Letter From An Indonesian Gay to the Minister of Education and Culture, Mr. Anies Baswedan

Let me begin this letter with the story of Narcissus from the Greek mythology. As the son of a God and a nymph, he was known for his youth and beauty, and had many admirers. However, his arrogance led his enemy to curse and lead him to a river, where he saw his own reflection on the water. Having misrecognized it as a real object, he instantly fell in love with his own image. Obsessed with the image and unable to control his own feelings, he then stared at his reflection until death.


Since I was a kid, I have been told that heterosexuality is the only right and normal form of sexuality. The current assumption of biology creates two mutually-exclusive biological sexes: female and male. Gender, as a social-construction, is hence performed on the basis of biological sex. A person born with penis must embrace masculinity, while the one with vagina must be feminine. If I did not follow this norm, then it means I am abnormal.

Like Narcisuss who misrecognized his own reflection, I am seeing heterosexuality as the only truth. When I began to fall in love and sexually attracted to men, I started to hate myself more than ever. Unable to tell my friends and parents, my life revolved around fears.

At school I was treated and bullied as if I were an object, just because I 'violated' the existing masculine norms. My friends were mostly girls and I was not able to play football with boys. They call me sissy [Banci]. One day not only two of my classmates peed on my legs, but they also stuck bubble-gums on my hair. When my grandma asked me who did it, I was afraid to tell. I lost my own words, while I began to blame myself since I did not conform what my peers expected of me.

What happened to me is unfortunately nothing new. At the end of last year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a report on school bullying, violence, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are still many children experiencing all forms violence--either verbally, physically, and even sexually--occuring in the education settings, which are supposed to be safe havens for students. Students who are different tend to have experience some forms of bullying or violence, including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) students or who are perceived as LGBT, just because of his/her non-conforming gender expressions.

Since a very young age, we were here taught that sex and gender are two similar things--male (masculinity) vis-a-vis female (femininity). These opposite categories are not without power relations. Masculinity, hence men, are viewed as more superior than femininity which is always associated with women and their domestication. This dichotomy is the basis of discrimination against women and persons with different gender identity and expressions. Effeminate men become the targets of bullying, because it is shameful for men to act like a woman.

Based on her ethnography research, scholar C.J. Pascoe also finds that male students assert their masculinity by showing a sexual dominance over girls' bodies. None in school taught about the social-construction of gender to educate male students to be more loving and caring men who respect women and the diversity of human nature. Our school books still tend to reproduce the traditional gender norms which perpetuate the domestication of women.

As written in the report, the impacts of school-related gender based violence on students include lower academic performance, absenteeism, higher drop-out rates, low-self esteem and poor self-acceptance, which in more severe cases, lead to the attempts of suicide. I was deeply disappointed when I heard your statement that LGBT persons are social deviants (. From the perspective of science, this statement is, indeed, a poor judgement. Yet if you are a bit aware of violence and discrimination experienced by the minorities, it often occurs due to this poor judgment and ill-informed prejudice. Before this statement, I always saw you as an open-minded person who respects diversity and social inclusion.

I do not have to tell you in detail that in history diverse sexual practices and non-conforming gender expressions were known to be practiced in Indonesian and Eastern culture. In Makassar, Sulawesi Selatan, transgender shamans called 'bissu' held special spiritual roles, while in Hindu culture, there is Ardhanarishvara which literally means "The Lord whose half is a woman", which was created by the union of 'Shiva' (male) and 'Shakti' (female). Many books on gender pluralism and critical sexuality studies discuss about how diverse our sexualities were.

According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the pathologization of non-heterosexuality only began in the late of nineteenth century. Medicine, science, and psychiatry have established norms to control and pathologize sexualities which are against it. Interestingly, heterosexuality was considered as the normal and natural, because it leads to procreation. It was believed that a country had to be populated if it wanted to be powerful and rich. This understanding then has given a justification for State to control and regulate the use of its citizens' sexuality, through various discourses, including knowledge. Hence, critical social analysis always sees that knowledge are the product of power. It cannot be separated from politics.

Yet our education nowadays is still far from training our students to be critical individuals and developing compassions toward others and diversity. Here the Narcissus story becomes relevant. Unable to think critically, like Narcissus who believed that the reflection is a real object, many of us and our students easily believe that the dominant discourse is the 'truth'. They do not really examine it thoroughly to see how politics and ideology also imbue and shape discourses and norms, particularly sexuality discourses.

As a result no wonder if many public officials are corrupt and does not even stand up against discrimination, but rather perpetuates stigma through their public statements. They really become like Narcissus: fall in love with their own image, crave for political power, and forget about the value of being human, leaders, and role models for our society. ***