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Jakarta Post

Traditional cross-dressing art under threat

  • Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, March 1, 2016   /  08:48 am
Traditional cross-dressing art under threat

Didik Ninik Towok - JP/Zul Trio Anggono

The approach of the authorities toward dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity has taken another turn that may put traditional cross-dressing performance art on the brink of extinction, with male performers in makeup and female costumes not being allowed to appear on television.

In the wake of a public outcry over the pros and cons of the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) individuals, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) refreshed its warning to local TV stations.

The circular issued on Feb. 23 stated that TV stations are not allowed to air programs that show '€œladylike men'€. The circular was not the first issued by the commission. '€œSuch program content may encourage children to learn and/or to justify the inappropriate behavior as common practice,'€ commission chairman Judhariksawan argued in the statement.

The warning, however, was seen as a threat toward artists who dedicated their profession to keep the traditional cross-gender performance culture relevant today.

Indonesia recognizes the all-male Javanese ludruk and reog folk theaters with performers doing female impersonation, as well as the cross-gender bissu culture in South Sulawesi.

The cross-gender culture took form in rituals and socio-cultural roles as women were placed in a subservient position in society.

On the other side, the Tari Topeng (mask dance) from Cirebon, West Java can only be performed by women and the role of Arjuna, the flamboyant and handsome archer in the Mahabaratha story, is commonly played by a female dancer.

Dancer and choreographer Didik Nini Thowok, who is on the frontlines of cross-dressing performance art, questioned the warning, which he said could prevent his fellow performers from engaging in the activity.

'€œArt is history. It tells everything about the people and the nation. If TV stations refuse to air the footage of us performing, even for a few seconds in the news section, no one will recognize this traditional art and it will soon be gone.'€

The Yogyakarta-based dancer demanded the commission make clear whether the regulation also targets performance art.

'€œThere are distinctions on sexual behavior and the art of performance. The commission should not relate LGBT issues with art,'€ said the 62-year-old who is part of the International Cross-gender Performers group along with fellow artists from Japan, China and India.

The warning was made based on the Broadcasting Code of Conduct, Article 4, which requires the commission to promote the law and to protect public morals and values.

It also quoted the Broadcasting Program Standards regulation Article 9 on keeping a program within the society'€™s courtesy and decency norms, Article 15 on the need to heed the rights of children and teenagers and Article 37, which bans programs categorized as R, suitable for teens, to contain inappropriate behavior.

There are seven points of '€œindecent behavior'€ stated by the commission in its circular that are frequently shown on TV by male hosts, talents and artists.

The criteria include the use of costume and makeup in female style, the use of feminine body gestures in walking, sitting, moving the arms and hands, as well as using female tones while speaking.

The commission would also reprimand the justification or promotion of a man to act with feminine characteristics, airing a part when a man is addressed with an honorific title commonly used for woman, as well as the use of words or slang commonly used by '€œladylike men'€.

A popular TV dangdut singing contest, which was aired daily in the evening, was put under a spotlight following the arrest of one of its male judges over an accusation that he was sexually harassing a male acquaintance.

Designer Ivan Gunawan, who was also on the show as fashion consultant for the contestants, said the warning would serve as a guideline for the program, which had a rising popularity.

'€œThe commission could have informed us of what it did not want from us and what we should not do in order to make a program fit for any age group,'€ said Ivan, who is known for his feminine characteristics and who is usually addressed as a bunda (mother) on the show.

While saying the program would heed the warning, Ivan defended the need to use makeup on the male host, talents and artists on the show.

'€œMakeup could cover skin complexions and even fatigue so that everyone will look perfect on the screen,'€ he said. '€œThere'€™s a silver lining in all this attention given by the commission to us because it means the show is the most popular now.'€

The commission came under fire earlier this month after it discouraged broadcasters, television and radio stations, from running programs that promote the activities of LGBTIQ individuals.

As the result, comedian Kabul Basuki, widely known as cross-dresser Tessy '€” the role he played as part of the Srimulat comedy group '€” has been banned from appearing on TV.

The move, however, was lauded by lawmakers and politicians who consider LGBTIQ individuals as '€œimmoral'€ and '€œa threat to the young generation'€, with a former minister affiliated with a religion-based political party suggesting the '€œannihilation of people with deviant sexual orientations'€.

The National Commission on Human Rights has criticized the commission and suggested it instead encourage broadcasters to air programs that could throw light on the issue.

Didik said as an educator, he purposely removed cross-gender cultural art from the curriculum while encouraging his students, mostly female dancers, to find their own style. '€œCross-dressing performance art is not something to be taught or passed onto others. It comes from a long time of study and experience.'€

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