Lecture notes: Trans identities and queer acceptance in Indonesian cinema?

The following are notes from my final lecture for Sex and the City: Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia on trans identities in Indonesian cinema.

Disclaimer on the use of ‘definitions’

Since I am teaching this class in English, to students in a British institution with a largely unproblematised epistemological culture that privileges western ways of knowing about the world with a penchant for derivatising non-western epistemologies as ‘critiques’ at best, adjuncts at worst, I will need to introduce my lecture on trans identities with terms we already know or at least recognise in our nomenclature for variant gendered subjectivities.

That said, does anyone in class know the differences between transgender, transsexual, queer, transvestite, cross-dressers, drag kings and drag queens?

Transgender is a broad term to describe people whose gender identities do not match their biological sex. Gender and sex are different. Gender denotes social characteristics that are usually used to differentiate between women from men. But this is a limiting, binaristic term that has a risk of becoming quite essentialist.

Cross-dressers and tranvestites tend to be used inter-changibly to describe people who simply have just have a preference, sometimes involving sexual arousal when they wear clothes worn usually by the opposite sex.

Queer is an umbrella term to denote sexual minorities and gender variant people. The term was reclaimed from the derogative term to mean homosexual individuals, and now it is used as a political position against heterosexist and transphobic ideologies and discourse.

Drag king is a female performance artists who dress and act like a caricuture man often performing stereotypes of men, incorporating singing and dancing at times. Drag Kings also do impersonations of famous male personalities like Elvis Presley, which is a drag king favourite – I believe both Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri of the band texas have done Elvis impersonations, and very well, too. I’m sure you’re more familiar with drag queens, particularly now that we have Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical on Shaftesbusy Avenue. Yes, what’s wrong with a bit singing and dancing men in drag and conflate trangender and transsexual people into the mix? Hm.

So, transsexuality is a person’s identification with a gender identity that is not consistent with biological sex. Transsexuality comes with a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.


Because I am using the terms transsexual women and men quite a lot in this lecture, I will use the terms cis-gender or cis-sexual women and men to describe people who are not transsexual. Mainly because if I said just ‘woman’ to describe cis-sexual woman, it seems as if the default woman is only those who are born with the biological sex and gender match. To use to term cis-sexual/cis-gender also destabilises the dominance and normality of cis-gender identities. It draws attention to the fact that we cannot take for granted that only cis-gender women are in fact ‘women’. Transsexual women are women, too. They identify as women, feel that they’re women inside, and most definitely prefer the pronoun ‘she’. It is very offensive for many transsexual women to be described as a ‘he’.

Representations of transsexuality – cliches and bad stereotypes

For the sake of the film, we will focus on transsexuality as characters in cinema more generally as opposed to simply transgender identities. And then I will focus on representations of characters assumed to be transsexual, transvestite, and just transgender in Indonesian film. Representations of transsexual identities in film tend to fall into a very limited, often very negative spectrum of freak-show exploitation that occur in documentaries, fictional film, and pornography.

In film-making of the Anglosphere, that includes Hollywood, independent American, British, and Australian cinema, transsexual characters are usually played by cis-sexual male actors and exhibit flamboyance, campness, tawdriness, and tragicomedy with great frequency. We have depictions of transsexuals as a joke: these characters tend to inhabit tragic and comedic roles often at their own expense. They’re often conflated with drag queens and cross-dressers who find themselves in outrageous situations where they are the source of the joke or object of derision. Transwoman actor and model Calpernia Addams who has written about representations of transsexual people in film, says that transsexuals in film can be summed in 4 P’s: Prostitutes, Psychos, Punchlines, and Poor Thing! Who are the “noble victim” of society’s intolerance.

In Hollywood film-making from the 1970s onwards, transsexual characters became psychopathic serial killers in the B-film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971, Brian de Palma’s 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and the characterisation of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the lambs, made in 1991. In both Dressed to Kill and Silence of the lambs, the serial killers were denied sex-reassignment surgery and because of this denial, murder people out of revenge for society’s lack of acceptance towards trans people, otherwise known as transphobia. The two films suggest that their murderous tendencies are all down to their lack of access to a sex reassignment surgery.

Then there are the films based true or actual documentaries depicting real-life transsexuals. Among them include the highly acclaimed Paris is Burning, an excellent film about the Black gay and transsexual ball in New York City. There is Southern Comfort about the female to male transsexual, and there is Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank a cis-sexual woman who won an Oscar for her role in the film.

There will always been close-ups on transsexual women and men dressing up, putting on make-up, painting their nails, their wigs, bounding their breasts to make their chests flat. Such close-ups fetishise the bodies of transsexual people, and sexualise their body parts, objectifying them, turning them into objects of our prurient and voyeuristic interests. This is also typical in images that eroticise cis-women’s body parts, close-ups that focus on exposed or exposing body parts for the viewer’s pleasure. The use of close-ups here are certainly different; close-ups of transsexual bodies are meant to shock yet titillate, while close-ups of cis-women’s bodies are just titillating. These shots are problematic because they reduce ideas about femininity in very crude ways, through make-up, high heels, stockings, and clothes.

Clichés and stereotypes serve as a kind of shorthand that people use to categorise others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities that transsexual people experience.

The trends and stereotypes we’ve seen is largely part and parcel of how transphobic film industries tend to be, with little awareness of trans issues and rights, and most importantly the fact that there are always so few to no trans people working in the film industry. As one transsexual activist Calpernia Addams has observed, transsexual people very rarely are featured in film as themselves or as transsexual people. What is much rare still are transsexual people playing non-transsexual people. There are some similarities in the representations of transsexual people in Indonesian cinema.

Representations of transsexuality in Indonesian cinema

There are not many depictions of trans characters in Indonesian films. But when they are, transsexuality in New Order Indonesian cinema is mixed with cross-dressing and real transsexual characters. Depictions of trans people tend to be similar to some of the stereotypes in Anglo-American and Australian films of impoverished street sex workers and in newer post New Order Indonesian films, drag queens. In Indonesian films of the late 1970s, such as Betty Bencong Slebor, transgender women are featured as comedic relief. Oftentimes, they are ridiculed and denigrated in public. As shown in this clip from Betty Bencong Slebor, who is a domestic servant in an Indonesian household. Here, she is invited to sing in a village fair. But it becomes clear that people do not like her for some reason. Interestingly, we have a white woman from out of nowhere who is most vociferous in attacking Betty:

One film that stands out as a true-to-life depiction of life as a transsexual in Indonesia is Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), also made in the late 1970s, about a woman who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to transition from male to female. Vivian faces prejudice and transphobia, and eventually finds a cis-sexual man who loves her.

In the film we have watched today (Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll, 2006) we have Mariana who challenges all previous stereotypes of the poor, desperate, and marginalised transsexual woman. We have a transsexual character who is a parent, wealthy, and a quirky combination of masculinity and femininity. In constrast to the maternal waria is the reflexive caricuture of Madame X, trans super hero and avenger of fellow waria who are victimised by a religious cult group. But how does this portrayal fare against the realities of being a trans person in Indonesia?

The reality of life as a waria in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there isn’t one term that best translates as “transsexual”. There is the waria, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for wanita to mean women and pria to mean men. In different parts of Indonesia, the cultural terms are different; in Bali and Sulawesi, they’re sometimes called Kedi. In Makkasar, they’re kawe-kawe. Among the Bugis and in Kalimantan, Borneo, they’re called the cultural term, calabai and calalai.

But the generic term waria has come to mean mainly transgender women who are born biologically male but feel that they have the ‘soul’ of a woman. Because sex reassignment surgery is very expensive and not available in hospitals, the sex reassignment surgeries are very rare, and so post-operation transsexuals in Indonesia are rare.

Waria tend to be confused with gay men a lot in Indonesia. The term that blurs trans people and gay men is banci, a broad pejorative term to describe any effeminate man, a man who does feminine work, a playground insult, a transgender or transsexual woman. The widespread use of a derogatory term that collapses multiple gender and sexual identities make it quite hard to get more neutral terms like waria and gay (the Indonesian version of gay) to come into wider use.

There is also a tendency to class warias as a “third gender”, which is now being challenged by scholars in Indonesian studies. I know that a number of authors on Indonesian studies such as Leonard and Barbara Andaya like this term, while Tom Boellstorff is more reluctant to use this term. Instead, he classes them as “male tranvestites” and “male transgenders.”

In some ways, I can understand why a lack of agreement on terms occurs; it’s mainly because people like to put categories on people’s gender usually without referring to gender variant individuals themselves what terms or pronouns would suit them best. Most of the people who make such categories are rarely ever trans people themselves and place labels as they please without causing much harm or identity crisis on people like themselves. It’s called cis-gender privilege.

