Sexuality in an Indonesian Perspective ~ Guest Post by Stephen Suleeman

Stephen Suleeman is a lecturer at Jakarta Theological Seminary.  For the last 15 years he has been organizing activities and training for JTS students on HIV/AIDS and LGBTIQ issues. This article is a modification of a paper that was presented at “Writing Workshop on HIV & AIDS”, organized by Mission 21, in Jakarta on October 8-10, 2013. 


A Case of AIDS and Homosexuality

Darma is a single man of 52 years old. He takes part in some of his church’s outreach community. However, in these past few years he seldom appears in his church. His friends said that he has moved to his mother’s home in Bekasi, east of Jakarta. And he has been very busy with his work. 

About five months ago, Darma appeared to join the prison ministry of his church. Nothing seemed strange about his condition. That is why, many of his friends were shocked to know that about two months ago he was admitted into the hospital and suffered a very serious illness. 

Darma stopped schooling after he finished his Junior High School because he wanted very much to help his family who was very poor. In spite of his lack of education, Darma was quite successful in his life. His lack of education was compensated by his taking up several book-keeping and accounting classes so that he could get quite a decent job that he was able to buy some homes and other properties. His mother lives in a very small home with only two-bedrooms, which Darma had bought with his own money for her. She makes her living by selling rice in the neighborhood. 

Last month some of his friends went to see Darma in his mother’s home, a widow of 72 years old. They found Darma lying in his bed in a very appalling condition. Darma had lost his appetite. And now he looked thin and very weak. He could not even go to the bathroom by himself. Two people are needed to carry him, and his mother could not do it because she has a small stature. 

When his friends came, they asked Darma, “What happened to you? What kind of illness are you suffering from?” But Darma didn’t say anything. He just said that he had been suffering from some kind of virus that attacked his brain. “I want to die. I am ready to die,” Darma said weakly to his friends. 

Some of his friends saw a piece of paper hanging on the wall in Darma’s room. It was a diagnosis of a CT Scan reading of his condition. It is confidential, but his friends were really curious about his condition as they truly wanted to help him. So, they were very shocked when they saw the report that says, “AIDS suspect”. 

His friends tried to pretend that they did not know what his illness was. They wanted Darma to open himself and tell them what his problem really was. How could they tell his mother about it? What had to be done to get his mother ready to receive this devastating news about her only son? 

A few days later, Darma’s pastor came to visit him. He also tried to find out from Darma what his problem was. But Darma kept silent, refusing to answer all questions about his illness. When the pastor left, Darma’s mother approached him at the gate. She asked him, “Pastor, I know that you must have many friends who are knowledgeable about health issues. Could you please help me to find the medicine for my son? I really want him to recover from his illness. I am willing to pay any amount of money, as long as my son could gain his health back.” 

The pastor replied, “How could I find the medicine because I know nothing about his illness? There are so many virus in the world, and we need to find out his real problem before we can find the cure.” 

“Pastor, I want to tell you a secret. But you must promise me that you would not tell this secret to anyone else. The doctors told me that Darma is suffering from ‘male’s illness,” she said. 

“What do you mean?” the pastor replied. 

“He is suffering from AIDS. But please pastor. This is a secret that only the doctor, you, Darma, and me know. No one else knows about this illness.” The pastor tried to inquire about Darma’s social life, which Darma had so far hidden from his church’s friends. 

Darma’s mother said that Darma had a “close friend”, a man who has been living with Darma in his apartment. He is the one who has been taking Darma to the doctor and the hospital. 

When Darma’s friends knew about his illness and his hidden life, they were very shocked. How should they handle it? About three years ago, the church held a seminar on HIV/AIDS. But when the illness hit home, they seemed to be lost, not knowing how to handle it. Moreover, now they are faced with another different issue – LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer). How should they understand it? What does Christianity say about it? Is HIV/AIDS “a gay disease”? What they had learnt in their Christian community is that God hates homosexuals. God condemns homosexuals. But about this friend, Darma, an activist in their church who seemed to have been living a double life? Is he really condemned by God for his sexual orientation? 


Darma’s silence is a serious problem. His friends never knew how he contracted HIV. How many people has he been in contact with? Who could he have possibly infected? Until 5-6 months ago Darma did not realize that he had HIV virus in his body.  He was still doing his activities as usual. Suddenly, two months ago Darma collapsed, unconscious, and was taken to a hospital. Only then the doctors suspected that he is suffering from AIDS. 

