Interview: The Politics of Sexual Speech - Dédé Oetomo

‘When there is no language for certain phenomena or acts, people who do not fit the societal norms of sexuality begin to realize that even if the phenomena or acts exist, they are not talked about openly.’

Dédé Oetomo

What comes to your mind when you hear the term 'sexual speech'?

Dédé: What I think of is actually the way sexuality is represented in language, terms about sexual acts, possible techniques, ‘do’s and don’ts’, and the way people use expressions and metaphors to express their understanding of sexuality.

What do you think is the main purpose of creating or maintaining such a language, or developing and expanding it further?

Dédé: There are different levels and different contexts. When there is no language for certain phenomena or acts, people who do not fit the societal norms of sexuality begin to realize that even if the phenomena or acts exist, they are not talked about openly. I may, or may not have the language to say what I am feeling, but even then, that kind of language may not be used in most of the contexts that I know. This is known as the ‘phenomenon of silencing’. This marginalises people and makes them feel that they don't belong, or are excluded from society. So, the importance of using language, let’s say, in schools or families, would be to tell children that what they feel does exist in terms of expression. It could be actually something very normal, like first menstruation, and the way it is expressed in the language. There are girls who would not talk about their first menstruation for months because they feel bad about their bodies and afraid to talk about it openly. It is important to have some kind of language to describe your experience.

How do the definitions, words, language and concepts used in talking about sexuality change over time?

Dédé: It depends on the kind of society. There are societies which are aware of their history, and then there are those which are not. Both face the danger of essentialising the past or the present. For example, because Chinese history has encompassed thousands of years, you generalise that the term you would have used to call what some Emperor did in 2000 B.C. is exactly what you call it now. If you were to look at how societies essentialise the present, you can look at the example of two women who are having sex, then people believe they must be lesbians, or that there must have been lesbians (the way we understand the word now) since the beginning of the human race.

Of course, we know that each society and historical period comes up with terms for behaviors and concepts, but these would have different meanings throughout time. And although the terms may mean the same thing, they may be different depending on the context. For example, the word 'queer' in English once meant 'funny' or 'weird,' and then gradually changed to mean 'homosexual men,' and it was again changed when a movement picked it up, turned it around and made it a rallying term to indicate resistance, pride, fluidity, etc.

We know the word ‘heterosexuality’ now, but for a long time, we didn’t need to have the word because everybody was ‘expected’ to have sex with the opposite gender. You may have had sex with the someone of the same gender but it did not count as a valid relationship or a valid sexuality. So, it is important to realize these realities, if only to understand that there are societies that may interpret the same terms and expressions differently.

Can you talk about how these terms empower/disempower somebody, given they are so fluid?

Dédé: Generally speaking, each term is always contested in society; but it is especially so when it comes to sexuality. I think we can’t say what will empower or disempower. For example, in the West, the queer movement developed when the gay movement became too respectable. But when you use the word ‘queer’ in Indonesia, it just means a cover term for 'gay', which becomes disempowering because it is another small closet where you can hide again. The fact that you can’t be explicit in saying that ‘queer’ is actually ‘radical gay’ - it has lost its power. This is even the case with terms such as ‘metrosexual’ and ‘bi-sexual’. Bisexual can be powerful if people explicitly say that, ‘Yes, of course I have sex with both genders’; but it can also be disempowering when it is used as a cover to say you are more homosexual than heterosexual. Also, it is important to recognize that disempowerment does not come from social movements themselves. It might come from the conservatives, who would label certain behaviours / rela-tionships as ‘bad,’ or ‘deviant’.

When you look at the regional applicability of the larger LGBTIQ framework, how do you translate between that framework and what is happening regionally and locally?

