Melbourne First, Jakarta Last

12 September 2018

Shamira Natanagara interviews Stephanus Budiman about leaving the homophobic hometown behind

Art by Winnie Jiao


“Save Indonesian Families from the LGBT Movement”, the poster says.

An actual poster for an actual event, arranged by the organisation of Indonesia’s government officials’ wives (Dharma Wanita Union) to commemorate World Autism Awareness Day and Kartini Day, a national holiday to celebrate Indonesian feminist hero Raden Adjeng Kartini. So how is the anti-LGBTQI+ topic relevant?

“I hate Indonesia,” Stephanus Budiman said, while laughing. “Not the country, but the people there. Most of the people there.”

The narrow-mindedness makes him sick. Indonesians are, according to Stephanus, living in a bubble. They know what’s happening in the world but they refuse to comprehend foreign ideas—one of them being homosexuality.

“I have no idea. If I were in Jakarta and didn’t go abroad for my studies, I can’t imagine how different I would be and whether I’d still be in the closet or not.”

Stephanus and I both grew up in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia where homophobia can be easily encountered. The mere sight of two guys hugging each other somehow raises the ire of the city’s middle-aged women. “Have fear in God!”—I imagine them yelling. Acting as though they’re entitled to shaming others; people they don’t even know. And this isn’t fiction. A woman in South Jakarta recently called out two guys for hugging, who turned out to be siblings.

It also doesn’t help when the authorities view homosexuality as a crime. In October 2017, a Jakarta gay sauna was raided and 58 men were arrested. As if questioning them wasn’t enough, the police posted photos of them half- naked on social media, sparking controversy over their public shaming.

Of course I was curious. I had to ask Stephanus whether Jakarta’s homophobic environment scares him or not. Full of confidence, he answered, “I don’t feel afraid of people seeing me as a gay person anymore … I’m gay anyway so maybe [they] should see me as a gay person—because I am gay.”

A combination of white sneakers, a simple men’s t-shirt and a canvas tote bag is his go-to look. Standing at around five feet, eight inches tall, his piercing eyes and broad shoulders give him quite an intimidating look. To some of his friends, Stephanus’ appearance isn’t “gay enough” yet others have told him that he is “the gayest person they’ve ever met”. In Jakarta, gay men are commonly perceived as highly effeminate. Strangers never recognise that Stephanus is homosexual because he doesn’t fit that stereotype.

“I have this weird mentality of wanting [strangers in Jakarta] to know that I’m gay just to piss them off.”

If you’ve ever overheard a Chinese–Indonesian man casually talking about their lifestyle as a gay man loudly at a mall in Jakarta, there’s an 80 per cent chance that they might have been Stephanus. He deliberately wants to trigger the homophobes.

“But I have that sort of mentality because Jakarta is a temporary vacation. So if they wanna hate me they’re not gonna be able to do anything, because I will go back to Melbourne. I can run away.”

For the last five years, Melbourne has become his sanctuary, his safe space, his home. The city makes him feel protected from the hatred, intolerance and Indonesia’s overall LGBTQI+ moral panic. Initially, Stephanus didn’t plan on pursuing his university degree in Melbourne. But ever since his arrival in 2013, the city’s laid-back environment has helped him flourish. Living in Melbourne plays a huge role in Stephanus’ journey of coming out as a gay man, which, like many others, consists of endless worries and self-loathing. Especially since his sexuality goes hand in hand with the mental health disorder that he has; it was quite a journey for him to finally love and accept himself.

Interestingly, it was the University of Melbourne that made him realise. As a Psychology student at the University, Stephanus took a subject that thoroughly discussed mental health illnesses.

“It’s this thing called generalised anxiety disorder. When studying it I was like, ‘Oh, I can relate so much to the symptoms.’ I looked back at what may have caused it to develop and thought maybe it’s because I keep repressing my own sexuality—without even telling anyone, without even accepting myself, without loving myself.”

Becoming aware of how being in the closet negatively affects his mental health encouraged Stephanus to slowly come out. He considers this more of a process of accepting himself rather than merely telling people about his sexuality, and it was truly a privilege to have gone through it while mostly living in Melbourne.

