When moving to a new city, buoyed by the enthusiasm and energy of change, I push myself to meet as many people as possible. So, a year ago, when I was brand new to Jakarta I was trawling the various social media/dating apps for interesting faces, witty taglines and sincere and amusing banter. I eventually had a brief chat with a handsome Indonesian man who had a kost close to mine in Tebet. We agreed to meet for some street side dinner, and he told me he would pick me up in a few minutes. Over a far too tasty plate of nasgor kambing we were chatting about our jobs, why we were in Jakarta and our dreams for the immediate future. Over the conversation, I noticed an uncomfortable feeling that I was out of practice. The first date conversation was stilted, and although we had much in common something just wasn’t right. As a single man in Indonesia, it wasn’t that I hadn’t been on my fair share of first dates but still, it felt like I had forgotten how to tell my life in an interesting way and be engaged and sincere about trying to make a connection. As the date came an end and I got dropped off at my place with a friendly but purposeful handshake, I was feeling unsettled. Reflecting later, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that I was out of practice, it was that I had grown accustomed to being interesting just for being here. In other words, I had allowed the pervasive privilege of being a bule in Indonesia translate into social laziness. For those of you who haven’t lived in Indonesia, or in Asia generally this might read as rather jarring. What could have gotten me to a point where I’m feeling like I’ve given into some baser characteristics?
Flash back to a year earlier. I was just arriving in Bali to start my new life in Indonesia. Landing at Denpasar airport my immediate instinct was to turn on Grindr. The application itself has a questionable corporate background, and the sexual cultures built up around certain features of the application can be explicitly toxic, but for the traveller or someone new in town it’s unsurpassed as a tool for meeting new people. I remember turning it on just before my bag arrived. I took a cursory glance and placed my phone back in my pocket to collect my bag and find my new colleagues who had kindly offered to collect me from the airport. Arriving at the hotel, I dropped my bag, lay on the bed and pulled out my phone. The screen unlocked to a thunderous repetition of the Grindr notification sound. As any regular user would know, being a new face in town usually helps generate some interest but I had never experienced anything like this. I had a few short conversations, but the influx of new messages was making using the app difficult so I put the phone down and got some well-deserved rest. Opening the application the next morning, I saw that one of the guys that I had chatted briefly had gotten annoyed that I had stopped replying. At the end his barrage of messages was one word – sombong. I remember placing it into google translate, mostly expecting a swear word or insult but instead it translated as ‘Arrogant’ – a word that although not positive, comes across as quite civil in English (especially for a grindr user). I apologised and told him I had fallen asleep. He immediately wanted to meet up, I told him I liked to chat a bit more with people first and then subsequently he got lost the in onslaught new messages.
Grindr isn’t like that for me anymore, but I’m still far more popular here than I would ever be in Australia. I’ve often asked friends why “Bule” men are so popular in Indonesia, or why they personally are so focused on dating bule men. The responses mixed in with my own personal experiences have varied quite a lot so I thought it best to explore them thematically. Before I do, I just want to note that these are just explorations. There is a danger in drawing conclusions from anecdote and personal experience, especially in a place as large and diverse as Indonesia. I do think that it is important to explore, especially as a white person working in a post-colonial country.
From the men who have been kind of me to answer my seemingly endless questions about this topic, the most common answer to being attracted mostly, or exclusively to bule men focuses on several physical attributes that are attributed to them. Bule men are seen to be tall, hairy, masculine, have bright skin, nice noses and a large dick. I’ve genuinely had Indonesian friends insist (with a tone of jealousy) that all bule men are good looking but for those of us who have been around white guys long enough, I’m sure every feature on that list is instantly suspect. I’ve often joked to my Indonesian friends that if they ever spend some time in Australia that they are going to experience serious disappointment – especially where dicks are concerned. It appears that the American porn industry has a lot to answer for, as many of my Indonesian friends have rather… optimistic… expectations about what the average white Australian man might be packing in his underwear. It may seem crass, but it’s a constant reference point at the centre of comparison between local and bule bodies, and to me acts as a stand in for a lot of insecurities about comparative masculinity that frame the local/bule relationship.
From my experience, it is often a lack of interaction with bule by many Indonesians that allows this mythology to develop. Generally, it is my friends who have had the least experience with bule men who are the most adamant about the accuracy of these features. Given Indonesia’s size, and the popularity of Bali, it can be confronting how little interaction a lot of Indonesians have had with bule. For them, their knowledge of white bodies is through the consumption of movies, TV and pornography. Media that presents white bodies in their idealised and most sexualised forms. Despite being largely banned in Indonesia, the consumption of pornography by men is rife and relatively open. This ban however means that there is no professional Indonesian pornography, just a smattering of amateur videos and photography. Consequently, the Indonesian bodies encountered carry with them the mundanity of the everyday, as opposed to the carefully curated and edited presentations of white bodies in western pornography. More worryingly, the features attributed to bule men can be inverted for the list of reasons that some of the people I’ve spoken to have little or no interest in other Indonesian men. I met many men who speak to having no experience, and next to no desire to ever be with another “Indonesian guy”. I think this presents as a worrying symptom of the ways in which gay desire is coded through Western discourse – by and through the consumption of white bodies.
Emotions and taste.
