Our friend Joko from Java tells us what gay life in Indonesia is like and the practical realities of the Indonesian LGBTQ community.
“OMG you two: careful you don’t get caned for being gay!”
A rather extreme reaction by some of our friends when we told them we're going to Indonesia, but one we understand.
On the one hand, when it comes to LGBTQ rights in Indonesia, there are none. The government heavily panders to religious extremists and in the ultra-conservative province of Aceh, homosexuality is punishable with up to 100 public lashes with a rattan cane, which also applies to foreigners! Let's not forget the awful new law introduced in December 2022 that bans unmarried couples from sleeping together.
Yet, on the other hand, this is (officially!) a secular country with no anti-gay laws in place (outside of places like Aceh), it has the right to change legal gender (with judicial approval) and don't forget, this is the home to one of the LGBTQ hotspots in Asia: Bali!
That's right, this small island in Southeast Indonesia is not only a pink haven in this very conservative country but also a popular gay holiday destination in Asia. When we visited Bali, we met local boy Joko who now lives and works in Bali.
Originally from Java Island, Joko moved to Bali for a better life. In this interview about gay life in Indonesia, he tells us more about what it was like for him growing up and the gay scene of Bali. However, Joko has requested that he is kept anonymous for security, much like our article with Kaluu about gay Sri Lanka.
Hi Joko, please introduce yourself:
Hi boys, my name is Joko, 38 years old. I was born and raised in the capital, Jakarta on Java Island. In 2013, I made the decision of moving to Bali for work and I have been here ever since. I love it here – life is a lot “freer”!
I work in marketing and communications in the hotel industry here in Bali, which also gives me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and travel around a lot. I love meeting new people and always proud to show off my country to LGBTQ travelers, especially the gay scene of Bali.
I am also openly(ish!) gay as well as being a proud Muslim. However, I've asked that you keep this interview anonymous because there is a lot of stigma about homosexuality across Indonesian society that could compromise my job and career.
Why did you ask us to make your identity anonymous in this interview?
I was initially ok with it when you initially published this article back in 2016. However, in 2020, we saw a huge spike in the crackdown on the LGBTQ community of Bali, particularly businesses that advertise that they are “gay” or “gay friendly”. As a result, I feared for my safety, particularly for my career (given that I work in the hotel industry) so felt more comfortable being anonymous on your blog.
Don't get me wrong, I am openly gay, both with close friends and colleagues at work who I trust, however, I feel safer to err on the side of caution and not go around advertising my sexuality. Being out at work in Indonesia can literally put a black mark against your name and negatively affect your career and employment opportunities, particularly government jobs. This is why many of us avoid it and just make up a whole story based around a fake wife.
Are you out to your family?
Not completely. I am not out to my family and I'm only out to a handful of my close friends who I trust. The problem is that Indonesian society is so conservative and super religious. Homosexuality is perceived as a sin and a huge taboo – like an illness. For example, if you're gay, then you must have something very wrong with you, so everyone will ostracise you – your friends, your family and of course employers!
Also, in theory, you technically cannot be a Muslim, and gay, at the same time. Obviously, you can, but most people hold on to this very archaic belief. This is why I am so guarded about who I come out to amongst my friends, and why I cannot tell anyone in my family.
What’s it like being Muslim and gay?
I'm not going to lie, it's hard! But please know this, I am just as proud of being gay as I am of being Muslim. At the end of the day, faith and religion is personal to everyone. Of course I appreciate that Islam doesn't have the best view towards homosexuality at all, which makes it so hard being both gay and Muslim!
For me, religion is about peace, doing good to others and acceptance of self. This is something between me and the greater one. Whether I’m going to heaven or hell, let it be a secret between me and Him. My faith is personal and I am proud of it. Also, whilst it's hard for us to speak positively about Islam (you can be sure I bitch about it all the time!) at the end of the day, this was the “culture” I was brought up with. For example, there are many non-practising Christians who still celebrate Christmas and Easter, just as there are many Muslims who may not be religious, but we still fast during Ramadam and celebrate Eid as this is part of our culture.
Did you ever experience any homophobia growing up?
Growing up gay in Indonesia is challenging. For me, I knew I was fabulous from a very early age. I was lucky to have a transgender neighbour growing on the same street who lived with his partner. This helped me understand what a gay person is and was my first insight into the LGBTQ community. But at the time I was too young to be able to define myself. I didn't identify with my neighbour for example because I wasn't interested in wearing women’s clothes everywhere.
