Lets (not) talk about sex, baby

by Tabitha Kidwell

This morning, one of the groups in my reading class presented a puppet show about one of the articles they had read. The topic was Rob Portman, the Senator from Ohio who had “flipped” his opinion on gay marriage after his son came out. It was strange to sit in a classroom on the other side of the world and watch a puppet show about my own senator. Without the gay marriage controversy, Indonesian students would never have known the guy’s name.

A few groups picked this article to read, and their reaction papers are very interesting. I write comments on most of the reaction papers (I agree! How interesting! Do you think that will be true in the future? etc.) but I have avoided comments on the papers about gay marriage or gay rights. As a guest lecturer at a Muslim institute, I’m just not sure how to weigh in on it. Most students say something like “I am Muslim, so I do not support gay marriage.” A couple said very enlightened things like “I do not agree, but I understand that marriage is a right for all people,” though many don’t seem to have thought about it much.

In terms of romantic relationships, Indonesia seems to be about where the U.S. was in the 1950s. Society turns a blind eye to pre-marital sex. Sex education is not taught in schools based on the idea that students won’t need it until they get married at 20 or 21. Because of that, Indonesian teens have very limited knowledge of sex. Condoms are available at any mini-market, but many teenagers (and children as young as 12!) end up married “by accident.” As to same-sex relationships, I have had students tell me flat out “Indonesia has no gays.” Maybe because they are so sure of everyone’s sexuality, men are very comfortable showing physical affection with each other. It’s not at all strange to see two men walking down the street arm-in-arm, or a teenage boy reclining between his friend’s legs. Men are even comfortable wearing women’s clothing. There is a great tradition of cross dressing in Yogya, the cultural capital of Java. I first took this as evidence of tolerance for homosexuality, until I was informed that it actually stems from women historically not being allowed onstage. So it’s more like evidence of close-mindedness. Fail.

So, while America is debating gay marriage, Indonesia is debating instituting raids on hotels to catch unmarried couples. The two countries may be light years apart from each other ideologically, but there is still the same impulse for the government to decide who can love whom and under what circumstances. I’ll stay out of the debate except to say that, in both instances, the country would probably be better off without the government meddling in its bedrooms.

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