Thinking through activism, sexuality, and scholarship

Tom Boellstorff
July 23, 2014

Opening: At the Disco

One Thursday night at a disco on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia,  the lights dimmed and the DJ announced that the Pathway Foundation[i]  was going to present a show about sex and AIDS. Together with several  members of the Foundation, I walked out onto the dance floor, in full  drag, with a kebaya (“traditional” skirt), sanggul  (“traditional” hairstyle, in this case a wig), and makeup that together  marked me as impersonating a middle-aged woman. Two members of the  Pathway Foundation, in far more regal drag than I, took the microphone  and talked to those present—a mixed crowd but one in which gay  men predominated—explaining that AIDS had already come to Indonesia,  even to the island of Sulawesi, and people needed to be careful. One of  the activist’s hands punctuated the air as he told the audience that if  they had sex with other men, they should use condoms together with  water-based lubricant. We then began our little skit: one of the  activists took the role of a man entering a pharmacy to ask me, the  “lady behind the counter,” for KY Jelly. When I rolled my eyes he stood  firm: when I questioned his purpose in wanting to purchase lubricant, he  simply answered that he wanted some and it was his own business.  Afterwards, the Pathway Foundation activists were thrilled: they had  shown that their new group could pull off an organized event and reach  men who were otherwise ignored by the public health system. And I was  happy that I had helped make the event memorable.

In 1993 this disco, the only “gay disco” in Makassar, Indonesia’s  sixth largest city, was located in a large four-story building that  functioned primarily as a (female sex worker) brothel. At that time, one  of the greatest barriers to gay men using condoms for anal  intercourse was not accessing condoms themselves, but accessing  water-based lubricant. Indonesia’s massive family program had ensured  that condoms were relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous, but these  condoms were only lightly lubricated, since they were intended for  vaginal intercourse.[ii]  The Indonesian condom companies manufactured the lubricant on those  condoms, but did not sell lubricant separately (and would not do so for  many years thereafter). In 1993, the only way to obtain water-based  lubricant was to purchase imported XY Jelly. Many pharmacies sold KY  Jelly, so it was relatively accessible; it was rather expensive for the  average working-class Indonesian, but not prohibitively so.

It was clear that the primary barrier to accessing lubricant was that gay  men were embarrassed to ask for it. In Indonesia at that time, KY Jelly  was associated not with condoms and sex but with childbirth; it was  most commonly used to lubricate the birth canal during delivery. Why  would a man who was not a doctor walk into a pharmacy and ask for it? Gay men spoke explicitly of embarrassment in the face of the disapproving “lady behind the counter” (ibu apotek)  as the reason they would never attempt to purchase KY Jelly, even  though this meant they would either forego condoms for anal intercourse  or use oil-based lubricants like body lotion, which often caused condoms  to break.

Since the gay disco provided an opportunity to reach out to a relatively large number of gay  men in a safe environment where (unlike a park) there was little fear  of being overheard, the Pathway Foundation activists decided it would be  a good venue for talking to gay men about the importance of lubricant. I  was impressed with this creative and highly contextual approach to HIV  prevention, but was taken aback when the Pathway Foundation staff asked  me to play the role of the “lady behind the counter,” in drag. Their  explanation was not that pharmacy staff were ever non-Indonesians (I  would be speaking Indonesian anyway) but that my presence on stage would  make the skit even more entertaining. While I was openly gay to the  activists of the Pathway Foundation, I had never cross-dressed in the  United States and had no real experience with drag. I trusted the  activists, however, and acquiesced to their request.

Location Work: A Personal Activist History

I was first introduced to sexuality activism as an undergraduate at  Stanford University in the late 1980s. A number of queer students had  formed a group, Queerland (playing off “Leland” Stanford Jr. University,  the full name of the institution). I was taken by this diverse group’s  efforts to claim public space and visibility for non-heterosexual  people, and involved myself in this group’s activities during my latter  college years. As graduation approached, many of my fellow students made  plans to travel abroad—some as tourists pure and simple, but others to  engage in various forms of social justice work. Having grown up in  Nebraska with little international experience in comparison to many of  my more cosmopolitan (and usually wealthier) fellow Stanford students, I  felt a need to gain a better understanding of life outside the United  States and wanted to engage in social justice work if possible.