Dédé: I think you have to be careful with terms, but then again, we cannot be in denial of the fact that we belong to a community. Terms like ‘queer,’ etc., are given local meanings. So, I am not nervous about it. The terms would acquire regional meanings, sub-national meanings in locality. I think these days, especially, people have reached a realisation that you can use the terms ‘MSM’ or ‘LGBTIQ,’ but if you are in a local context in, say Cambodia, for instance, the terms would be given their own meaning. When you design your information, education, and communication material or when you talk to, or train, your peer educators, you have to be aware of the local meanings because that usually connects to what people actually do. At the same time, it is important to realize that there are two possibilities.

One is that people may redis-cover old/contemporary terms that crop up from local reality. For example, the terms ‘kothi,’ ‘waria,’ or ‘hijra’ have entered the intellectual discourse1. You can never engineer language. People who work within the framework of human rights, especially people who work at the United Nations, cannot use the local conceptualisations because there are too many. At the international level, you can’t even talk about ‘queer’, as it is so unclear. You have to talk about lesbian, gay, etc – you use the terms, you transform them.

The second possibility is that I believe that to some extent, terms like ‘lesbian’ are made to mutate. For example, in Indonesia, the term ‘lesbianism’ is changed into ‘lesbiola’ which means ‘learning the violin’. You may be in the public bus and you want to say that you are a lesbian to your friend but you may use the word ‘lesbiola’ instead. This shows how communities, often without too much contact with globalised culture, actually pick up words from the media and give them meanings and then twist/mutate the form.

Moving beyond an LGBTIQ framework, another example is if you say that female sex workers just have male partners, you lose out on the local meaning of the context. Some female sex workers may refer to the ones they have a relationship with as their clients, boyfriend, the abusive boyfriend, the future husband, and possibly, the husband. There are five different categories, and time and again you will find it hardest to get the potential husband or the boyfriend to bring a condom. The occasional client is the easiest. So it is important to understand local contexts.

What do you think are ways in which we can further the dialogue around sexual speech?

Dédé: Even in regular daily communication – not even talking about sexuality – there is the process in linguistic communication where you check and re-check the meanings of terms. Without so much using the word ‘context’, people contextualise whatever others say. For example, when doing a training about different sexual acts, you can actually show the participants that even among the 25 people in the same room, there could be 25 different meanings. It is interesting how people actually comment around the language used by the people around them. There is a linguistic device to do that and it is just our task to be aware of these devices and just remind people.

How does organising around language issues tie into realising and promoting rights of a particular community? Should it be broad or specific?

Dédé: This is a debate amongst human rights activists these days. As of now, I don’t think there is a clear solution. There are people who believe that keeping it broad means including everyone; but there are also people who think that if you do not mention every possible single group then you actually risk them falling through the cracks. This is everywhere from the local communities to the United Nations. Personally, I would rather go by the ‘specific’. It depends on what levels you are talking about. For example, if you are talking of drafting a regulation for your province, then you would want to find some common term that could be used in the regulation. In the international region, you will unfortunately have to go by the ‘LGBTIQ’ approach. It is interesting how you use shorthand, for example, advocating within the United Nations, if you use the term ‘gender’, it could mean women and men; but when you use the term ‘gender identity’ it could mean ‘transgender’ or ‘intersex’.

Any last thoughts on the range of language surrounding sexuality?

Dédé: Language is inadequate – even scientific language – in capturing the richness and so we have to struggle with that inadequacy, but that's how we live.

Dédé Oetomo is the Founder and Executive Director of GAYa NUSANTARA, an organisation based in Surabaya, Indonesia, working for the sexual health of gay men, transgendered people, and male sex workers. Dédé also works on promoting research and education in areas of gender, sexuality, and sexual health. He is also active in the Asia/Pacific Rainbow network of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex/indigenous and queer (LGBTIQ+) organisations. He has been active in Indonesia's pro-democracy movement since his student days. Dédé obtained a Ph.D. in Linguistics and Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University (1984). He is a Special Reader at the Postgraduate Program of the University of Surabaya. Dédé is also a member of the Advisory Committee of The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality.