He’s no heartthrob with a muscled body of a boxer and a ‘cum-hither’ face of a porn star. He was the first Indonesian gay I know to have come out in public; the first real life character to my gay ‘imagined communities’.
I stumbled seeing his picture in Matra (Indonesia’s much tamed version of Playboy) amid articles on early ejaculation and pictures of femme fatales wearing mini skirts. Confused and angst-ridden, I must’ve been 11 and probably just had my first ‘teenage dreams’ and voila! There he was, Dede Oetomo – an oversized bespectacled man in an unassuming shirt.
I thought to myself then, really? He looks so normal! His relaxed smile destroyed my mental picture of gay men pictured by the media then – effeminate and part of the AIDS-ridden community.
Most profoundly, he made me believe that there were others like me. To put things into perspective, this was the late 80’s; we had no Internet let alone a search engine such as Google. Finding countertype information about gays in Indonesia was like spotting a campy queen in the sea of hooligans.
A respected academic and a staunch gay rights activist, Dede was indeed a trailblazer for the gay community in Indonesia, and he was the first man in the country to have led an open life in public beyond the stereotypical settings.
Fast-forward 20 years (20 years plus-plus to be vaguely exact), I am still living a semi-closeted life.
Seated in the back corner of a spacious meeting room, I saw Mr Oetomo in person for the first time. He was giving a speech during the launching of a report on LGBT rights. While praising the report, he also called on members of the gay community in Indonesia to be more open. He said the more people come out of the closet; the less prejudiced people would become towards gays.
I couldn’t agree more, but, sadly, I’m one of those cowards who are still living inside this half-opened closet.
I envy and admire the young generation who can be frank to public. I envy how they could liberally express their talent, artistry and writings with no pseudonyms and without constant fear of being outed.
Out Generation Giving Hopes
These people are giving gay youth hopes and a sense of belonging to a community they may never have met before. They provide healthy platforms for gay youths to assert their identities, beyond sex-crazed online dating sites. They also attempt to intellectualize gay issues with much stronger authority than before.
There’s Rio Damar, the founder of Melela.org, an LGBT-website dedicated to coming out issues. Then there’s Lucky Kuswandi, a talented filmmaker whose works are synonymous with urban woes. Our much-loved Magdalene website has also published LGBT writings by openly gay writers such as Amahl S Azwar and Paramita Mohamad.
So, why put the padlocks to my closet? What’s with the pseudonym?
The truth is, I’ve been open to my close friends for as long as I remember. Some of my colleagues may question and wonder about my sexuality judging by the music I listen to (They caught me watching Lady Gaga on YouTube, alas!) But they may stop short of confirming their suspicion due to my ‘horrendous’ table manner.
Nonetheless, I’m not ready to drop the truth bomb to my family, especially to my dearest mother. I don't think I will ever be. No matter how much I tried, my tongue turned stiff every time the thought crossed my mind.
As I was writing this article, I paused for while to check my sleeping mother. I could hear the booming harmony of her snore before stepping into her room. There she was, unperturbed and at peace with herself, partially covered by her favorite blanket. At 70, the deep wrinkles on her round face softened slightly while she was in deep sleep.
As I stood at the door, I tried to imagine telling her that I was gay, but then a little spasm hit me. I realized then, I couldn’t even make a mental picture of coming out to her.
My mother is a religious woman who comes from an entirely different generation. She would look at homosexuality through religion lenses, rather than science and logic. She’s the most unselfish woman I know and she would never disown me. Nonetheless, she would blame herself for who I am today.
Though her mind is as sharp as razor wire, physically she’s frail and the doctors are treating her for a number of ailments.
The Price of the Truth
Yes, she and I deserve nothing but the truth. But no, I will not impose my values on her. Not while she already struggles with the nerve pain in her face, not when her heart is already swollen, not when she already struggles with knee pain, unable to walk for more than 5 minutes.
I’m not ready to walk away from her. That is never an option and I find it unnecessary to confront her views just for the sake of my ego. I will never forgive myself either for seeing my mother living with guilt.
Back in the room with my childhood idol. I tried to reach out to Mr Oetomo in person but I was too nervous. At some point he was mobbed by a group of reporters and I stood there listening to his rant. I really wanted to thank him for being the brave person that he was, for choosing an honest dignified life that others didn’t opt. And most of all for making me feel less displaced as a teenager.
The best thing I can do now is to keep it honest and real in my little closet I have. I may be in the closet, but I’m not hiding. I may be in the closet, but I don’t seek to settle in a loveless heterosexual marriage.
I may not be open to my mother – like ever – but I give no lies and excuses on who I am to my (real) friends. I may be in the closet (for now), but it doesn't make me less honest and content than those who have come out.
I’m glad that the Indonesian gay youth today has no shortage of role models. These openly gay characters are making positive impact and creating connection to the youth. Compared to my teenage years, the public scene these days is much more dynamic and jubilant.
For now though I just have to stand on the sidelines, like a child who peeks through the blinds at delicious rainbow cakes.
About Downtown Boy AKA DB
Named after a classic hit by Petula Clark, DB is a twenty something hipster trapped in a thirty something gay man's body. He's a regular office worker in Jakarta and his hobbies include listening to oldies and doing physically challenging sports. He used to do martial arts but was forced to stop after he hurt his lower back. All of his friends suspect the injury was triggered by something fishy.