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Dance for awareness: Cinta and Hartoyo perform with other members of the LGBT community to promote Our Voice LGBT news portal. JP/Dina Indrasafitri
“This place has not changed in 20 years,” Widodo Budidarmo, an activist for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights and empowerment, said last month in what was used as a dressing room in a nightclub in West Jakarta.
The “place” seems to cater to a niche. Before the nostalgic remark, his eyes quickly scanned the narrow space with its chipped paint and meager furnishings. When a young man used hairspray to style the hair of Widodo’s friend, Cinta, who was about to perform, several people fled the pungent mist filling the room.
With a Rp 20,000 (US$2.12) entrance fee, the club’s market appears to target those who prefer spending the rest of their money on more vital necessities, and the flirtatious exchanges between the men in the club that night implied that it was one of the few “don’t ask-don’t tell” socializing spots Jakarta has to offer for gay men and transgenders.
Widodo said he first came to Jakarta in the early 1990s. The club was one of many where he worked as an entertainer and a dancer. His visits to the place now, however, are mostly related to his activism.
Arus Pelangi, the LGBT rights organization with which he is involved, has been conducting awareness campaigns on subjects such as safe sex and human rights in the club. Messages relating to the subjects are often embedded in the entertainment provided there.
“Arus Pelangi has a commitment to educate the MCs in the club to insert information about HIV/AIDS campaigns and human rights issues [in their entertainment sessions] … we have conducted trainings for MCs in gay clubs so that they can speak about health and human rights issues,” Widodo said.
The club that night was due to house yet another awareness campaign. Cinta, who was having the hairspray treatment, was about to perform a dance in the club as part of the campaign to promote the website of Our Voice, an LGBT organization focusing on media-related activities.
Admitting that he was not used to dressing in drag, he had surrendered his fate to two young men working at the club. One of the youngsters worked swiftly with his hair and face, producing an edgy look that wowed him at the end.
“If they say that all gays can do makeup, I am living proof that it is not true,” Hartoyo, the chair of Our Voice, said, as he too had his lips painted by one of the young men.
Cinta and Hartoyo then danced with several others in front of the club’s crowd that night to a medley of songs by Lady Gaga, the American singer who recently canceled her show in Indonesia partly due to protests by several fundamentalist groups. Gaga is known for her support for pluralism in sexual identity.
It might be safe to say that Our Voice and Arus Pelangi have chosen the right spot to promote their messages. In a country where homosexuality is still considered taboo, nightclubs popular with LGBTs can indeed be a safe haven to gather and overtly express their sexual identities.
Along with the excitement come high risks, especially regarding the dangers of unsafe intimate encounters prevalent in such a sexually charged place.
To describe just how steamy these clubs can be, Hartoyo went so far as to say that the affectionate gestures popular among gay men are usually more intense than those displayed in “ordinary” clubs. Those who came to the club for the first time, he said, might be shocked by what they saw.
“You can even have someone follow you to the bathroom,” Riki — not his real name — said. The young man, who performed with Hartoyo and Cinta that night, is perhaps one of many who have recently become more open about their sexuality, although he still hides it from his family in his hometown.
Upscale nightclubs, and the likes of the one they performed in, are not the only socializing havens for gay men. Another option for fun seekers are saunas and spas.
A visit to a place rumored as being the only gay spa in the capital revealed that sensual adventures can be made available to those who desire them for an extra Rp 150,000.
The so-called “gay bathhouse” is located in Central Jakarta and comes equipped with male escorts, spa, sauna and a “dark area” shaped like a labyrinth. The crowd flocking there — usually on weekends — includes expatriates and professionals, openly gay men and those who wish to keep their sexual preferences secret.
The “dark area” is usually a favorite among those who wish to be discreet about their sexual activities. This category may include those who in public live their lives as heterosexuals; some may even have wives and children.
Despite condoms being provided in the lockers, sexual activities conducted in these “bathhouses” are necessarily higher in risk, because there are greater chances for multiple sexual encounters.
The risks may prevail, but the years of activism by LGBT campaigners may have – at least to a certain extent – provided basic knowledge for the community to counter them.
According to Widodo, awareness about issues such as human rights and sexual health has increased a great deal compared to the years when he first came to Jakarta to work in night clubs.
LGBTs, for instance, are currently more aware of the options available to them should they experience human rights abuses. According to him, many of them have sought advice on legal matters from Arus Pelangi.
And gay men in particular — especially those who frequent the club where Arus Pelangi holds its campaigns — have become more aware of the risks involved in casual sexual encounters.
“They know that if they have unsafe sex it will have an effect on their health. They know what sexually transmitted infections are,” Widodo said.
According to data from the Health Ministry, available on the AIDS Mitigation Commission (Komisi Penanggulangan AIDS) website, the trend for the transmission of AIDS through homosexual contact has been in decline, going down from 64.7 percent between 1987 and 1990 to around 4 percent in the period 2006-March 2011.
The ministry’s data during the first three months of this year showed that the highest risk of HIV transmission — at 46.6 percent — came from unsafe sex among heterosexuals, while the risk rate among homosexuals was 6 percent.
The Health Ministry’s 2011 report revealed that reported new cases of AIDS transmittance between January and March of last year had been 3.42 percent through male-male sexual contact, while transmittance via heterosexual sexual contact had been 66.95 percent.
However, Kemal N Siregar from the AIDS Mitigation Commission said that the number of HIV-infected men who have sex with men has been increasing.
“New infections among men who have sex with other men are increasing due to anal sex without condoms. This category [of people] has yet to access medical service for sexually transmitted diseases in an optimal way,” he said in an email to The Jakarta Post.
According to Kemal, the 2011 Biology and Behavior Survey (STBP) revealed a decrease in HIV prevalence among transvestites (waria) in a city from 24.3 percent in 2007 to 23.2 percent. “In other words, HIV prevalence among waria has yet to undergo major changes,” Kemal said.
According to Widodo, HIV awareness campaigns should avoid being “projects” that often stop after a certain period and fail to involve the wider community.
He added that awareness of issues such as sexual health among the LGBT community, including those who work as entertainers in clubs, needs to be constantly encouraged. “We cannot leave them, they must be reminded [or else] they will be too busy with themselves.”
During a quiz in the club that night, an audience member replied “Lesbian, Gay, Bottom, Top” (the last two words being familiar terms in gay sex) when asked what LGBT stood for. It would seem that even after all these years, there is apparently the need for more campaigning. (asa)