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Gender Outlaw in Different Worlds

Updated: Apr 28


Bissu Puang Upe during ceremony

When I started to collect information from the notes I had made for this piece of writing, I couldn’t help but place the names of the people I met during my visit to the Bugis district of Segeri into gender categories. Was I going against what I’d like to be practicing? Was it really necessary to use terms like ‘transvestite’, ‘pre-operation transsexual’, ‘gay’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, etc? I guess so. After all, I had to use a common language. Fortunately, some of the very people I’ve categorized bellow seem to have made their way out of the binary gender system (or ‘ternary’, or ‘quaternary’ if you take into consideration the intricate variety of genders within the many Indonesians ethnicities). They’ve been able to build their own gender label. Besides, that self-tagging is less static than it might appear at a first glance. By the way, today I feel like being an asexual stupid ‘bule’ (‘bule’ is a common Indonesian term for foreigner). I wonder what I’ll choose for tomorrow.


Apart from what I have read on two articles that came out of my ‘Google’ search on ‘bissu’, I don’t really know what to expect from a meeting with the Bissu community based in Segeri. My main interpreter tells me I’m about to meet Eka, a Bissu, but he seems less informed about the meaning of that word than I am. My other interpreter, the one who’s driving our car, tells me he’s known Eka for some years but isn’t able to articulate much more than that into English. My first interpreter all of a sudden asks me what I’d like to ask Eka about. I quickly take hold of my notebook and pen and sketch a few improvised questions. But they all seem as boring as the anthropological research I had read. So I make up in my head some other questions that hopefully won’t lead my interviewee into sleep.


On our way to the village community of Pangkep, rather impressive two-story houses flank both sides of the road. But after a two-hour ride, when we stop in front of our guest’s house, what I can see is a simple flat building with an adjacent compound that bears a rather childish handwritten sign upon its door: Eka Saloon. I’m confused. I had been expecting some sort of shamanic tribal bamboo cottage. We are promptly greeted by Eka hirself. At first sight, I immediately consider if Eka would fit into the ‘real woman’ category. Eka has two tits, wears her hair long and articulates her hands and body in a feminine fashion. I can’t help but notice the recently shaved thin mustache. But whether ze corresponds to the commonsense idea of the ‘real woman’ or not, I start using ‘she’ and ‘her’ while addressing my questions to my two interpreters. They sound a bit confused. I don’t understand why all of a sudden they seem to care about whether I use the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ pronoun. (Indonesians have a hard time in using female and male English pronouns due to the fact that Indonesian language doesn’t make that distinction). Later on, one of my interpreters tells me in a cautious manner: “Eka is a man.” To what I ironically reply: “Really?!”


There’s a traditional wedding ceremony taking place in town and Eka proposes to take us along. I don’t really feel like I’m dressed properly for the occasion but I guess they’ll forgive a ‘bule’ for that. We first pass by the house of the bride’s parents. The decoration is still up but the guests are long gone. We are offered some leftover food and, though I was indeed hungry after the journey, my interpreters decide to speak for me and politely apologize for having already eaten. The Bugis have the custom of celebrating a weeding for two days. This is the second day of this particular wedding so we head towards the house of the groom’s parents. We are greeted by one of Eka’s friends in town, Amelia. Amelia wears occasionally discolored short hair and a pink gown over hir unisex black attire. I let a “She looks beautiful” out, which puzzles one of my interpreters. By this time I have finally gained my host’s sympathy. Eka shows me around and makes me feel more comfortable around the many guests that have started to treat me like a touristic attraction. Ze is particularly proud of the colorful traditional decoration for which ze is responsible. Besides the make-up saloon, Eka also runs a small business that supplies traditional costumes and decoration for parties and weddings. I ask hir how long it took to make up the bride and take the chance to tell hir that ze has done a great job. Eka not only explains to me the symbols of the Bugis tradition but also remarks that the presence of a Bissu in such a ceremony is considered to bring good luck. I have indeed noticed that all the guests seem pleased by hir presence and that the rain has almost stopped. And when we’re offered to help ourselves at the buffet, I take charge of the excursion, thank the hosts in my best Indonesian and run to the table.

