News (World)

A dean in Indonesia berated a nonbinary student. It sparked a national conversation on gender

May 17, 2015: The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia was marked with rainbow flags in Jakarta
May 17, 2015: The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia was marked with rainbow flags in Jakarta Photo: Shutterstock

In August, when a clip showing Indonesian lecturers deriding a freshman for identifying as nonbinary during a campus orientation went viral on social media, tens of thousands across the country were quick to jump on the discourse. The clip circulated so widely across the country that the dean of the university, Jamaluddin Jompa, eventually held a press conference to apologize for the incident.

The video showed a student from Hasanuddin University (Unhas) in Makassar, South Sulawesi responding to a question posed by the deputy dean of law faculty. They were singled out over their supposedly unconventional mannerisms and for sitting between male and female students. The deputy dean asked them about their gender identity on stage, in front of other orientation attendees. The freshman was ordered to leave the event and reportedly taken to a lecturers’ room, where they said they were willing to identify themselves as male.

“Unhas is inclusive. Unhas is open for all. But, of course, we are also prone to making mistakes, for which we will rectify and apologize for, if necessary,” Jompa said as the controversy swirled.

“I think there’s still a long way to go if we are talking about full acceptance,” T, a 21-year-old Indonesian who identifies as nonbinary and bisexual, told LGBTQ Nation. T shared their story of being nonbinary in the Southeast Asian country, where they are not publicly out yet, and requested anonymity to protect their privacy.

Online, the conversation about the video went in all kinds of directions. Though a handful of people called out the discriminatory behavior for what it was, many also swiftly reacted with condemnation toward the student. As is the case with many discussions about gender and sexuality in Indonesia, reactions to the video showed another glimpse into contemporary Indonesian society – one that was still struggling to accept gender diversity.

Some were quick to suggest that gender diversity was a western import that has no place in an Asian country, while others wrote that Indonesians should stick to the gender/sex binary for their own safety and well-being. Although internet culture’s ease with pronouns has spilled into Indonesia online, many tweets imply that there’s still a gap in understanding that nonbinary and other gender-diverse people exist beyond social media.

“It’s sad because gender identity is something that is part of you, you only want to be yourself, learn how to be yourself, but it becomes an issue,” T, who is a member of the youth advocacy group Inti Muda Indonesia, said.

Growing up in a religious family, T said strategizing was key to their day-to-day life.

“I have to form a strategy to deal with the situation, when I can show myself as a nonbinary person. Though it doesn’t mean that I’m faking myself, no, but I will fit myself according to various situations,” T, who is based in Surabaya, East Java said.

Basic rights for the LGBTQ community across Indonesia have been under threat, instigated in recent years by a conservative movement trying to portray diverse gender and sexual identities as a threat to national harmony. In May, a popular Indonesian podcast host took down his interview with a gay couple following an intense backlash from conservative fans and religious authorities, though a campaign against the group has been brewing since 2016.

“If we’re talking about acceptance, I think the reactions from what happened recently clearly proved that many people have yet to understand gender identity, which is why they had such a strong reaction,” Pawestri, gender rights activist and executive director of Hivos Foundation, told LGBTQ Nation.

The fact that the incident took place in a campus environment also showed a possible gap of information between the younger generation and their predecessors that may warrant its own examination, Pawestri said, and administrators need to be open to new ideas.

“They must be up to date with the latest information on global discussions, but that seems to only happen among the younger groups, and not the lecturer groups,” Pawestri said.

The government, through the Ministry of Education, should “provide good information and knowledge” on the subject. As Indonesian officials have also campaigned for social inclusion, they should ensure that gender and sexual minorities are also included.

“If they are really disciplined about their program on social inclusion, it needs to include gender and sexual minorities,” Pawestri said. “That is not happening. I think that must be a priority or serious program from the government.”

She also encouraged ordinary Indonesians, especially those who might be more aware of these social issues, to “open discussions” on gender diversity among their peers. Based on her experience, Pawestri said that sometimes those who disagree do so simply because they don’t know better or are not aware of people from the minority group.

“Once they know the person in real life, and see that they are just like anyone else, just like us, slowly they start to admit that they’re part of society and it’s fine,” Pawestri said. “From there I think it will be difficult for them to say they hate those groups, because they have never encountered these kinds of people.”

The clip from Makassar also served as a reminder that gender and sexual diversity are inherent in Indonesian societies.

The island of Sulawesi is home to the Bugis people, who represent one of the many different cultures in the archipelagic country that recognize gender beyond the binary norm.

The Bugis, the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi province, have words for five genders, which according to anthropologist Sharyn Graham Davies, “provides an excellent site on which to reflect about gender in contemporary society” and should be more widely known.

They divide society into man (oroane), woman (makkunrai), male woman  (calabai), female man (calalai), and androgynous priest (bissu).

“In Bugis South Sulawesi there has been a role of gender nonbinary bissu priests. Bissu played a role in the royal palaces where they assisted in organizing weddings,” Davies told LGBTQ Nation.

“Many societies have long recognized multiple and diverse genders and sexualities. In the West, there is only recently recognition of nonbinary genders but this has been the case in Indonesia for quite a while.”

She added:  “Understanding the diverse history of sexual and gender diversity will mean people know that it’s not a recent invention nor that its a Western invention. Recognizing this history will hopefully make such diversity more widely accepted across the world.”

T said there’s plenty of “homework” left to do for more acceptance of gender diversity in the larger Indonesian society, and the best strategy might be online outreach.

“We should strategize online while continuing to push for regulations, especially on campus, that have to do with gender, women, and minority rights,” T said.


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