January 29, 2016
Raising Narcissus: Indonesia's Universities and Sexuality Studies

In the name of morality and religious and social norms, campuses are restricting critical studies particularly on sexuality, practically failing their duties to educate their students to be critical and open-minded.

by Hendri Yulius
Issues // Gender and Sexuality
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There once lived a beautiful young man named Narcissus, who was a descendant of a god and a nymph, so goes the Greek mythology. He was proud of his beauty, until one day, sitting by the river, he looked at his own reflection on the surface of the water and fell in love with it. He then spent the rest of his life by the river, nursing empty hopes of attaining the beautiful person that was none other than a reflection of himself.

At first the story of Narcissus may not have any direct relation to what happened recently to the campus organization Support Group and Resource Centre on Sexuality Studies University of Indonesia (SGRC UI). The research group that was independently founded by the university students, alumni, and lecturers has been accused of propagating homosexuality in campus. UI raised issues about the use of its name and logo and instructed SGRC UI to cease using them.

What happened to SGRC UI is not the first time in Indonesia. Last year, Brawijaya University canceled the Brawijaya International Youth Forum because it was to discuss issues concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT), which is deemed to contradict religious and social norms. Similarly, the rector of Lampung University threatened to expel students and fire lecturers for involvement in any activities related to LGBT issues. The social media rang with the issue “LGBT goes to campus” (LGBT masuk kampus).

The controversies and ban on, as well as negative accusation leveled against discussions on LGBT reflect the reluctance of academic institutions in Indonesia to discuss sexuality in an open-minded and scientific manner. Perhaps our academic institutions still misconstrue the very idea of sexuality.

In 1972, in their remarkable work, Anti-Oedipus, French philosophers Gilles Deleuz and Felix Guattari said, “Sexuality is everywhere.” 




This is the reality that is often overlooked by most people, that sexuality does not just deal with biological matters. It also involves social matters that construct the way we think and act as part of society. Body and desire are nature's gifts. In fact, they cannot escape being regulated and controlled, and even judged when they go against the prevailing norms and ideology. Because of the social dimension, sexuality is a discourse that must be studied and examined critically.

In Indonesia, sexuality can never be separated from ideology and politics. One can find this in some of the writings of historian Marieke Bloembergen on sexuality and power during the Dutch East Indies Era. In Desember 1938 through May 1939, a massive hunt was conducted by the police in Dutch East Indies to arrest homosexual men who were allegedly guilty of having sex with underage boys. This sudden operation was known as ‘zedenschoonmaak’ or moral cleansing.

The thing is, Bloembergen explains, homosexuality had never been a problem here before, although Christianity, the religion of the colonial government, considers homosexual intercourse a sin. As part of this “witch hunt”, some homosexual officials were fired because they were deemed “unfit” for the job. Morality police force was created to uproot immorality caused by homosexuality.

It was around this time that colonial powers across the world were losing their grips on their colonies as they faced threats of wars in Asia and Europe. This is the actual reason behind  the sudden campaign of virtues: a colonial government that was under threat of losing their power in their dominion.

Power always needs the sacrifice of a scapegoat. Amidst its decreasing power, the colonial government targeted homosexuals to assert its strength to the people, to prove that it can maintain order, security, and a sense of “civility” despite the threats it’s facing.  

In the New Order era sexuality was once again used as a political weapon. The Soeharto regime used women’s sexuality to annihilate Indonesian Women Movement (Gerwani) by portraying them as immoral women who performed nude sexual dancing while torturing Army generals who were kidnapped during the aborted September 30, 1965 coup. This version was taught to the children who grew up in the era of the militaristic regime, strongly implying that sexually active women are immoral.

During this era, studies or scholarly works that are seen as critical of the national ideology were labeled subversive and banned. State apparatus imposed censorship on critical studies done by academic institutions, which are supposed to educate students to be critical and open-minded.

Ironically, the seeds of the New Order-style repression are still cultivated these days, not by the government, but by campuses itself. In the name of morality and norms, campuses are practicing self-censorship when it comes to critical studies.

This is when the story of Narcissus becomes relevant, as it reflects how our students’ critical minds are intentionally being dulled by the academia. If sexuality is inseparable from politics and ideology, then what we now understand and what is considered the truth are also inseparable from both. Just like Narcissus was tempted by his own reflection, when we lose our ability to be critical, we will easily believe what is given to us, without thinking about how ideology and power has had a hand in shaping what is considered the truth.

What SGRC UI attempts to do is explore sexuality through critical perspectives. LGBT is merely a part of the myriad of other issues regarding sexuality that they analyze, including reproductive health, women’s empowerment, sexual politics, and labor rights.

The campuses’ knee-jerk responses to any discussion related to sexuality shows that our education system is grappling unsuccesfully with the global developments and the ongoing academic discourses. Unfortunately they handled it in a very inelegant and militeristic way: by banning them.

The quality of our education system has often been under question, but maybe it’s time to ask ourselves: “What if our academic environment intentionally creates students to be like Narcissus, who lost his own critical thinking.”

Can anyone answer this?

Hendri Yulius is the writer of “Coming Out” and a lecturer of gender and sexuality studies.