Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Support your sick grandmother; be ‘forgiven’ your LGBT Sins

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The power of the Internet is old news. Order a pair of jeans from anywhere in the world, get your email night or day. Find out what the weather is like in Bangkok, Jakarta or San Francisco while you guzzle a latté in a café on Bali. But for us, the real magic is making a connection with someone, halfway across the world, who you never would have found otherwise. That is the case with Dédé Oetomo a teacher and gay activist from Surabaya, Indonesia with a Balinese partner who lives in Yogyakarta. We connect online, then spend 45 minutes talking on the phone. His insights confirm what we already know, challenge some preconceptions and add a deeper richness to our understanding of LGBT life in Indonesia that will go a long way in building the authenticity we seek for Rights of Passage.

The Face of LGBT Activism in Indonesia

Once a teacher of English in Indonesia and of Indonesian in the US, Dédé’ started GayaNusantara ( about twenty years ago. The organization, with a mission that spans research, education and training has about 45 active members. Their work encompasses LGBT advocacy at the local and national level, and health outreach activities in Surabaya that include workshops on HIV/AIDS advocacy and a ten-day, live in sexuality course for gay/trans/sex workers. And, GayaNusantara is not alone. According to Dédé, there are about 35-40 other groups in Indonesia, both large and small, that focus on HIV but are essentially gay organizations.

Coming Out in the 1970’s
Dédé’s coming out in the 1970’s was “a cry for help” that fortunately led him to books that allowed him to accept his sexual identity. “Parents can be dismayed, shocked, or violent when you come out [in Indonesia]. Some people run away to be gay. But if you show yourself to be a good person—bring money home to the family, support your sick grandmother; you can be ‘forgiven,’ if not totally accepted, as a bread winner.” Dede’s “bribe” to his family was that he earned his PhD and pursued an academic career. As a result of his early writing, he appeared on television. It didn’t matter why he was on television, the mainstream recognition was enough.

LGBT Culture in Indonesia
In the 1980’s Dédé first saw Waria, Indonesian transgender women, involved in relationships with men and through them he met other gay couples; some mixed foreign and Indonesian and some, working class people who didn’t know the words gay or lesbian but had been together for decades working in shops or selling vegetables in the market. Today, by Dédé’s account, there are some neighborhoods in Surabaya that are as much as 30% LGBT. And now, for the first time, it’s possible to make a living as an LGBT activist in Indonesia. He cites a recent Indonesian HIV/AIDS awareness campaign called “It’s my Life.” It was a requirement for funding that LGBT people be hired on at the advertising agency to work on the campaign.

Dédé also told us of a woman on Bali who does wedding planning for Indonesian and Malaysian Lesbians that we hope to connect up with while we are here.

Some Traditional Balinese Rights of Passage:
• Welcoming the baby-making him/her safe
• When the child first walks (feet can’t touch the ground before that)
• Tooth filing (coming of age ritual to diminish savage nature)
• Marriage
• Cremation (to help speed you on the way to oneness with god)

Photo: Dédé Oetomo has been the most publicly visible activist for gay/lesbian rights in Indonesia. He participated in the 1982 founding of Indonesia's first gay organization, Lambda Indonesia.

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