Why did Darma keep silent? Most probably he did not understand what HIV and AIDS are because he is not well educated. Most probably he felt safe because he did not feel anything – until five or six months ago. 

As a gay man, most probably Darma was worried that his church friends would distance themselves from him once they knew about his sexual orientation. It is possible that Darma felt that he would be condemned by his church and his church friends. So far his church has never addressed this LGBTIQ issue because it is a very touchy issue and not easy to handle. That is why people who have a different sexual orientation would feel insecure and do not feel confident to come out and tell others about their sexual orientation. 

If this is the case, then churches – and also other religions – need to open themselves to the correct information about HIV/AIDS and LGBTIQ issues. They need to be open and accept, and even embrace these people as their fellow human beings, as what they are. 


Many Christian churches and Christians believe that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment towards LGBTIQ people because they are involved in an “abnormal” or “deviant” sexual relationship. Bible verses like Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah); Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:2; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 1:7 have often been used to condemn homosexuals. 

Many people in Third World countries also believe that LGBTIQ is a western phenomenon and influence. People become lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender simply because they imitate a western “lifestyle”. 

Now, how about Darma who doesn’t have much education? Is he simply following a western lifestyle? 

To answer these questions I would like to refer to how gender and sexuality is understood by the people in Indonesia. The Bugis people recognize three sexes (female, male, and transvestites) and five genders (women, men, calabai, calalai, and bissu).[2]  Calabai refers to an anatomical male who takes the roles and function of females, while calalai refers to an anatomical female who takes the roles and function of males. Bissu is a priest who appears externally male and is internally female, and vice versa.[3] 

The people of Ponorogo, East Java, are familiar with reog, a traditional dance performed by a man who carries a tiger mask, attached to a large fan which is adorned with peacock feathers. The barong mask is very heavy and the dancer carries the 30-40 kg mask by supporting it by his teeth. People believe that the dancer, called warok, requires some magical power in order to perform his dance. [4]  In order that he can maintain his magical power, a warok needs to maintain a gemblak, a young boy of about 12-15 years old with whom the warok will have sex. 

These two examples I hope can serve as evidence that homosexuality is not a western lifestyle. People were born into it. It is heteronormativity that teaches us to believe that there are only two sexes and two genders.  In fact, heteronormativity seems to have been brought into Indonesia by Islam and Christianity and through their presence, other forms of sexual and gender expression and orientation are condemned and have slowly been changed into a binary one – man and woman, male and female.  

Now, the next question, did God condemn Darma with HIV/AIDS for his “deviant” sexual orientation? First of all we need to know that not every person who has HIV is condemned by God for his or her sexual orientation. According to WHO, in Indonesia HIV is transmitted mainly through the sharing of contaminated needles and syringes among injecting drug users (52.6%), followed by unsafe heterosexual intercourse (37.2%), homosexual intercourse (4.5%) and perinatal transmission (1.4%).[5] 

Thus, homosexual intercourse contributes very little towards the HIV/AIDS problems in Indonesia. But Darma seemed to be very much afraid of telling his friends and his pastor how he contacted the virus. 

Unfortunately President Ronald Reagan had labeled HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease”. And Reagan was strongly supported by some conservative religious groups and people. Reagan’s silence has caused the death of thousands of people. When Reagan finally spoke on the disease in 1987, at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 20,849 had died. The illness has spread to 113 countries, with 50,000 cases. [6] 

It is possible that HIV/AIDS spread through unsafe sexual relationship, but it doesn’t mean that only gays are exposed to it. How about lesbians? Their sexual orientation is also considered “deviant”, and yet HIV risk is very low among them. However, as I have mentioned above, in Indonesia, the spread of HIV/AIDS through homosexual intercourse in Indonesia is very low. 

HIV and AIDS do not discriminate their victims. Anyone can be exposed to HIV because of human failures, such as what happened to about 7,000 patients in Oklahoma, USA, who were  infected by a dentist who is suffering from HIV, and yet continued to handle his patients.[7] 

HIV/AIDS does not discriminate the occupation, the skin color, or even the religion of its victims. No one is immune to HIV. Therefore, as Christians we are called to deal with it seriously. We should not treat this illness and its patients as God’s condemnation. 