Bissu Wa Nure and Bissu Puang Upe during ceremony

Once we get back to Eka’s place, I feel more comfortable in asking hir more direct and personal questions. Needless to say, they don’t resemble in anything the ones I had made up in my mind beforehand. I learn that Eka is, according to my interpreter, a special crazy Bissu. I assume that comes from the fact that ze has married and doesn’t live among other bissus. Apparently, bissu is a lifetime achievement and one that brings a certain status into one’s life. I take that as the explanation for the privileges given to Eka in a community that remains faithful to a Muslim religious tradition. Not that I have witnessed discrimination towards Amelia nor Ammang, Eka’s employee who definitely doesn’t correspond to the ideal of a Bugis man. But who am I to say these ‘outsiders’ have never been treated with prejudice or to define the ideal of a Bugis man?


Nevertheless, because of my interest in hir culture and in hir occupations beyond those of hir Bissu responsibilities, Eka decides to treat me with a full Bugis make over. Since I’m given a rather pompous sarong and head garments, I ask for confirmation that I’ve been dressed as a Bugis man and not as a Bugis woman. The weapon that gives the last touch to the costume removes all my doubts. I’m now a real Bugis man.


When I feel I have gained more than Eka’s sympathy and confidence, I take my chance and ask about how ze met and married hir husband. Ze replies: “It’s a long s tory.” He was already married when they fell in love, left his wife and moved in with her. I’m not particularly surprised for in a Muslim culture like Indonesia’s a man is allowed to have as many wives as he can support financially and I had already heard the same story from quite a few other ‘real’ women. I’m even allowed to go through hir album of photos from hir wedding and honey moon. At some point I see Eka making the small symbol with hir fingers while ze is talking to my interpreter. I ask my translator what that meant and he says that Eka’s husband once left hir to marry a ‘real’ woman. But the marriage didn’t last long because he couldn’t provide his bride with a sex life. It becomes clear what the small sign was meant to represent. He eventually came back to hir. So I ask Eka whether ze had become angry with him for that. Ze then replies ‘Not angry but brokenhearted’. Now hir husband lives with hir again and works for the Eka Decoration Business. I make sure to congratulate hir for been the boss around. Ze doesn’t seem that proud but a soft smile of recognition comes to hir face.


It is only later when I meet two other Bissu and experience the traditional ceremony they’re known for that I realize Eka is an outsider not only in hir Bugis village but also among the Bissu community itself. On our way to the nearby village of Boto Panruru, my interpreter tries to persuade me that Bissu are originally real men, that Eka isn’t a normal type of Bissu and that Amelia is ‘just’ gay. I tell him that I have read the Bissu are considered to be hermaphrodites. If they’re not born that way, by adherence to the Bissu community, they become part of a selected group of individuals of an ‘in-between’ gender. “Since ze is a human being who remains at some form of a gender-threshold, ze also remains at the verge amid the batin people and the zahir, the apparent and the hidden (world).” That explains the connection between their middle-sex status and their possession of mystical powers. My explanation didn’t seem to impress him. So I turn around and contemplate the mountainous landscape and the beautiful rainbow that has crowned the sky after the rain.

Offerings and blessings

It is dark by the time we reach the house where the family ceremony is schedule to take place. It is also dinner time so we’re promptly invited to join our hosts for supper. But first I am introduced to the other guests and to two other Bissu, Puang Upe and Wa Nure. Afterwards, the prayers over the food are made and we are given a special eating place together with the Bissu. I make sure I don’t bother them too much with anthropological questions for I realize my presence has made them a bit uneasy. The last thing I want to be the cause of here is spoiling a family reunion and ceremony. So I spend some time trying to mingle among the others while once in while making contact with the two Bissu. For that reason – and because new guests keep on arriving increasing the temperature of the room – I decide to make use of the gift given to me by Eka a when we said goodbye. I throw a black and pink sarong over my pants and remove them in everybody’s sight. I get compliments from the women around me and sort of accepted by the men who are mostly all wearing something similar. Once the sweets arrive, I’m already taking pictures shoulder to shoulder with the Bissu who seem to be a lot more comfortable in my company. That gives me the opportunity to ask about their hair garment. Puang, who’s considered to be the second head of hir Bissu community, wears something slightly different than Wa who, I am told, is the oldest Bissu in their community. The garments not only state their community’s hierarchy, but also are worn before the ceremony in order to differentiate the Bissu from the other social groups.


