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Going back to the small-town closet


A day at the Islamic boarding school for transgender Muslim women (pesantren waria) in Yogyakarta, Central Java.

Going back to the small-town closet

By Diego Garcia Rodriguez, University of Sussex 

I can still remember how my grandfather would call me sarasa when I was a child, every time I walked flamboyantly around the living room of his house. ‘Sarasa!’, he would scream, with a half-smile that I read as representation of both defeat (I was not what he expected from me) and superiority (he was the right type of ‘man’, I was not). The word, which I have not heard for more than 20 years now, is used in Spanish to insult effeminate men, and has been translated into English as ‘fairy’, ‘fruit’, or ‘poof’. Like many queer people growing up in such environments, I had to keep myself in a small-town closet, until I could eventually leave.

Years after being mocked for being ‘too feminine’ for the small town I grew up in, I found myself conducting fieldwork as a PhD student in Indonesia. I was there to research the everyday religion of queer Indonesian Muslims, and the emergence and development of queer-friendly Islamic discourses. The journey to get there had not been easy: it depended on two different processes of ethical approval. One, from the UCL Research Ethics Committee, and another from the Indonesian Ministry of Research and Technology, which requires all foreign researchers to obtain a permit before starting their studies in the country.

The government of Indonesia has been hostile toward queer people in recent years. In early 2016, the Indonesian Minister of Higher Education expressed his desire to ban LGBT student groups from universities. The Minister of Defence compared the LGBTQI+ community to “a bomb”, saying that sexual minorities were not only “dangerous” but also “a threat.” This was followed by the ban of LGBTQI+ apps such as Grindr, and the classification of same-sex sexual orientation and transgender identities as mental disorders by the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) almost thirty years after the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. Even though Indonesia does not currently criminalise homosexuality, the events taking place in the last four years have demonstrated an increasing hostility towards LGBTIQ+ people in the country. Because of this, when I applied for my research visa in 2016, I had to be careful about how much information I was willing to reveal about myself and my research topic.

I arrived in Indonesia in the midst of such homophobic hostility and settled down in a small apartment, which one of my friends found for me, located in Jakarta’s Kalibata City. One of my local mates, when describing the area, said: “this is where the queers, prostitutes, and refugees live.” A great mix, I thought. It was on my second day, as I was leaving the apartment, that I noticed a poster in front of the lift. It showed a little baby and a few sentences opposing LGBT people and defending heterosexuality, which was needed “to protect Indonesian children”. I told my friend about this. He was not surprised and described a number of raids that had taken place not far from there, leading to the arrest of gay men who had gathered to celebrate parties.

Visiting the National Mosque Al-Akbar in Surabaya, East Java.

This context meant I had to permanently commute between my openly gay identity, and a pretended heterosexual one. Going to karaoke, food stalls, and malls with my queer friends provided opportunities to be myself, in contrast to encounters with taxi drivers who asked me what I was doing in the country, or local authorities with whom I had to engage in endless bureaucratic procedures.

Whilst this was not always easy, my ability to commute between these identities in the field had a lot to do with my position as a privileged white man in the Global South. I was able to hide my sexual orientation for the general public, answering questions about what brought me to Indonesia using a range of responses that, after a few weeks, I had already memorised. I had a wife, whom I left in England, we were going to have children soon, and she would eventually join me in Indonesia. I was there studying Javanese culture. My wife was a teacher at university. I would slightly modify these stories every now and then to mention a child I left behind, another detail that would make me sound more ‘straight’, something that would not raise suspicions. All this felt very familiar. It was all a renewed performance of fake heterosexuality, just as I had done growing up in a small town surrounded by people who were not willing to accept the different.

Commuting between my gay self and my fictional heteronormative identity emerged as a dilemma and source of anxiety that I did not know how to resolve. I started to feel disappointed with myself for not being transparent about my research and who I was. This feeling intensified when I considered the courageous work done by the queer activists I was interviewing, who did not have the same privileges as me when it came to negotiating their safety or of hiding their queerness in Indonesia. This was especially the case for transgender men and women who struggled to ‘pass’ as cisgender people.

Presenting on faith and humanity at an event organised by Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth organisations.

These experiences brought back memories that I thought I had left behind, of a time when I was closeted in the rural town where I grew up. I became afraid that someone might google my name and find out who I was. I took down all articles I had written with the slightest connection to queer issues and changed my name on social media, a strategy that queer researchers often adopt in the field. As some of the people I had interviewed passed away for various reasons, but mainly because of AIDS, and homophobic events continued to take place across the archipelago, my mental health reached an all-time low. It was at this point that I contacted my university’s psychological services, which reacted surprisingly quickly to my needs. I was not prepared for that.

LGBTQI+ researchers are often required to consider the potential challenges we might face by completing risk assessments and emergency plans. However, what is needed, I argue, is more support from academic institutions to face these challenges. Spaces for queer researchers to come together and share their pre- and post- fieldwork experiences could be useful to tackle these issues and learn from each other. In fact, the psychologist I met at UCL proposed the creation of such a forum due to the common patterns she had identified among PhD students. While I do not know if this was ever created, universities should consider the significance of such initiatives and consult students to identify what their needs are. Continuous, proactive care from PhD supervisors and relevant staff should always be provided before it is too late.

My experience could be useful for other researchers doing similar work, serving as a reminder of how fieldwork can be emotionally and physically taxing in ways we might not fully anticipate. I was lucky to receive support when I asked for it, which helped me understand how to deal with anxiety, but others might not feel ready to proactively follow the same steps. For LGBTQ+ researchers to feel supported in the field, institutions and academics must take this into account and establish robust support systems during and after fieldwork.

About the author: 

Diego Garcia ( is a researcher at the University of Sussex working on HIV and AIDS. In 2020, he graduated from his PhD in Gender and Sexuality Studies (UCL), which explored the everyday religion of LGBTIQ+ Muslims in Indonesia and the emergence of queer-friendly progressive Islamic discourses.