Coming Out in Paradise

Stranger In Paradise | Written By, NOW! BALI |

Readers will just have to take my word for it that the Balinese place ancestor worship and filial piety above all else, even their own sexual identity. Last week, on Facebook, a popular young Balinese male model posted this: ‘Sorry, but I think it’s totally wrong if you are gay but then you marry a woman and have kids but you [are] still having sex with guys. Maybe it is OK if your dad is gay too.’

text and images by Made Wijaya

Readers will just have to take my word for it that the Balinese place ancestor worship and filial piety above all else, even their own sexual identity.

Last week, on Facebook, a popular young Balinese male model posted this:

‘Sorry, but I think it’s totally wrong if you are gay but then you marry a woman and have kids but you [are] still having sex with guys. Maybe it is OK if your dad is gay too.’

‘Why apologize?’ I asked. ‘What’s Dad being gay got to do with it? Do you think that gayness is hereditary? Or that deception is OK if it is hereditary?’

I went on to explain that, in my experience, some of the best fathers and husbands in the world have sexual inclinations they keep under wraps, or live in ‘open’ relationships (not too different from arranged marriages). 

For most Asians sexuality is separate from the vital  obligations, I continued, such as adat/family obligations; obligations to ancestors; the obligation  to have children who will take care of your re-incarnation ceremonies, and put your spirit  back in the family house temple when the time comes.

It seemed that, from the comments I received, that many sexpats regard all this as just voodoo; but to all Balinese it is their way of life.

Readers will just have to take my word for it that the Balinese place ancestor worship and filial piety above all else, even their own sexual identity.

Their allegiance is to the extended family unit — oftentimes over allegiance to life partners, who are disposable and not blood relations. This sounds a bit severe to Western ears, I know, but it makes for a harmonious environment and the perpetuation of ancient feuds within house compound walls.

Many long-term non-Asian residents seem oblivious to this basic truth. They, the expats and the sexpats on the West Coast, think that, by introducing Gay Pride and lip-synching, things will change. Some get suicidal when their local lover is forced, by family pressure, to abrogate his sexuality and settle down. For most Balinese it’s just like flicking a switch, really, because it’s only sexuality. It’s nothing serious like becoming a Muslim or quitting the banjar.

The Westerner feels deceived and distraught: the Balinese finds it odd that the Westerner hadn’t realized such a transition was on the cards.

In Java, the ‘jilted’ lover often stays on as a sort of uncle: the fact that the once-gay man may sometimes revert to his former ways is overlooked by wives, family, and community, as long as he is discreet, and as long as he fulfills his role as provider to his wife and children. The gentle Javanese are perhaps less confrontational and kinder than the dynamic Balinese.

To the Seminyak sexpat this smacks of hypocrisy and betrayal and is the sign of a sick society. 

Personally, I wish gay pride hadn’t come to Bali: for centuries the Balinese have had compassion and understanding instead. Many Hindu gods are androgynous; transsexual priests abound; the Balinese culture even has a calendar for hermaphrodites! Girly-boys are just that.

But leather-grannies in the lumbung? No way! 

P.S.: A Balinese barman (20) from a very very remote rural East Bali village recently told me — just after I had written the above — that he had admitted  to his Mum that he was bisexual.

‘Why would you do that?’ I asked, ‘She won’t have a clue what you are talking about.’ ‘Because she had a dream that I was sleeping with men’, he said. ‘Bullshit,’ I said. ‘She probably heard it from her hairdresser. What was her reaction?’ I asked. ‘Well, I told her I still liked women, and that I would get married in a few years. But she acted really pissed off and wouldn’t talk to me all day. And she didn’t even sweep the courtyard, or ask me to pray with her in the house temple as we usually do every morning’, he continued. ‘But yesterday she rang and said that she now understood (Mum obviously got the low-down on the go-down from the hair dresser. Ed.) and that all would be fine as long as I got married in a few years’ time.’

 ‘I won’t tell Dad,’ she had added.

The young man then told me how he’d come out (as not quite homosexual) to his buddies and that one of them had said, ‘Jesus, Nyoman, does that mean you fancy me?’ (This speaks to the popularly held theory that if you put any two gays in a room they will have sex).

He said that it’s a great load off his mind; and that, somewhere out there, there might be a white Daddy with a fat hairy stomach for him.

