Illustration: Remotivi
Illustration: Remotivi
The Perfect Woman: The New Order Origins of Ideal Men and Women in Indonesia
The category “Waria” emerged in Indonesia's New Order as a crossover between the State gender ideology and the wonder of modern science.
The Perfect Woman: The New Order Origins of Ideal Men and Women in Indonesia
The category “Waria” emerged in Indonesia's New Order as a crossover between the State gender ideology and the wonder of modern science.

In September 1969 the Indonesian media erupted with the story of Kostermans, a Dutch-born Indonesian citizen and well-known scientist based at the national botanical gardens in Bogor. He was accused of contracting the murder of a lover; but the main topic of interest quickly became his open homosexuality (Kompas 22 September 1969: I & II). Headlines in 1970 quoted a witness in the case as stating that, “Homosexual practices aren’t worthy of note” (perbuatan homo di anggapnya bukan apa apa). This optimistic claim was evidently wrong.[1] Such practices were indeed “of note” though, as one commentator dryly commented, given the strident media response.

While homosexuality was the focus of most discussions, it also thrust the brand new category wadam into the limelight. The category wadam had itself only emerged in 1969, quickly gaining a level of respectability and familiarity remarkably quickly. While still associated with the more derogatory and widely used term banci, wadam (a category that became waria in 1978) was, rather curiously, a great success story of Suharto’s New Order. It spawned organisations, events and a degree of tolerance that persists until the present day.

Since early 2016, the Indonesian media has been feverishly reporting on that alphabet soup of an acronym; LGBT, which for the most part is deployed within the language of transnational human rights based in the United States. Yet in the Indonesian media there has been little focus on what it constitutes in English, apart from a vague connotation of Western forms of homosexuality and a slide into moral deprivation. For the most part the Indonesian media, with the help of various actors, has defined LGBT as a broad umbrella term with a variety of pejorative meanings; anti-Indonesian, imperialistic, anti-religious, atheistic, pathological and medically deviant.

Waria today is often translated as “transgender”, the “T” in the acronym. However, waria need not necessarily be defined as belonging to or constituting a part of LGBT. In fact, some waria resist classification within the acronym LGBT. As an established part of Indonesian society, they argue, they need not form a broad coalition with others whose struggles are unrelated. Furthermore, they suggest that this could potentially undo years of productive work.

By placing recent media discussion of LGBT within a historical context, I show that greater investments in defining “normal” and associated increasing binarization of gender is a very recent and troubling formation in Indonesia. This discourse can be traced to the early part of the New Order.

A historical perspective reveals that since the 1960s, an increasingly rigid understanding of binary gender has emerged, supported by popular understandings of psychology in particular. Men, so defined, are men; women are women.  While this might seem an obvious statement, this was not always so, either in the West or in Indonesia. Defining men and women takes a great deal of work, as has defining those who trouble those categories.

Figure 1: A 1971 Indonesian government illustration of proper men and women. The caption reads: Fungsi wanita dan pria dalam keluarga / perbedaan sifat wanita dan pria // Sama hak / sama derajat (The function of men and women in a family / the different quality of men and women // equal right / equal level).


“Perfect women” and “complete men”

As Tom Boellstorff (2007: 86) has noted, the changing meanings associated with the constellation of categories banci, wadam and waria coincided with, “the coming to power of Soeharto’s New Order government in the late 1960s, which coupled authoritarian rule and developmentalist economics.” Wadam was an important category in which ideas about the science of sex in Indonesia were translated and debated. In the 1960s, scholars and other authors were quick to distinguish homosexuality from both wadam and banci, drawing on the latest scientific and psychological theories of the time. Comparisons with homosexuality were sometimes made but usually downplayed.

From the late 1960s onwards discussions of banci became commonplace. Not all saw their increasing visibility as a positive change to Indonesia’s urban geography. For most, however, wadam remained a figure associated with urban spaces, nightlife and sex work (see figure 2). Politicians noted these pesky figures as cause for concern. In 1971, when asked why a large fence and security lighting had been installed in front of the Bandung town hall, mayor Otje Djundjunan said, smiling, “[the fence is] to prevent goats and wadam (bantji) from entering the grounds of the municipal government.” (Kompas, 3 April 1971: II). At that time, approximately 88 wadam were congregating at the site each night.

Figure 2: “Jakarta Kita dan Suatu Malam di Jalan Krakatau”, Karikatur, Kompas, 4 Nov 1979, p II.
The common association of waria with public sex and cross-dressing has remained relatively constant.