Physicality aside, bule men are often seen as more romantic, more faithful and more open. These traits are less pronounced and less cohesive than the stereotypes around bule bodies but I think they are important because they speak more to the barriers that Indonesians face than they do to cultural attributes of gay men originating from a very broad and vague “west”. Speaking to a friend of mine about dating in Indonesia, he told me that one of the questions he always asks men on a first date is if they plan to marry. In Indonesia, that question is always assumed to be about marrying a woman. For a lot of men, especially those with lower socio-economic standing, the answer was yes. For a foreigner that answer can be very confronting and you instantly reach for the easy answers – they “have to” because of ingrained homophobia, family pressure, the need for economic security etc. but the longer I’m here the more I realise there are layers of complication that mean that there are no easy answers. After speaking to my friend, I thought to ask an Indonesian colleague the same question. He is an HIV activist in Bali in his early 30s and I knew he was starting to feel a lot of pressure from his family. His answer was wavering between yes and no, but the reason he gave me wasn’t that he wanted to make his family happy, but that he wanted to ensure his own happiness. My friend said he couldn’t imagine being happy as an older man if he didn’t have children, and that marrying a woman seemed to be his only option.
What does this have to do with how people perceive bule men in the gay scene in Indonesia? I think that the ability to imagine a happy future together is crucial for any relationship. Bule men are seen offer the potential of an alternate future, one that potentially can sidestep a lot of the barriers that Indonesian men face. The carry with them the narratives and dreams from their prospective countries; images of same-sex marriage, of secure childless old age and of alternative family structures. In short, they are seen to offer a greater potential of happiness as an older gay couple, mostly because there is evidence of it. You can meet older bule gay couples on holiday in Bali, you can watch TV shows and movies which highlight the ways in which generic white good looking gay men can have it all. Instagram and Facebook is now full of gym built gay men getting married in their tailor made matching suits surrounded by their friends and family. The reality is far more nuanced and complicated in every country, but for a lot of us from the “west”, these possibilities are at least present. In Indonesia, the future is far more uncertain. What does an older gay Indonesian man’s life in Indonesia look like? What does a 40 year long gay relationship in Indonesia look like? These are the questions that have no easy answers, or the answers that are there aren’t ones that people want to have. The coding of being gay with a western way of living, thinking and being has far reaching ramifications in Indonesia and is something that has been identified as a problem from both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, there is no one way to be gay, but still few reference points to how to “be” a gay Indonesian and for some the bule fantasy offers a far easier option.
Chris Hemsworth and I have not even the most fleeting resemblance, so what is this guy on about? In the above chat snippit, the guy is making me aware that for him, my body isn’t my own but a template for the placement of a million industry produced fantasies. Fantasies are obviously a vital part of sexuality, but when linked to difference and to ethnicity, overall the feeling can be somewhat dehumanising. Over time, the obsession with your physicality can lead you to take for granted the ways in which you generate interest from other people. Obviously this screencap is an extreme example, but every one of my interactions in Indonesia is shaped, one way or another, by my placement as a Bule. Being in Indonesia is the closest I think that I will come to ever experiencing sexual racism but I just wanted to note that is that in my eyes this isn’t racism. Racism for me is intrinsically linked to structures of power. Although prejudice can exist, and my reading as a “bule” in Indonesia can sometimes be flattening, the current state of cultural and geo-political power means that almost every nation on the planet is consistently consuming white narratives, culture, politics and art. This white privilege ensures that, even at its most reductive, bule stereotypes are mostly informed by a largely white dominated global cultural discourse that works to place white bodies at centre of discussions about love, attractiveness and sex. To take the inverse – stereotypes about Asian men’s bodies in Australia – we see that not only are the associations largely negative, but they are largely informed by white perspectives of Asian bodies and the cultural monopolies ensure that there is little contradicting media or role models to balance the dominate societal perception.
Recognising the ways in which white privilege, stereotypes and ingrained power relations structure our relationships is important to ensure that we don’t perpetuate the same injustices that we inherited. What is privilege if not the short-sighted assumption that everyone is on an equal playing field, and that we are somehow deserving of beneficial treatment, no matter how impersonally it is given. We are all interpreted through structures built and shaped by history, and mediated though our own actions. Discourse around privilege is often dismissed as divisive but to strategically forget history is to invite division – an active building of miscommunication which serves to entrench disenfranchisement. In this post, I’ve mostly spoken about the gay men’s community in Indonesia, but fighting this sense of entitlement carries with me throughout all aspects of my life in Indonesia. My relationship to my work colleagues, my attitude towards learning the language, my involvement in discussions around Indonesian culture and politics – all of it is a lesson in practising a strategic humility, and distancing yourself from discourses which work to build cultural arrogance and limit your capacity to listen and learn.
 Bule is a Indonesian term for “white foreigner” – the geographically boundaries of which are blurry – it’s generally seen as a neutral or positive term.
 Obviously, I’m drawing a lot here from anecdote and personal experience. I tried to see if anyone else had written about the experience of being a bule in the gay scene of Indonesia but couldn’t find anything. If you know of anything, or anyone who has done actual research please let me know.
 In Indonesia, the pressure to marry is intense, even here in Jakarta. Although the pressure is felt far more strongly, and from a much younger age for women, as men enter their late 20s and early 30s the pressure to get married and start a family is often felt in almost every conversation. One of the opening small talk questions for young people in Indonesia is “sudah menikah?” or “Are you married yet?”, and that’s just your ojek driver, let alone conversations with your parents and colleagues.
 One of the main arguments against the protection of the LGBT community in Indonesia is that it is a form of Western Imperialism, or even a proxy war against Indonesian culture and masculinity.