Sex, Money and Bali’s Gay Scene
By Benjamin Law
In Benjamin Law’s new book, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, he goes on a journey to find out how different his life might have been if he’d grown up in Asia. He goes backstage with Thai ladyboy beauty contestants, goes to church with an ‘ex-gay’ Malaysian minister who claims to heal homosexuality, and meets Chinese gays and lesbians who marry each other to please their parents. And it all begins with a tour of Bali’s booming gay tourism market, where sex work has become the norm in the gay scene.
In this edited extract, Benjamin illustrates the highs and lows of Bali’s ‘Catch-22’ tourism model and how it has influenced the island’s gay scene.
I was a little conflicted. Bali’s tourism had lifted the island out of poverty, but there were other costs. The island’s entire tourism model was a Catch-22: the pace of tourism steadily eroded Bali’s native culture, environment, language and religion, but economically Bali couldn’t live without foreigners. Tourism was the island’s lifeblood. After the bombs in 2002 and 2005, visitor numbers contracted by a third and employment figures sank. People got poor quickly and non-Balinese workers returned to their home islands and awful jobs. People still spoke about that period like a recent horror they had only barely scraped through.
Meanwhile, sex work had become such an ingrained part of Bali’s gay scene that nearly all young gay men in Bali – and a lot of straight ones – had scored money from sex with bulés at some stage. They tried it for fun, out of boredom or because they wanted an instant hit of money. It had almost become a rite of passage.
Made was thirty-two, a skinny guy who seemed to be formed entirely out of sharp-angled, crane-like limbs. He was native Balinese. For young gay Indonesians from other islands, Bali represented an amnesty zone where they could be openly queer for the first time, away from the prying eyes of their family in Sumatra or Jakarta. It was different if you were Balinese like Made. Bali was a small island, and it didn’t take long for word to spread from family to family. You had to be more discreet. While other gay boys openly cruised each other and bulés at Dhyana Pura, Balinese boys either went online or did old-school cruising along the riverbanks or in old derelict buildings: uma hatu, or ghost houses.
Despite this, Made told me he still went to the bars on Dhyana Pura Street occasionally. When he was in his twenties – when he was more foolhardy and less aware of the consequences – he’d go there nearly every night looking for action. Usually he looked for other Indonesian men, but occasionally he went out sniffing for bulés or they’d come and approach him. Locals were fun, Made said, but the bulés were potentially lucrative. Made even once scored a motorcycle out of one old Australian.
‘A motorcycle!’ I said. ‘How did that happen?’
‘It was difficult. I didn’t speak English,’ Made said, grinning, ‘so I had to use the language of my body instead.’
I nodded. ‘Right.’
Made said the Australian bulé had been more than twice his age – in his sixties or older. Made had been only in his mid-twenties. The age difference was so big that it made him a little embarrassed to think about it now.
‘Was he good-looking, though?’ I asked. ‘Some older guys can still be handsome.’
Made grimaced and clarified for me: this particular dude was super-old and super-ugly. Made didn’t say it in a callous or deliberately mean way. He was describing the bulé objectively, the way you’d describe someone’s hair colour or the shape of their ears. This guy just happened to be ancient and had a seriously unfortunate face. But the old, ugly bulé also had money, so Made went through with it.
The only catch, Made said, was doing exactly what the bulé told him. But Made was usually passive in sex anyway, so he just lay there while the bulé did his thing. To Made’s surprise, he managed to put on a convincing performance, and even got a boner. ‘I don’t think I need someone to be handsome,’ Made said. ‘I think I need someone to comfort me. I mean, at first I didn’t exactly love this guy, but then slowly, slowly, I learned to like him.’
After a few months though, Made decided the bulé wasn’t really his thing. He was young, and this guy was so old he may as well have been his grandfather, or a wizard. And there wasn’t really a spark to speak of, so Made casually called the arrangement off. Furious, the Australian bulé took back the motorcycle he’d given Made, which made Made upset. But he knew better than to argue back. Made’s problem was that he wasn’t open about being gay to his family, and he didn’t want the bulé to expose him.
Made was the sixth of seven siblings and none of his brothers or sisters knew he was gay. Neither did his parents. He suspected his family had their suspicions, but no one ever asked questions and Made never said anything. In his Hindu family, questions about his sexuality were framed by talking about how Made wasn’t yet married, which was embarrassing for everyone involved.
‘The difficult is with the community and the banjar,’ he said. Banjars were the traditional councils upon which Balinese society was based, discrete micro authorities on the island. Even now, male heads of most Balinese families met every fortnight to discuss matters affecting the community, including marriage. ‘I’m getting old,’ Made said, ‘so everyone in my family is asking me: “When are you going to get married?” In Bali culture, a man has to be married, but I’m not ready to be open to the family yet.’
Adding to his shame, every one of Made’s siblings – four brothers and two sisters – was already married. One of his nieces and another nephew were now married off too, and their kids were old enough to talk and refer to him jokingly as ‘grandfather’. Made laughed as he said this, but the laughter came out uncomfortably.
At thirty-two, Made felt too old – and was definitely too gay – for marriage now. But he was also beyond chasing bulés. There was way too much competition in Seminyak, with each new batch of gays moving to the island more handsome, muscled, charming and willing than the last. Nowadays, one Westerner would have between five and ten Indonesians close to him, trying to catch him.
‘Locals have to be more aggressive,’ Made said. ‘And Westerners, they are the king here. They have money, so they get to choose which boy they want.’
Made’s gay friends told me that none of this stuff – the gay villas, the gay clubs, the unceasing packs of rich gay bulés – existed when they were teenagers. Part of them still wished it didn’t. Now it was crowded in Seminyak and tourists came and went, treating boys like trash. Boys became superficial, and it was all about comparing the gifts that bulés left behind. It was common for Balinese guys to pick up bulés and be given widescreen televisions they’d install in comically tiny bedrooms, despite not even having a flushable toilet.
‘All this is good for the economy,’ one of Made’s friends told me, ‘but maybe not good for our culture. Maybe more Balinese will forget the culture also. We’re really afraid Bali will become a sex destination for tourists, like Bangkok, you know.’
He looked at his lap.
‘Nowadays,’ he said, ‘tourists like drag queens more than they like Balinese dancers.’
He laughed a little at his own joke.
You heard this a lot: locals mournfully speculating that Bali was about to become the next Bangkok, that the island was on the tipping point from being famous for its culture to being synonymous with sex. There were other emerging problems too: in Bali, only around 26 per cent of sex workers reportedly used condoms. The rise of gay tourism, the blurring of occupational and incidental sex work, combined with a lack of sex education, meant HIV rates on the island amongst men who had sex with men had increased by 10 per cent in the past year alone.
I swam naked in the villa’s pool at night, my junk floating about, stars shooting across the night sky. The luxury here was almost obscene: the frangipani flowers that dropped into the water would be removed by morning. I mulled over the stories and arguments: ethics versus economics; selling sex to know your worth. It was hard to think about, but it didn’t take long to figure out what was distracting me. In the back of my mind, I was planning my next holiday here. Next time, I decided, I would bring my boyfriend too. It was both wonderful and awful, the way this island made everything – and everyone – so easy.