“We’ve Got to Live Life as Gay People”:

Being Gay and Muslim in Indonesian Society

[This article was originally commissioned by the editors of the Newsletter of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM, http://www.isim.nl). It was subsequently decided by them not to publish it. Later it appeared in the magazine Oriental Guys (OG) No. 24]


By Dédé Oetomo

[Dr Dédé Oetomo is coordinator of GAYa NUSANTARA, Indonesia’s foremost gay organization, which he founded with his partner, Mochamad Ruddy Mustapha, in 1987; and an associate reader in linguistics and anthropology at the Faculty of Social and Political Science, Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya.]


I can’t believe what’s happening to me. Perhaps it is this that is affecting hundreds, even thousands, of gay people in the world. What is certain is that they don’t want it, but they don’t have enough power to reject it: they’ve got to live life as gay people.

            Honestly, though I am fully aware that I am living life as someone with gay identity, deep in my heart I’m rebelling and wish to release myself from it. On the one hand I want to have intimate relations with people of the same sex; on the other hand I am ashamed as well as afraid I have sinned against God. While I am just a lay person who lack understanding of the complexities of religious law concerning gay people, I have heard a little about them, where the gist is that engaging in intimate relations with people of the same sex is a great sin.

            That is so horrible. It means that gay people are great sinners. But when I reflect on it a bit more, why does God create gay people, when ... no one in the world is willing to live as such?


The above letter is sent by a young Muslim man, working deep in the Sumatran jungle in Riau Province, to GAYa NUSANTARA, Indonesia’s foremost gay magazine (current circulation: 500–600 bimonthly). It can be said to be typical of the hundreds of letters that have been received by the magazine and by similar magazines since the beginning of open organizing around gay emancipation in the early 1980s. It is reflective of the troubled religious discourse of many if not most gay-identified Muslims for whom Islam is an intensely important part of their identity. They express a certain essentialist explanation of their being gay, even putting the onus on God, arguably to be at peace with their sexuality and religion. The essentialist hypotheses relating homosexuality to biological or genetic phenomena, which also reached Indonesia’s mainstream media in the early 1990s, seem to reinforce this essentialism.

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Homosexual behavior is certainly known in Indonesia’s Muslim communities. One must hasten that these communities do not construct homosexuality and heterosexuality in their own ways. The general norm is best described as a pervasive heterosexism, where getting married and forming a family is hardly ever questioned. Homosexual behavior, often seen as a lesser (some would even say much lesser) sin than adultery (zinah), takes place before marriage in a cultural context where segregation between genders is fairly strictly observed, but also in one where appreciation of the androgynous beauty of the male youth is almost freely expressed. Some gay-identified Indonesian Muslims would add that it is the gender segregation and the proscription on adultery that together reinforce a male-bonding, homoerotic culture in Muslim communities here. But almost in the same breath they might add that marriage and the family are religious duties for all Muslims.

            In several communities homosexuality can even be said to be institutionalized, in the sense that there are religion-related cultural practices that involve homosexual behavior and even relationships which usually end with marriage but in a very few cases may continue. Among the matrilineal Minangkabau of western Sumatra, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, boys leave their mother’s home and stay at the local mosque, learning religion and a form of martial arts called silek (silat, Indonesian). Minangkabau language has in its cultural vocabulary two phrases, i.e. anak jawi and induak jawi, literally meaning ‘calf’ and ‘mother cow’ respectively. Used together, the phrases describe a relationship between an older man and a boy or young man which involve not only the learning of Islam and silek, but also erotic love and sexual relations.

            In the traditional (orthodox, referring to the Nahdlatul Ulama) Islamic boarding schools (pondok or pesantren) of Central and East Java and Madura Island, one finds words referring to the beauty of a puerile boy (mukhanith) as well as sexual friendship between pupils (mairilan or amrot-amrotan in Javanese, or laq-dalaqan in Madurese). While some of the sexual friendship may simply involve taking care of each other in the boarding school context, some gay Muslims who have gone through the experience commend the practice as a good way in helping each other memorize religious texts and learning in general. To a gay outsider even from Indonesia, used to male-male intimacy, the physical homosociality (holding hands, doing things closely together, including sleeping very closely intertwined)  in these communities is striking. The dances and musical performances emanating from them are also remarkably homosocial, if not downright homoerotic.

            Traditional Muslims do not discuss these practices much, if at all. There seem to be two reasons: Firstly, they are so ingrained in their lives that they are taken for granted, hence there is felt to be no need to discuss them. Secondly, some traditionalists fear the scorn and criticism of their modernist counterparts, those of the Muhammadiyah. It is no surprise, then, that traditionalists tend to speak with a more tolerant voice in the increasing discussion on gender and sexuality in Indonesian society, whereas things like homophobic remarks, although they do not come up too often, are certain to come from modernist quarters.

            Further research into other Indonesian Muslim communities may reveal other instutionalized homosexualities. Already one has leads into the apparently homoerotic traditional literature and performing arts of the Achehnese, a devout Muslim community on the northern tip of Sumatra. Acheh is known in Indonesia as the verandah of Makkah (serambi Makkah). Other possibilities include the interface between pre-Islamic transgenderism and Islam itself among a group of people in South Sulawesi called bissu, whose transgenderism is essential to their former jobs of keeping and purifying the regalia of the local royalty.

            Discussing homosexuality in Indonesian communities, one must always remember the transgender people called waria (a neologism created from the words wanita ‘woman’ and pria ‘man’), i.e. biological males who do not conform to masculinity and imitate women while retaining some of their masculinity. These people engage in relations, some fleeting but others lasting, with men, at times precluding heterosexual marriage for the men. Many waria are devout Muslims, and they are tolerated by society at large, including Muslim communities. There have been some attempts at discussing the phenomenon (often labelled as khuntsa musykil) in Islamic circles, but it seems that it is often confused with transexuality, such that sometimes the solution is gender confirmation. For example, waria are exhorted to carry out rituals as males, unless they undergo a sex-change operation, in which case they are then seen as women.

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It is one thing to discuss manifestations of homosexuality where identity is not exactly problematic and thus does not bother those who behave homosexually, sometimes only before marriage. It is another thing to discuss and to live a life impacted by social changes that make the gay identity so important that it necessarily conflicts with one’s Islamic identity. We have seen earlier how our friend in the Sumatran jungle resorts to divine essentialism to be at peace with himself. It may be interesting to see what changes are occurring in the traditional realms of Islam. Let us look at the following two anecdotes:

            A kyai (Muslim teacher and leader, Javanese) in Surabaya, East Java, relates lightly how times have changed. His son reported to him attempts at sexual advances by some of his fellow pupils at the pesantren, which he found weird. The father wryly remarks that when he was a pupil in a pesantren, such happenings are taken for granted as part of pesantren life and not even talked about.

            A social worker in the capital, Jakarta, tells the story of a cousin of hers, who comes home from a pesantren depressed and not communicating. Later on after some counselling he blurts out his disturbed feelings that when he goes to a religious institution to learn and find peace, he discovers that the other pupils make sexual advances at him.

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Indonesia has been changing, and part of the change has brought about gay identification among some Muslims. I believe this is a phenomenon that warrants concerted, serious and compassionate responses from Muslims themselves as well as other communities.

Surabaya, 1 February 1999