Sun, 25 Nov 2001

Lesbians in Indonesia are living in the shadows

Christiani Tumelap, Contributor, Jakarta

You might be able to keep all your moral and religious objections to yourself when it comes to a lesbian acquaintance at work or college, and treat them as you would any other female colleague.

But it is impossible to hide the shock and disappointment when you find out your own sister is a lesbian, said Retno, referring to her experience with her sister, whom she called Adek.

"I assume several friends of mine are lesbians but we get along quite well since we mind our own business. But she's my sister. I mean, she knew it was against our religious teachings ... I still love my sister, I really feel sorry for her. But I just can't understand why she became a lesbian," Retno said.

As in many other countries, the close-knit, family oriented Indonesian society does not tolerate homosexuality. Nevertheless, it tends to exercise a double-standard approach when it comes to lesbians and gays.

"(People consider) it (homosexuality) to be wrong, but many tend to 'accept' a homosexual as a friend as long as the person keeps her or his business private. But when it happens in their own family, people switch their stance to the negative," said Ida Ruwaida Noor, a sociologist at the University of Indonesia.

"Lesbians find themselves rejected. Society believes that if a women has emotional and sexual feelings for the same sex, it is deviant behavior or a sexual disorder. These women are sometimes even considered to be suffering from a mental or social disease," said Ida, who runs a gender and sexuality program at the university.

Aware these beliefs exist among much of society, most lesbians in the country maintain a low profile, if not completely hiding their homosexuality.

It is difficult enough for women to accept the fact that they are attracted to women, but it is even harder trying to decide whether and whom to come out to, said Mia, 30.

"When I found out I was a lesbian, I tried hard to deny it, telling myself not to do something that is prohibited by my religion. Tired of the self-denial, though, I pulled myself together and tried to find a way to tell my mother. But I decided it was best not to tell her when she expressed her strong disapproval when I talked about an 'imaginary' lesbian friend," she said.

Permata, 36, first felt emotionally attracted to a girl when she was 12.

"At first, I didn't know that it was wrong. When I later learned that it was wrong, I felt guilty ... But I don't want to deny my feelings. I did not choose to become a lesbian, it's just the way it is. Now, as long as I don't harm anyone, I don't feel guilty anymore," she said.

She first expressed her feelings to a woman she was attracted to when she was 20. But she has not told her family or friends about her sexual orientation.

Many lesbians, for a variety of reasons, engage in relationships with men at some time or another.

"About 10 years ago I dated a man for about three years. All that I felt was some togetherness, no love, no sexual desire. Since then, I have never wanted to deny my feelings or force myself to get into a relationship with a man," Permata said.

Mia, whose family lives in another city, says she has a girlfriend who sometimes sleeps over at her house.

"She also hasn't come out and she still lives with her parents. We never show our feelings for each other in public, but I think her parents are starting to guess that there's something going on with their daughter."

She says several people who suspected she was a lesbian cut off contact with her, while others have remained friends. "But I guess they also talk behind my back sometimes."

Mia was not comfortable describing her relationship with her partner, only saying, "I assume the role of the man. We go to work and live a normal life like straight people."

There is no universally accepted scientific explanation for why some women become lesbians.

Ida says some experts suggest it has something to do with hormones, while others regard it more as the result of a woman's environment.

"Objectively, the second assumption is the more dominant factor, especially among radical feminists who choose to be homosexual. They refuse the presence of men in their lives because the latter are thought to exploit women with their penises," she said.

There is very little research on lesbians in Indonesia, mainly because, compared to the gay community, lesbians tend to gather in a rather closed and exclusive group, which is related to society's lack of acceptance, Ida said.

There are few lesbian groups in Indonesia, all of which try to provide a medium for communication between lesbians as well as to reduce isolation and stimulate a broader and fairer discussion of the issue.