Also ,we live in a gender-obsessed society. So we MUST know how to address a person: are they male or female. There’s a fascination, obsession, and insistence that we know one’s gender. Which is why many trans people are faced with the completely unsolicited question by total strangers, “Are you a bird or a bloke”?

When babies are born, is it a girl or a boy? When people do not fit our rather rigid gender binary, then we think we’re coming across a problem, an abnormality, and very often what we think as problems cause more complications on the lives of transgenderism and transsexual people.

For the sake of this class and some 101 guide to trans identities in Indonesia, it’s safe enough to categorise the waria under transgender or transsexual. Most seem to prefer to identify as women, so they are trans women. Unless many are versed in gender theory and fully embrace the notion that there’s a seperation between biological sex and gender which is socially constructed, many of which may belong to educated, middle-class economic bracket, we need to keep the gender categories loose due to difference in culture and class within cultures.

This includes the terms like gay, which is not really used as an identity marker in Indonesia very much unless you happen to identify with global, more western gay culture. Which is why David Cameron’s proposal to cut aid in non-western countries that do not have provisions that protect gay people is ignorant, classist, and Eurocentric. A country or cultures are not necessarily homophobic because many do not identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, sometimes the terms, practices, and sexual norms which we may consider as homosexual or non-normative just happen to have different systems of classifications, names, or none at all.

To a certain extent, warias are generally considered acceptable for a variety of reasons, warias, just like the trans women in Malaysia and Singapore who called the Mak Nyah, are stereotypically known to be good as hair-dressers and make-up artists. Considered as experts of feminine beauty, they are usually hired as bridal make-up artists during weddings, and they’re called Mak Andam.

There’s also the local court tradition in southern Sulawesi of the bissu, who are holy individuals who are blessed with special powers. The bissu, although displaying both feminine and masculiine characteristics, mainly through attire, are not according to authors on Indonesian studies, waria. They are, as Tom Boellstorff rather clunkily coines them, the “ethnolocalised homosexualities and transvestite subject positions” or rather charmingly, ETPs.

But this does not mean that the waria do not experience discrimination, oppression, and violence on a regular basis in Indonesia. They do. As we recall in various scenes in Realita Cinta, the trans women in the beginning of the film are depicted as far from desirable and almost always as sex workers. Mariana, not matter hard she tries to be a good parent, Nugi’s idea of a ‘real’ family is a male father and female mother. Very heteronormative.

For the best accounts on the life of waria and gay men in Indonesia, I suggest you read the works of the Indonesian LGBT activist Dede Oetomo. According to Oetomo, although many warias wish to identify as women, and become real women through superficial appearances, many display characteristics that make them quite unique from other cis-gender women, such as greater physical strength to fight off other men, the boldness in attracting a cis-man’s attention, through groping and grabbing a man’s crotch that one perhaps never will see in Indonesian cis-gender women.

In sum, I would stress that it is important to consider gender categories as fluid. Although we may assume that biological sex is binaristic between male and female genitalia, new evidence is showing that even biological sex, based on our primary and secondary sexual characteristics – which are our primary being are sexual reproductive organs – our gonads, and sex organs. And secondary sexual characterisatics – hormones, things like facial hair, shape of face, growth or lack of growth in breasts – these things are shown to exist on spectrum. The fluidity of our biological sex and gender challenges some rigid ideas about makes a ‘real’ woman or ‘real’ man. These ideas are social and cultural. In the case of transsexual people in Indonesia, or the waria, some may identify with the globalised western framework of gender that seperates gender from biological sex. Other may not. Film currently may not or may not be the best forum to discuss the variances of gender. But we will find out in our tutorial. But now, we’ll take a 10 minute break.

The transmen community is still overshadowed by phallocentric logic in Malaysia

First published on Engenderings, the LSE blog for gender and sexual diversity

In several scenes from the recent but quickly forgotten Malaysian film, “Aku Bukan Tomboy” (I’m Not a Tomboy, 2011), masculine women and transmen alike were disparaged as not being ‘real’ men for lacking a bioglogical penis. The film makes clear that not only are the various means to transition and establish a gender identity wilfully ignored, but the idea of what it means to be a man is reduced to the possession of a penis. “Aku Bukan Tomboy” is nonetheless a rare Malaysian film that tackles female homosexuality, female masculinity, and transmasculinity, but its atypical accolade is tarnished by its homophobic script. The film joins another recent phallocentric “social commentery” film about gay, and transgender characters, “Anu Dalam Botol” (Penis in a Bottle). The latter film focuses much on the repudiation of the penis by the main character who initially identifies as a woman then returns to a male identity only to be undone by a bottled penis on his wedding day.

