Gay life in Indonesia: interview with Joko from Java island

Stefan Arestis

“OMG careful you don’t get caned for being gay over there you two!”

Public caning Sharia anti gay laws in Aceh province Indonesia

We did of course point out to our concerned friends and family back home that Sharia Law is only in place in one small part of Indonesia in the Northern Aceh province.

If the rainbow flag gets out of control in Aceh, you risk being convicted by the Sharia police to 10-150 lashes in public for being gay.

And yes, this now applies to foreigners too!

Although Indonesia is officially a secular country, society is extremely conservative. Whilst homosexuality was legalised in 1993, sadly it looks like these anti-gay laws will be reinstated, just like they were in India in 2014. In addition, as with most countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has no laws to support the rights of its LGBT community and society remains largely conservative. To make matters worse, the Law Against Pornography and Pornocation was passed in 2006, banning anything that publicly depicts sexual relations between persons of the same sex.

Any good news?

Well there's Bali island: not only the gay oasis of this very conservative country, but also a popular gay destination in the world. And, as the world's 4th most populous country with over 250 million, statistically, Indonesia has one of the largest LGBT communities on the planet.

During our travels in Bali, we met local boy Joko who agreed to tell us about his life growing up as gay in Indonesia. Joko's only condition is he is kept anonymous, much like our article with Kaluu about gay Sri Lanka.

Apa kabar Joko! Introduce yourself:

Hi boys, my name is Joko, 33 years old and I was born and raised on Java Island. For the last 3 years, I have been living and working in Bali. I am also gay and a proud Muslim.

Are you out to your friends, family and work colleagues?

Not really. My family do not know and very few of my friends do. In our Muslim community it’s not something you can easily admit to anyone. Homosexuality is perceived as a sin, so you technically cannot be a Muslim and gay at the same time.

At work I am out to a few people in my department, but I’m careful about who I tell. Being out in the work place can negatively affect your career and employment opportunities, particularly government jobs. This is why many of us avoid it.

And of course why I wanted to be anonymous on your blog (Joko is a common name for Indonesian men).

Joko LGBT Muslim Indonesian interview about being gay in Indonesia
“Where's our Joko gone? Hope we haven't scared him back inside the closet!”

What’s it like being Muslim, and gay in Indonesia?

I am proud of being gay and also a Muslim.  

At the end of the day, faith and religion is personal to everyone. Of course I appreciate that gay and Muslim do not blend well together.  

But 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.

Gay in Indonesia Seb heaven or hell conundrum
Would cheeky boy Sebastien go to heaven or hell?

What’s it like growing up as gay in Indonesia? Have you ever faced any homophobia?

It was challenging. I knew I was gay from an early age. I was lucky to have a transgender neighbour growing up who lived with his partner. This helped me understand what a gay person is. But I couldn’t define myself like him because I don’t wear women’s clothes all the time everywhere.

I spent my childhood playing with mostly female friends and got bullied all the time for being a sissy/queer etc. But nothing major when I was older. Indonesian society is so sexually conservative anyway, that any form of open sexuality, regardless of your preference gets 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 of my sexuality. The best thing you can do is to be yourself and show you are no different to anyone else.

Gay in Indonesia Bali bar drag show
Joko doesn't always enjoy dressing up as much as some of his other friends do

Are there any support groups for the gay community in Indonesia?

The gay and lesbian movement in Indonesia is one of the oldest and largest in Southeast Asia. We now have over 30 LGBT groups.

It began in the 1960s by transgender women seeking a voice and in 1982, Dede Oetomo mobilised the gay and lesbian community to form “Lambda Indonesia”, now called “GAYa NUSANTARA”.

In Bali, we have initiatives like the Bali Medika clinic, offering free HIV tests to gay men.

Dede Oetomo gay in Indonesia LGBT rights activist
Ded Oetomo leading the way for the LGBT community in Indonesia

Where are the best gay bars and hangouts in Indonesia?

Bali is your best bet for the best fun, largely because of its strong Hindu heritage and also because it has so much international influence from the tourism market. You should check out this awesome article by (ahem!) a few friends of mine about the gay bars of Seminyak, like Bali Joe and Mixwell.

