Navigating Bali’s Gay Scene
The drag queens moved through a mixed crowd in Seminyak’s Bali Joe, leaving a trail of excitement and animation. They caught the hands of their favourite fans and flashed flirty eyes at new faces, all of whom came together and willingly followed the lip-synching glamazons from one stage to the next. The procession was like an electric current that lit up the upturned faces and put a fat grin on mine.
I had expected to feel out of place, but by my third visit to Seminyak’s concentrated strip of gay bars, I was starting to fall in love with their hodge-podge clientele, try-hard glamorous décor and vibrant acts. I was even starting to forgive their prices as I sipped on the second and last small Bintang I could afford that night.
One of the reasons I’d expected to feel excluded was the black-and-white characterisations that Bali’s queer scene had been given in anything I’d read about it. In the eyes of most writers, LGBTIQ life in Bali is entirely dominated by tourism, and the money which it involves. Specifically, and exclusively, between young local men and older, male, mostly Australian tourists. Not good news for a young, bisexual woman, but I did have the ever-entitling status of tourist to my name. I would be tolerated in what Richard Ammon for GlobalGayz.com described as Bali’s “ambient state of mind” in the absence of a “tangible vortex of queer culture”.
Not only do writers consistently state that Bali has no LGBTIQ culture available for local people, but that any culture that does exist is actually damaging to Balinese life. In Benjamin Law’s book Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, he saw Bali’s queer scene as a large part of the fast-paced tourism that had “steadily eroded Bali’s native culture, environment, language and religion”.
But the more I looked, the more this characterisation didn’t seem to match up with what I saw. I saw young local couples enjoying themselves in clubs like Bali Joe. I saw groups of friends of all different ages and backgrounds. I even saw women, whose total absence in all the writing I had come across had lead me to believe they had no place in this environment. And while I can’t speak for Bali’s historical culture, this wasn’t the straightforward narrative of older, sexually racist, Western tourists using their money to get anywhere they wanted with local boys.
Still, that didn’t stop me resting on my stereotypical expectations when I met Tom and Jaya. Sporting the typically Indonesian boyish grin, I presumed Jaya was younger; there turned out to be a one-year age difference. I also presumed that his white partner, Tom, must be a tourist looking for a good time in Bali.
Guess again: the couple had met seven years ago in the UK where were now living, married. Tom had joked about how they were the total inversion of the typical couples in Bali Joe, and unwittingly called me out on my ignorance and presumption. One of those humbling moments where life gently reminds you to stop being a twat.
Their experiences were varied, and they had seen what the other writers had described.
“There is that culture isn’t there? Of the white guys being seen as like the magnet,” Tom said.
“Yeah, you go to the toilet in Bali Joe’s or something and you have three or four lads around you like ‘Hey mister come here, come here.’”
It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen this too; it had particularly crystallised for me in a moment where a young Balinese guy had been shooting joke flirty faces at me, and his much older white partner grabbed the back of his neck and forcibly turned him away from me. Often, this severe power dynamic where tourist-is-king burst through what was generally a pleasant atmosphere. But, Seminyak offered far more than just that. It offered a scene that was nuanced and complex, and in that complexity was a queer culture that was alive and well.
A few weeks after that night, Jaya and I ducked into a cramped pub to avoid the rain lashing through the streets around London Bridge. I got to listen to him talk with such eloquence and passion about queer life in Indonesia. Born in Jakarta, Jaya left over five years ago, partly because of what he described as a “hiccup” with his family. Happily, his relationship with his family is getting better, but every year when he comes to see them in Jakarta, he and Tom get to re-experience travelling as gay tourists all over Indonesia.
This is where Bali plays an important and practical role for the couple. While Jakarta is home for Jaya, for Tom it’s a different experience: “Jakarta is not a holiday destination for me because I’m not experiencing your family,” he explained. “I’m waiting by the phone for you to say ‘I’ll be home soon’ or ‘I’ll be in the hotel’ and that’s really hard. That’s not relaxing; that’s not a holiday.”
This is a couple who are incredibly brave and resilient. Jaya is full of calm acceptance: “Well, sometimes I just need to play along with what the locals could offer,” he admitted. “It could be tiring but I’m just thinking that it’s still better than nothing.” It became clear that he and Tom get an important, and hard earned, bit of escape out of their time in Bali. “We go to Bali so that we can be relaxed for a bit you know? Like, we can go to the beach together without people judging,” Jaya explained. “That’s the only place that we can feel like we can be relaxed, let our hair down.”
They both openly stated that scenes like the Seminyak strip were only made possible by tourism, as Jaya put it, “Everyone’s different anyway … the more mixtures of your populations, for me, it will be better because there won’t be like a majority in a way.” But when asked who he felt the bars were for, Jaya gave me the simple answer that my experience seemed to support: “They are for the locals as well.”
I think we have a habit as tourists, particularly white tourists, of assuming we’re responsible for a lot more than we are; of appropriating cultures that we presume to belong to us because they are open to us. Particularly when, as in Bali’s case, they rely on our money. But whether or not it came into existence because of tourism, Bali does have a local LGBTIQ culture and it does not belong to foreigners. Yes, Tom and Jaya are often there in a tourist capacity, and yes Jaya is Javanese and not Balinese, so not as strictly local as many people that I met. But Tom put it beautifully in the heart-wrenching moment where looked at Jaya and said, “Bali is the place where I can see him be himself and be Indonesian. Where he can wear a wedding ring and be in Indonesia.”