View Point: Sexualities: The straight and very, very narrow

Published: November 2, 2011

Imagine going to a full-on Javanese royal wedding, full of pomp and ceremony, the bride and groom resplendent in gold jewelry and trimmings and the somber blacks and browns of Javanese traditional attire.

Then imagine attending a huge conference two days later, opened with a dance inspired by Ardhanareesvara, a half-male, half-female manifestation of Shiva, illustrating the dualism of human nature. The dance is very gracefully performed – amazingly so when you consider that the performers are all … men!

Yes, they are Indonesia’s famous third sex, the waria (wanita-pria or female-male), akin to the hijras of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan; the fa’afafine of Polynesia, the kathoeys (ladyboys) of Thailand and the “sworn virgins” of the Balkans, among others.

Very skillful and graceful, inviting much admiration and applause, their performance was also just as kitschy and campy as might be expected. The dancers wore sparkly, sequined and glittery kebayas (traditional blouses), with colors so bright and flashy that the audience needed sunglasses.

The contrast between the two events was huge!

Or was it? In fact, there were lots of similarities. Both had hordes of people watching (5,000 at the wedding, and an estimated 1,200 from 49 countries at the conference), with oodles of dignitaries and foreigners. And both were related to sex and reproduction.

The wedding was Indonesia’s answer to William and Kate’s royal hitching earlier this year: the Oct. 18 nuptials of Nurastuti Wijareni, the youngest daughter of Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta, and a commoner, Achmad Ubaidillah.

The conference, held from Oct. 19 to 22, was the 6th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights (APCRSHR6), which is held every two years. Previously hosted in Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hyderabad and Beijing, the venue for the conference this year was Yogyakarta at the Gadjah Mada University Center for Population and Policy Studies. The theme? “Claiming sexual and reproductive rights in Asian and Pacific societies”.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but don’t you get the feeling that the title is trying to tell us something? If sexual and reproductive rights have to be claimed, that must mean we don’t have them yet!

Perhaps for this reason, APCRSHR6 was a smorgasbord (or a stew?) with a diverse range of issues and topics in the mix: Youth and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) sexual rights, STIs (sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS), contraception, maternal health, abortion, sexual violence and VAW (violence against women), religion and sexuality, sex workers, sex trafficking, among many others. Of course, with so many issues up for grabs, it was hard to satisfy everyone. Some thought there was too much about other sexualities. Others complained there was too much on family planning. One delegate decried the mention of abortion, while others cried that we didn’t pay enough attention to abortion rights!

It was good to see waria (who usually face much discrimination) given such prominence — too bad they only danced (not sure if any of them were speakers).

And it was great that youth took center-stage, with their own one-day forum. After all, around 850 million young people — half of the world’s youth population — live in the Asia-Pacific region, and the rate of teenage pregnancy is over 53 percent in South Asia and 40 percent in Southeast Asia. This means girls are giving birth in their teens rather than going to school — and that can’t be good.

So the conference had a decidedly activist stance, with the tone set by the chair of APCRSHR himself, Prof. Muhadjir Darwin. In his speech, Muhadjir slammed the states of the Asia-Pacific region for their “no action, talk only” attitudes to the rights of marginalized people like sex workers, people living with HIV/AIDS – and schoolgirls. He claimed that states are more interested in saving face than in protecting the rights and dignity of the victims as human beings and citizens.

So true. While there is no longer the chasm between government and civil society that existed under the New Order, a disconnect still exists, particularly regarding anything to do with sexuality. Yes, our conservative President doesn’t like belly buttons on display, but the problem is deeper than that. It is a whole-of-government problem.

Our health minister, Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, is an exception. She is clever enough to acknowledge issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and recognizes that the problem of unsafe abortion must be resolved. In Cabinet, however, she is surrounded by conservative men whose profession is politics, and whose understanding of any reproductive or sexual health issues is virtually zilch. While there are many progressive individuals like Muhadjir out there, they can’t do much without government support.

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