Public intellectual and first chairman of MUI (Indonesian Ulema Council) Buya Hamka described the increasing numbers of banci in Jakarta with dismay. In a popular spiritual guide written in 1965 he compared banci in Jakarta with homosexuals he had seen in Rome and Amsterdam. He criticized homosexuality as morally wrong, drawing on a hegemonic theological reading of the story of the Prophet Lot (luth). He wrote:

In this modern era, men who have destroyed souls do love the same-sex, men; this is called “Homo Sex” or “Homosexual,” and if women like women this is called “Lesbian”. This disease has already infected many and spread throughout the European continent recently in this modern era.

But why should we look so far away? At the entrance of the Istiqal Mosque (in Jakarta) and at the gates to the Cathedral (the great Catholic cathedral) in Jakarta and at the front of the Al-Azhar Mosque itself, not far from the house of the author of this book, when it is already past 10 o’clock at night, there are swarms of banci, men in women’s clothing who peddle themselves to men who like that, in public view of passing traffic.

(Tafsir Al-Azhar Juzu’ XIX, Prof. Dr. Syaikh Abdulmalik Bin Abdulkarim Amrullah (Hamka), Publisher Yayasan Latimojong, Surabaya, second edition, published 1981 [1975, written in 1965])

This response was most likely a response to greater numbers of banci appearing in urban spaces and in the media, as well as a growing association with beauty and sexual desire. For example, they appeared at the Jakarta fair in 1968, and a beauty pageant devoted to them was held from at least 1969 onwards. Yet despite such popularist proclamations that banci were nothing but homosexuals, akin to those in Amsterdam and Rome, a more subtle national discourse around the category wadam emerged during this period. However, his early comparison between homosexuality as an outside force, and banci as its Indonesian manifestation is noteable.

Figure 3: “Djakarta Fair Sudah Tutup Tapi Bantji2 Go-Go Terus!” (Djakarta Fair is closed but the bantji keep on go-go!): Magazine article about “bantji” at the “Stand A-Go-Go” at the Taman Hiburan Jakarta.


Wadam as a category can be traced to 1969 as a way for a group in Jakarta to access support services from the government.  For instance, Maya Puspa explained that prior to the 1960s it was not generally the case that banci were visible in public spaces. This changed from the late 1960s onwards when banci started to appear in public. This newfound degree of tolerance appears to stem from two sources. The first reason was the emergence of new forms of employment at this time including make-up and hair salons (the beauty industry), dance and entertainment. The second was the emergence of urban spaces in which banci could socialise, meet men and engage in sex work. That these two transformations chrystallised around the category wadam is of note: it appears that the aura of scientific and state authority bestowed on the category wadam provided it with a level of respectability, and thus social acceptance, not available previously.

The category wadam was described to me by those present at the time as derived either from hawa (breath) or wanita (woman), and adam (Adam, the Old Testament figure). These wadam also noted that the category was useful in that it allowed them to distance themselves from the category banci, with its connotation of both lower class status and of the unusual. In popular media and psychological texts wadam was translated most frequently as “transvestite” or “transsexual”—a more neutral modern possibility with an aura of respectability. Both wadam themselves and the medical profession (mostly under the auspices of the Indonesian government) drew on globally circulating ideas about transsexuality, such as the very well publicized gender reassignment surgery of American Christine Jorgensen in 1952.[2]

The focus on defining sex was most often framed in the context of a more general focus on heterosexual reproduction and fertility, central to 1970s national and global economic interests. Media reports about sex education (pendidikan seks) and family planning (keluarga berencana) were far more common than debates about transsexuality or homosexuality during this period—though sometimes the two were addressed together. In Indonesia the meanings of wadam were formed in this ideological space, informed by transnational and national ideas.

The construction of productive, heteronormative sexuality during the New Order was linked to a global economic order that placed reproduction and its control as central to growth. For example, the publication of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972 is indicative of the desires for international and national political economy to control reproduction and channel it towards economic development. Indonesia under Suharto, as a developmentalist state with close ties to the United States, enthusiastically embraced such policies.

For instance, Indonesian NGO PKBI (Perkumpulan Keluarga Berancana Indonesia) concerned with family planning was established in 1957 and joined the International Planned Parenthood Foundation in 1969. A major “success” for which the Suharto government was praised by Western governments throughout the 1970s and 1980s was its ability to stem rapid population growth. Benedict Anderson, however, described the success of the program due to “extremely invasive and coercive policies” (2008).

At the same time, as a military state with a particular emphasis on masculinity, the Indonesian government spent a great deal effort defining gender roles — in particular in the context of the family. It was during this period that the family became seen as the smallest unit in national governance with the father at the head and mother in a supporting and nurturing role (Suryakusuma, 2011). References to these roles commenced from the late 1960s onwards, however, around this time the growth of a consumer market also placed other more sensuous forms of sexuality in the public eye. While the government at times sought to control these through censorship, the task was by no means easy. It was thus that the Indonesian government arguably found itself struggling to reconcile between two visions of the state. On the one hand the idea of the productive family, but on the other the sensuous provocation of media images of women in particular.

