Absent Loves: Unlearning Heteronormativity in Indonesia

During research about recent histories of transgender femininity (waria)[1] in Indonesia, I found that informants’ narratives frequently focused on relationships with those that they called “normal” men. Each narrative seemed to replicate the near-perfect heteronormative ideal common to egalitarian modern romantic relationships based on love found around the world. Over time, however, I began to worry that focusing on these narratives alone meant that heteronormativity relies on other forms of intimacy being pushed into the shadows. This worry intensified when, six months or so into fieldwork, I had not once observed a “normal” husband-wife relationship such as that which had been so consistently narrated to me. What was I missing? What silences did these absent loves conceal?

In this essay, I critically reflect on my initial focus on stories about absent, heteronormative loves at the expense of other forms of intimacy that were more proximate yet harder to grasp. This indicates an ongoing analytical erasure of relations of dependency and vulnerability in extant models of gender and sexuality, which serves to devalue and in some cases render completely invisible other forms of intimacy. Focusing on silences and deferrals helps develop a better understanding of relationships of care and dependency between waria and the young men that they call brondong. A brondong is an Indonesian term that refers to a desirable youthful masculinity, ranging from late teens to mid-twenties.

As is the case in many parts of the world, waria confound any translation into Western theories of gender and sexual variance. Perhaps most striking is the important relationship between waria and class: their flamboyant femininity is usually associated with sexualized entertainment enjoyed by raucous crowds. While the regional ethnographic record is replete with the ways that gender is varying and at times even directly contradictory, I learned a great deal about Indonesian masculinity and femininity from the hundreds of hours of soap operas I watched with my informants. Each afternoon we escaped the heat of the day by tuning into the stubborn repetition of the ideal Indonesian family: the husband (ostensibly strong but actually weak), good wife (whose commitment to family makes her somewhat strong but who ultimately succumbs to some tragic fate) and their clueless children. But there was thankfully a third character; the temptress who comes late to the party but whose wild passion for money bewitches the husband and disrupts family life, disappearing from the mess she created in a sports car with a cackle and swoosh of long black hair.

One waria, who I will call Lia, illustrates attempts to grapple with the silences that heteronormativity requires. Eliciting hoots of laughter from those sitting around her, Lia recounted waria’s common understanding of themselves as subject to ultimately futile and tragic quests for love with men. She recounted three distinct experiences, each of which she meticulously built up only to reveal it more ridiculous than the last.  Yet all the while, and in close proximity to us was her brondong. Lia did not mention him at all in her entertaining performance of the tragedy of heteronormativity. Yet, I watched her engage in practices of care for him each day; she would cook his breakfast, wash his clothes, even swaddle him up in a towel after a bath. In return he provided her accompaniment and humor. As a result, I started to take an interest in these young men, a kind of liminal masculinity betwixt and between stages in the life course. Most poignantly perhaps, waria are unanimous in their desire that their brondong should marry heterosexually (although this rarely proceeds precisely to plan) even as this marks the end of their relationship. I have found that waria find the considerable labor involved in these relationships — which I describe as a form of mothering — satisfying because it promises to harness their own lives to development and reproductive time. In this case, love is as much about responsibility as it is about choice.

These few examples illustrate the many problems with a project premised on the prerequisite that masculinity and femininity can be plotted onto a heteronormative grid. The symbols associated with gender and the bodies that they reside within here take on a bewildering array of meanings; only possible at the point of activation of certain relations and the deactivation of others. I have found that perspectives on intimacy are often compromised by persistent and problematic anthropological histories which structure the relationship between gender/sexuality and kinship along a heteronormative frame predicated on masculinity and femininity as opposite but complementary wholes.

My early inability to even see waria intimacy with brondong thus stems from a fundamental empirical silence. Waria do not articulate their relationships with brondong in words, because there are no forms of language which describe their intimacy adequately. I have also found that this silence offers important lessons for theoretical understandings of gender and sexuality, namely the need to contend with diverse manifestations of care and vulnerability. Central to this is ethnographic attention to the diverse practices that constitutes the everyday of intimacy. My own data reveals age and the need for care as defining features of directionality and practices of desire, rather than any assumed universality of heteronormativity. In contending with the silences in narratives of absent loves by my waria informants, I discovered other patterns of life-sustaining care and dependency.

[1] An imprecise but workable translation for the national category waria. I conducted approximately fifteen months of fieldwork between 2014 and 2015 in a number of cities in Indonesia (mostly the cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta) for my PhD dissertation at the Australian National University.

Benjamin Hegarty
Research Fellow in Gender and Sexuality Studies
Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Image:

From a 1971 Indonesian government manual. The caption reads: Fungsi wanita dan pria dalam keluarga / perbedaan sifat wanita dan pria // Sama hak / sama derajat (The function of men and women in a family / the different quality of men and women // equal right / equal level).