Dede Oetomo is the supreme overlord of the Javanese gay community, to the extent that such thing can be said to exist. Many words can be used to describe him: activist, scholar, human rights defender, corpulent, gregarious, founder of Indonesia’s first LGBT-rights organization, bespectacled. He is, like his best-known (and deceased) American analog, Harvey Milk, oozing with charm. In a weekend of events in the Jogja LGBT scene, Mr. Oetomo is always present, even if its just on the tips of the tongues of the activists, dancers, friends, and hangers-on who eagerly anticipate his arrival at whichever event (in a day full of such events) he is on his way to attending. Maybe Mr. Oetomo is unaware of his power, perhaps he doesn’t demand the reverence he is routinely shown, but for all the world he resembles nothing more than a fabulous Uranian mafia don. Take, for instance, our field trip to Jogja’s second largest gay club this past Saturday night. We walked in five minutes past the start of the weekly drag set – a two-hour medley of vampy Bollywood routines, Streisand hits, Indonesian pop music and, most movingly, a tribute to the late, great, Queen of Divas, Whitney Houston sung by a muscle-bound counter-soprano. As the tuxedoed maître d’ led us in, I took a look around, eyeing the audience — a curious mix of families with children, men with men, and, in our corner, a bunch of eager-eyed students — and to my dismay I saw rows of floor-tables arrayed before the stage. In traditional Javanese style (even in this conspicuously non-traditional setting), we were made to sit on the floor at a table less than two feet high. I’m not slamming traditional culture, but in a country whose men average 5’5’’ in height, the tables are clearly not made for someone over 6 feet tall (notice how I always have to mention the height differential here?). Once we were seated, with much effort and knocking of knees, my research partner Tiwi pointed, with the reverence of the converted, to a portly man straining the establishment’s lone chair in his own private corner of the room. “That’s Dede! There’s Dede!” Interested as I was in this stranger’s seating arrangement and wondering how he procured a chair in a country seemingly devoid of such perfectly practical furniture, I missed what Tiwi had said. “Dede! DEDE!” The words I was hearing, coupled with the sight of this gentleman surrounded by an phalanx of leather-clad consiglieri, finally fell into place. Here was the legend, the winner of international Human Rights awards, the tireless advocate for equality, the author of numerous books and articles, the perennially doomed – yet unflaggingly persistent – candidate for public office. And he was sitting in my chair.
Fast forward to Sunday morning. I had to wake up distressingly early (re: 10 a.m.) to get across town to attend a talk given, in Indonesian, by none other than Don Dede himself. After a long Saturday night spent at the drag show, sampling some street-side santoso and crepes and being unable to afford entry to a nightclub, I was in no mood to leave my bed. However seeing as I was trying to schedule an interview with Oetomo for my research (more on that in my next post hopefully) and with the omnipresent promise of free food lingering in the air, I rolled out of bed and onto the back of my friend’s motorbike (no worries Mom, he’s a very cautious driver, if only because I shriek when he goes above 25 mph). The organization hosting the event was PKBI, the local Planned Parenthood outfit I’ll be interning for later this summer. Oetomo’s +2 hour-long talk – on LGBT advocacy and the struggle to maintain sexual identity in Indonesia – was at turns moving and funny, judging by the varied tears and laughter from those audience members who could understand him. After failing to follow the flow of conversation past the first ten minutes, I contented myself with the plate of (free!) fried bananas in front of me. Once the talk was over and Jacob and his partner Laksmi had stolen Mr. Oetomo for the same lunchtime interview slot I had been angling for, my future boss, Gama, took me on a tour of the facilities. On my previous visits to Planned Parenthood, I had been to the city headquarters, but here on the outskirts of Jogja was the actual Youth Center in which I’ll be interning full-time.
PKBI’s operation is relatively small – 12 divisions staffed by 18 multi-tasking workers and a devoted, if limited, group of volunteers. Mostly a collection of buildings built to tropical specifications – where the transition from indoors to outside can be hard to establish – centered around a pale dirt courtyard, the compound isn’t exactly up to modern standards of construction, especially for a health-services provider. But on the edge of the compound, housed in a nondescript concrete building, is the actual clinic in which they perform all their tests and operations. Walking in I was struck by how modern the facility was – and clean. In a country where often the best advice is to ignore the (lack of) cleanliness of even the most delicious restaurant’s kitchen, it came as a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, that PKBI’s clinic was up to every standard of medical hygiene I can gauge. Gama described the services they provide as he pointed out the equipment and medical supplies set around the room in clear green – that universal aseptic color of medicine – cabinets and shelves. No moment was more striking and more sobering than the sight of an empty obstetric table and its dangling lithotomy stirrups as we entered the back room of the clinic. It was weird feeling, despite my unwavering support for every operation they perform on that table, to see where their procedures occur. I won’t easily forget this as the moment when, for me, women’s health – and public health in general – became more than an intellectual concern and entered the realm of reality. This is real; PKBI’s patients have real and often life-changing concerns that are so much more than numbers or statistics bandied about by health ministers at government conferences or by college students in late night bull sessions.
PKBI also provide the same emergency contraception that President Obama, in one of his greater lapses of intelligence, publicly worried would be confused by his daughters for bubblegum if not placed behind the counter and out of the reach of those who need it. In Indonesia the problem is less pandering politicians (does anyone actually believe the President is against the off-the-shelf-use of Plan B?), than overtly antagonistic politicians fueled – and largely subservient to – hostile religious groups. In a direct reminder of this societal divide, a neighboring mosque has its loudspeakers pointed directly at the PKBI office, so that five times a day, everyday, conversations in the office are put on pause until the protracted lines of the azan cease. The sound is deafening, and on Fridays (so I am told) the mosque supplements its call to prayer so that the volunteers, employees, and patients of PKBI are also harangued on the sinfulness of contraception, abortion, and the hell-bound ways of all within the compound. Though to many the moral and ethical commitment of PKBI is never in doubt, the legality of some of their essential services is, and many of the procedures practiced by PKBI, as they will be the first to admit, operate in a decidedly gray area of the law. But they move forward openly, with government officials completely aware of their practice. These same officials denounce the procedures (some as simple and essential as a pap smear) performed by PKBI even as they allow them to continue unhindered in an indirect acknowledgment of the operations’ often life-saving importance.
We’ve just begun our final week with our research coursework, in which I, along with my partners Tiwi and Tere, are continuing our exploration of Waria families here in Jogja. We finally landed our interview with Dede Oetomo, the aforementioned doyen of Indonesia’s LGBT community, over a lunch of lotek and es jeruk today. His wealth of knowledge on the subject of our research has firmly set us in our final push to get our work in order by the end of the week and begin preparing for our final presentation next week. As excited as I am to continue this project, especially with two partners as helpful and brilliant as Tere and Tiwi, I can’t wait to begin working with PKBI.