‘But won’t he feel deceived if you suddenly marry a girl?’ I asked.

‘Let’s see,’ he answered.

18 August 2013: My Balinese Mum’s Cremation

In 1973 I adopted a family in a village near Kuta — not knowing where it would lead.

In fact it lead to 35 years of these columns — my documenting the goings on in the village in the column’s first incarnation in the Sunday Bali Post was my entré into polite society, you might say. Living with ‘the Ida Bagussies’, as my real Mum used to called them, gave me a great sense of belonging in Bali, even if it was to someone else’s relatives and religious beliefs.

There were two mums in my Balinese compounds, Biang Ayu and Biang Agung. They were like chalk and cheese. Biang Ayu was from a wealthy Denpasar family: she was a glamorous former legong dancer to President Soekarno. Biang Agung was plain, a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ offering-maker born into an impoverished palace family.

Together they fed and comforted me during my foundling years in Bali: through various sicknesses, ceremonial rites de passage (tooth-filings; mawinten junior priesthood ceremonies) and career changes (from tennis coach, to landscape designer, to exotic dancer). Basically, they were always there for me and I kept eating their food, and feeling very, very happy. 

Now Biang Ayu (92) sits all day long near her little bungalow — almost fully  deaf and blind — with her recently widowed eldest daughter. They weave offerings as they amuse a courtyard-load of grandchildren with their banter.

For the last three years Biang Agung has been bedridden, after a fall; the reigns of her now thriving offering-making factory having been handed over to her daughter-in-law and ladies-in-waiting after her accident.

From her sickbed she would keep  track of events in the village, and the goings-in our courtyard; she always surprised me with her vast knowledge of current family affairs and impressed me with her home-spun wisdom.

One western friend commented that she the most tranquil woman she had ever met.

She never complained about the pains that racked her legs, or the boredom of full confinement.

She went quietly as she had lived her life.

Biang Agung had for some 50 years been chief field-marshal at our village’s temples and for this she is today being afforded a riotous send-off.

Brahman cremations are always polished and joyous: Balinese Brahmans are experts at the arrangements and masters of grief management.

Today, Nini Geria, as Biang Agung became known, was given the express lane to re-incarnation as we all want her back, soon.

The family measured the success of today’s ceremonies by the size of the crowd: three pedanda high priests had turned up for the body washing; 600 villagers had accompanied her body on its final journey; and a convoy of 20 cars took her ashes to the sea at Benoa harbor, where they were sprinkled under the bow of a $300,000,000 private yacht belonging to a Miss World promoter.

Lovers of Balinese cremation ritual can watch the video I made of this day on:

9 September 2013: Mass cremation on the Gianyar Coast

For 35 years I have been going to cremations in Ketewel, the classical coastal village east of Sanur now popular as a dream home option for villa-nistas.

Today I am invited to my friend Dewa Oka’s mother’s cremation, and to that of 20 or so of his relatives plus 800 other souls.

Taking part will be 11 banjars, 15 bade towers, 25 gamelan marching bands and 2 Japanese tourists in beach wear.

The ceremonies are in full swing when I arrive early morning; in the vast field I find row after row of lembu sarchopagii, camp after camp of tight family units guarding offerings and hundreds of villagers fashioning spirit effigies to used later in the day.

I have missed the igniting of    Dewa’s Mum’s white sarcophagus but am not made feel ‘late’:  one of the wonderful things about the Balinese is that they never make one feel ‘late’; there’s always a few hours of ritual to go whatever time one arrives.

I hang in for the bone-gathering, the forming of the first astral-body, the pray-in and then the mini procession to the nearby beach where the ashes are dispersed.

In between ceremonies I entertain a party of buff ‘body-burners’ (professional incinerators) in a food stall, chat to the high priests, including Dewa’s uncle, a begawan, whose brother’s grand cremation was reported in this column earlier this year, and I case the Pura Prajapati temple where another of Dewa’s uncle’s is broadcasting KEKAWIN legend stories with one of his mates.

The atmosphere is dense and dusty: a few thousand duty-bound villagers start pouring down the road at noon in a fantastic procession of funeral biers, gamelan marching bands and long lines of golden spirit effigies.

For the video of the ceremonies watch:

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