Wadam were both a part of this sensuous provocation and as early reports of gender reassignment surgery proclaimed, a wonder of modern science. As such, the media most often translated ideas from psychology and surgical technologies as providing the ability to make “…laki laki komplit dan wanita sempurna” (Tempo, 13 Okt 1973). Such efforts by scientists, psychologists and doctors to clarify their position towards wadam were pivotal to providing the translation and interpretation of new ideas about sex more generally in Indonesia.


Wanita-Adam: wadam and waria

Prominent scholar Arief Budiman heralded the arrival of the new category wadam in January 1969 in decidedly scientific language on the front page of the Kompas newspaper (Kompas, 16 January 1969: I & III). He defined the category wadam as follows:

Men who take the role of women and its opposite, women who take the role of men. This type of person who is usually categorized as wadam, or in the past has been introduced with the term banci. Within the psychology of the abnormal, this is known by the expression transvestitism. The meaning of transvestitism is limited to those who like to where the clothes of those of the opposite sex, whether that be men who like to wear women’s clothes, or women who like to wear men’s clothes. Then, it is also the case that many of these transvestites do indeed practice homosexual behavior, even if not all.

Then it seems appropriate to say that what we mean by wadam is those who are transvestites, those who achieve satisfaction by behaving as people of the opposite sex. And transvestites or wadam, there whose behavior is limited to just wearing the clothes, and there are those who end up having sexual relations with those of the same sex.

As such, it was discussion of scientific developments in understandings in sexuality, intersex and gender that remained central to the development of the category wadam.  All the while, these were underscored by a dominant discourse of heterosexuality and reproduction that was an obsession of the Suharto government (Suryakusuma 1996).

These tended to draw on a combination of globalized theories of intersex. Robert Stoller’s theory of “gender identity” was extremely influential, initially translated as identitas gender (Majalah Kesehatan, No. 37, 1973: 80-89) but gaining traction in the popular realm as the idea of an underlying immutable set of characteristics that defined either men or women. Theories of “gender identity” also encountered Islamic and Indonesian ideas about gender at this time. For instance, the expression kodrat has come to take on a relatively stable meaning in the realm of the state and popular gender ideology which appears close to Stoller’s definition of “gender identity.” As such, the various categories and theoretical developments that emerged around the figure wadam were to have a lasting impact on defining gender and sexuality in Indonesia.

By 1973 the popular engagement of Vivian Rubianti’s gender reassignment surgery was enough to provoke enough interest in a number of government-endorsed events including a major seminar on gender reassignment surgery. This led to the establishment of a law, and the preparation of a number of hospitals capable of undertaking the surgery, as well as broader calls for support.

American psychologist and sexologist John Money’s theory of “genital unfinishedness” was translated as a way to justify medical interventions on intersexed bodies, commonly translated as hermaphroditism in Indonesia. This is apparent from the language used to and the initial lack of clarity in defining a difference between surgical intervention for intersex and transsexuality. By all accounts these two groups were seen as somehow related throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s. The first law of 1979 covered both transsexuality and intersex.[3]

Early reports even questioned the possibility for wadam to have children — the ultimate mark of womanhood. This remained a major issue for whether or not wadam could be perfect women: as the cases of Vivian Rubianti (Tempo, 6 October 1973: 46-47, 49-50) and Netty Irawati (Kompas 15 Agustus 1975: I & XII) made clear, in not being able to have children their womanhood was partially compromised.

From the late 1970s onwards a greater emphasis was placed on defining intersex as a separate category from transsexuality. A fatwa was released by MUI shortly after in 1980 which translated banci as khuntsa, declaring gender reassignment surgery unacceptable.[4] The last legal transformation took place in 1989 with an updated ministerial decree that changed only the title of the law. The term “penggantian” [to change] (for transsexuals) was replaced with “penyesuaian” [to adapt] (for intersexed), vaguely implying—but not explicitly stating—gender reassignment surgery for banci or wadam is unacceptable.

Despite this, CEBIOR at the Kariadi Hospital in Semarang—currently the leading center for research and surgery for intersexed patients in Indonesia—continued (officially at least) to provide gender reassignment surgery for “transsexuals” until 1999. Since 1999 they have only provided “penyesuaian” for intersexed patients—though in fact the number surgeries conducted appears to be quite small. For the most part the center appears to focus on providing scientific evidence of patients’ gender—for example, evidence to enable the acquisition of a change in identity card (KTP) for intersexed patients receive legal recognition of their gender.