Seeking global activist connections, I had become involved in early  1991 with the newly-formed International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights  Commission (IGLHRC), based in San Francisco, near Stanford. It was  through IGLHRC that I gained my first contacts with activist  organizations in Southeast Asia (Pink Triangle, in Malaysia, and GAYa  Nusantara, in Indonesia). One San Francisco-based activist who  participated in the 1991 IGLHRC conference was Pat Norman, Executive  Director of the California AIDS Intervention Training Center (later  renamed the Institute for Community Health Outreach (ICHO)). At that  time, Pat Norman was already an important activist in LGBT and  African-American communities. She offered me the opportunity to become  certified as a Community Health Outreach Worker at her organization,  which would give me skills in HIV prevention education. ICHO’s model of  Community Health Outreach was explicitly based upon an ethnographic  model. It understood outreach workers to be participant observers who  did not necessarily have to “come from” the communities they served  (particularly because belonging was understood as achieved and  contextual), but who did need to understand any community from the  perspective of its members to the greatest degree possible.

In 1992, I made my first trip to Southeast Asia, travelling first to  Malaysia and then to Indonesia. In Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala  Lumpur, I was fortunate to participate in the work of a group of  activists associated with Pink Triangle.  I used my training to assist Pink Triangle as it began outreach work to  injecting drug users in Chow Kit, a district of Kuala Lumpur infamous  for drug activity.

After a few months in Malaysia, I travelled to the city of Surabaya  (in the province of East Java) to meet GAYa Nusantara, which at that  time (and for many years thereafter) was based in the home of Dédé  Oetomo, a legendary activist. As was the case in Malaysia, I was able in  some small way to help in developing outreach programs for these  organizations. Through working closely with these activists and the  larger communities in which they participated, I started learning about  the lives of gay and lesbi Indonesians. Part of my education was learning that the Indonesian terms gay and lesbi  were linked to the English terms “gay” and “lesbian” but were not  merely derivative of Western subjectivities: they had their own  histories and meanings in the Indonesian-language and Indonesia as they  were instantiated in the everyday lives of gay and lesbi Indonesians (see The Gay Archipelago).

When I returned to the United States, these heady experiences had fostered an interest in learning more about the lifeworlds of gay and lesbi  Indonesians. My earlier political work in the United States had  impressed upon me the importance of organizing across gendered lines: gay men had more access to public space than lesbi women, and were far more addressed in HIV/AIDS discourse, but I worked hard to socialize with lesbi  women as much as I could, and to develop a gendered analysis that  foundationally considered the perspectives of women and transgendered  persons as well as men. My activism in Malaysia and Indonesia taught me  that having a specific skill set could make me at least somewhat useful  to groups outside the United States, and that activist work allowed me  to participate in everyday life in an intense and rewarding manner.

To attend the Advanced Indonesian Institute organised by The US- based Consortium for the Teaching of Indonesian (COTI)[iii]  I first moved to the city of Makassar in South Sulawesi province.  Sulawesi is a large island near Borneo at some remove from the  political, economic, and social power concentrated on the island of  Java. Dédé Oetomo explained that he had been corresponding with a group  of gay men in that city who wanted to start an organization to  address HIV prevention (and indirectly, address the social isolation and  rights of gay men as well). Dédé asked me to go to Makassar and support this group as I could.

