Negotiating the Non-Negotiable
It was on a cold Tuesday afternoon that my mom texted and warned to avoid queer venues. I had just arrived in Sydney a couple days ago before the tragic Orlando shooting where 49 people got killed at a gay nightclub. My mom, who becomes very susceptible to any queer issues, warily expressed her concerns on my safety, considering my sexual identity. In the text, besides the explicit warning, she continued with her preconceived assumption that people in a more liberal country can be crueler, more adept at inflicting pain to others. Right after reading the message in entirety, I gave her a call. Contrary to her stressful tones in the text, she calmly responded my call—it seemed she was still at home doing her own domestic things.
“Mom, that is what we call ‘hate crime.’ People could murder others just because of their skin colour, sexual orientation, and even their race. Remember, our May tragedy in 1998?” The May 1998 riots of Indonesia or mass rape against Chinese-Indonesian women revealed our collective trauma as Indonesian citizens of ethnic Chinese descent, people who are still struggling with identity. And I believe, my mom was also alerted, that hatred could be directed to anybody. Any reason can be the justification of the hatred. We stopped our conversation eventually after my ten-minute lecture on hate crime to my mom. As always, before the end, she asked, “What did you eat yesterday? Did you eat good food?”
My mom knows I am gay. So does my dad. However, as Chinese-Indonesians with limited education background and information exposure, they can’t easily relate to terms such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “LGBT,” or “queer,” as though these concepts have never had any chance to exist in their minds before. All they expect from me, being the only Chinese son in the family is to get married heterosexually and start up or continue the family business; because I am the only one who can generate our family name. They know there is a man in love with man, a woman in love with a woman, or a male-bodied person with a female soul (waria). Even though my mom had a lot of waria friends when she was young and studying hairdressing, the term “gay” was very alien to her. One day, she misspelled the word gay as “guy.” And I could not stop laughing at her text.
We are living in two different worlds; but we carry the same wounds. My parents, as a result of the collective trauma of being Chinese-Indonesian, have to be constantly aware of their attitudes in public, to avoid any violence and stigma directed to our family. As for me, in addition to my yellow skin, my sexuality impairs my citizenship. It took them almost 10 years to accept my sexual identity, although until now, the acceptance would never be manifested formally. They barely address my sexuality, yet they usually use a different vernacular, as my father did during the Indonesia’s national meltdown on LGBT rights early this year.
It was a devastating and painful moment, when suddenly, ministers, public officials, and religious leaders concomitantly condemned LGBT persons and urged the government to criminalise our non-normative sexual and gender identity or expressions. Some national television channels or printed media interviewed and invited LGBT activists just to be treated as public jokes. During these painful moments, my dad constantly gave me calls and asked how I was doing. He did not openly ask about what I was feeling as a part of the LGBT community during this hysteria. He just wanted to get informed that I was safe and sane. People may say that I am a lucky gay Indonesian to have a supportive family, but 10 years of waiting to be accepted is neither painless nor short and acceptance does not always come in the form of full recognition. I believe that in our generation now, possible acceptance happens through constant negotiation and multifaceted re-articulation of the identity in question. Chinese-Indonesian families still uphold the Confucian principle which values handwork and personal achievements.
I could not detach myself fully from my family values and openly confront them, leaving and perpetuating the binary of ‘Me’ (modern) vs ‘You’ (conservative). Instead, I formulate and reconfigure myself in a fluid motion between these two polarities, blurring the lines between ‘being my own true self’ and ‘getting the acceptance from them.’ Due to negative portrayals of homosexuality in media, my parents, indeed, perceive that being gay is associated to mental illness, oversensitivity, social impairment, and sinful behaviour. Therefore, what I have been doing is to show them that being gay is not what they think it is—I can get scholarships, have a good career, publish books, have nice friends, and contribute back to the society in any form possible. I believe in gradual change. I do not wage war against my family. What we need is not a more converging path between ‘Me’ and ‘Them’; but how we could create mutual understanding and negotiation between us.
Only one day when I came home and told him that I was going to stay in Sydney, that “Indonesia is not a place for me,” my father finally spoke to me. He was glad, and I know what he intended to say: that I am gay and when in Indonesia, I am not safe. But, finding “home” is not as easy as he thinks. When I joined the marriage equality rally in Sydney in the Town Hall in mid-June, one of the organisers asked me to carry a big rainbow flag with the other people. I hesitated for the moment. Is it okay as a foreigner to hold this rainbow flag? I am gay, but I am not Australian. Is here really my home? At that moment, I eventually realised that my sexual identity could not be detached fully from my race and national belonging. They are enmeshed together.
Perhaps what Christos Tsilokas wrote is true: “I am like carrying a house on my back.”
Hendri Yulius. ‘Editorial Note: Negotiating the non-Negotiable'. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.