Image: Firdhan Aria Wijaya: Seeking our voices in heteronormative society …
The Liminal Life of Queer Studies in Indonesia
In August 2020, I was invited to give an online talk about my first academic book. The event was organised by an Indonesian queer grassroots community, Panggung Minoritas (Minority Spotlight). Located in the city of Bandung of the West Java Province, this community group organises monthly discussions, movie screenings, and book clubs for queer communities and their allies. From the Q & A session, I still vividly remember a question from a participant, critically asking me why I published my work in English with an academic publisher if my intention was to introduce queer studies and Indonesian queer politics to a broader local audience. Putting it differently, when there are many Indonesians who don’t speak English as their first language and do not have easy access to queer academic books, isn’t my attempt ironically perpetuating academic elitism?
Such a question stunned me, forcing me to reflect for a few days, and subsequently, to write this short piece. What if queer studies does not only have a class problem, as the U.S. queer theorist Matt Brim has proclaimed in his book Poor Queer Studies (2020), but also a parochialism problem when it comes to its international engagements? Here, I would argue that this insularity of queer studies in academia, which unfortunately is still dominated by U.S. queer scholarships and English-language coloniality, has marginalised many forms of knowledge, including ones that do not produce and publish knowledge in (perfect) English and top tier journals. At the same time, it is also important to understand that local queer scholarships have also suffered their own problems, apart from the above hegemony. From the place where I have been writing, Indonesia, queer studies has also been continually marginalised due to an ever-expanding homophobia. For instance, mainstream publishers are afraid of publishing queer-themed books, and some universities must be ‘careful’ in teaching that subject due to the increased fear of potential controversies. Here, I decide to use the term ‘liminal’ to signal the ways that Indonesian queer studies lives in the interstices between academic imperial-capitalism and local homophobic politics. In other words, I am constantly ‘torn apart’.
Let me begin by providing a little background about my work. My book Intimate Assemblages: The Politics of Queer Identities and Sexualities in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan 2020) is based on my thesis as the requirement to complete a research master’s degree in Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University. In brief, it is about the historical shifts of queer identities and politics in Indonesia, and how contemporary homophobia shapes the subjectivity and politics of queer Indonesians. I wrote this thesis at a time of unprecedented anti-LGBT paranoia back in my home country, shortly after my work with the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) ‘Being LGBTI in Indonesia’ was shut down by the government in mid-2016.
With a full-scholarship in hand, I flew to Sydney to start studying and writing about queer studies in a more structured manner. During the unprecedented crackdown on Indonesian LGBT community in 2015-2016, I wrote a copious amount of articles for both international and national media to counter homophobic public discourses associating ‘LGBT people’ with ‘abnormality, contagious behaviour, immorality, and even mental illness’ (Wijaya 2020a). Throughout this period, media reports on the danger posed by the LGBT community were proliferating, followed with a raid of the alleged gay sauna and the caning of two gay men in Aceh, among others. Those publications, while helping in organising and cultivating my future thesis, did not always address the sense of alienation I constantly felt coming from the discipline that I should have embraced as my road to a better understanding of myself and the community I belong to.
The American Blueprint
Deeply influenced by French post-structuralism, U.S. queer theoretical frameworks have become a hegemonic force, making it inseparable from what Jasbir K. Puar calls, ‘an imperial knowledge production’ (2018, 226). Appearing unmarked as if it is transcendental and hence suitable for multiple geographical and cultural domains, queer studies are often unmarked as ‘American studies’ (ibid.), in which historical, socio-cultural, and political analysis of queer America becomes prescriptive, a blueprint for non-American scholars to follow. Ultimately, academic infrastructures, from the publishing industry, ranking systems, to access to intellectual resources, have also exacerbated the unequal power relations within the discipline itself (Brim 2020). It is indeed easy to predict that non-white scholars whose English is not their first language, along with limited access to American queer theory books, are more likely to struggle to engage in this hierarchical academic game. People do not come from the same level of playing field, and structural inequalities do exist. This is where the irony lies: a field that prides itself on critical inquiry fails to be critical of any power relations unfolding from itself. Especially, when it is now deeply entrenched in academic institutions and thus must deal with its politics.
Intimacy between queer studies and myself, has always been fraught with ‘potential failure to stabilise [the] closeness’ (Berlant 1998, 282). Too many challenges slowly but surely alienated me from what queer studies was talking about. Growing up in a small city, Bandar Lampung, where the English language was a luxury and access to TV cable was almost non-existent that time, I was indeed not familiar with the May 68 protests, the Greek pederasty, Al Pacino starred film Cruising, the Stonewall Riot, the 9/11 racial politics, or the life and works of Jean Genet, among others. With the high price of queer theory books published by university presses and academic publishers, so many times I myself wondered: ‘Who can afford these books in Indonesia? Who can also read and meaningfully engage with these books if English language still becomes the main barrier? How can we connect our histories with these Western historical trajectories?’.
Having witnessed and experienced how all these barriers affect non-white scholars, I have argued in Social Text Online:
To be theoretically engaged and listened to, one must publish. To get published, one must be not only fluent in English but also proficient in queer theory literature, mostly written in English and published by the academic presses or trade publishers with a high price (at least, in relation to Indonesians’ living standards). Without adequate English language skills and understanding of the genealogy of ‘Western’ queer scholarship, it is improbable for local scholars to engage in a meaningful way (Wijaya 2020b).