The Second Visit of Darma’s Pastor

On October 2, Darma’s pastor once again visited him to serve him holy communion in conjunction with the World Communion Sunday that fell on October 6. 

When the pastor met him, he first asked Darma if he would like to be served holy communion. Darma agreed. Then the pastor asked an elder who came with him to prepare the communion. When they were alone by themselves, the pastor asked Darma, “Darma, I think I know what your illness is. I saw your medicine when I came here last time. And when I went home, I checked what kind of medicine it is on the internet.” 

“That is a medication that my doctor prescribed for me to increase my appetite,” Darma said. 

“Yes, you are right. But the information on the internet also says that this medicine is meant for people who lost their appetite due to AIDS,” the pastor said. 

Darma was surprised. His face looked a little bit bewildered because he never thought that the pastor would search the internet – although actually he already knew from Darma’s mother about his illness. 

“Darma, I would like to tell you that many people contacted HIV through many different modes. They could get it through blood transfusion, through an operation, or through a doctor who lives with HIV. So you don’t have to worry if you are suffering from this illness. We should love you still, no matter what your condition is.” 

Darma was touched when he heard all these words. He almost broke into tears. 

“Darma,” the pastor further asked him. “I would like to ask you one question, and I hope you wouldn’t be offended by my question. Are you gay?” 

“A little, pastor,” Darma said, still trying to hide his sexual orientation. “No, I have left this world since the time I knew that I got this illness.” 

“Darma,” the pastor said, “God created each one of us as a unique person. Some may be created as straight, and some as gay or lesbian. It’s alright if you think you are gay. In fact, I believe that God created your people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer, as a test for us heterosexual, whether or not we could love you as you really are. It’s OK, Darma. In fact, I would like to apologize to you. Please forgive me Darma, for not having talked openly with you and the whole congregation about this issue. Perhaps that is why you have been trying to hide yourself and your sexual orientation. Please forgive us, Darma, the church, for failing to open ourselves to you and your people, that have made you feel insecure about your true selves.” 

Upon hearing it Darma was surpised. He broke into tears. “Oh, pastor, you are incredible. I can’t believe what I heard from you! If only I had known you and your position better, maybe I would not end up like what I am today. Pastor, you are only one among thousands of pastors who are willing to open yourself to me and my people.” 


In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples when they asked him,

“‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’” (John 9:2-4) 

I believe that Jesus’ word is still applicable today. We are called not to treat a person with HIV/AIDS like lepers in the time of Jesus. We are called to do the work of the Father who had sent Jesus, “while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” 

Churches are called to talk openly about LGBTIQ, and treat the issue wisely by not easily linking HIV/AIDS with LGBTIQ, so that people will not look at HIV/AIDS as a gay disease, or treat LGBTIQ people as the cause of HIV/AIDS.  

When the pastor gathered Darma’s friends and discussed his suffering, they decided to help Darma to find the best treatment that he could get, and secondly, to start discussing and understanding LGBTIQ issue. Unfortunately, it has to take a victim for the church to start opening itself towards LGBTIQ issue. Hopefully it would not happen elsewhere. 


[2] Sharyn Graham, “Sulawesi’s fifth gender” in Inside Indonesia, March 19, 2013, downloaded from, October 19, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ian Douglas Wilson, “Reog Ponorogo: Spirituality, Sexuality, and Power in a Javanese Performance Tradition”, in  Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 2, May 1999, downloaded from, October 19, 2013.  

[5]  Directorate General Communicable Disease Control & Environmental Health. (2009). “Statistic of HIV-AIDS cases in Indonesia: Reported up to December 2009. “

[6] Ibid.

[7] “How an Oklahoma dentist may have exposed 7,000 patients to HIV, hepatitis”, CTV News,, downloaded on September 26, 2013. 


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4 Responses to Sexuality in an Indonesian Perspective ~ Guest Post by Stephen Suleeman

  1. Thank you, Stephen, for a strong and informative text.

  2. Laura says:

    It is so good to see this conversation in an international context. Some denominations in the West point to the international church as the reason they are continuing to discriminate against homosexuals. Knowing this dialogue has expanded and is active will help the western church I hope to let go of its exceptionalism and force it to stop hiding behind fear.

  3. I would like to underline the point made by Laura–it is very important. Thanks, Stephen.
    Richard Haskin

  4. Kadarmanto Hardjowasito says:

    Thank you, Stephen.

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