Soon after dinner Puang and Wa surround a corner of the room with a cloth. Although we can clearly recognize their figures and gestures through the thin cloth, setting apart the space makes it clear that what they’re about to do in there is special and requires privacy for concentration. They proceed with the make up and put on their costumes that incorporate both “female” and “male” qualities and which is not to be seen worn neither by men nor women. Now and then, two of the male hosts play the traditional drums in a transe-like slow beat. Once the preparatives are done, the eldest woman in the room scratches a cup upon a dish that had been prepared in anticipation with some sort of ritualistic food mixture and Puang lies down in a mattress previously prepared by hir hostess. I’m told by my interpreter that ze is going to sleep in order to be ready to receive the ‘dream’, which I translate to myself as a preparation for the embodiment of mystical powers.


While Puang dozes in and out of sleep, a funny man wearing the usual Muslim head garment and a thin long goatee walks into the room and greets not only the other guests but also the Bissu. My interpreter tells me his name is Saidi and that ze’s the first head of the Bissu community. I assume that’s how ze dresses up and behaves in everyday life for ze isn’t here to perfrom a ritual. It seems to me that even though the Bissu might carry a burden of expectations from their community their status allow them to guard and develop some individuality. We’re introduced to each other shortly after his appearance but ze doesn’t give me the chance to ask some questions. Ze socializes mainly with the men in the room from whom hir behavior doesn’t differ much. Ze also doesn’t stay for the ceremony. But before ze leaves, ze places a cloth upon his head in the Bissu fashion and salutes the two other Bissu in a special way.


Once the encircling cloth is removed, Puang and Wa organize themselves to receive the offerings from the many guests that by now have considerably increased in number. Always with both palms pressed together in a gesture of prayer, small rupiah notes slip from the hands of the crowd into the ones of the Bissu followed by a blessing from the later. I’m also required to make an offering for this is my first time in the presence of the two Bissu. I’m the last one in line. As soon as I resume my post and prepare my camera, the Bissu stand up and start to develop a dance to the beat of the drums.


Their dance consists of simple steps and circular hand movements. A hand fan is also used. The drummers follow the Bissu and, by the time the fans are replaced by the traditional knives, the tempo has evolved into a trancelike beat. What is impressive about this ritualistic ceremony isn’t its complexity but the energy that the presence of the Bissu seem to exale. The Bissu ‘enact’ self mutilation by pressing the point of the knives against the palm of their hands and then against the throat. It has to be clear for those watching that their bodies have become impenetrable. The fact that they don’t get wounded means that they’re now true incarnations of mystical powers. The moment of removing the knife from the throat is given particular attention as if the blade had been deeply pierced into their flesh. The Bissu proceed into another chamber apparently reserved for the women. But I’m invited to follow them. I’m guessing the reason for that is the fact that I’m a foreigner, a bule. I all of a sudden feel like a Bissu myself, being able to drift around places reserved for men as well as the ones for women. The Bissu accompanied by their hostesses finally place themselves in a little room cramped with dozens of offerings of all sorts. The sound of the scratching cup upon the dish comes back. Amid burning candles and incense one of the Bissu lights up a sacred wood stick and performs various kinds of blessings until the moment when ze faints and falls to the ground. Ze is quickly aided by hir hostesses who conceal hir head and torso with a cloth. One by one, women and young kids stick their heads under the cover while slipping more small rupiah notes and the Bissu utters some sort of blessing. At the end, even bananas and other fruits are brought under the cover in order to be blessed. After all, this is a ritual done before the harvest. The ceremony ends up here as the energy seems to slowly dissipate and the cover is finally removed from the Bissu head. More traditional sweets and food are offered and we end up eating the bananas that have just been blessed.


It’s time to leave and head back to the big city. I warmly thank my hosts and the Bissu Puang and Wa. On our way back to the car, the mosquitos start to literally eat us. I then realize that I hadn’t felt a single mosquito bite while in the presence of the Bissu…


This time I don’t complain about the rather cold air conditioner that my interpreters insist on using. Though it’s dark in this randomly electrically lit part of the Segeri district, the moonlight allows me to have a last glance at the mountains.

Bissu Eka

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