Chapter 13


The Struggle for LGBTIQ Rights in Asia and the Pacific

Dédé Oetomo*


Emerging evidence from historical and anthropological studies
indicate that many societies in Asia and the Pacific have recognized,
accepted, celebrated and even sanctified various transgender and
homosexual behaviors. Within the context of cultural practices,
certain behaviors and identities have been institutionalized. These
came under attack from the normative gender binarism and
heteronormativity brought in by Western colonial civilization,
conservative interpretations of major belief systems, and, more
generally, modernity. However, the region’s nationalistic
independence movements have, to varying degrees, brought the
promise of freedom, equality and justice for all people, no matter
what our origins are. LGBTIQ people and communities have been
clamoring to demand that that promise, although probably not
explicitly formulated to include us, be fulfilled for us as well.
This, I believe, is the essence of our struggle in Asia and the Pacific.

In the Beginning…

In the beginning, the gods of the Upper and Under

Worlds create and populate Luwuq, the Middle

* Dédé Oetomo is part of the GAYA NUSANTARA Foundation; Asia-
Pacific Rainbow in Surabayo


World, the realm in which we humans live. Patotoqe,
supreme god of the Upper World, sends down his
son Batara Guru, and Guru ri Selleq, god of the Under
World, sends up his daughter We Nyiliq. The two
marry and, in a festival of fertility, everyone gives
birth except the Queen. That’s because her twin son
and daughter have decided they like the womb and
don’t want to be born.

Bissu, originally female, male, calabai (male-tofemale
transgenders) and calalai (female-to-male
transgenders) are brought in to help the Queen, and
she gives birth to Golden Twins: Sawerigading and
We Tenriebeng. After this difficult birth, an oracle
tells the parents that their children must never meet,
as they are destined to fall in love, and incest would
destroy the kingdom.

However, the twins eventually meet and fall in
love, but they are not allowed to marry. Trying to
forget We Tenriebeng, he marries We Cudaiq, a
proud and stubborn princess in Cina, and begets I
La Galigo. Eventually Sawerigading returns to his
home kingdom and meets his sister again, at which
point the gods announce the purging of the Middle
World. The gods return to their worlds,
Sawerigading’s son and We Tenriebeng’s daughter
are sent down to the Middle World to be its new
rulers, and the gates between the realms are closed
forever, leaving the young royal couple alone on the
godless earth.2

Thus begins the creation myth of the Bugis of South Sulawesi,
Indonesia, and of other diasporic communities throughout and
around the Indonesian Archipelago, in the 6000-odd-page-long
epic poem, Sureq I La Galigo. This initial part shows the central
sacred role bissu, meta-gendered half-god, half-human
androgynous shamans, continually play during crucial, interstitial
moments throughout the events in the poem, and indeed in
contemporary Bugis society through mantras in a divine language
only they master and ritualistic trance.

The phenomenon of bissu draws our attention to an indigenous
Bugis construction of four genders still prevalent to the present
day: makkunrai (feminine), oroané (masculine), calalai (femaleto-
male transgenders) and calabai (male-to-female transgenders).3
Bissu can be of any of these four genders at birth, but once ordained
they occupy a meta-gender construction encompassing all four in
gender performance. If we imagine the four Bugis genders as the
four corners of the base of a pyramid, then bissu performs a fifth
gender at the apex.

These days bissu are invited to conduct ceremonies asking
for people’s safe passage on a pilgrimage to Mecca and other
long-distance journeys, the first planting of rice, and so forth.
They are the only persons allowed to guard and ritually wash
arajang, old regalia of the Bugis courts, and are able to
communicate with and be the mouthpieces of dewata, deities who
assist the One Allah and act as mediators between Him and humans.
These deities’ gender is unknown, hence necessitating bissu to
manifest the performance of all genders.

Indigenous Constructions of Gender Identity and Sexual
Orientation in Asia and the Pacific

Throughout our region, past and present indigenous
constructions of gender identity such as prevalent among the Bugis
can be found, either as profane identities or ones related to
specialized ritual professions: other ethnolinguistic groups in
Sulawesi, such as the Toraja Pamona in Central Sulawesi; some
Dayak tribes in Kalimantan/Borneo; indigenous peoples of the
Philippines, the Pacific Islands, Burma, Mongolia, Siberia, Korea,
South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. In the performing arts,
cross-dressing, which may extend off stage, has been known in
many societies. One does note that among such peoples gender
identity is more dominantly recognized than sexual orientation.

