The transgender spiritual leaders of Indonesia and southeast Asia


EXCERPT: In the early 1540s, António de Paiva, a Portuguese merchant and missionary, arrived on the shores of Sulawesi in Indonesia. His aim was to establish trade relations with the local Bugis people and to convert their rulers to Christianity, while fending off similar appeals from Muslim missionaries. [...] What De Paiva didn’t count on, however, was the influence of the bissu. In a letter written in 1544 to João de Albuquerque, the Portuguese bishop of the Indian state of Goa, De Paiva wrote:

Your Lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called bissus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided; they imitate [women’s] speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands … These priests, if they touch a woman in thought or deed, are boiled in tar because they hold that all their religion would be lost if they did it; and they have their teeth covered in gold.

Unfortunately for De Paiva, the power that the bissu wielded prevailed upon their rulers, and they converted en masse to Islam. We don’t know exactly why the bissu opted for Islam, but what is clear is that their influence is not to be underestimated.

The bissu remain powerful. They are an order of spiritual leaders (often framed as a priest or shaman) who are commissioned to perform all sorts of tasks for the local community, such as helping those in power to make important decisions on topics such as marriage alliances, crop harvest dates and settlements of debt. And today, long after their conversion to Islam, they give blessings for people about to make the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But where does this power come from?

The Bugis people thought that when a being became a woman or a man, that being could no longer communicate with the gods. Men and women were in some sense cut off from the gods that made them. But the gods had a means of communicating with humans: the bissu. Because the gods left the bissu undifferentiated – a combination of woman and man – they are accorded a position of influence. As the bissu bring together woman and man in one person, they can mediate between humans and gods through blessings.

[...] The influence of the bissu raises a question: what is the Bugis concept of gender? We know from their writings that foreigners perceived the bissu as somehow ‘beyond’ women and men. In 1848, for instance, an Englishman called James Brooke visited Indonesia and recorded the following in his journal:

The strangest custom I have observed is that some men dress like women, and some women like men; not occasionally, but all their lives, devoting themselves to the occupations and pursuits of their adopted sex. In the case of the males, it seems that the parents of a boy, upon perceiving in him certain effeminacies of habit and appearance, are induced thereby to present him to one of the rajahs, by whom he is received. These youths often acquire much influence over their masters.

Early indigenous manuscripts also talk of the bissu occupying a special social position because they combined female and male qualities. But the analytic tools available to these earlier commentators were slim – there was no word for anything like ‘gender’. Therefore, it is difficult to assess whether the bissu were considered a ‘third’ gender or as crossing from ‘one’ gender to the ‘other’ (transgender). However, what we can say is that there was a powerful sense of what today would be called ‘gender pluralism’.

For Michael Peletz, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, gender pluralism is the notion that sensibilities and dispositions regarding bodily practices, desires and social roles are embedded in cultural notions of femininity and masculinity, and can span an assortment of combinations – there is no essential, ahistorical fact of what constitutes femininity and masculinity. The fact that transgender shamans have been accorded status not just in Indonesia but across much of Southeast Asia is a powerful indication for the historical contingency of what many today in the West take to be essential about gender....


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