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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 23, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 12
Being Gay in Bali: How the locals live it
Arts & Entertainment
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Being Gay in Bali: How the locals live it

by Scott Wittet - SGN Contributing Writer

'Gay' doesn't translate easily across cultures. We have some ideas about what being Gay means in the States, but in other countries, meaning can be different. In Asia, for example, traditional terms like kathoey (Thailand), bakla (Philippines), hijra (India), and waria or banci (Indonesia) often are translated as 'Gay,' but really they mean 'a boy or man who dresses or acts like a woman' (and who may or may not have had surgery). Those terms are more about gender identity (and all the baggage that goes with gender) than about who that person wants to sleep with.

It gets even more complicated when a Thai, Filipino, or Balinese has been to the States and understands our Gay sensibility - in that case, you can't really be sure what he's talking about when he mentions 'my Gay friend.' Gay man, or transvestite, or both? So when exploring what it means to be Gay in Bali, it's good to keep an open mind to all kinds of possibilities.

During our recent vacation there, my partner Gary and I talked to Indonesians and resident Western Gay men about their lives on this magical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We would have loved to talk with some Lesbians, too, but we didn't get that lucky. Even our Lesbian friend from Seattle who had spent a couple of months in Bali hadn't met any sisters yet. They are there, but not easy to find. Maybe next trip!

Bali is an island in the center of the Indonesian archipelago (south of China and the Philippines). Most of Indonesia is Muslim, but the majority of Balinese are Hindu.

Bali is a charming, welcoming place, full of natural beauty and exotic experiences. It's overrun with handsome bronze guys and offers lifestyles that will have friends rushing to book your private villa's guest room for a visit.

Gay but not out
All the men I spoke with agreed that while Bali is super-Gay friendly - LGBT folks won't encounter any prejudice here - the culture does not support long-term, Gay-exclusive relationships for Balinese.

They don't hate Gay people or Gay sex, but Balinese men and women have a load of social responsibilities that cannot be ignored. Belonging to groups is very important to the Balinese - beginning with their immediate and extended family, but also including their neighborhoods and villages. They are slow to give those relationships up.

Michael Huffman, a friend from Seattle, now spends much of his year in Bali. He built a house there last year, and now is building another - this time an eco-friendly bungalow with solar panels and rammed-earth walls.

Michael confirmed that the majority of Balinese Gay men he's met are in the closet to their immediate families. Even though they're Gay, they tend to get married between age 28 and 32, which is about as long as the culture allows them to be single. There are lots of reasons for this.

In Bali, no matter their age, men aren't considered adults until they are married and have kids. And once they become adults, they take on an incredible number of financial, community, and religious obligations.

Local men are responsible for maintaining and supporting village property, like the local temple. For religious reasons, a son must light his father's funeral pyre if the man wants to get to heaven (Hindus are cremated). Men have to be able to play ritual music and dance to please the gods. And sometimes, when the dance is organized for tourists, it brings in money for village projects.

Most importantly, Balinese love children and can't imagine a life without them (Gay adoption hasn't come to Indonesia yet). Women also have similar responsibilities, and also are expected to marry.

There are no religious taboos against Gay sex in Bali, and among all the sins illustrated in traditional paintings of hell (sins like gossiping, incest, sex with animals, and even excessive farting), nobody faces damnation for fooling around with another guy.

Effeminate men living in other parts of Indonesia often are taunted and are at risk of Gay bashing, but this is very rare in Bali. Over the past 10 years Rio Maryono, owner of Gaya Bali Travel (www.baligay.net), has noticed many more 'ladyboys' immigrating to Bali, because they feel safe there.

There are no laws against Gay sex in Indonesia (except for sex with minors), but that wasn't always the case.