During my months in Makassar in 1993, I studied the Indonesian  language in formal classes during the day, and at night spent time in  the parks and salons where many gay men socialized. These men had  a difficult time finding a place where they could speak privately about  their hopes and dreams, and I offered them the small front room of  Surya’s Makassar office. The building was only about a mile from  Karebosi, the town square that was one of the most popular places for gay  men to socialize, and the reporters all left the office in the  afternoon, so that I had the building to myself at night. One night  about twenty men crowded into the small room; an animated discussion  ensued about their isolation, their need to support each other, and  their need to better understand HIV—at a time when no one knew any  fellow Indonesians infected with the virus and it seemed a disease of  the West. They decided to form an organization, and I remember when one  man said “let’s call it The Pathway Foundation!”—a name the organization  used ever since.[iv]

Activist Listening

The activism I describe above took place before I became an  anthropologist—indeed, was the inspiration for me to enter graduate  school in anthropology (my undergraduate degrees were in linguistics and  music). In later years, I still helped provide space for groups to meet  whenever I could, a precious resource in a context where few persons  live alone. I did drag on a handful of other occasions for the purpose  of HIV/AIDS entertainment events.[v]  As my linguistic abilities progressed, I was able to conduct outreach  worker trainings in the Indonesian language, helping provide activists  with new skills. I have helped write many grants for gay and lesbi  groups formalized enough to be registered as nonprofit organizations  (NGOs); many (but not all) of these grants have been in the realm of  HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and include what is to my knowledge  the first HIV prevention program in Indonesia specifically serving lesbi  women. In some cases, activists would invite me to come with them to  meetings with local or national officials, because the mere presence of  an American (particularly one who spoke Indonesian) could help  legitimate the activists and ensure they would be granted access. I  consider my academic writing on gay and lesbi culture to  be a form of activism, helping legitimate the lifeworlds of these  Indonesians, showing the complexity of their lives and its theoretical  significance.

Throughout this work I have encountered surprisingly few ethical  quandaries, despite always being conscious of my status as a white, male  American. I have found one principle particularly useful in mitigating  ethical quandaries is what I term “activist listening,” and this  principle has broader theoretical implications. In a rush to do good (or  to make money, or any number of other motivations), we have seen a long  history of Westerners attempting to impose their worldview in  non-Western contexts. For instance, in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment  the notion of “best practice” has often been misused to imply that an  approach effective in one place can be transplanted with minimal  reworking. Listening implies an investment of time: it can mean weeks or  months of informal socializing. Listening also implies understanding  the language being spoken, literally and metaphorically. It means  patience and attention to context, allowing oneself to be transformed by  a range of social actors, not only people who are known as leaders (or  claim the status of leader), or people who can speak English.

Activist listening is an exercise in vulnerability, “a method of  being at risk in the face of the practices and discourses into which one  inquires… [a] serious nonidentity that challenges previous stabilities,  convictions, or ways of being… a mode of practical and theoretical  attention, a way of remaining mindful and accountable” (Haraway 1997:190–91).  What makes this listening “activist” is not any self-claimed identity  of the listener, but that the listening actively engages with the social  context in question. It means listening not just to stories, but to  agendas. It means working as an activist in service of priorities set by  persons who are otherwise in a structurally disempowered position.  Activist listening, as I define it, is thus predicated on recognizing  Western privilege but striving to put that privilege to work for  non-Western interests. I do not mean that Western activists need disavow  their personal and political motivations, but that these motivations be  realigned given what non-Westerners say needs to be done. For instance,  I went to Makassar at the request of Dédé Oetomo, but in Makassar I was  not only able to improve my skills in the Indonesian language, but  establish connections that led to Makassar becoming one of my primary  ethnographic fieldsites.

This idea of realignment is predicated on the idea that “Western  interests” and “non-Western interests,” themselves each internally  diverse, are not inevitably opposed. For instance, I would argue that it  is “in the interest” of Westerners that non-Western persons with  non-normative sexual and gendered subjectivities and practices enjoy  full legal rights and social affirmation. It is “in the interest” of  Westerners that these non-Westerners enjoy these rights in cases where  they do not have lexicalized subjectivities, or have subjectivities  radically different from dominant Western notions of gay and lesbian  identity. It is also “in the interest” of Westerners that these  non-Westerners enjoy these rights in cases where they use terms derived  from the English terms “gay” or “lesbian” to understand their  sexualities and communities, rather than being dismissed as lackeys of  the West or victims of global gay imperialism.

