Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012
Evelyn Blackwood

Falling Into the Lesbi World:
Desire and Difference in Indonesia

Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010
ISBN 978-0-8248-3442-5 (alk. paper); xi + 251 pp. US $55.00

reviewed by Sarah Crockarell

  1. Evelyn Blackwood's Falling Into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (2010) is a synthesis and analysis of her experiences with a very specific queer subculture located in Padang, a West Sumatran city. The subjects whose accounts compose this study do not necessarily claim a queer identity; rather, because of the ways that their performance of gender and desire simultaneously resist and reify normative constructs, these women 'fall into' the category of 'lesbian,' or rather into regional and national equivalent categories. 'By examining tomboi and femme selves in the context of global queer movements,' Blackwood explains, 'this book demonstrates the multiplicity of sexual and gender subjectivities in Indonesia and the importance of recognizing and validating these subjectivities in global queer space' (p. 31). Indeed, this study provides important support for the contemporary criticism in queer/feminist discourse that a globalised queer/feminist activist community must allow for a multitude of possible queer 'subjectivities' (defined by Sherry Ortner as 'ensemble[s] of modes of perception, affect, thought, desire, and fear that animate acting subjects,'[1] ) affected by intersecting influences of geography, culture, family, class, race, ability, etc. which affect the development and enactment of gender, desire and sex among individuals. The term 'subjectivity' replaces 'identity' in Blackwood's study to indicate the untraceable multitude of influences and affects that shape and re-shape individuals in a globalised context.[2]
  2. Numerous queer, gender, and feminist theorists have, in recent years, problematised the notion of global (or even national) categorisation of queer subjects as well as the deployment of queer identity and political injunctions that have, historically, originated from western/capitalist queers and feminists, reflecting liberal assumptions that may not acknowledge or allow for the possibility of certain types of queerness. The tombois and their 'girlfriends' that Blackwood discusses are not only alienated from global, but from national Indonesian queer activists because of the specificity of the formation of their subjectivities which resists heteronormative structures by, paradoxically, creating gendered individuals and relationships that are intelligible within these structures. Blackwood discusses how nationalist/political as well as socio-cultural and religious discourses affect gender, sex and desire in contemporary Indonesia, specifically among this particular group of lesbi individuals, and her interviewees reflect the heterogeneity of Indonesian culture as they are Minangkabau, an ethnicity with its own specific set of traditional practices and beliefs. Tombois are individuals with female bodies who perform a masculine gender, whereas 'girlfriends' or femmes are normatively-gendered females. Blackwood argues that her subjects 'do not produce themselves just as they see fit,' but rather, 'integrate multiple forms of knowledge to take up intelligible subject positions and yet at the same time creatively respond to and manipulate the structures of knowledge' (p. 209) regarding gender that are deployed by Indonesian religious and political authorities. Situated in a context defined by religious, cultural and political insistence on binary gender, tombois and femmes defy the biological element of this binary while, at the same time, occuping normative gender positions. As Blackwood explains, 'their subjectivities rely on and yet play with normative categories of gender' (p. 91).
  3. The introductory chapter clearly and carefully lays out not only the theoretical underpinnings of Blackwood's study (which encompass a significant number of recent developments in queer and feminist theory) but also the major cultural, social, spiritual and political circumstances that influence the national and local context in which her subjects are situated. In Chapter 2, Blackwood further explicates how political and religious ideological structures shape notions of gender, desire and sex for Indonesians, as well as how these structures conflict with older cultural traditions, such as the live performance of Hindu myths in which gender is more fluid and sexed bodies are changeable. This chapter also discusses how lesbi and other queer identities are depicted in the contemporary popular Indonesian media accessible to Blackwood's subjects. The accounts of the tombois and femmes of Padang are first discussed at length in Chapter 3, which focuses on the individuals' childhoods and senses of gender in their formative years. Blackwood situates these accounts in the larger discussion relating to how gender is embodied and enacted by children, acknowledging the precariousness of using 'adult narratives' to 'identify the processes by which children come to take up gender' (p. 67). Chapter Four builds on this discussion of gender formation by examining tombois' and femmes' sense of self as men and women in their interactions with each other' (p. 118), using not only interviews with these individuals but also Blackwood's own observations from her time spent with her interviewees to create a picture of the relationships.