Bali was colonized by the Dutch from the 1840s until WWII. They were after valuable spices that grew there - pepper, cloves, nutmeg - also silk and other exotic commodities. In the late 1930s, the Dutch colonial authorities decided to crack down on Gay activity in Bali (the island already had a reputation in Europe and North America as a Gay mecca). One of the men they persecuted was the German painter Walter Spies, who had lived in Bali for decades, spoke the language, and helped the Balinese adapt traditional art forms into items they could sell, such as paintings.

At Spies' trial, the father of a young man who had lived with the artist for years became outraged at what the Dutch were doing to this man, who he considered his friend. The father jumped up in the middle of the trial, bellowing something like 'What is their problem? If my son and Walter enjoy each other, and both agree, what's wrong with that?' Then he stormed out of the courtroom. (Transcripts of the trial are still locked away, but many witnesses testified to this story.) This is very unusual behavior for a Balinese. It was Dutch Protestantism versus Balinese Hinduism; unfortunately in this case the conservatives won and Walter went to prison for a while.

If you're interested in Walter, the charismatic and pioneering artist, his celebrity guests in Bali like Charlie Chaplin, and Bali as it was back in the day, pick up Island of Demons, an immensely enjoyable, often very funny, novel by Nigel Barley.

You can still feel the echoes of those times in Bali today.

Hooking up with Mr. Right (and his wife)
The great thing now is that the Dutch are gone (except for friendly tourists) and the Balinese still live and let live as far as same-sex action is concerned.

Michael said that his Balinese friends can understand making love with an attractive man, and to them it's neither good nor bad. But living with someone like that in lieu of marriage is a strange concept.

Since their social and religious lives are so intertwined, they can't imagine living as a Gay couple because there's no role for Gays in their society.

Michael remembers a very spiritual, beautiful Balinese he met who was both intrigued by Michael's way of life as a single Gay man, and who also was dismayed that Michael doesn't plan to marry a woman and raise a family.

The mandate to marry can create problems when a guy from Seattle falls in love with an as-yet-unmarried Balinese.

On the other hand, some Westerners find ways to cope well with the system here (and even thrive in it - see Del's story below). And just because his close friend Ketut ties the knot doesn't mean Ketut won't still, sometimes, share his bed. In Ketut's culture it doesn't have to be a contradiction. (And with luck you, and his wife, agree.)

Some Balinese deal with family pressure by moving out. Rio Maryono has lived in Bali since 1999, but was born into a Muslim family on the island of Java (where Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is located). Rio left Java to find freedom to be a Gay man; in Bali he is more independent of family control.

Sometimes Gay Balinese do the same thing, except they move to another part of Indonesia, or to Australia, Europe, or the States. Bali is a small place, and even on another part of the island they would run into people they knew from home, and family influence would still be too strong.

'It's true that most Balinese don't understand Gay people,' said Rio. 'But, like everything else, that's changing, and more Balinese are learning about different lifestyles. For example, hotels and other businesses have been quick to see the potential for Gay tourism and they welcome pink dollars.'

While most Balinese are tolerant, they have their limits. If you (or your straight friends) want to get it on, the locals would prefer you get a room. Public expressions of intense intimacy - kissing, groping, you get the idea - aren't tolerated in this society among Gay or straight couples.

On the other hand, folks don't bat an eye when two Indonesian men hold hands. Those guys most likely are just friends, not boyfriends - they don't grow up with the same male social stigmas we Americans suffer. That said, your Indonesian buddy may not feel comfortable with too much touching in public, even the non-sexual kind.

Most Indonesians don't like to talk publically about sex, and may be embarrassed if Gay issues are discussed in a mixed group. If you want to maintain the friendship, save that stuff for the bedroom. The main thing is to pay attention to your friend's feelings and be kind, but that's good advice anywhere, isn't it?

Jamie James, formerly a critic at The New Yorker and who now lives on Bali, wrote a fun novel called Andrew and Joey, about a Gay couple who move to the island. It does a great job conjuring up the charms and temptations of Bali, and what can go wrong in relationships there.