Listening is never truly passive, but I am here gesturing toward a  practice of listening that takes into account how activists always come  from a background shaped by personal motivations and agendas, regardless  of the degree to which the activist is an “outsider.” For the Western  activist working in a non-Western context, activist listening can be one  way to counter, even partially, a colonial and capitalist history in  which the West spoke and the non-West listened, or the West compelled  the non-West to speak in a language intelligible to preexisting Western  frameworks. It is a means to work against dynamics of global inequality,  rather than seek paralyzing refuge in some fantasy of disengagement or  separation. I contend that “activism” founded in what is often glossed  as the “passive” stance of listening is theoretically, politically, and  ethically preferable to either of the most common alternatives one  encounters. The first of these is the idea that activists stand in an  automatic global solidarity that makes listening superfluous (because we  all share universal values of human rights, equality, and tolerance).  The second unsatisfactory alterative is that contemporary capitalist  oppressions are so totalizing that Western activists can by definition  never truly listen to non-Westerners, and thus that coalition-building  across lines of inequality between West and non-West is impossible.

Privilege and Similitude

My other two responses to the question of how sexuality activism by  Westerners can effectively and ethically take place in non-Western  contexts (so that we avoid ceding social action outside the West to  corporations and development agencies) take the form of more general  principles, but also originate in my activist experiences. In contrast  to reflexivity, the concept of recursivity is concerned with the  discursive constitution of the “there”, “the other”, the location of  ethnographic authority often termed the “fieldsite” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997).

With the phrase “recursive privilege” I mean that Western sexuality  activists can acknowledge and leverage their privilege, rather than  apologize for or disavow that privilege. The phrase “Western privilege”  accurately names the privilege in question, because that privilege is  not only a (reflexive) consequence of embodied subjectivity—gender,  sexuality, ethnicity, class—but a (recursive) consequence of emplaced  subjectivity as Western. Privilege is locational, not just existential,  and locations can be decentered and enrolled in alternative geographies.  As noted at the outset of this essay, those parts of the world termed  “Western” are not identical to each other, nor are they all wealthy or  influential. Hegemonic power is not totalizing power: it is contested  and partial, sustained through the manufacture of consent as well as  through force, as emphasized by Gramsci in his classic analysis of  hegemony. Western activists often have forms of power their non-Western  interlocutors do not—skills in English, in computer use, in  grantwriting; financial resources and networks that make travel easier;  access to resources for education and advocacy. Claims to solidarity  that deny these forms of privilege are problematic. Even as a jobless  activist in 1992, I had access to forms of privilege that I could put in  service of my Indonesian colleagues’ agendas. Thus, one key to Western  sexuality activism in non-Western contexts is to account for one’s  privilege as a Westerner, and then permit non-Westerners to “interrupt”  this privilege and deploy it for goals they articulate.

My third response to the question of how sexuality activism by  Westerners can effectively and ethically take place in non-Western  contexts, a politics of similitude, might seem to contradict the notion  of recursive privilege just discussed, wherein I emphasized the value of  acknowledging a relative position of power. However, my activist and  ethnographic experiences convince me that the problematic assumption of  an “automatic global solidarity” mentioned earlier is not the only way  to conceptualize similitude. In the understandable rush Western  sexuality activists may feel to acknowledge difference, we do not want  to lose sight of the forms of similitude that make “difference”  comprehensible. In terms of effective and ethical activism, I cannot  overemphasize the importance of developing a theory of similitude, which  does not assume that apparent sameness is a symptom of homogenization  or a betrayal of the authentic and indigenous. If, say, some non-Western  men use an identity term derived from the English word “gay,” or like  to wear blue jeans, listen to Madonna, or use Facebook, it is  politically and theoretically unacceptable to presume that such men are  less authentic than non-Western men who reject the term “gay” or wear  traditional clothing.

Effective Western sexuality activism in non-Western contexts requires  a politics of similitude that does not prejudge questions of  authenticity and belonging. If we assume that the relationship between  “Western” and “non-Western” is inevitably one of alterity, we foreclose  crucial forms of coalition- building. If we assume that outsider  activism of any kind effaces difference, we loose sight of the ways that  such activism, like globalization more generally, can result in new  forms of difference. A politics of similitude has been absolutely vital  to my work in Indonesia. To dare to take the stage with my Indonesian  colleagues, to help them write grants or develop an outreach program for  sex workers—all these things and more are predicated on the idea that  some shared ground exists between the Western and non-Western sexuality  activist.

