My younger and smarter friend and fellow Nebraskan Tom Boellstorff has a new book, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, and it is published by Princeton University Press. Tom is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The University of California, Irvine.

Tom Boellstorff Image


Tom’s book is scholarly and important. Tom is a “cultural
anthropologist” and that means he is more interested in being than in
bones. He prefers to study the how and why we cobble together interests
and the what and who of notions that separate us. Here is a fascinating
a quote from his Historical Temptations chapter:

Only since the 1970s or so have people in Indonesia called themselves gay or lesbi, yet many Westerners seek a clear temporal trajectory connecting gay and lesbi
with “indigenous” homosexualities.

This deep-seated desire for unbroken
history has manay precedents in the Western tradition, most notably the
Old Testament chains of “begats” that establish legitimacy through a
patriline. While on rare occasions I have encountered gay and lesbi Indonesians who share this concern with a clear temporal trajectory, what demands explanation is that most do not….

Tom’s insights into community and belonging are memorable and well-argued and precisely researched. Buy The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia and you will know more than you understand today and that is the mark of a great teacher and a superb scholar.

17 Comments

  1. Hi tajuki —
    No, you don’t have to be gay to enjoy Tom’s book. He is exploring and examining how gay culture is shaped by and shapes Indonesian culture and in many ways the experience of law and the rules of society between what we know in the United States and in Indonesia are shocking. Tom teaches his research in travelogue-type journalistic reports from his experiences in Indonesia. His book is a fascinating read and while it is written for anthropologists the everyday person can still learn a lot.

  2. Hi tajuki —
    No, you don’t have to be gay to enjoy Tom’s book. He is exploring and examining how gay culture is shaped by and shapes Indonesian culture and in many ways the experience of law and the rules of society between what we know in the United States and in Indonesia are shocking. Tom teaches his research in travelogue-type journalistic reports from his experiences in Indonesia. His book is a fascinating read and while it is written for anthropologists the everyday person can still learn a lot.

  3. It’s interesting that people seek to have a connection to the past, whether it is gay culture or anything else humankind might be involved with.
    Did Tom find a link comparable to the Old Testiment “begat” lists in Indonesia?
    I wonder if that is why there are occasional articles in the United States speculating that famous married people were actually gay, i.e. Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt? Despite our short attention spans and lack of historical knowledge, maybe it is a sign that we require connections to the past to understand our present times.
    Maybe the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same applies and finding the connections to that legacy reinforces that idea. I suspect that people have always been the way that they’ve been (whether straight, gay, or whatever) and we just forget because our historical memory as a society usually only goes back a few decades.

  4. It’s interesting that people seek to have a connection to the past, whether it is gay culture or anything else humankind might be involved with.
    Did Tom find a link comparable to the Old Testiment “begat” lists in Indonesia?
    I wonder if that is why there are occasional articles in the United States speculating that famous married people were actually gay, i.e. Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt? Despite our short attention spans and lack of historical knowledge, maybe it is a sign that we require connections to the past to understand our present times.
    Maybe the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same applies and finding the connections to that legacy reinforces that idea. I suspect that people have always been the way that they’ve been (whether straight, gay, or whatever) and we just forget because our historical memory as a society usually only goes back a few decades.

  5. Chris —
    As ever, you ask some interesting and provocative questions!
    I just wrote to Tom to see if he’s willing to pop in here and directly answer you.
    If he is unable pop in, I’ll do my best to give my take on your questions.

  6. Chris —
    As ever, you ask some interesting and provocative questions!
    I just wrote to Tom to see if he’s willing to pop in here and directly answer you.
    If he is unable pop in, I’ll do my best to give my take on your questions.

  7. Tom is in a rush or he would have stepped in here to reply directly to Chris. So, via the magic of email, here is Tom’s hand hewn-response to Chris:
    Great question, Chris. You’re hitting on an important issue, which is that while people around the world have always been interested in the past, there’s big variation in what counts as the past (how many generations back can people name their ancestors) and how meaningful that past is taken to be. My experience with gay and lesbi Indonesians has mostly been that they aren’t troubled by the fact that there weren’t people using the words “gay” or “lesbi” to describe themselves in the archipelago before the 1970s or so; after all, the idea of “Indonesia” itself is only about 60 years older than that (nationalist organizations like Budi Oetomo and Sarekat Islam pretty much got going only in the early twentieth century). As I say somewhere in my book, “tradition is not the same thing as history — it’s important to unearth why history matters for different groups of people and in what ways it’s held to matter.” Humans are incredibly creative, and while we always create from the materials and conceptual horizons of our history, time and again we see emerge novel ways of thinking and living that cannot be reduced to historical precedent.
    Wowser! Thanks for that keen answer, Tom!
    Tom also wanted everyone to know he’ll be doing a book event in Washington DC on Dec 1:
    http://www.lambdarising.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp
    And in Santa Monica CA on Dec 12th:
    http://www.adlbooks.com/events.cfm
    If you’re in the area, go say “Hi” to Tom!

  8. Tom is in a rush or he would have stepped in here to reply directly to Chris. So, via the magic of email, here is Tom’s hand hewn-response to Chris:
    Great question, Chris. You’re hitting on an important issue, which is that while people around the world have always been interested in the past, there’s big variation in what counts as the past (how many generations back can people name their ancestors) and how meaningful that past is taken to be. My experience with gay and lesbi Indonesians has mostly been that they aren’t troubled by the fact that there weren’t people using the words “gay” or “lesbi” to describe themselves in the archipelago before the 1970s or so; after all, the idea of “Indonesia” itself is only about 60 years older than that (nationalist organizations like Budi Oetomo and Sarekat Islam pretty much got going only in the early twentieth century). As I say somewhere in my book, “tradition is not the same thing as history — it’s important to unearth why history matters for different groups of people and in what ways it’s held to matter.” Humans are incredibly creative, and while we always create from the materials and conceptual horizons of our history, time and again we see emerge novel ways of thinking and living that cannot be reduced to historical precedent.
    Wowser! Thanks for that keen answer, Tom!
    Tom also wanted everyone to know he’ll be doing a book event in Washington DC on Dec 1:
    http://www.lambdarising.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp
    And in Santa Monica CA on Dec 12th:
    http://www.adlbooks.com/events.cfm
    If you’re in the area, go say “Hi” to Tom!