One of the biggest challenges in cross-cultural relationships is the fact that foreigners living in Bali usually have many more financial resources than their local friends. There are rich Balinese for sure, but most people on the island would consider themselves lucky to make $300 a month (especially younger people). This changes the relationship dynamic and raises the question of whether the two men can be equals & or not.

Cross-cultural relationships suffer from other challenges too. Michael sometimes feels frustrated because he doesn't have an appreciation for how his local friends grew up, their experiences as Hindus or Muslims, their complex family relationships, and their cultural value systems. 'It's all so different here, and when we don't understand, frustration kicks in.'

But Michael works through the aggravation. He says, 'Bali is on the Pacific ring of fire - earthquakes happen - and to maintain balance everyone is making offerings and doing ceremonies all of the time. That creates a lot of positive energy and Bali is different than anywhere else on earth. Visitors are shaken energetically and emotionally when they spend a lot of time here - be prepared for anything! I can't count the number of personal revelations I've had.'

Family life
When he first came to Bali, Michael dated a couple of men who, it turned out, were mainly interested in his resources. One even stole his motorbike.

But things are much better now, in part because Michael's current boyfriend lived in London, New York, and Dubai. The two men find it relatively easy to relate to each other because the BF has experience in Western culture and Michael has experience with Indonesia. Both are professionals and have college degrees. They each have their own online businesses, and help each other with website design. Michael's friend's family is in Jakarta, and he's comfortable living as a Gay man in far-off Bali.

Another American in Ubud, Del Gilkerson, retired from Weyerhaeuser a few years ago, then got a job with the state that only requires him to be in Washington six months of the year. He spends winters in Bali, where he's created a life with strong ties to individual Balinese and to the local community. Over about 15 years, he has developed close relationships with a particular family, and seven years ago he built a small, comfortable house on their land.

Del now spends the cold, rainy months in a breathtaking outdoor living space, perched over a gorgeous tropical valley bursting with green.

Two Balinese men, both in their 30s, help Del around the house. One is an artist and art dealer named Gede (pronounced 'guh-day') who is also Del's gardener and cook. Gede's house is 10 minutes up the road, where he lives with his wife, daughter, mother, and father. Gede had been slowly saving money to rebuild his old house, but a couple of years ago Del lent him the funds to complete the project. Now Gede is repaying the debt by working it off.

The other guy, Kadek ('kah-dek'), is Del's general assistant and driver. Kadek will get married next year and hopes to have three or four kids. He stays with Del now, and after the wedding he'll live with his wife and kids in the same compound.

Instead of feeling jealous about Kadek's imminent wedding, Del will likely be in the middle of that celebration. He told me he looks forward to having 'grandkids' around.

Both Kadek and Gede are frequent companions whenever Del is in Bali. They help with chores, hang around the house, and check email. The three eat together nearly every day and go on errands to pick up groceries or things for the house.

Having these guys in his life gives Del great access to the culture. One day we joined Kadek and Gede in taking offerings and praying at the famous seaside temple called Tanah Lot. It was a joy to participate in that quintessential Balinese experience with our local buddies.

When Del is in Bali, he doesn't pay rent or utilities for the bungalow he built on his friend's land. And when he is in Washington, the Balinese landowner rents the house to tourists. Both men feel like they have a good deal.

The relationships between Del, Gede, Kadek, and the family who own the land are complex. Their ties have sustained for years because they're mutually beneficial. Money is involved, but also respect and friendship - maybe even love.

The same is true for Del's relationship with the village. He has many friends there - everybody waves when we drive by - and he is invited to all their parties and events. His name appears on the long donor list posted at the village temple. Del contributed 40 boxes of floor tiles for the new gamelan pavilion.

The car Kadek drives is Del's, and Kadek uses it for his business as a driver and guide when Del is in the U.S.

The village benefits from having the car around too - recently Kadek rushed a little neighbor girl to the hospital. A week later he and Del chauffeured the village priest to a temple across the island so that he could preside over a special ritual.