Conclusion: the Non-Activist Ethnographer

The issues I have raised in this essay are personal—originating in my  activist work in Indonesia and beyond—but clearly resonate with  dilemmas and debates that are not unique to the topic of sexuality or to  the Southeast Asian region. Activist listening, recursive privilege,  and a politics of similitude are all heuristics that I have developed in  the context of many years of activist anthropology. However, I do not  wish to leave the reader with a sense that activism is restricted to or  necessary for good anthropological practice, or ethnography.

Speaking for myself, activism and ethnography are two sides of the  same coin: from methodological and ethical perspectives, I find it  difficult to imagine not engaging in activism. I simply do not know what  I would do with myself in my everyday life in Indonesia if I did not  engage in activist work. Nonetheless, not all good social scientific  research must involve the kind of activism I discuss here. There are  myriad ways in which scholars give back to the communities in which they  conduct research that may not be named “activism.” And even the most  activist scholars do not engage in activism every minute of the day, or  with every interlocutor they encounter.

My two key conclusions are not about activism as an obligatory  component of anthropological and more generally academic work, but about  broader questions of power, knowledge, and politics with regard to  activism and scholarship. First, activism and scholarship can be  powerfully synergistic. Fieldwork need not be bifurcated into time spent  “doing activism” and time spent “doing research.”

Second, while there are certainly political and ethical concerns when  Westerners engage in activism in non-Western contexts, attempting to  avoid such translocal connections carries political and ethical concerns  of its own. As Ferguson (1999)  describes, forms of “global disconnect” can be as problematic as forms  of engagement. Globalizing forces are expanding, regardless of what  activists do. Corporations, mass media, governments, non-governmental  organizations, religious movements, and a range of other actors refuse  to limit themselves to the nation-state as the ultimate spatial scale.  There is no easy “outside” to globalization and a stance of refusal acts  only to trap activism in a reified (and often romanticized) notion of  “the local,” a form of “spatial incarceration” that was crucial to the  colonial forms of governance that laid the groundwork for the  contemporary global order (Mamdani 1996).

In my activist work in Indonesia, I have always been struck by the  ways in which the West is present in Indonesia, whether Western  activists are in the archipelago or not. That presence—a material and  discursive presence— is in myriad ways embraced, rejected, and  transformed by Indonesians themselves. My goal is to listen to how gay and lesbi  Indonesians engage with that presence, as well as how they engage with  the nation-state, local cultures, and other forms of translocal power  (like the “world religions” of Islam and Christianity). That listening  is an activist act and can engender other forms of activism. Linked to a  politics of similitude, such activism can be a powerful means for  Westerners to use their privilege in service of social justice. Such  activism can, at the same time, be a powerful means for effective  research, research whose activist effects include contributing to a  better understanding of both unique and shared aspects of the human  journey.


[I] ‘pathway Foundation’ Is An Anonymised Name.

[Ii]  Many Indonesian Men Prefer “Dry” Vaginal Sex, With A Minimum Of  Lubrication (This Was Not Necessarily Preferred By Their Female  Partners, But The Indonesian State, Unsurprisingly, Paid Less Attention  To The Perspective Of Women). For Further Discussion Of Indonesia’s  Family Planning Program, See Dwyer 2000.

[Iii] Later Renamed The Consortium For The Teaching Of Indonesian And Malaysian (Cotim).

[Iv]  Because This Is A Smaller Organization; I Have Changed Its Name For  Anonymity. I Discuss The Work Of This Organization In “Nuri’s Testimony:  Hiv/Aids In Indonesia And Bare Knowledge,” American Ethnologist 36:2 (2009), Pp. 351–363.

[V] See, For Instance, A Coincidence Of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, P106.

All by
Tom Boellstorff