Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 17, July 2008

Tom Boellstorff

A Coincidence of Desires:
Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia

Durham: Duke University Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8223-3991-5, xiii, 292 pp.

reviewed by Peter Jackson

  1. A Coincidence of Desires explores intersections between anthropology and queer studies and outlines the contributions that each field can make to the other. Through case studies of queer cultural contexts, practices and sites in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff argues for a greater role for the disciplinary methods of anthropology in the future of American queer studies. This major study reflects a mature consideration of Boellstorff's decade and a half of ethnographic research on Indonesian gay, waria (male-to-female transgender) and lesbi (i.e. lesbian) identities and cultures, and expands on themes first explored in his previous book, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia.[1]
  2. The book's central chapters study Indonesian gay magazines (or 'zines'), waria as 'national' transvestites, the playful linguistic forms of Indonesian 'gay-speak' or bahasa gay, gay Indonesians' negotiation of the increasingly doctrinalist turn in Indonesian Islam, and the emergence of political homophobia that draws on Islamist discourses. While constituting largely stand alone analyses in media studies, cultural linguistics and the politics of fundamentalist religiosity, each chapter summarises a wealth of information within a framework that builds up a complex but coherent picture of the many dimensions of lived queer experience in Indonesia today. There are too many insights in these chapters to summarise in a brief review. However, in the context of contemporary debates on the politics of Islamic fundamentalism, chapter four, 'Between Religion and Desire,' provides a fascinating corrective to simplistic over-generalisations of the religion. While Boellstorff argues that there is an 'incommensurability between Islam and male homosexuality in Indonesia' (p. 143), he nonetheless shows how Muslim gay men have created coherent, although not tension-free, cultures and lives in this space of discursive contradiction. This chapter alone makes the book a valuable contribution to comparative studies of sexuality. It cuts through post-9/11 stereotypes of Islam to reveal the lived religion as being far from monolithic and open to diverse negotiations by men whose sexuality, in strictly doctrinal terms, locates them outside the bounds of orthodox moral practice.
  3. From the perspective of transnational queer studies, perhaps the most important argument presented in A Coincidence of Desires is that contemporary same-sex and transgender identities in Indonesia are neither simple continuations of premodern 'cultural traditions' nor unreflective 'borrowings' of Western models of homosexual and transgender identity. Rather, Boellstorff marshals an array of evidence—press and media representations, local practices and in-group discourses—to argue convincingly that Indonesian gay, waria and lesbi identities are imagined overwhelmingly in national terms, both emerging from and strategically drawing on the discourses and policies of the anti-colonial and post-colonial Indonesian state.
  4. From a comparative, regional perspective Boellstorff also opens a much-needed dialogue on contemporary patterns of homosexuality and transgenderism across Southeast Asia. Western travellers, colonisers and researchers have long noted the many similarities in gender and sexual cultures across the region. This was as true for 'premodern,' 'traditional' cultural patterns as it is today for the complex gendersex transformations that have emerged in the wake of colonialism, the implantation of capitalism, anti-colonial resistance, post-colonial efforts at nation-building and the transnational impacts of post-Cold War globalisation. The final chapter, 'Comparatively Queer in Southeast Asia,' sifts the growing literature on gender and sexual diversity in Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia to provide a first approximation of key findings of early twenty-first century commonalities across the region. The comparatively queer 'theses' presented in this chapter provide a much needed starting point for what is bound to become a highly productive transdisciplinary discussion on the histories and contemporary forms of queer cultures across Southeast Asia.
  5. The book is clearly written and is eminently suited to being added to reading lists in undergraduate courses in gender and sexuality studies, anthropology and Southeast Asian studies. I have only a few quibbles. I found the long, but admittedly descriptively accurate, expression 'ethnolocalised homosexual and transvestite professional subject positions,' often abbreviated to 'ETP,' to denote premodern Southeast Asian queer subjectivities a linguistic and conceptual mouthful. I hope future research leads to a more succinct expression for this historically important regional phenomenon. Boellstorff says that to his knowledge bahasa gay terms are not formed from Sanskrit loanwords, but his list on page 124 lists just such a loanword. He says that the word 'sutra' means 'silk' in contemporary Indonesian but has come to mean 'already' in bahasa gay. 'Sutra' is a Sanskrit word literally meaning 'a thread' but also metaphorically meaning a section of a scripture, that is, 'a thread of meaning' that is woven into a text. A glossary of key Indonesian terms used in this text would have also been helpful for non-Indonesia specialists like myself who have poor memories for new vocabulary.
  6. More broadly, non-American readers may find the American focus of the book's introductory context-setting chapters a bit dissonant with the analyses of island Southeast Asian queer cultures that follow. Boellstorff opens the book by stating that his twin goals are to deploy anthropology to decentre the Amerocentrism of American queer studies and to place the study of sexuality as a central concern of American anthropology. These are important tasks in the United States academy. However, the use of unmarked terms and expressions such 'queer studies,' when specifically 'American queer studies' or 'Anglophone queer studies' are being discussed, was a bit grating for this non-US reader. Admittedly, this discursive universalisation of American contexts is not always the fault of authors. From my experience with American publishing houses it often emerges in the editing process when US-centric editors refashion texts to reflect their own rather than the author's intentions.
  7. These criticisms in no way diminish the importance of this book for comparative studies of (trans)gender and (homo)sexuality across Southeast Asia and internationally. Boellstorff is indeed to be praised for a study that draws solidly on Indonesia-based research to speak to analytical issues that are relevant well beyond that country's borders.


    [1] Tom Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 23 April 2008 1257

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.