Del's new job is official videographer for every family and village event, and he loves it!

Best behavior
Not everyone wants to be as plugged in to the local scene as Del. Fortunately, it's easy to make Balinese friends without becoming so committed. One key is to learn a few simple rules for being polite in their culture. For example, it's rude to offer someone something, or touch them, with your left hand (that hand is considered ritually unclean). It means a lot to them if you transfer whatever you're giving to your right hand first. Don't touch people on the head, and don't put your feet up on the table or chair (feet should stay on the floor, where they belong).

To enter a temple and watch the action during a festival, you must dress appropriately. It's easy; just ask your hotel staff or your local friends to lend you a sarong and sash to wear (or buy a set at the market). And be sure to time things just right so that the cute boy at reception will be available to help you wrap your sarong snugly and drape artful cascades of batik down your thighs.

Take your shoes off before entering a home or shop (wear slip-ons). This is flexible for shops, but not homes. Most important, smile a lot and try your best to avoid showing anger, even in frustrating situations. For the Balinese, and other Asian cultures, controlling one's temper is a sign of emotional strength, and constitutes basic politeness; losing it indicates weakness and immaturity. Lose your temper and you lose their respect.

Finding a house in Bali
Gary and I like Del's strategy of following the sun to Bali when it's dark and rainy in the PNW. There are other good options for snowbirding, of course. Hawaii's great, but you need big bucks to flourish there. Mexico and Costa Rica are close, and they're nice too, especially if you habla español. But for us, nothing beats Bali as a place to spend as much time as possible, so during our recent visit we spent time looking into longer-term lodgings for the future.

An American Gay couple we heard about recently bought a million-dollar palace not far from Del. But that's more house than we need.

We saw a lot of one-bedroom bungalows like Del's, with kitchens and charming outdoor baths, for just $450 or $500 a month. Doable!

A Canadian couple we met were renting a three-bedroom house for just $900, and two of the bedrooms were air-conditioned. This is important for beating the heat and for keeping books, bedding, and clothes dry in the humid climate. Wifi and semi-weekly cleaning were included in the rent, along with two memberships to the Ubud Fitness Center right next door. Very tempting!

There also are cheaper options, like rooms in family compounds.

It's not hard to live in a nice place inexpensively, but at the same time it's tempting to splurge for something fabulous. Cruise the Airbnb or Balispirit websites for private rentals.

In the first article in this series, I talked about the island as a paradise, and sometimes it seems that way to visitors.

But live there for awhile and you'll learn that not all's well. The electricity fails sometimes, and it can get pretty steamy without a fan. The Balinese spend a lot of time preparing for, or participating in, religious rituals and temple events, and sometimes it's hard to get other work done. The community sometimes ignores trash piling up, then has no problem burning paper and plastic when the pile gets too high. The frogs and geckos in the rice fields can get irritatingly boisterous. But sometimes even they are drowned out by motorcycles roaring down unpaved lanes late at night.

Michael sighs. 'You can feel overwhelmed by the utter chaos of a taxi ride or when trying to cross the street in a land with no true sidewalks,' he said. And sometimes the rain falls in sheets, turning your yard, and your street, into a muddy pond.

But then the clouds suddenly scatter and the sky goes blue again. It's time for your deluxe lulur massage and spa treatment. Afterwards you're invited to the neighbor's baby's picturesque 'earth touching' ceremony, where you're treated like the guest of honor. Behind you the kids are learning graceful Balinese ritual dance, without a mirror - their teacher is physically manipulating their little arms so that they feel the movement, and so that their bodies will remember.

Tomorrow morning you have class at the Yoga Barn, followed by lunch at yummy, organic Clear Café.

Life in Bali is good.

You can find details on our favorite hotels, restaurants, and other resources online. Search 'Wittet Bali 2012' or contact me through SGN.

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