Benedict “Pak Ben” Anderson and My Study and Activism in Gender and Sexuality

Dédé Oetomo
GAYa NUSANTARA, Surabaya, Indonesia
November 2011

Benedict Anderson (“Pak Ben” [Teacher Ben], as I have always called him) touched my intellectual life in many ways, for which I am eternally grateful. I officially took only one course that he taught at Cornell University when I was a graduate student from 1978 to 1984, his famously excellent seminar on Indonesia. He was a professor in the Government Department; I was majoring in linguistics and took the course as part of the requirements for my minor in Southeast Asian studies.

In the spring of 1982, as I was finishing my coursework and preparing to conduct my dissertation research, John Wolff, my committee member for Southeast Asian studies, strongly suggested that I replace him with Benedict Anderson, so that I would benefit from Anderson’s incredibly vast and deep knowledge and understanding about language and society with regard to the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia, the focus of my research. I did, and I have always treasured how much I learned from his supervision and mentoring.

Those “official engagements” with Pak Ben form only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. To be part of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program community meant that I learned equally much, perhaps more, outside of class, such as during the briefest of informal conversations at 102 West Avenue, the legendary Cornell Modern Indonesia Project building; at the wonderful Echols Collection on Southeast Asia at the Olin Graduate Library; during dinners with visiting scholars or fellow students celebrating birthdays or completion of their studies; and at student dances.

I also learned vicariously through fellow students who took his courses, such as Nancy Florida, when she took a seminar on the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer in the spring of 1980; Jeffery Sng, my flatmate from 1978 to 1980, who was a graduate student in government; and Nicola Reiss, also a flatmate (1983-84), who took Anderson's seminar on Indonesia later.

I have also learned a great deal from Pak Ben’s writings on many aspects of Indonesian society and culture. Growing up under the repressive New Order regime, I had read and known enough from my family, friends, teachers, and other activists about the lies the regime spread about modern Indonesian history, specifically around the events of 1965-66, the invasion and annexation of East Timor, and their rule in general. Pak Ben’s works confirmed what I had suspected was not true about the “putsch” of October 1, 1965.1

My thinking on the complex historical interface between Javanese and Malay/Indonesian, and about the New Order as a structural sequel to the Netherlands Indies state, has been influenced by Anderson’s works on language and power.2 They have helped me approach the use of language in society with a view into class and hegemonic power, something that is unfortunately lacking in mainstream sociolinguistics. This understanding in turn became useful in the various lectures and discussions I had with Indonesian pro-democracy groups in the 1990s.

Many students of Indonesia and critical Indonesian students who have studied or read Pak Ben’s works would write something similar to what I have above. What I wish to share hereafter is most likely little known. It is about how he influenced my thinking as I was starting Indonesia’s first gay organization, Lambda Indonesia.

I came out in the 1979-80 winter intersession at Cornell and once spring semester classes started I joined the campus group Gay People at Cornell. I was soon writing pieces in the Indonesian press about homosexuality, initially using a personal perspective but based on the ideology of gay liberation. After meeting an alumnus, Robert Roth, in the fall of 1980, I started seriously thinking about organizing in Indonesia after I finished my studies.

This was around the same time that I was preparing for my dissertation research, and so in addition to getting advice and ideas about language and identity in East Java’s Chinese community from Pak Ben, I started discussing, sometimes debating, issues around transgenderism and homosexuality, particularly in Indonesia.

Most of this took place in memos and letters (especially when I was already back on Java doing research). Pak Ben was opening my eyes to a different world, in the past but probably contemporarily, where gender identity and sexual orientation were often collapsed, and where identities based on sexual orientation did not exist. And so it was that before I read Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks, I was getting a correspondence course, as it were, on the social and historical construction of gender and sexuality from Pak Ben.3

In addition to writing long letters to me, he supplied me with photocopies of articles, clippings, and index cards from his personal files on the history of homosexuality and transgenderism in the archipelago. These comprise nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works by European explorers and ethnologists, his own notes from the time he spent carrying out his dissertation research in Indonesia in the 1960s, and excerpts on homosexual relations from the Serat Tjenṭini, an eighteenth-century Javanese encyclopedia in poetic form.4

Thus when my comrades and I in Lambda Indonesia published Indonesia’s first gay magazine, G: gaya hidup ceria, we gave ample space to a discussion of culture and history. In the beginning, unknowingly, we tended to use an essentialist approach, but Pak Ben’s criticisms soon put us on the right track of what is now established and known as social constructionism in sexuality studies.

In 1987 the leadership of Lambda Indonesia, reduced to a handful, was dormant, and some of us in Surabaya decided to found another group, GAYa NUSANTARA. We consciously used the word Nusantara to indicate our appreciation of the rich and complex forms of non-gender-binary, non-heteronormative sexualities.5

There are now seventy-odd LGBT organizations in Indonesia, where many of the activists grew up reading G: gaya hidup ceria and our publication, also called GAYa NUSANTARA, and who later took part in our various educational activities. I am proud to say that most of them appreciate our ancestors’ complex understanding of gender and sexual diversity, thanks to what they have learned from us, and we all are grateful for what Pak Ben has learned during his study of Indonesia and that he has, in many ways, given back to us.

  1. Benedict Anderson and Ruth T. McVey (with the assistance of Frederick P. Bunnell), A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University, 1971); and Benedict Anderson, “How Did the Generals Die?” Indonesia 43 (1987): 109-34.
  2. Most of these are reprinted in his Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality (Chichester: E. Horwood; London; New York: Tavistock Publishers, 1986).
  4. Pak Ben later wrote an article about the Serat Tjenṭini and another Javanese work; see “Professional Dreams: Reflections on Two Javanese Classics,” in Language and Power, pp. 271-98. See fn. 15 for a partial list of the published materials he had shared with me.
  5. Nusantara refers to Indonesia’s cultures and civilizations more than the latter’s reference to the nation-state. GAYa NUSANTARA is still being published.