Stephanus can’t imagine being exposed to a liberal and supportive environment if he had attended an Indonesian university. The University of Melbourne offers several support groups for people of the LGBTQI+ community, and in 2016, Stephanus decided to attend the University of Melbourne Student Union’s Coming Out Support Group.

“It was a safe space to talk about your sexuality, your worries, and a lot of people [who attended] were adults of the LGBTQI+ community who shared their stories about how they came to terms with themselves.”

And not only the university, but also Melbourne in general is welcoming towards the LGBTQI+ community. Seeing gay couples showing love and affection to one another in the streets is a refreshing sight, and Stephanus couldn’t help but to compare how positive Melbourne’s environment is for men like him compared to Jakarta, where homosexuality is very much condemned.

Indonesian society used to be more tolerant. Dorce Gamalama, an openly trans woman of West Sumatran descent, was one of the country’s most respected TV presenters, singers, and comedians. The late Olga Syahputra was also one of Indonesia’s most popular TV presenters and was celebrated for his feminine persona. Olga often would appear on national television wearing a slightly worn V-neck t-shirt, one or two necklaces, and sometimes a headband or ribbon in his hair.

Fast-forward to Indonesia today: the government is still looking to criminalise homosexual sex.

“Let’s just say it’s because Islam became the major religion in Indonesia. People use [LGBTQI+] to stir this kind of fear in the country and they use it as a political tool. So it’s not purely about the religion and how militant Indonesian muslims are but [the politicians] are just using [LGBTQI+] to create fear.”

Much like Stephanus, Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Melbourne, believed that numerous politicians exploited “religious sentiments and racism” in the 2017 Jakarta governor election, and it will further be exploited in the upcoming 2019 presidential election. Through his writing on The Conversation, he explained, “[Rather than towards Islamic groups,] our concern and energy should instead be directed at the opportunistic political elites in the context of predatory democracy.”

In his essay Behind Indonesia’s LGBT Moral Panic, Boby Andika Ruitang said, “The rise of vocal LGBT movements in Indonesia is a huge slap for the religious conservative right, because LGBTs dare to defy the patriarchal standards in which relationships should be formed,” he explained. “So of course, the religious right went on a moral panic and started to be more vocal.”

Meanwhile in Melbourne, Stephanus has the freedom to go on dates, meet different kinds of people, and enjoy everything that the city provides for the gay community—things that he couldn’t find back in his hometown. In the beginning of this year, he started seeing a psychologist—an openly gay psychologist (again, something that is non-existent in Jakarta). From guiding him to embrace his sexuality to giving LGBTQI+- themed book recommendations, Stephanus’ psychologist has been nothing but supportive. “He recommended that I join a club of Asian gay men, ‘Gay, Asian, Proud’, and just told me to keep looking for gay friends so I’d feel more accepting of myself as a gay person.”

Being in an accepting environment, receiving professional help, and socialising with people with similar experiences makes Stephanus feel more and more loved every day. It was one hell of a journey, but coming out has never been a regret. The support that he has in Melbourne makes him the bold, carefree person that he is today: a gay Indonesian man who is not afraid to discuss his gay lifestyle loudly in a Jakarta mall.

When I asked Stephanus if he wanted to return to Jakarta after graduating, he said he had “mixed feelings”. Honestly,
I was pretty surprised. He has explicitly said that he hates Indonesians, and he has been getting much better treatment in Melbourne, so I expected a hard no.

“I guess you just can’t separate yourself from your home country no matter how hard you try.”

Stephanus admits that he still cares for Indonesia. It’s his country of origin. News about how badly Indonesia treats the LGBTQI+ community, however, deeply saddens him, and that is more than enough for him to believe that he is rejected by his home. He always wishes the very best for Indonesia, but Stephanus feels that fighting to stay in Melbourne is much easier than fighting to change Jakarta—to change Indonesia.

“This one Indonesian movie director, Paul Agusta, who has US citizenship. He has a husband, he can move to the US anytime he wants, becoming more accepted there. But he doesn’t want to. He thinks, ‘What right do you have to make me go from my own country? I love Indonesia.’ But that’s another story. That’s just not me.”

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