I spent my childhood playing with mostly female friends and got bullied all the time for being effeminate. But nothing major when I was older. Indonesian society is so conservative anyway that any form of PDA, regardless of your preference, is heavily frowned on. As long as you’re discreet, you shouldn’t have any problems.
I try to educate people around me not to treat me differently because I'm gay. The best thing you can do is to be yourself and show you are no different to anyone else.
Are there any support groups for the gay community in Indonesia?
There sure are! I know what the press says about how our government goes all out to persecute our LGBTQ community. However, you should also know that the gay and lesbian movement in Indonesia is one of the oldest and largest in Southeast Asia. We are super active and always fighting for visibility and for basic human rights.
I am so proud that we now have over 30 active LGBTQ groups fighting our cause. It all began in the 1960s by transgender women seeking a voice. Then in 1982, the awesome Dede Oetomo mobilised the gay and lesbian community of Indonesia to form “Lambda Indonesia”, now called “GAYa NUSANTARA”. Another prominent one is “Arus Pelangi“.
In Bali, we have initiatives like the Bali Medika clinic, offering free AID tests to gay men.
Where are the best gay bars and hangouts in Indonesia?
Bali is famous for being one of the most open-minded places in Indonesia. This is because it has a strong Hindu heritage – a religion which is far more tolerant of LGBTQ minorities than Islam. In addition, as Bali is one of the most visited places in the whole country, it has a large tourist industry with people from all over the world living and working. This is why I chose to move to Bali. Seminyak is the heart of the Bali gay scene, with bars like Bali Joe and Mixwell hosting drag shows and really fun parties almost every night of the week! We even have hotels here that cater to gay men or are open about being gay friendly like the W, PinkCoco and the M.A.N Resort. Obviously I recommend people to your detailed gay guide to Bali for more!
There are a handful of gay bars in Jakarta, the capital city. But these close down and change frequently due to police harassment. If you're heading to other parts of Indonesia, I strongly advise using Grindr to connect with locals to find out what and where the latest hangouts are. There is often a few underground gay events taking place that are only publicised by word of mouth. At the moment, Apollo Bar in the Bellagio Mall in Mega Kuningan, is the main gay club in Jakarta to check out.
Are there any popular gay events in Indonesia?
There have been several in the past from Bali Pride and a few events every 17th May to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. However, they are commonly suppressed and/or cancelled, especially in recent years. In addition, we used to have the largest LGBT film festival in Asia called Q Film Festival, which started in 2002 as an annual 9-day festival in Jakarta, but it ended in 2017.
The problem is, we have the Law Against Ponography and Ponoaction (2006), which prohibits:
“writing or audio-visual presentation – including songs, poetry, films, paintings, and photographs that show or suggest intercourse between persons of the same gender”
The government frequently uses this law to crack down on the LGBTQ community of Indonesia and suppress Pride events and other parties. In addition, if these do take place, there is little police protection available to protect us from the anti-LGBTQ gangs who often make trouble at such events. As such most LGBTQ events in Indonesia are now, sadly, cancelled. As a result, they go underground and are advertised in a clandestine manner, such as with last-minute text messages, word of mouth or via Grindr.
It's such a shame because after 1998, Indonesia got rid of the really oppressive military rule of Suharto and entered a new progressive era called the “Reformasi”. LGBTQ events started to thrive from this moment on, particularly queer Indonesian cinema. So whilst this has all be heavily suppressed recently, I am hopeful of change: now that we've had a taste of it, we know what to aspire to again!
How did you meet other guys growing up?
Growing up in the days before the gay dating apps, meeting other guys was a lot different. I didn't come out until the late 1990s which was the time when Indonesia started opening up after decades of strict military rule under Suharto. Therefore, we started seeing more and more queer safe spaces opening up, especially in Jakarta, which is where I would go to meet other guys. However, I always had to go with a fake girlfriend (who knew about me of course) in order to prevent any suspicion arising with my parents.
Also, back in those days, we had Gaydar to meet and chat with guys online. I used to be addicted to Gaydar when I first came out and would spend hours online chatting with other guys. This was quite an important part of my gay education – you can imagine we had none of this in school growing up! I made a lot of gay friends through Gaydar who I'm still in contact with today!