On the other hand, the phenomena of vegetarian anti-marriage
sisterhoods among Cantonese in the Pearl River Delta and in
diasporic communities in Malaya and Singapore, and of all-women
communities in the palaces of Balinese royalties at the turn of the
twentieth century, should alert us to the possibility of same-gender
relations as well. We have better records of male homosexuality
in the context of ritual initiation through anal or oral penetration
of boys by adult men in the so-called semen cultures of Melanesia.
Transgenerational sexual relations related to the search for
prowess, the performing or martial arts, or social prestige have
been documented in rural western East Java, Acheh and in feudal
Japan. Male and female homosexual relations, casual or extended,
have been studied in traditionalist Islamic boarding schools on
Java, many of which count among their students young women
and men from as far as southern Thailand, the southern Philippines
as well as elsewhere in the Malay world.

It is obviously not my intention here to give a comprehensive
survey of indigenous constructions of sexual orientation and
gender identity. Suffice it for us to take note of the highly complex
and diverse constructions of gender identity and sexual orientation
in our societies, past and present.

The more relevant issue to raise is why such complex diversity
has only been recently and very slowly discovered by the general
public, and even then only limited to academic communities and
to a lesser extent to a few LGBTIQ activists. We must question the
suppression of our past, which as we see in the bissu case has
continued to the current time.

Multi-frontal Attacks on Indigenous and Contemporary

What has happened to bissu is a case in point. In the 1950s
and 1960s the institution came under attack from exclusivist,
Wahabi Islamists, which rode the wave of a regionalist rebellion,
accusing bissu of committing heathen idol worship and of violating
the binary gender construction proscribed by Islam.4 In 1965–
1966, in the anti-left program taking place all over Indonesia,
bissu were accused of being communists. Some were tortured
and killed; others had to look masculine or feminine and stop
practicing their rituals or do so in secret. It was only after the
Reformation of 1998 that in the name of the promotion and
protection of indigenous rights bissu have been able once again
to be more visible in society and requested to practice their rituals.

In Christian societies such as the Toraja Pamona, and in the
Philippines, indigenous gender identity and sexual orientation
constructions have been under attack as well. The first generation
of Asian and Pacific leaders, fascinated by the promise of
modernity, were also ashamed of what they perceived as the
“backward, superstitious, and immoral” practices of our ancestors’
decadent past. In their thinking, it is that decadence that made our
peoples lose to the “modern and rational” Europeans. Most of the
following generations of educated Asians and Pacific Islands
people, even those deeply involved in history and anthropology,
for a very long time did not know about such phenomena, or if
they did, did not talk or write about them.

But it is not only conservative Islam and Christianity that have
suppressed and attacked transgenders and homosexuals.
Conservative Hindus, and to a lesser extent Confucianists and
Buddhists, have overlooked the complexity of gender identity
and sexual orientation in their sacred texts and condemned
transgenders and homosexuals. For these religionists, and in a
way for Muslims, especially homosexuality has been seen as a
corrupting influence from the West. Communism, with a very
few exceptions in more recent years, is not much different either,
labelling transgenderism and homosexuality as bourgeois
decadence or social evils.

It is thus ironic, but perhaps understandable, that our nationalist
leaders, being among the first to be educated in the modern schools
provided by the colonial administrations of the early twentieth
century, adopted the gender identity and sexual orientation
constructions and morality prevalent among the European colonial
rulers, based largely on Victorian-era moral values even when
struggling to free our nations from the same colonial powers. They
turned their back on the more inclusive and accepting values of
the past. The case of the retention of sodomy laws in most of the
former British colonies is but one poignant instance.

It is this combination of modernist interpretations of cultural,
religious and ideological values that have been bandied around
as “Asian values,” “Eastern customs,” or “nationalist values” by
our autocrats. They have been used as an excuse for not accepting
gender identities or sexual orientations other than masculine and
feminine or heterosexuality.

Psychiatry and Psychology

At 1973, American Psychiatry Association put out homosexuality
from classifying of mental illness then followed by American
Psychology Association at 1975. Health Department of
Indonesia, c.q. Directorate of Mental Health, General Directorate
of Medical Service, at 1983 published Manual for Classifying
and Diagnosis of Mental Illness II, where only ego-distonik
homosexuality, namely people who has homo in their sexual
orientation felt bothered by their attribute, classified as mental
illness. On 17 May 1990 World Health Organization (WHO)
put out homosexuality from International Classification of
Diseases (ICD) 10. Now that date commemorated all over the
world as International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).5 The
PPDGJ III published at 1993, and The Association of America
Psychiatry published Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSMIV)
where homosexuality totally put out from the list of mental

However until now transgender still classified as gender
identity illness. Currently there are endeavours to revise this
classification on DSM-V.

