glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy





social sciences

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-E  F-L  M-Z


The islands making up present-day Indonesia have never been remote, since the archipelago lies on the great trade routes between Europe, Africa, and the Arab world to the West, and China, Japan, and Korea to the East. Indonesia was a Dutch colony for almost 350 years, though the intensity of the Dutch presence varied substantially. Since 1945 Indonesia has been independent; it is now the fourth most populous nation and home to more Muslims than any other country.

With over 3,000 inhabited islands, it is not surprising that a great range of non-normative sexualities and genders can be found in the archipelago. Ritual or dramatic professions that involve cross-dressing (usually men wearing women's clothes or a mix of men's and women's clothing), same-sex relationships, or both have existed in some parts of the archipelago since oral and written records have been kept.

Sponsor Message.

Despite the fact that Westerners (and occasionally, Indonesians) seize upon this history to claim a legacy of tolerance or fluidity in the archipelago, such claims say much more about the contemporary politics of multiculturalism than they do about these professions themselves.

In general, these ritual or dramatic professions are not sexualities or genders as typically understood in the West: they are typically only for men, for only part of the life span, and do not usually release the persons who take them up from the obligations of heterosexual marriage. More recently, however, Western ideas of gender and sexuality have made an appearance in Indonesia and have been adapted to the Indonesian context.


Perhaps the best-known case of ritual or dramatic professions that include cross-dressing involves ritual specialists known as bissu, found among members of the Bugis ethnic group on the island of Sulawesi (Celebes). Bissu were usually men (but sometimes women as well) who guarded sacred objects in the royal courts and who would for certain purposes dress in a manner combining male and female clothing. As is the case for many ritual or dramatic professions in the region, sexual asceticism was often seen as a way for bissus to increase their mystical powers.

Some ritual or dramatic professions (including bissu), persist to the contemporary period in some form; others have been discontinued due to the influences of colonialism and religions like Islam and Christianity, and are known only through historical texts.


Distinct from these ritual and dramatic professions is the male transvestite waria (better known to the Indonesian public as banci or béncong, terms most Warias consider offensive). Warias are persons born as men who typically dress in a feminine style (though they do not usually try to "pass" as women). From childhood, most believe that they have women's souls or a soul that is both male and female.

From available information, it seems that Warias first appeared in the archipelago in the nineteenth century. From the beginning they were not associated with any particular ethnic group, but were associated with popular entertainment, market trading, and other lower-class urban work.

It appears that around 1980, Warias increasingly began dressing as waria twenty-four hours a day, and also increasingly began to make permanent modifications to their bodies, such as taking female hormones or receiving silicone injections (sex reassignment surgery involving the genitalia remains rare).

Warias are now particularly associated with the salon profession and are fairly visible; for instance, they appear on television and perform at a range of events. However, Warias are not treated as equal members of Indonesian society and often suffer discrimination from family and neighbors; the range of jobs open to them is quite limited.

Most Warias have romantic and sexual relationships with men who see themselves as "normal," rather than with women or other Warias.

Gay, Lesbi, and Tomboi

Beginning around 1970, some Indonesians who participated in same-sex sexual relationships began using terms like gay and lesbi to describe themselves, and by the 1980s a national network of gay and lesbian groups existed in the archipelago, though many were quite small, and lesbian groups were in a distinct minority.

In contrast to members of ritual or dramatic professions, as well as those who embrace the waria form of selfhood, these Indonesians calling themselves gay or lesbi do not learn about these concepts from their traditional or local background. Consequently, mass media play an important role in how most gay and lesbi Indonesians come to think of themselves as gay and lesbi in the first place. Often it is through a newspaper or television show that hitherto indistinct desires for the same gender become understood as an "identity."

The concepts gay and lesbi are understood to be Western terms, or more accurately, Western terms that have been transformed in the Indonesian context.

One of the most important differences between the concepts gay and lesbi is that no female equivalent to waria existed at the time gay and lesbi became established in the archipelago. As a result, while most gay men and waria understand themselves as distinct communities (even if they are on friendly terms), masculine women (known most widely as tomboi) are sometimes classed as a kind of lesbi woman, sometimes as a distinct category of person.

While gay men and Warias rarely have sex with each other, feminine lesbi women and tombois are mutually ideal partners. This demonstrates how national or local contexts can transform what otherwise appear to be uniformly globalizing concepts.

In the early 2000s, gay and lesbi Indonesians experienced both a notable increase in press coverage, some of it relatively tolerant, and an increase in anti-gay and anti-lesbi sentiment, including the threat of anti-homosexual legislation and cases where youth groups attacked public performances that included gay men and Warias. What the future holds for Indonesia's sexual and gender minorities remains hopeful but uncertain.

Tom Boellstorff


zoom in
Indonesia and neighboring countries in 2006.
Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Social Sciences
Popular Topics:

Social Sciences

Stonewall Riots
Stonewall Riots

Gay Liberation Front

The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980
The Sexual Revolution, 1960-1980

Leather Culture

Anthony, Susan B.
Anthony, Susan B.

Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence



Computers, the Internet, and New Media



   Related Entries
social sciences >> Overview:  Anthropology

Anthropology, the first of the social science disciplines to take sexuality--and particularly homosexuality--seriously as a field of intellectual inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has achieved a new impetus in the post-Stonewall era.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cultural Identities

A growing body of scholarly and other work on Cultural Identities challenges the "naturalness," and even the political necessity, of a unitary gay and lesbian identity.

social sciences >> Overview:  Ethnography

Beginning in the 1960s increasing numbers of ethnographers have conducted research on glbtq issues, spurred by the premise that studies of diverse sexualities are crucial to understanding human behavior and culture.

social sciences >> Overview:  Indigenous Cultures

"Indigenous" is a concept important in the history of anthropology, particularly as it regards anthropology's treatment of same-sex sexual relations.


Blackwood, Evelyn. "Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire." Cultural Anthropology 13.4 (1998): 491-521.

Boellstorff, Tom. The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

_____. "The Emergence of Political Homophobia in Indonesia: Masculinity and National Belonging." Ethnos 69.4 (2004): 465-86.

_____. "Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Transvestites." Cultural Anthropology 19.2 (2004): 159-95.

Gayatri, B. J. D. "Indonesian Lesbians Writing Their Own Script: Issues of Feminism and Sexuality." From Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism. Monika Reinfelder, ed. London: Cassell, 1996. 86-97.

Graham, Sharyn. Hunters, Wedding Mothers, and Transgendered Priests: Conceptualising Gender among Bugis in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Ph.D. diss., University of Western Australia, 2003.

Howard, Richard Stephen. Falling into the Gay World: Manhood, Marriage, and Family in Indonesia. Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1996.

Murray, Alison. "Let Them Take Ecstasy: Class and Jakarta Lesbians." Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 139-56.

Oetomo, Dédé, "Gender and Sexual Orientation in Indonesia." Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia. Laurie Sears, ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 259-69.

_____. "Masculinity in Indonesia: Genders, Sexualities, and Identities in a Changing Society." Framing the Sexual Subject: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Power. Richard Parker, Regina Maria Barbosa, and Peter Aggleton, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 46-59.

Wieringa, Saskia E. "Desiring Bodies or Defiant Cultures: Butch-Femme Lesbians in Jakarta and Lima." Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 206-29.

_____. "Communism and Women's Same-sex Practices in Post-Suharto Indonesia." Culture, Health, and Sexuality 2.4 (2000): 441-57.


    Citation Information
    Author: Boellstorff, Tom  
    Entry Title: Indonesia  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated November 20, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.