No wonder, then, during my study (and even, still in my ongoing work) I must have ‘double consciousness’. It helps non-white people to navigate two ‘social worlds’. But, considering the homophobic alienation I feel from my home country, sometimes ‘double consciousness’ does not always work that simply. Often, when I diverted my mind across to Indonesia, the feeling of rejection and exclusion upsurged, becoming inescapable.
Southern ‘Stealth-mode’ & Scant Access
The other world that I live in, that is, my home country, consistently denies the existence of queer people. While it is essential to critique the discourse that quickly places Western countries as ‘more civilised’ for their tolerance toward homosexuality, we cannot erase the fact that homophobia does exist and persist in many countries in the Global South (and also, in the West). Since the unprecedented attack on LGBT people in 2016, it has become more challenging to teach queer-related stuff in universities, as some academics told me about their fear of potential controversies that might erupt if some homophobic raise this activity in the public sphere. However, it does not mean that they stopped teaching in its entirety. Some integrate queer-stuff into their existing courses, for example, in gender, cultural studies, or literary studies, but using stealth mode (Wijaya 2020b). Again, Indonesian queer studies exists in liminal space, between existent and non-existent—an absent presence.
Recently, I received a message from an Indonesian professor, asking me if she could use my writings to show queer theory in an Indonesian/Asian contexts. The fact that there are local academics teaching queer-stuff, however limited it is, does not solve the issue of scant access to Western queer academic texts, and importantly, the meagre amount of local queer texts. Publishing queer stuff in Indonesia is not easy at all. For instance, the publication of my Indonesian book on porn and queer studies, ‘C*Bul: Perbincangan Serius Tentang Seksualitas Kontemporer’ (P*ERV: Conversations on Contemporary Sexualities) was cancelled by the publisher itself because the editor worried the contents would spark controversies. Strangely, this suddenly happened around two weeks prior to the publication date.
Of course, the domino effects continue: a shortage of Indonesian queer scholars in the international academic circuits. It is thus not only the marginalisation of queer issues in the public sphere strongly affecting the life of queer studies in academic and public settings. Instead, central to all these problems is the language barrier and minimal intellectual resources that many Indonesian scholars must grapple with in order to engage with the global academy’s politics. Unfortunately, in practice, the term ‘global’ still preserves the U.S. at its epicentre—in some cases, books published by the U.S. based academic presses are considered more prestigious compared to other books with non-English languages.
Conclusion: Alternative Academies & Access
Back to the question that the participant addressed to me, I am reminded of the central purposes of writing Intimate Assemblages. It is the manifestation of my hope to see more scholarly works on queer studies coming from queer Indonesians themselves, and to demonstrate how queer Indonesians can continue to challenge both the academic-imperialism and the looming homophobia. I completed and published the full manuscript two years after I finished my study and return to Jakarta. Writing a book whilst working full-time for business sustainability was not easy, especially as someone located outside of the academy with limited scholarship infrastructures. I saved some portion of my income to purchase academic books, so that I could continue engaging my work with what was happening in academia. Important to highlight here is that publishing is not merely an intellectual endeavor, but also, equally, a materially implicated landscape.
Whenever I reflect on this experience, I am convinced that despite all the hurdles, it is still possible for queer studies to emerge and live outside of the formal academic settings. And that is what many grassroots queer activists and scholars have been doing in Indonesia: continuously teaching and spreading queer knowledges with whatever resources are available in hand, including even a set of photocopied materials.
Berlant, Lauren (1998). ‘Intimacy: A Special Issue’. Critical Inquiry, 24(2), pp.281-288.
Brim, Matt. (2020). Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University. Durham: Duke University Press.
Puar, Jasbir K. (2017). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Tenth Anniversary Expanded Edition). Durham: Duke University Press.
Wijaya, Hendri Yulius (2020a). Intimate Assemblages: The Politics of Queer Identities and Sexualities in Indonesia. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wijaya, Hendri Yulius (2020b). Pedagogy of the Homeless: Poor Queer Studies in Indonesia, Social Text Online. Accessed 21.9.20. Accessed at: https://socialtextjournal.org/pedagogy-of-the-homeless-poor-queer-studies-in-indonesia/
Hendri Yulius Wijaya is an Indonesian author. His most recent books are Intimate Assemblages: The Politics of Queer Identities and Sexualities in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and C*BUL: Perbincangan Serius tentang Seksualitas Kontemporer (Marjin Kiri, 2019), an Indonesian book on porn studies. Wijaya is currently a book reviewer for DNA Magazine, and also preparing his first poetry collection, Stonewall Tak Mampir di Atlantis (Stonewall does not stop by Atlantis), published by EA Books in October 2020
 For more discussions on the developments of queer studies in Indonesia, see Wijaya (2020b), ‘Pedagogy of the Homeless: Poor Queer Studies in Indonesia’
 After the mainstream publisher cancelled the publication, in 2018, this book was eventually published by an independent publisher, Marjin Kiri. For me personally, this event has shown the politics of the publishing industry in Indonesia. The fact that mainstream publishers are reluctant to publish queer-themed books (particularly, non-fiction) should not obscure how independent publishers seem to be increasingly more willing to publish queer books.