A lot of my friends would also go to well-known cruising grounds in certain public parks in the evening when it was dark. However, I was always too scared to try this out in case I got caught!
What’s the situation like for gay men in Indonesia today?
We are getting more confident about ourselves, but most still remain in the closet, particularly for family and career reasons. I have some friends who are gay but due to social pressure, they have married (a woman) and had children. This is why I chose to come and live/work in Bali. I am more free and open here, away from family pressure and the constant interrogation of: “Joko, when are you finally going to get married?!”
Over the past few years, our government has cracked down more and more on the LGBTQ community, making it harder for us. One of the biggest victims is guys living with AIDS. My close friend is the director of “Bali Peduli“, an organization devoted to preventing the spread of AIDS which I love to support in my spare time. We have noticed that it is now harder than ever to provide ARV to guys living with AIDS due to lack of supplies, so we are constantly lobbying the government for this.
Over 2022 we have seen even more crackdowns across our LGBTQ community, in particular the new law introduced in December 2022, which bans unmarried couples from sleeping together. If caught you face a jail sentence of up to 1 year! This applies directly to our LGBTQ community because gay marriage is not recognized in Indonesia and therefore opens up gay people to blackmail. Although this law won't be enforced until December 2025, it's a terrible blow to our LGBTQ community here in Indonesia.
What's the best way for LGBTQ travelers to meet gay Indonesian guys?
The best way is via social media, specifically gay dating apps. The most popular ones in Indonesia are Grindr and Blued. If you're into more hairy “bear” type guys then I recommend using Scruff. Other popular ones we like to use out here include Hornet, JackD, and Planet Romeo. Recently Tinder has become more popular with gay guys here as well.
However, I strongly advise you to use a VPN to access gay dating apps – our internet is monitored and Grindr is blocked in Indonesia so you won't be able to access it without one.
And of course, I recommend going to the gay/gay-friendly bars and clubs where they exist. In big cities like Jakarta, and in Bali, this is one of the best ways to meet with Indonesian local guys. We are very friendly and love showing off our country to foreigners.
Do you think progressive change is likely to happen for the LGBTQ community?
Of course, we are positive, especially with individuals like Dede Oetomo and organizations like GAYa NUSANTARA leading the way. But it will take time. Society needs to wake up and accept its LGBTQ community. And we're not small! To give you an idea, Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world by population – a total of around 275 million people. That's quite a sizeable LGBTQ community that you simply cannot ignore!
Whilst the government has used archaic laws to suppress us, we have seen a huge increase in visibility in the media with more and more LGBTQ issues being discussed. I believe this is key to change as it slowly encourages people to acknowledge us as normal people and not as a freak show.
There are a handful of serious and popular newspapers covering LGBTQ issues in an objective and sensible manner, showing us as equal and normal members of society. The 4 papers that come to mind include The Jakarta Post, The Jakarta Globe, Kompas, and Tempo.
Unfortunately, on the other hand, you have a few media outlets that make us seem like we're bad people and have “chosen” this way of life. These media outlets are usually connected to some Islamic groups and include Sabili and Arrahmah:
Can you tell us more about the special language spoken by Indonesian gay guys?
We do indeed have our own gay dialect of the Indonesian language (Bahasa) called Bahasa Gay, or Bahasa Binan.
It all started by a transgender lady working in a small salon, who created a secret language to enable us to talk and gossip without anyone understanding what we're talking about. It has since spread as a common language in the Indonesian LGBTQ community. If you ever go to a drag show in Indonesia, you'll see the queens dropping a few Bahasa Binan words during their performance.
Now off you go you two cheeky cucoks and enjoy plenty of meong!
For more inspiration:
- Read about our experience diving in the Komodo National Park of Indonesia
- Check out our gay guide to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia
- Read another local interview to find out what gay life is like in Malaysia
- And don't miss finding out these interesting facts about Malaysia
- Find out about the time we were interviewed on Malaysian National Radio!
- As well as our favorite scuba diving locations throughout Asia
- These are the most gay friendly countries to visit in Asia
- You can read about our experiences traveling through Asia as a gay couple
- For those who like a bit of luxury, these are the best gay cruises heading to Asia
Happy travels are safe travels