There are also gay bars in Jakarta, the capital city. But these close down and change frequently. It’s best to meet locals via apps like Grindr to find out where the latest hang outs are. At the moment, Apollo Bar in the Bellagio Mall in Mega Kuningan is my favourite.

Bali Joe drag queen gay in Indonesia Muslim interview in Seminyak
Making new friends at the Bali gay bars of Seminyak

Are there any popular gay events in Indonesia?

In theory there are several, such as Bali Pride and a few events every 17th May to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Transophobia and Biphobia.

We used to have the largest LGBT film festival in Asia called Q Film Festival, which started in 2002 as an annual 9 days festival in Jakarta, but it ended in 2017.

Due to violent threats, the anti-pornographic laws and lack of police protection, most LGBT events in Indonesia are cancelled last minute. As a result they go underground and are advertised in a clandestine manner like last minute text messages and word of mouth via Grindr.

Gay in Indonesia Q Film Festival Jakarta
An online for the 2015 Q Film Festival

How do gay Indonesian men meet each other outside of Bali?

We use mainly social networking apps like Grindr, Scruff, JackD and Planet Romeo and if in one of the big cities there is usually a small gay scene with a few bars like in Jakarta. 

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.

Gay in Indonesia Stefan in the closet
Stefan discovering life in an Indonesian closet in Nusa Dua, Bali

Do you think progressive change is likely to happen for the LGBT community?

Of course we are positive, especially with individuals like Dede Oetomo and organisations like GAYa NUSANTARA leading the way. But it will take time. Society needs to wake up to and accept its LGBT community. The anti-pornography laws haven't helped at all, but despite this, the media still gives us coverage.

There are a handful of serious and popular newspapers covering LGBT 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 plenty of media outlets who make us seem like we're perverts and have chosen this way of life. These tend to be connected to hardline, conservative or fundamentalist Islam, such as Sabili and Arrahmah.

Gay Muslim in Indonesia Islamic media Arrahmah
Screen shot from online homophobic Arrahmah publication warning of an “outbreak” of the LGBT!

Finally, we heard about a special language spoken by Indonesian gay boys?

We have our own gay dialect of the Indonesian language (Bahasa) called Bahasa Gay, or Bahasa Binan. 

It all started by a transgender working in a small salon, who created a secret language to enable us to talk and gossip without anyone understanding what we are talking about.

It has since spread as a common language in the Indonesian LGBT community.

Now off you go you two cheeky brondongs and enjoy plenty of goreng!

Gay in Indonesia Bahasa slang brondongs Rinca Island Komodo
Two brondongs enjoying the scenery over the Komodo National Park and pondering when is a good time for some goreng

Happy travels are safe travels

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Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author the gay travel blog As a travel nerd, he has explored more than 80 countries across 5 continents. What he loves the most about travelling is discovering the local gay scene, making new friends and learning new cultures. His advice about LGBTQ travel has been featured in Gay Times, Gaycities, Pink News, Gay Star News, Attitude and Towleroad. He has also written about gay travel for other non-gay specific publications including Lonely Planet, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Stefan is also a qualified lawyer, having practised as a commercial property litigator in London for over 10 years. He left his lawyer days behind to work full time on Nomadic Boys with his husband Sebastien. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

70 thoughts on “Gay life in Indonesia: interview with Joko from Java island”

  1. Thanks for this story. I am a mother of a gay teenage boy who is interested in going and spending time in Indonesia after he finishes high school (he wants to volunteer for an Indonesian animal rescue charity). i am a bit concerned about what to advise him. ie, Will he be safe? Will he have to hide his sexuality (he has been out to school and family since age 13)? Should he wait until he is older and better equipped to look after himself? I appreciate there are no guarantees in life but don’t want him to go and have a bad (or dangerous) experience.

    • Hi Catherine. To be honest 13 years old is young generally in our opinion. Neither of us did any travelling without parents outside of Europe until at least 18 years old – and that was with friends, so maybe we’re not the best to ask from that perspective. As far as Indonesia goes, as foreigners, we were treated so well by everyone. Having said that, we don’t go waving rainbow flags in people’s faces and don’t wear our sexuality as an identity when meeting people. Asians generally are more conservative with public displays of affection whether straight or gay. So respecting basic cultural norms like this, anyone would be fine.