Basic idea of the abolishment of homosexuality (and
transgender) from the list mental illness is very simple, something
that should to understand by the beginner in the field of scientific
methods. Basic determination whether homosexuality and
transgender being mental illness indicated in those who come to
the clinic with mental problems. However until 1970s not many
studies on homosexual (and frequently transgender mixed up in
it) who live without mental problems in the society.

Actually, a pioneer in psychology, Sigmund Freud had been
suggested that homosexuality is neither a disease nor a mental
illness, as testified by a mother with a homosexual child (1935).
We also take into account a study by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
which has shown on high percentage of men who ever have
homosexual relationship in their life.6 Kinsey tends to see
objectively range of behavior variance, now acquainted with
Kinsey Scale, from the absolute heterosexual (Kinsey 0), that is
only have sexual relationship with other sex, until absolute
homosexual (Kinsey 6), that is only have sexual relationship with
same sex. He also emphasized that most people are in the being
in that two poles.

The first extensive study on male homosexual had published
in 1975 by the scholars who continuing Kinsey’s project. It shows
that in the society (means: not in clinic) majority of homosexual
did not have mental illness.7 The analogy, if we study on hetero
married couple who came to psychology clinic or psychiatry, so
we have definite conclusion that marriage becomes something
problematic psychologically.

The Other Side of Modernity

Fortunately for us, though, modern society also unintentionally
gives us an enabling environment for our social lives, and effective
ammunition in our fight against conservative values. At the societal
level, the expansion of urban centres provide us the anonymity
often needed to start cross-dressing or looking for other lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer and questioning
people and our communities to gain support, fulfil our desires
and experience loving relationships that we can construct ourselves
free from the suffocating constraints of our ancestral cultures and

The modern obsession with social identity has meant that some
of us can no longer just behave sexually in certain ways without
identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. In
many ways it puts us through a baptism of fire while forging our
identity, but quite a few of us, by helping each other and by
obtaining help from allies still inspired by the old values from our
more complex ancestral past or imbued with progressive humanist
values, emerge stronger and better humans.

Family planning programs, while very conservative in
intention and performance, could not but imply that sex is not
only for procreation. Recreational sex does not take place only
within heterosexual marriage: despite the prurient façade projected
by many of our leaders who have lost touch with the lives of
ordinary people, the latter engage in various sexual relations of
different orientations. Our corruptly rapacious uniformed services
and bureaucracies are not discriminating in accepting protection
money for different otherwise transgressive recreational sex-related
venues and activities, either.

Add to the above three factors the rapid expansion of literacy
and mass media, in which I would include illegal print publications
and video recordings, and we have plenty of discursive materials,
some hyperreal obviously, that serve as reference points for young
and not-so-young people who desire to be sexually active.

But more seriously, and perhaps most importantly, our
nationalist struggles and revolutions in the decolonisation upheaval
of the twentieth century inspire us with notions of equality, justice,
fairness, freedom, non-discrimination and (horror of horrors for
the conservative autocrats) human rights.

In the Indonesian experience, to bring up an example closer
to my experience and research, we have been able to contest the
government’s claim as guardians of our great ancestral cultures
by producing evidence that our ancestors accepted transgenders
and homosexually behaving people, that some of them were
transgenders themselves or had relationships with same-gendered

This contestation has been made possible by the principle of
academic freedom, which strangely enough the Soeharto regime
played with in the 1980s and afterwards. Some Indonesian
academics, many of who were also social activists, inasmuch as
they faced repression by the security apparatus in teaching and
research, became creative in treading the high wire in pursuit of
scientific endeavour. It is within this context that studies of gender
and sexual diversity were possible. The advent of increasingly
expanding HIV work in the 1990s, as well as more concerted work
in sexual and reproductive health and rights after the 1994
International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo
and the 1995 International Conference on Women in Beijing, also
meant steadily more possibility for discussing gender and sexual

The increasingly vocal pro-democracy discourses of the 1990s
have been taken one step further by LGBTIQ activists, but also
our allies in the movement, to mean that democracy would not be
democracy if LGBTIQ people were excluded. Carefully working
within human rights framework in the same decade, we were
educating ourselves to use it, and after the change of governments
in 1998, the dam broke and Indonesian LGBTIQ organizations
have been able to join the democratisation process.

