Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia HW

Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia HW

Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia HW

The later fieldwork of Sharyn Graham Davies (Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia, 2007) and Tom Boellstorff (The Gay Archipelago, 2005) is more ambitious than my effort from 1993.

Read Sulwesi’s Fifth Gender by Sharyn Graham for a summary of the Buginese unique concepts of sex and gender.

It is important to note that Graham’s use of the word hermaphrodite is emic. This is not the Western clinical use of the word as roughly synonymous with intersexual, or someone with ambiguous genitalia and/or atypical sex chromosomes. Rather Graham is noting that a person with the body of a male (sex XY) but the temperament (gender) of a woman might be construed by the Buginese as hermaphroditic, and therefore qualified for the bissu priesthood. This would also be true of someone with the body of a female (sex XX) but the temperament (gender) of a man. Hermaphrodism, therefore, may or may not be visible on the body.

Graham’s point about “transvestite priest” is worth noting. It is an inadequate translation, and points to the limitation of cross-linguistic communication. Remember the bissu are not drag queens per se. They evoke spirituality through symbolically representing a male/female/masculine/feminine mix.

Note, also, the word hir (a pronoun transcending the gendered “his” and “her,” and more respectful than “it” when addressing human beings.) As for calalai (false man) and calabai (false woman), they should be clear if you read Graham’s description carefully. I have also found the pyramid analogy useful. Try drawing a pyramid, labeling each base corner as one of the Buginese genders (woman, man, calabai, calalai). Then complete the pyramid with the bissu as the top point. You now have a visual representation of the Buginese five gendered system.

Buginese concepts of sexual orientation are consistent with having five genders. Consider the logic: If a male has the desire of most women (i.e., wanting men sexually), and he is spiritually and ritually gifted, then he may be inclined toward the bissu priesthood. The reverse is also true of females with the desire of most men (i.e., wanting women sexually). It’s as if homosexual desire proves or demonstrates that there is a woman inside the male, or a man inside the female.

A bissu priest from the Buginese culture, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

It is also important to note that such five gendered, three sexed system does not constitute extraordinary tolerance of homosexuality or sexual minorities in the culture or nation at large. Waria is a term used through Indonesia that means transgendered male, and such individuals are sometimes mocked and discriminated against. Their professional stereotypes are entertainers, hair stylists, and prostitutes, though greater career diversity is now possible through sheer talent and drive to overcome prejudice.

There is overwhelming social pressure in Indonesia to marry heterosexually and have children, and anyone who doesn’t play by those rules suffers. Almost everyone gets married, including bissu. So do more garden-variety homosexuals, who find same-sex lovers while participating in the expectation of marriage and family. A man who has sex with men on the side is orang sakit (sick man), and his homosexual affairs are to be endured for the sake of the family. Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia HW

A binary concept of lesbianism, modeled on heteronormativity, is pervasive in Indonesia. Lesbians are expected to come in two types: tomboi and cewek. (Revisit Culture and Women’s Sexuality from Week Three for a discussion of the tomboi.)Tombois have a masculine gender orientation, ceweks feminine. But these strict labels may be fading. According to Tom Boellstorff (The Gay Archipelago), the binary rules of lesbianism in Indonesia are breaking down as the Western models of gay and lesbian are finding their way into national discourse.

The bissu therefore represent a phenomenon sometimes referred to in anthropology as traditional sexualities, i.e., those systems that honor alternate gender and sexuality due to their place in ritual, custom, and spirituality. There is nothing like it in mainstream United States. The Holy Drag Queen?The Sacred Bull Dyke? At this point, we position such ideas squarely in the realm of satire and travesty. Maybe someday the intersection of alternate sex, gender, sexuality, and spirituality will find its way into mainstream American culture, and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will be met with – pardon the pun – a straight face.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence conduct a “gay mass” in San Francisco.

For Further Reading:

Bacigalupo, Ana Mariella. Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing Among the Chilean Mapuche. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Boellstorff, Tom. The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Davies, Sharyn Graham. Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders among the Bugis of Indonesia. Belmont, CA: Thompson Higher Education, 2007.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kortschak, Irfan. “Defining waria: Indonesia’s transgendered community is raising its profile” at

Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972.



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