  2. Ohh hi stefan
    Am shock to know some facts about indonesian gay community
    I think everyone on the tv show become gay lately, but it’s already like that years ago.
    It’s really difficult to act like nothing is wrong with this community. But i don’t know, I respect you, your …..
    Anyway its interesting

  3. Btw great story man. I always feel that some international outlet media is making to sensationalize story especially regarding Aceh. The situation in there is not good but it doesnt mean the whole country is like that. Aceh only got autonomy to implement shariah law stop civil war after all. The law on national level is secular and i always thank you our founding father that they build the country on secular foundation despite the country majority religion. As bi myself, i sometime find this society is pretty conservative but probably not as bad as some people think (At least i thank myself that i not born on Iran or Malaysia, lol), especially on big city. More young people is becoming more acceptance on us and raising rainbow flag on demonstration like in Jakarta is not much problem anymore. A lot of non LGBT group, mostly leftist and student group also becoming more supportive despite most member probably muslim. I know some member of LGBT community also follow some of small demonstration on various national matter while carrying their flag. As for myself, I not yet coming out to my parent (only planning to my mother later on in life) but i coming out to some of my friend. Some of my friend is liberal and non muslim so it not much of shock that they pretty open minded. But two of my best friend from back on high school is muslim and pretty devout one by western standard and i coming out to them. They also dont have problem as they believe is my life choice, just like their life choice on being muslim. Of course i disagree on that matter, but i can cast some difference on it as long they also do the same and they did. They never complain or rarely brought the fact i like men, most of our time spend hanging out is mostly talk about other think and they treat not any different from before. Sometime is kinda sadden me when people including on LGBT community on western country try to generalize all muslim as homophobic and vile. Reading comment like on article pink tide that you link in always remind me of my friend from high school and how despite their religion and my sexuality, we can still being on good term with each other, and in fact i can call them as some of my closest friend i ever had on my life until know. Despite how larger group think on some matter, they always some good people that think differently despite their religion or race or sexuality. Living here and interact with people that inherently different with me has made myself realizing this.

  4. Nice writing. But gay is not only at Bali. You can find lots of gay people at Java Island like Surabaya, Sidoarjo and Mojokerto.

  5. Now, in September 2016 things look very unpromising for Indonesian gays. Some political parties want to ban all gay apps and even ban gay organisations. Not enough, Muslim fanatics believe gay people can be cured from their “mental disorder”. just frightening.

  6. Hi
    There was a gay language in England also at one time called Polari ( look it up).

    I have a boyfriend in Jakarta and things seem OK in most parts of Java and Bali.
    But it’s rarely easy growing up gay anywhere in the world.

  7. Hi Brondong 😉
    I absolutely agree whith what Joko said…
    I was born in Indonesian, was an Indonesian, a gay and a muslim.
    When i came out to my family, that was the most horrible time in my life, and also for my family – my family are strong beliefers…
    Life goes on, and they accept me as a gay few months later (believe me, this months in between was scary)…. at the end i have to move to other city not because of being gay but because of our social life with neighbour, mosque, social community etc…. but i knew they love me, and i love them too. I didn’t move to other city in Indonesia but to Germany….
    Last month my partner and i visited my family in Java, and that was fine.. everybody was happy… and they are waiting for our next visit, and they want us to bring my mother in law for the next visit…
    You see? how wellcome Indonesian family are….

  8. It looks like a pretty liberal country. I always had in mind something else haha 🙂 You guys are simply amazing! xoxo

  9. I love that “Joko” shared his story with you (and by doing so, shared with us). He seems to have a great attitude. And seriously, how cool is it to have a secret language?! 🙂

  10. Such an interesting interview–thanks for sharing Joko’s story! It’s sad that people have to live in secrecy, but glad the amount of LGBT groups are expanding. Hopefully everything will keep moving in the right direction. I had no idea about the secret language–how interesting!

  11. You guys are amazing, thank you for sharing. Coming from the USA it can be easy to forget about the rules and customs other countries have. That is one of the reasons traveling is so important, it opens your eyes. I agree with Meg, “we have to lead by example in Western countries where our free speech is protected and hopefully there will be a flow on effect”.