Both films offer a homophobic and cis-centric perspective on what being lesbian, gay, and transgender means in Malaysia; the two feature the main protagonists’ struggle with expressing their gender identity due to the hostile intolerance towards people who do not conform with the exacting heteronormative mores. Public awareness about masculine women, tomboys, and transmen was raised by the notorious fatwa in October 2008 banning women from adopting masculine dress, behaviour, and forming relationships with other women. The ban was prompted by several cases of young female individuals were seen dressing as men and the paranoia surrounding female homosexuality within Malay-Muslim communities. The pejorative term used to describe transmen and masculine women, “pengkid”, became the narrative basis for “Aku Bukan Tomboy” for an audience who now recognise the term, but have little understanding or exposure to the realities of life as a transman in Malaysia.

This was not the first time Malaysia became gripped by the largely sensationalist media representation of masculine women. In 1996, the story of Rohana and Azizah appeared in the local media, poised to shock the nation: a couple was married by a kadi (a religious official) except unbeknowst to the kadi and even the bride, Rohana, that Azizah identified as a man in the marital proceedings. The media focused significantly on the “predatory” character of the masculine Azizah who preyed on the “innocent” Rohana. Although Malaysia does not have a law against female homosexuality, Azizah still had to be punished. Her official crimes were the usage of a counterfeit identification card and male impersonation, an audacious attempt to access male heterosexual privilege.

The Malaysian media’s preoccupation with non-normative individuals as sexual predators of unsuspecting women and men, snatching from the heteronormative public their pool of potential partners, is a recurring pattern. Last year, a discussion on a Malay-language women’s television programme about the supposed threat transsexual women posed to cis-gender women came under fire. Transsexual women were believed to be in direct competition with cis-women for the affections of men (and jobs in the beauty industry), a competition that transwomen have no right to be in. The subtext of this recurring allegation is that transpeople cannot be allowed to form loving relationships with members of society lest they corrupt the vulnerable facade of heterosexuality and cis-gender binary.

Malaysian transmen live in relative seclusion from the public cacophony of phallocentric debates about the illegality of anal sex, often perceived as the cornerstone of homosexuality in Malaysia. Transsexualism and transgender issues meanwhile are often regarded as issues that concern male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals, trans women, or Mak Nyahs. The voices of transmen however are rarely brought to light and at times treated as afterthought in discussions about LGBT identities.

If one is allowed to generalise, one can say that much of the general public anywhere have little knowledge about much less exposure to transmasculinity. The most high profile media and cinematic portrayal of a transman was Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance as Brandon Tinna, the ill-fated transman who was murdered because his gender identity threatened the masculinity of his cis-male friends. In Malaysia, however, there is much confusion about the transmen community over terms, their gender and sexual identity. It would be a fallacy to suggest that the experiences of transmen are just like transwomen except the reverse, and that the transmen community is monolithic. According to one Malaysian transman, Shamin, the transmen community distinguish themselves from tomboys by binding their breasts and using masculine pronouns and terms of address for each other.

In agreement to some extent with Dennis Altman’s thesis of global queering, that is that globalisation of gay idenities and subcultures emanating almost exclusively from the US and Western Europe, individuals who identify as “transmen” adopt the term and discourse learned from English-langauge material on the internet. The global nature of transmasculine identities in Malaysia is also reflected in choice of role models, those who have paved the way for others to leading a public life as transmen and as sources of life-affirming information for transitioning mainly hail from English-speaking countries. But later the internet became instrumental for Malaysian transmen to form communities via social media and chat-based forums and hold up a number of local transmen as role models, creating a full circle that traverses the global-local continuum of LGBT discourse.

As Malaysian LGBT activists approach the federal court to claim the banning of Seksualiti Merdeka, a local festival championing gender and sexual diversity, as unconstitutional, a number of questions arise as to what the LGBTs as a community means in Malaysia. LGBT, LGBTIQ (LGBT plus intersex and queer), and the newly formed acronym QUILTBAG are discurive shorthands with much plenty of class baggage that is yet to be unpacked in Malaysia. Those who identify with the LGBTIQ cause are more likely to be members of the more educated, middle-class elite. For two Malaysian transmen, Shamin and Hayd Hatake, many transmen do not view themselves as part of the LGBT community nor do they identify with what the class-distinct LGBT discourse connotes.

