Several Bissu danced in Project Budaya Bone event in 2022. Courtesy of Feby Triadi.

Beyond the Binary: Two Bissu Defend their Roots in Sulawesi

The concept of queer and non-binary identities has long been a part of Indonesian culture, including the Bugis culture in Sulawesi, where the bissu, who embody all genders, play a significant role in society, despite facing discrimination from various conservative groups. Yuyun and Eka are very few bissu who are still fighting for this tradition.

The concept of queer and non-binary identities has long become a part of Indonesian culture, including the Bugis culture in Sulawesi. The Bugis people believe that there are five genders, including bissu, which refers to neither male nor female but embodies all genders.

To be a bissu, one must be a calabai first, which refers to people assigned male at birth who take on roles traditionally played by women. There used to be many assigned as female at birth (AFAB) bissu as well, but this is quite rare nowadays, since they would need to be in a menopause stage to be “pure”.

Andi Muhammad Yunus (34), also known as Bissu Yuyun, is one of the bissu who is still trying to continue the tradition. Yuyun realised they were calabai when they were just in elementary school. 

“When I walked, I appeared more feminine, which drew bullying from children. I also loved to do activities with other girls, such as dancing,” shares Yuyun.

The Bugis people in Sulawesi used to consider bissu sacred, although the number of people continues to decrease today due to discrimination from people, including their own families. When Yuyun’s conservative Muslim family members learned of Yuyun’s calabai  status, they were quick to express their dissatisfaction.

“When I informed [my parents] that I have the calling to become a bissu, they were overcome with profound disappointment. I remember my mother asking me, ‘Don’t you want to get married?’ and I responded no,” Yuyun says.

Other than bissu and Calabai, there are: makkunrai, which refers to cisgender women; oroane, which refers to cis men; and calalai, which refers to women who take on traditionally male roles.

However, after the bissu mass killings in 1965 and as negative sentiments towards the LGBTQ community in Indonesia continue to grow, the bissu’s traditional role and the security to be themselves in society started to fade. 

The LGBTQ community in Indonesia, including traditional identities like bissu, has been subjected to escalating harassment and discrimination at the hands of conservative Islamist organisations, the police, and politicians—leaving the bissu and others like them shunned and out in the cold. 

According to a Community Legal Aid Institute (LBHM) survey, 973 incidents of stigma, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression were recorded throughout 2017. These reports were traced to various regions across Indonesia, with the highest number, 715, coming from transgender people, followed by 225 gay men and 29 lesbians. The situation is getting worse as Indonesia is about to enter its election year in 2024.

These individual reports reflect a broader push to drive queer and gender-diverse people and communities to the fringes. For the bissu in Bone, South Sulawesi, last year’s annual celebration of the regency’s inception marked a turning point: there was no inclusion of bissu in the events. 

Based on historical records, King Manurunge ri Matajang’s appointment as leader of the newly established Kingdom of Bone in 1330 signified the beginning of a long, rich, and diverse history in the region. And in 2022, Bone celebrated its 692nd Hari Jadi Bone (HJB).

To date, the role of bissu in commemorating HJB has been significant. They often perform several rituals, from mallekke wae (collecting water), massimang (asking permission), and mattompang arajang (cleaning heirlooms) to carrying trays or royal objects during anniversary ceremonies.

It was reported that the governor of South Sulawesi, Andi Sudirman Sulaiman, had refused the presence of bissu at last year’s event.

“Regarding [the rumours] that the governor didn’t allow [bissu’s involvement], I can’t confirm that,” says Andi Ansar, head of the Bone Culture Board (Disbud), adding that it was the bissu community that had withdrawn from the festivities.

The pictures capture eight bissu in Sulawesi. They are wearing Bugis traditional clothes. Photo courtesy of Asrul Nur Iman.
The pictures capture eight bissu in Sulawesi. They are wearing Bugis traditional clothes. Photo courtesy of Asrul Nur Iman.

Sacred 

Asrul Nur Iman (33), a bissu researcher from Bhayangkara University Jakarta, explains that as time goes by, bissu no longer live as they used to, especially as religious influences prevail. It is particularly known, for example, that a strong Islamist influence is growing in South Sulawesi. 

“Many branches of Islam in South Sulawesi disregard or disapprove of Bissu because they practise an ancestral culture that allegedly breaks Islamic values,” Asrul says. 

According to research from Alauddin State Islamic University Makassar on the Muslim perspective of bissu, many people oppose bissu’s existence. For example, a religious figure in South Sulawesi’s Rumpia village, Wajo regency argues that bissu do not seek Allah’s help and is, therefore, considered musyrik (sacrilegious).

Negative sentiments toward bissu increase as people see them as a part of the LGBTQ movement in Indonesia.

“I emphasise that this is a setback, as there are some traditional rituals that are no longer practised by bissu, because there’s a sentiment that they are part of the LGBTQ movement,” Asrul says. 

“In fact, the person who is supposed to execute many rituals is a bissu. The main actor in the life cycle of Bugis society is, indeed, a bissu.” 

Bissu plays a prominent role in the coronation of a king. According to Yovita M. Hartarini in A social-cultural analysis of Bissu within Bugis ethnicity (2012), the position of a Datu’ (king) would not be complete without the presence of a bissu

In addition to playing a role in the inauguration of a king, Kahar Eka, also known as Bissu Eka (40), explains that bissu also has a role in the daily life of the Bugis people. Commonly, bissu serves as a leader for traditional ceremonies. These roles include taking part in mappalili (planting rice), mappadendang (harvesting), indo’botting (doing bridal make-up and guiding them down the aisle), menre bola baru (ceremony for moving into a new house), songkabala (warding off bad omens) and the release of vows, as well as various rituals for pregnancies, births, and deaths.