  12. Really insightful interview, thankyou for sharing guys. It’s so amazing to me that a country can have laws against the cirminalization of homosexuality, though that the social reality of life is completely different, and that there are no accompanying laws to protect the community. There just seem to be so many contradictions in having one of the largest LGBT communities in the world but not actually accepting or supporting them.

    I have high hopes though that with the continue globalization of the world, homosexuality will become something which is accepted in these countries which attach a negative social stigma. We have to lead by example in Western countries where our free speech is protected and hopefully there will be a flow on effect.

  13. I’m sad to read that interviews like these still have to anonymous … great that you are paying attention to this, it’s a little step towards the right direction!

  14. I really like the interviews you do! It’s really impressive what all the people have to tell and it’s great you give them a platform to do so.

  15. Wow a special language? that is quite interesting. It is a shame that Indonesia is so conservative and people have to hide. marrying a woman and having children to hide? what a shame

  16. Thanks for sharing this interview with Joko. It’s interesting to read how challenging it was to grow up gay in a country that does not support it. What is funny is that they even have their own language. Why not, this is great!!

  17. Such an interesting story, I enjoy these interviews you two do. Getting a chance to really know what a community is like, a little bit about their laws and such. Glad to learn a little more as I head to Bali later this year. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. Must be hard being gay in a predominantly Muslim country. But good for Joko and Indonesia’s LGBT that somehow their voices could still be heard.

    And ’twas good knowing they have gay language, too! We have the same here in the Philippines, and even non-gays use their words. So much fun!

  19. Love this interview with ‘Joko’ – an honest look into what it is like being gay in Indonesia. When I moved to Korea my eyes were really opened to how different cultures perceive being gay. I have had multiple people here tell me that there are no gay people in Korea! Yes that’s right an entire country and no gay people, can you believe it?! So to see that there is progress in Indonesia, albeit slow, it is something!

  20. While I don’t agree with the LGBT community not having rights, etc. I am still a big believer that when I go somewhere new that I am in THEIR country and have to respect their culture (and that is part of traveling- encountering vastly different cultures than what we are used to). I think that that is what makes travel so great- even when don’t agree with the local philosophy, it can open your eyes to other things (just how fortunate you are in your country for example). Hopefully they just keep gaining the confidence they need and one day it will be accepted everywhere.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • As an inveterate traveler I totally agree with LeAnna. My partner and I have traveled the world, including countries that are not gay friendly. Oddly enough the warmest welcomes we have encountered were in Arab countries/India, etc.. Travel is indeed enlightening, but also carries with it the responsibility of respecting the laws of the country you are visiting.

  21. Thanks for sharing ‘Joko’s’ experience, which i’m sure is synonymous with the experience of other Indonesian men. It’s nice to hear there is a basic support network – but there is so much room for improvement. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the time of universal acceptance and hope that it happens in my lifetime – with no lashes for anyone. ever.

  22. It makes me realise how far we have come in acceptance and rights in many western countries although we still have a long way to go. I hope one day life choices won’t be a consideration when deciding whether or not it’s safe to travel.

  23. I am glad you were able to find Joko and that he was comfortable enough to tell you his story. I wish that people could see past anything other how a person treats you and the love they can give you. Thanks so much for the post.

  24. Thank you for sharing that, guys!!
    It makes me think much… in Italy we’re still (just in these days) quarrelling about child adoption for gay cuples and civili unions (for all) and for sure those who are against this are catholics. Well, no canes here, but I can see analogies in LGBT acceptance. By the way, you know what? I alway wander how can a person segregated by religions, still define him/herself ‘religious’. I mean… As a woman I think that after all catholicism made to woman, how can a woman accept the Catholic (or Muslim) doctrine? Well, respect, full respect, but I can’t understand.

      • Brondong means twinkies, generally speaking they are boys under 20. So it is not generic word for “gay guys”, it is term for gay youngster. But you Stefan, you look young, you will always look like that, so wont be surprised if Indonesian men will categorize you as “Brondong” 😉

        Hi Stefan, if happen to Indonesia again, dont forget to explore Yogyakarta “Yogya”. Bali is not the gay friendly place in Indonesia, in Java Island, we have Yogya. You need to try dinner at The House of Raminten, also Oyot Godong (has Cabaret – Indonesian drag show)


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