  4. The second half of this study builds an analysis of the experiential narratives, material circumstances and theoretical notions explicated in the first half. In Chapter Five, Blackwood addresses the question of how tombois and femmes understand their own desires and their own status as lesbi. This discussion is particularly significant as it shows the highly personalised nature of these individuals' senses of their own identities; several of the 'girlfriends' Blackwood interviewed, for instance, claim to see no difference between dating a normative male and a tomboi, while some describe distinct differences between the way tombois and normative males treat women, and one femme asserted exclusive interest in tombois. Chapter Six discusses the ways that lesbi, specifically tomboi, individuals perform their gender and desire differently in private, communal and public spaces, interrogating the specific ways that cultural practices, perhaps most significantly familial ties, overlap and intersect to affect lesbi subjectivities. Blackwood engages Gloria E. Anzaldúa's concept of 'mestiza consciousness' to illustrate the 'multiple allegiances as well as anxieties that produce rich and complicated subjectivities' (p. 177), exemplified by the subjects of Blackwood's study. The final chapter discusses these 'complicated subjectivities' and the implications thereof in the context of national and global queer communities, focusing not only on how tombois and femmes in Padang 'intercept and selectively appropriate circuits of queer knowledge' (p. 179) but on how mainstream feminist/queer activists similarly 'appropriate' knowledge of highly-specific, non-metropolitan and non-western queer subjectivities.
  5. In her review for Issue 18 of this journal, Tracy K. Lee praises Women's Sexualities and Masculinites in a Globalizing Asia (2007) for 'its focus on working-class women and social groups that have been largely neglected in previous feminist and lesbian studies' (para. 3). In Falling into the Lesbi World, Blackwood expands on the work done in this collection (which she co-edited with Saskia E. Wieringa and Abha Bhaiya). 'Where much of the theorizing about queer globalization has focused on Internet-savvy, educated activists in major urban centers,' Blackwood asserts, 'I focus on the lives and experiences of working- and lower-middle-class individuals in a regional city to tell the story of a different sort of "queer"' (p. 5). Blackwood's considerable personal experience living in Indonesia and interacting with Indonesian individuals and communities categorised as 'queer' contributes tremendously to the coherence and authenticity of her discussion. Though the fastidiousness with which Blackwood iterates and reiterates her theoretical movements as well as her analysis of her findings may feel tedious to experienced queer/feminist/Asian scholars, her clarity and conscientiousness makes this study highly accessible and applicable—characteristics which are significant because of this study's potential contribution to contemporary and future queer/feminist scholarship.
  6. Most significantly for scholars of queer, feminist, gender theory and beyond, Blackwood's study offers a sophisticated and productive model for examining global subjects without reducing them to more dominant categories and modes of understanding. Blackwood concludes that her findings in this study 'demonstrate that there is neither a homogenous global, nor a national queer identity' (p. 207), and her work supports the argument that it is not only knowledge-reducing but materially and emotionally harmful to place externally-developed organising schema over highly specific subjectivities and localised queer cultures, whether that schema is western notions of queer sexuality or national Indonesian queer activism. This brings up the question raised by contemporary queer and feminist theorists including Chandra Mohanty (who Blackwood engages and quotes) of how political work can be done without reductively collapsing discrete groups, like Blackwood's interviewees, into a unified, globalised queer community. Indeed, Blackwood acknowledges the threats that exist for the tombois and femmes who she interviewed which could potentially be countered by a force of political solidarity (p. 209); in addition, binary gender roles are maintained in the relationships among tombois and femmes, perpetuating female passivity and restricting the agency and subjectivity options available to many individuals. While she does not portend to resolve these and other complex issues, Blackwood offers a cogent model for engaging with rather than transcending, collapsing, or erasing difference as a vital part of global feminist/queer scholarship.[3]


    [1] Sherry Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject, Duke University Press, p. 107.

    [2] Blackwood's use of the term 'subjectivity' as an alternative to 'identity' is similar to Jasbir Puar's use of 'assemblage', which she defines as 'an affective conglomeration' composed of 'given materialities of the human body and cultural inscriptions' that overlap, interlace, and are influenced in numerous and unpredictable ways by external knowledge (see Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 211).

    [3] Chandra Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 26 April 2012 0950