"Are the two of you brothers? Or friends?"
The young Indonesian man who served us breakfast at our home-stay in Bali knew that we were sharing a room with one bed, and his curiosity had gotten the better of him, despite his halting English. I laughed nervously and said, "Sisters," winking at my wife Danice. ("Sisters" is a term we've used between us as code for "lesbians.") Almost simultaneously, Danice responded with, "Both." There was an awkward pause, and neither of us attempted to disambiguate the situation. He seemed satisfied enough and nodded politely before leaving.
Danice and I had been saving up the points on our credit card for over five years, waiting to earn enough to afford plane tickets to Bali, Indonesia, which had been at the top of Danice's bucket list for most of her adult life. It would also be the first time we'd traveled outside North America since coming out and getting married. This meant that for the first time, we had to see if it was safe for us to "travel while gay."
As it turns out, Indonesia gets an "F" rating on the LGBTQ+ Danger Index. Despite this fact, when you Google search the best places for LGBTQ+ people to travel in Southeast Asia, Bali is almost always near the top of the list. The small island is host to 6 million tourists a year, mostly Australians, so there is significant financial incentive for them to be welcoming. It's also the only Indonesian island whose residents are mostly Hindu, and they tend to be more legally and socially lenient than the other predominantly Muslim islands. We felt safe enough to go.
Still, there are signals your body picks up that you don't even consciously notice. In Bali, it was an absence: the absence of anything overtly queer. Apparently there were a few gay clubs and gay hotels in the Kuta area, but that beach party hub wasn't our scene, and didn't make the cut for our itinerary. So although our travels took us to several different cities across the island, the only reference we saw to anything LGBTQ-related during our 18 days in Bali was an T-shirt with the unfortunate caption, "I'm not gay, but $20 is $20." I'm quite sure the seller had no clue what it meant. (Full disclosure, I didn't even understand it myself at first - I had to get my wife to explain it to me.)
There was also another absence. We noticed that Autostraddle and our other favourite queer media websites weren't working when we tried to access them. Turns out internet censorship is a thing in Indonesia. (On one of our quieter days, we still managed to defiantly stream an episode or two of the new L Word Generation Q!).
In some ways, Bali seemed especially queer, at least when it came to gender. We noticed there was a more fluid masculinity among local men, who exhibited a quiet gentleness and softness that put us at ease. Both men and women could be seen wearing skirts (sarongs) and sharing roles in work and home life. And in the traditional dances we saw, which dramatized Hindu and Buddhist stories, women often played male parts. We clung to these small details.
Although we didn't discuss it going in, we somehow both decided not to "out" ourselves to any of the people who were hosting us, driving us around, or feeding us, just in case. We quietly returned to the closet where we had spent the first 8 years of knowing each other, avoiding public displays of affection like hand holding, referring to each other as "friend" in the presence of others, becoming "wives" again only when we returned to the safety of our shared room. And honestly, it felt like a small price to pay. We had a really fantastic time on our vacation, enjoying the birds, the monkeys, the waves, the waterfalls, the nasi goreng (at $2.50 a plate), the fresh fruit, the beaches, the language, the music. The self-closeting paled in comparison to these gifts that were there for us to discover.
But reflecting on all of this now, upon our return, makes me long for the day when no one feels the need to silence a part of their identity in order to experience something new, whether it's a new country, a new church, a new friend group, or a new school. It's also been a fresh reminder that for some locals in Indonesia, and for some people in our own Canadian Generous Space community, silence is still the only safe haven. For them, it is not just the new, but the familiar - the home country, the home church, the people around them all the time - who are unsafe to come out to.
As a "professional gay," I swim in the waters of queer dialogue and culture almost all the time, and I can take this for granted. It's been healthy for me to get outside that bubble and catch a glimpse of a different way of life, in all of its beauty and complexity. In the language of Indonesia, the words for "thank you" are "terima kasih," which literally translates, "accept love." This post is my prayer for even more facets and layers of human love to be found acceptable in every corner of the globe.