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Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post
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And thus passeth a giant'€¦

  • Dédé Oetomo

    The Jakarta Post

Surabaya | Tue, December 15, 2015 | 12:49 pm

On Sunday morning, Dec. 13, I received a rather cryptic message from the writer Eka Budianta, asking me about '€œthe plan with Pak Ben'€ and adding '€œthat he got what he wished for'€.

I was utterly shocked to find out it was Benedict Anderson who had died in his sleep in Batu, Malang, East Java, in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Benedict Richard O'€™Gorman Anderson was born in Kunming, Yunnan, China, on Aug. 26, 1936. In the funeral preparations in Surabaya, ethnic Chinese activists were very helpful. Previously, in the early 2000s, many ethnic Chinese were so impressed by Ben'€™s knowledge of the Chinese of Indonesia that some jokingly called him Chinese, also because he was born in China.

He went to Eton and then Cambridge for his first degree, later proceeding to Cornell to do a PhD in government, specializing in what in the 1960s was the newly initiated Indonesian studies field under George McT. Kahin and other pioneers.

He was a good, meticulous teacher and supervisor, a humble giant of a scholar, and as some of his former students have said in their Facebook posts, a good man with a big heart.

Pak Ben touched my intellectual life in many ways. I officially took only one course that he taught at Cornell when I was a graduate student there from 1978 to 1984: His famous seminar on Indonesia.

In the spring of 1982, as I was preparing for my dissertation research, John Wolff, my committee member for Southeast Asian studies, strongly suggested that I replace him with Anderson, so that I would benefit from Anderson'€™s incredibly vast and deep knowledge and understanding about language and society with regard to the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia, the focus of my research. I did, and I have always treasured how much I learned from his supervision and mentoring.

To be part of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program community meant that I learned equally much, perhaps more, outside of class as in, such as during conversations at the legendary Cornell Modern Indonesia Project building; at the wonderful Echols Collection on Southeast Asia at the Olin Graduate Library; during dinners with visiting scholars or fellow students celebrating birthdays or the completion of their studies; and at student dances.

I have also learned a great deal from Pak Ben'€™s writing on many aspects of Indonesian society and culture. Growing up under the repressive New Order regime, I had read and known enough from my family, friends, teachers and other activists about the lies the regime spread about modern Indonesian history, specifically around the events of 1965-1966, the invasion and annexation of East Timor and their rule in general. Pak Ben'€™s work, especially the popular Cornell Paper confirmed what I had suspected was not true about the '€œputsch'€ of Oct. 1, 1965.

My thinking on the complex historical interface between Javanese and Malay/Indonesian, and about the New Order as a structural sequel to the Netherlands'€™ Indies state, has been influenced by Anderson'€™s work on language and power.

They have helped me approach the use of language in society with a view into class and hegemonic power. This understanding in turn became useful in the lectures and discussions I had with pro-democracy groups in the 1990s.

What I wish to share is about how he influenced my thinking as I was starting Indonesia'€™s first gay organization, Lambda Indonesia. I came out in the 1979-1980 winter intersession at Cornell and joined Gay People at Cornell. I was soon writing in the Indonesian press about homosexuality, initially using a personal perspective but based on the ideology of gay liberation.

After meeting an alumnus, Robert Roth, I started seriously thinking about organizing in Indonesia after I finished my studies.

This was around the same time that I was preparing for my dissertation research, and so in addition to getting advice and ideas about language and identity in East Java'€™s Chinese community from Pak Ben, I started discussing issues around transgenderism and homosexuality, particularly in Indonesia.

Most of this took place in memos and letters. Pak Ben was opening my eyes to a different world, in the past but probably contemporarily, where gender identity and sexual orientation were often collapsed, and where identities based on sexual orientation did not exist.

And so it was that before I read Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks, I received a correspondence course, as it were, on the social and historical construction of gender and sexuality from Pak Ben.

He also supplied me with photocopies of articles, clippings and index cards from his personal files on the history of homosexuality and transgenderism in the archipelago.

These comprised 19th and early 20th century works by European explorers and ethnologists, his own notes from the time of his dissertation research in Indonesia in the 1960s, and excerpts on homosexual relations from the Serat Tjentini, an 18th-century Javanese encyclopedia in poetic form.

Thus, when comrades and I in Lambda Indonesia published Indonesia'€™s first gay magazine, G: gayahidup ceria, we gave ample space to culture and history. Initially we tended to use an essentialist approach, but Pak Ben'€™s criticisms soon put us on the right track; on to what is now known as social constructionism in sexuality studies.

In 1987 the leadership of Lambda Indonesia, reduced to a handful, was dormant, and some of us in Surabaya decided to found another group, GAYa NUSANTARA. We consciously used the word Nusantara to indicate our appreciation of the rich and complex forms of non-gender-binary, non-heteronormative sexualities.

There are now more than a 100 LGBTI organizations in Indonesia, many of the members of which grew up reading G: gaya hidup ceria and our Surabaya publication GAYa NUSANTARA and who later joined our various educational activities.

I am proud to say that most of them appreciate our ancestors'€™ complex understanding of gender and sexual diversity largely thanks to what they have learned from us, and we all are grateful for what Pak Ben learned during his study of Indonesia and what he, in many ways, gave back to us.

Pak Ben is no longer with us, but his work will inspire students, scholars and activists for many generations to come. Slamet djalan, Pak Ben!


The writer is a LGBT activist and an independent scholar specializing in gender and sexuality. Parts of this piece were prepared for the Social Science Research Council on the occasion of the bestowing of the 2011 Albert O. Hirschman Prize to Benedict Anderso