, sheds light on the challenges that lesbian women in Indonesia still face, following extensive research she conducted in West Sumatra.
The book titled “Tombois and Femmes: Defying Gender Labels in Indonesia,” was first published by the University of Hawai’i Press under the title “Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia.” Blackwood’s book was recently picked up by the Lontar Foundation for a reprint.
“My first research project was in West Sumatra, which resulted in my first book, ‘Webs of Power: Women, Kin and Community in a Sumatran Village’ , a study of the matrilineal Minangkabau,” Blackwood said. “So I was already very familiar with the area of West Sumatra and the cultural context. Much of my research over time has focused on sexuality, female masculinities and transgender identities. So it was an easy jump for me to take my interest in those topics and apply them to West Sumatra.”
With the help of a local research associate, Blackwood was able to make contact with “tombois” in Padang — a term which derives from the English word tomboy and refers to the masculine partner in a same-sex relationship — and their girlfriends, or “femmes,” the feminine counterpart.
However, it was not easy, especially when taking into account the fact that West Sumatra is a region with a reputation of being devoutly Islamic.
“Because I was open about my sexual identity as a lesbian, they felt pretty comfortable talking to me,” Blackwood said. “Their fear was of course that they would be exposed to their family or neighbors. So I have been very careful to maintain their privacy.”
Interviews were mostly conducted in Blackwood’s hotel room to guarantee that her sources could talk openly.
The book is not only a much needed contribution to raise awareness and understanding of LGBT issues, but the author also understands to put the stories of the women in a larger cultural context. At the same time, Blackwood’s main aim seems to be to provide information in order to increase the visibility of lesbian women in Indonesia. She doesn’t use a judgmental tone, but rather states facts and brings to paper what others have told her.
“The tombois and femmes I knew lived quiet lives with their families and kept their relationships hidden,” Blackwood said. “I don’t think that has changed. But even with that, tombois and their girlfriends are finding ways to have meaningful and long-term relationships. The LGBT activist groups in major cities are doing a great job creating visibility for LGBT. The more people know about them, hopefully the more accepting the larger society will become.”
Blackwood hopes that through the publication of her book in Indonesia, she will help people understand sexuality and gender in a broader sense, by showing how cultural factors have defined the terms.
“It argues against fixed sexual identities, by which I mean that identity labels are just that, labels,” Blackwood explained. “How people live those labels depend on cultural, religious, and political influences, as well as their access to the global flow of ideas circulating on the internet.”
Blackwood added that the Ardhanary Institute, a Jakarta-based center for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender research, publications and advocacy, was in the process of working on an anthology which will include the first chapter of her book, translated into Indonesian. The anthology is scheduled to be published by the end of this year.
“I think their efforts will make a much stronger impact because it will reach non-English-speaking Indonesians,” she said.
Blackwood is currently working on her latest project in the United States where she is developing a research topic to look at the history of lesbians in San Francisco from the 1970s to today.
While Blackwood sporadically keeps in touch with some of the women she has written about in her book, the personal impact of the research has stayed with her. “I haven’t forgotten any of their stories and can only hope that they continue to be happy in their lives and their relationships,” she said.