It is within this environment, sometimes under harsher
conditions, that LGBTIQ organizations sprung up in Asia and the
Pacific in the 1980s and 1990s. Partly enabled by the need for
HIV work within communities of gay men, transgender people
and other men who have sex with men (MSM), partly by an
increasingly critical and inclusive feminist movement, and certainly
by the emphasis on (or even denial of) human rights, the
movement came into being. Local and national activists and
organizations have seized historical opportunities to demand
guarantees for our rights. More recent examples have been the
courageous work that resulted in the Nepali Supreme Court
recognizing gender identity and sexual orientation as independent
legal categories, and the persistent attempts to repeal the sodomy
laws in some of the former British colonies, namely India and

In the face of national repression, we quickly saw the need
for strong regional and international networking. One notes the
few meetings of the Asian Lesbian Network, the clumsily
organized but warm and chummy Asian gatherings of the
International Lesbian and Gay Association, and the online and
offline activities of Asia-Pacific Rainbow around the AIDS
conferences and events such as this Rainbow Conversations

Last but not least, we should not underrate the influence of
such international developments as the inclusion of sexual
orientation in the South African and Fijian constitutions, to mention
but two, in the 1990s. The failed Brazilian resolution at the 2003
session of the UN Commission on Human Rights to include
gender identity and sexual orientation in UN language has rallied
national and international activists together in lobbying within the
UN system, using various mechanisms, among other things
resulting in the formulation and publication of the Yogyakarta
Principles in 2006.

What Is To Be Done?

Such is the current state of things. What is to be done, then, to
ensure that every person of whatever sex, gender or gender identity,
and sexuality, is able to pursue a dignified and sexually pleasurable
life of optimal health and well being on the basis of full protection
of our human rights?

Within my own organization, GAYa NUSANTARA, in the
Asia-Pacific Rainbow network, and I believe in many other
progressive institutions in our region, we see the need to work in
three programmatic areas:

1. We need to work within our communities and organizations,
together with our allies in progressive research institutions and
faith-based organizations, in reclaiming and revealing our
diversity-accepting past and foregrounding the contemporary
richness of our societies with regard to gender and sexuality.
We must then conduct a concerted campaign to contest the
false knowledge disseminated by conservative institutions.
2. We need to find creative ways, using different information
and communication technologies, in providing sexual health
and well-being services in our communities based on what we
know in (1). We should also push for an approach to general
sexual and reproductive health and well-being services that
incorporate such knowledge.
3. We need to work politically in changing oppressive laws by
invoking universal human rights principles such as exemplified
by the Yogyakarta Principles. We also need to guard the
implementation of such noble instruments by constantly being
alert in documenting human rights violations and demanding
In brief, we need to change our cultures, and we need not be
anxious about doing so. Our cultures have continually changed,
whether intentionally engineered or not, and in most of Asia and
the Pacific people under the age of twenty-four, citizens of the
future, are in the majority and will take the societies of this region
into directions the current elders could not comprehend nor


Paper presented at Activating Human Rights and Peace Conference,
Byron Bay, Australia, 1–4 July 2008.

This is freely adapted and shortened from theater critic Alison Croggon’s
summary of Rhoda Grauer’s libretto of I La Galigo
(, accessed 16
January 2008).

For an ethnographic description of Bugis gender constructions, see
Sharyn Graham Davies, Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders
Among the Bugis in Indonesia, Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology
(Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007).

This is not true at all. A more careful reading of Islamic texts show that
khuntsa (male-to-female transgenders) has a place in Muslim society, as
evidenced by their role to lead a communal prayer when no men are

Homophobia, that is anxiety towards homosexuality and homosexuals,
precisely regarded as mental illness. This term aroused by psychologist
George Weinberg (Society and the Healthy Homosexual [New York: St
Martin’s, 1972]).

Alfred C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
(Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1948).

Martin S. Weinberg & Colin J. Williams, Male Homosexuals: Their
Problems and Adaptations (New York: Penguin, 1975).



This chapter is from the book published by the Christian Conference of Asia in November 2013 – “HIV and Inclusive Community: Asian Theological and Biblical Perspectives”.