Gay life in Indonesia: interview with Joko from Java island

Stefan Arestis

“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!

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.

Grindr is blocked in Indonesia!

The Indonesian government heavily monitors the internet, frequently blocking gay dating apps such as Grindr and other websites deemed “immoral”. The only way to access them is with a good VPN like this one. We strongly recommend all LGBTQ travellers to Indonesia to get one as it also allows you to browse the web anonymously and securely. 

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 travellers, 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.

Joko gay guy in Bali interview about gay life in Indonesia
Joko: our out and proud Indonesian friend thriving in Bali

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

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.

At work, I am out to a few people in my department who I regard as close friends and I trust. 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.

Gay guys in Indonesia
Joko stays firmly in the closet at work only coming out to close friends he trusts!

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.

Gay Muslims demonstrating at a Pride event
Gay Muslims out and Proud!

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.

Gay boys partying in Gay Bali bars in Seminyak
“Be yourself and show you are no different to anyone else” says our awesome buddy Joko!

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?

Definitely Bali!

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.

Bali Joe gay bar in Bali with sassy drag queens
Stefan with one of the drag queens of Bali Joe

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!

Gay couple in Indonesia at the Komodo National Park
Nothing wrong with a dose of healthy outdoor adventure we say!

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 are guys living with AIDS. My close friend is the director of “Bali Peduli“, an organisation devoted to preventing the spread of AIDS who 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.

The team of Bali Peduli NGO in Bali
The excellent team of Bali Peduli doing an amazing job for the Indonesian LGBTQ community

What's the best way for LGBTQ travellers to meet gay Indonesian guys?

The best way is via social media, specifically the 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 use a VPN to access the 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 the 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.

Partying at the gay Bali bars and clubs
The Bali gay bars one of the best places to meet fabulous locals

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 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 who 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:

Gay Muslim Indonesia Islamic media Arrahmah
Screenshot from online Arrahmah publication warning of an “outbreak” of the LGBT!

Finally, we heard about a 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!

Bahasa Binan gay Indonesian language

Happy travels are safe travels

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Stefan Arestis

Stefan is the co-founder, editor and author of the gay travel blog nomadicboys.com. 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.

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

  1. Great job guys

    This is what the world needs, to stop being special and to become something normal. I love your naturalness and above all the fun pictures.
    Keep going.

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  3. 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

    Reply
  4. 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.

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

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
  8. 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….

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

    Reply
  10. 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?! 🙂

    Reply
  11. 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!

    Reply
  12. 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”.

    Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply
  14. 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!

    Reply
  15. 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.

    Reply
  16. 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

    Reply
  17. 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!!

    Reply
  18. 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.

    Reply
  19. 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!

    Reply
  20. It’s so strange that although homosexuality is legal in Indonesia, there are no laws to support the rights of the LGBT community! Very interesting fact about the special gay language!

    Reply
  21. 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!
    Cheers!
    Katie

    Reply
  22. 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!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  23. 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.

    Reply
  24. 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.

    Reply
  25. 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.

    Reply
  26. 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.

    Reply
      • 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)

        Reply

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