In a country where a de facto ban on homosexuality is upheld (and indeed contested) within the illegality of sodomy, sex reassignment surgery is inaccessible (on Islamic grounds for Malaysian Muslims), the official change of name and gender is unrecognised by the state, the initialism ‘LGBT’ is misunderstood yet demonised, and the open support for gender and sexual diversity is threatened with a brutal crackdown, communities who fall through the cracks of human rights and anti-discrimination activism due to class-based discursive language will continue to be poorly understood, misrepresented, and subject to prejudice and transphobia. But despite the many challenges faced by non-normative Malaysians and their allies, the increasing spaces for expressing hegemonic subversion such as the internet form a welcoming salve for a society grappling with the heteronormativity that will break at its seams of repression.

Sex reassignment surgery is “not allowed” in Islam because Muslims in Malaysia are easily confused

The re-instated word on the legal status of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) within Islam continues to stand as “not allowed” on all counts except for hermaphrodite people. The ban on SRS was first introduced in 1983 but occasionally a re-issue of the fatwa is necessary mainly as a reminder to Muslim Malaysians that they’re being policed.

International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) law lecturer Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz is incredibly confident that Islamic jurisprudence is very clear on the issue of transsexualism. She goes on to say that “Islam’s position on this is so clear it is not even debatable today. Islam does not permit sex changes to avoid any confusion and problems that would crop up later”.

According to the law lecturer, “it would be confusing for Muslims to conduct burial rites for those who undergo a sex change when they die, with questions raised about whether the body should be treated as a man or a woman”.

Yes, it is not news to Muslim Malaysians that we are an easily confused lot. Or at least this is what Malaysians politicians, religious leaders, and other pundits seem to assume. But Muslim Malaysians are especially (and dangerously) confused when it comes to religious matters says this enlightened bunch. Of course this assumption is not only deeply patronising but also very offensive. It is important to be wise to this condescending talk of confusion, because popular Islamic discourse is used in Malaysia to portray Muslims as unknowing, naïve, and intellectually dependent on clerics and Islamic teachers to conveniently close all debate on religious matters. So, because you are easily confused you must not question or criticise what is purportedly set in stone ‘by Islam’.

The truth is, this potential gender ‘confusion’ brought upon by SRS has nothing to do with Islam. If anything, it’s not confusion but transphobia. A person can only allow themselves to be ‘confused’ because they choose to be ignorant about the realities of being a Muslim transgender and transsexual person in Malaysia. Ignorance or “confusion” is not an excuse when it comes to SRS and therefore whatever reason to disallow SRS will not hold water.

Other clerics and key figures in Islam are more progressive about transsexualism and transgender people. It is common knowledge that Iran has long been an unlikely capital of SRS ever since Ayatollah Khomeini recognised its significance for humanitarian reasons in 1978. Early Islamic scholars Ibn Abd Al-Barr, Ibn Qudamah, and Ibn Abbas wrote about transwomen in neutral terms, describing their mahram status amongst cis Muslim women.

It is important to note that the Qur’an does not mention the terms khunsa (hermaphrodites), mukhannis (biological males who identify as women and want a change of their biological sex) or mukhannas (biological males who identify as women but do not consider changing their biological sex).

According to some scholars however the Qur’an does have a reference to people who are neither male or female, ‘aqim (translated into English as ‘ineffectual’) in verse 42: 49 and 50.

So what’s this then about Islam being clear on its position against SRS when we have opposing opinions that are backed by religious discourse? And why is gender confusion an excuse when gender diversity is explicitly described in Islamic texts in neutral terms? What is clear is that there are differing opinions that can be used to support the right to SRS. All one has to do is to carefully examine the texts of the Quran, hadith, sunnah, and other scholarly texts.

In sum, the refusal to engage with the wealth of Islamic texts on gender diversity, some of which are fascinating and surprisingly progressive, only exposes prejudices against the experiences of transgender and transsexual people. Instead, conservative scholars like Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz come up with blanket justifications that serves only to highlight the pettiness that encumber the gender privilege of people like herself.