The History of Gender in Indonesia

The discussion about LGBT in early 2016 is not the first time the discussions about gender and sexuality have appeared in the Indonesian media. The sources reveal that in the late 1960s and early 1970s attempts to define “normal” men and women collided with reality. The New Order government discovered that their “perfect woman” was, for most, a fantasy that required constant investment and coercion.

Throughout the 1980s to present, the main trend has been a shift towards even more narrow definition of the binary nature of sex/gender and its associated characteristics. This has partially been based on a more carefully defined and biologized notion of kodrat, which has taken on various other symbolic meanings with the increasingly visible and public expression of Islam in Indonesia since 1998. It most concerning that rigid and narrowly defined notions of the nature of men and women have taken on a life of their own well after the demise of their New Order architects. While what took place from the late 1960s to the early 1970s was not exactly a liberating discourse, it did provide a space for translation and debate. Even in this most repressive of environments the category wadam emerged, helping many to form friendships, generate a political voice, and subtly challenge the inadequacy of New Order gender ideals.

Diverse ideas about gender and sexuality thus appear entirely at home in Indonesia. A historical perspective reveals that the least pleasant aspects of the current debate can be traced from extremely simplistic yet coercive New Order discourses of gender, itself linked to reproductive sexuality. This is apparent especially in rhetoric about “normal” men and women. This perspective is still espoused by politicians and those in the medical profession in Indonesia. However, the historical evidence suggests that they are mistaken in their claims. In Indonesia, hybrid identities and modes of identification are far more normal than narrowly defined conceptual categories of men and women.

Social practices frequently define the plans of those in power: after all, who would have thought that one outcome of the New Order discourse that attempted to “fix” men and women into roles that could serve development and the nation would result in the remarkable categories wadam and waria? Throughout the 1970s possibilities for new meanings and identification were created from the crossings of scientific ideas, political transformations, transnational media and the efforts of particular individuals. One can only imagine what processes of adaptation and hybridization will potentially mobilize around LGBT. Remembering the New Order architects of “complete men” (kepala keluarga) and “perfect women” (ibu rumah tangga) reminds us that bland, constructed gender norms are completely inadequate in accounting for the reality—and wonder—of social life in contemporary Indonesia. []



Anderson, Benedict. 2008. “Exit Suharto.” New Left Review, II, no. 50 (April): 27–59.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2007. “Warias, National Transvestites.” in A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia, 78–113. Durham: Duke University Press.

Suryakusuma, Julia I. 1996. “The State and Sexuality in New Order Indonesia.” In Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, edited by Laurie J. Sears, 92–119. Durham: Duke University Press.

Suryakusuma, Julia I. 2011. State Ibuism: The Social Construction of Womanhood in New Order Indonesia. Depok, West Java, Indonesia: Komunitas Bambu.

Amrullah, Prof. Dr. Syaikh Abdulmalik Bin Abdulkarim Amrullah (Hamka). 1981. Tafsir Al-Azhar Juzu’ XIX. Yayasan Latimojong, Surabaya. edisi kedua, cetakan pertama 1975, ditulis pada 1965.


Newspapers and Magazines

“Prof Dr. K. Perentjana Pembunuhan dalam Tanda Tanya”, Kompas, 22 September 1969, hal. 1-2

“Dua Dunia Yang Belum Sudah”, Tempo, 6 Oktober 1973, hal. 46-47, 49-50

“Berkenalan dengan Benny Runtuwene yang Menjadi Netti Irawaty”, Kompas 15 Agustus 1975, hal. I & XII

“Buya Hamka Mengenai Kasus Ganti Kelamin & Pertunangan”, Kompas, 22 September 1973, hal. 1 & 12

“Sedikit Tentang Hal Banci”, Majalah Kesehatan no. 37, tahun IV, 1973, hal. 89-90

“‘Wanita-Adam’—Sebuah Persoalan”, Kompas, 16 Januari 1969, hal. 1 & 3

“Memotong & Membelah, Mudah”, Tempo no. 32, 13 Oktober 1973, hal. 35

“Pagar untuk Cegah Wadam dan Kambing”, Kompas, 3 April 1971, hal. 2

“Jakarta Kita dan Suatu Malam di Jalan Krakatau”, Kompas, 4 Nov 1979, hal. 2

“Djakarta Fair Sudah Tutup Tapi Bantji2 Go-Go Terus”, Varia, 7 Agustus 1968, hal. 18

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Benjamin Hegarty

Currently doing PhD field research on the transnational history of the category of waria/transgender in Indonesia to obtain doctoral degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from The Australian National University.

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