The picture of bissu in the traditional clothes doing the Heirloom Cleaning Ceremony, known as Mappalili, before the rice planting season begins. Photo courtesy of Asrul Nur Iman.
The picture of bissu doing the Heirloom Cleaning Ceremony, known as Mappalili, before the rice planting season begins. Photo courtesy of Asrul Nur Iman.

Asrul further explains that bissu has a complex sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and/or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) within traditional definitions of their role in society. Hence, being bissu is about more than playing prominent roles in cultural events. 

Eka says that not all calabai decide to, or have the vision to, become bissu

“Not everyone understands bissu. They simply generalise us as being transgender,” Eka says, noting the rejection on transphobic grounds that bissu often face in Indonesia. 

Eka explains that in order to become a bissu, a calabai must first complete a series of steps. They are required to go through the makkanre guru, or the process of learning to become a bissu. Once they have become calabai, they must also learn pangadereng (Bugis customs and traditions) in order to discover their place in society. 

The makkanre guru lasts for as long as it takes for the prospective bissu to receive a vision through a dream that they are destined to be the next generation of bissu. Other established bissu will also have dream visions signalling that another generation of bissu will be crowned. Before their crowning, they must go through the panre lise’, or the process of transferring knowledge to the prospective bissu about ancient Bugis traditions, Eka explains.

Bissu are considered sacred (makarama’) by the Bugis community. As an example, they must appear to be malebbi (graceful and modest), uphold certain attitudes and ethics, and behave and speak politely. 

Eka adds that the bissu world comprises various levels, so it is deemed important for bissu to deepen their knowledge. Even after learning, not everyone can become a bissu. Some learn for life and are still not granted the status of a bissu, while others may have received very little education but manage to become one.

Each bissu has their own duties, such as puang matoa (head of bissu), puang lolo (representative of bissu), jennang (bissu in charge of logistics), bissu poncoo (the lowest level of bissu), mau jangkka (a man who is slightly effeminate but has a wife and knows a lot about bissu). There is also bissu patudang, bissu nobility who monitors other bissu and has the right to point out their mistakes. 

Asrul notes that according to folklore, bissu descended from the sky. The Bugis people believe in three realms: the upper world, the middle world, and the underworld. The upper world is called Botting Langi, or the Kingdom of Langi; the middle world is called Ale Kawa or Earth; and the underworld is called Bori’ Liuq. People believed that bissu is a messenger sent by spirits from Botting Langi.

However, a change in religious and cultural norms has led to the eradication of bissu from Indonesian culture. Kahar Muzakkar, the leader of an Islamic organisation in South Sulawesi, initiated a campaign known as Operasi Pertobatan (Repentance Operation) started in the 1950s aimed to eliminate the bissu community.

During this military operation, traditional objects and implements used were set ablaze and thrown into the ocean. Some bissu chose to be killed rather than forsake their Bugis deities.

Every bissu was suspected of being a member of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), leading to the widespread execution of bissu during the purges in 1965-1966. 

Asrul notes that only a few bissu remain in South Sulawesi, with estimates putting their numbers at just 40 people. 

“There are fewer and fewer in each district because the elders have passed away,” Asrul says.

Struggle 

Yuyun recalled being summoned by the gods in 2008 after having a dream in which they participated in a performance alongside other bissu. This dream continued to plague their mind, so, in 2010, Yuyun decided to follow their destiny and become a bissu.

When Yuyun and Eka received their calling from the gods, they went through similar experiences. Eka, who was raised in a devout Muslim family, says most of their brothers followed the same path of becoming ustaz (Islamic teacher). Eka was also rejected by their father, who was part of one of the largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia. 

“Let alone being a bissu, my parents strongly disagreed with me being a calabai. They couldn’t accept that their son, who was born male, [but] grew up to be feminine,” Eka says. 

It took Eka a while to be accepted by their family.

Three Bissu in Project Budaya Bone event in 2022. Courtesy of Feby Triadi.
Three calabai in Project Budaya Bone event in 2022. Courtesy of Feby Triadi.

Eka adds that many individuals are anti-bissu and believe that seeing a calabai will give them bad luck for 40 days and 40 nights. 

“We have existed long before Islam was introduced to Indonesia, and we are holy human beings—guardians of the sacred kingdom,” Eka says, noting the complexity of bissu’s traditional roles. 

Labelling bissu as simply a part of the LGBTQIA+ community risks being anachronistic, i.e. putting on a modern label for something that has existed for a long time, potentially losing its spiritual dimension. Various rights groups have argued that some traditions must be kept separate from religion as they often predate the arrival of Abrahamic religions.

Asrul emphasises it will be a tragedy if the bissu community becomes extinct, especially if the people who practise it are threatened and oppressed.

“There is a lack of regeneration in the bissu community and a lack of understanding by society about the importance of having an indigenous community like bissu,” Asrul says. 

“[We must] learn more from each other about the bissu tradition, to try to reintroduce bissu culture to the wider community and also raise awareness among our calabai friends as the next generation [of our culture] about the importance of preserving bissu values,” Yuyun adds.  

“I am proud to be a bissu as I am preserving this culture.”

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