Desiring modernity: Historical perspectives on contemporary queer visibility and national belonging in Indonesia
The past two years have seen the term LGBT shift from an unknown acronym to household term in Indonesia, overwhelmingly framed in pejorative terms. Many commentators have labelled these transformations as both unprecedented and a break with a long tradition of tolerance for gender and sexual diversity grounded in moderate Islam. While sympathetic to these concerns, queer visibility in Indonesia has long been met with a broad range of responses: from outright hostility, to begrudging tolerance, to open celebration. This paper, based on historical and ethnographic research undertake in 2014-2015 in Indonesia, places the events related to the term LGBT in Indonesia over past two years within the history of Indonesian national modernity. Starting from the 1960s, I sketch out a chronology that demonstrates how transgender femininity developed a profile as a form of visibility that was at once popularly enjoyed and officially denigrated. I then present how a historical reading of queer visibility in contemporary Indonesia calls for attention in three areas: 1) the media and mediation; 2) the relationship between private and public; 3) the currents and effects of globalised knowledge. In conclusion, I tease out why historical and/or cross-cultural perspectives continue to offer a vital vantage point for scholars of gender and sexuality studies; a way to resist the temptation of reductionist and universalising notions of rights grounded in identity as a one-way movement towards modernity.
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