Born Didik Hadiprayitno in 1954, Didik Nini Thowok is a master of Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese dance. Since the 1970s, he has made a career dancing as female characters. His signature technique is ‘two-faced’ dancing; that is, wearing a mask on the back of the head along with what would be the front of a costume. Although decidedly a ‘he’ offstage, Thowok is an important figure among Indonesian LGBT. At one time, the government attempted to ban him from performing; this was met with enough public backlash that the issue was dropped.
Currently, there is growing wave of anti-LGBT sentiment in Java. This February in Yogyakarta, the well known Al-Fatah pesantren (Islamic boarding school) for waria or transgender women was closed due to ongoing pressure from the Front Jihad Islam. This and other Islamic political groups have been aggressively campaigning and gaining ground, at least on a local level. The Indonesian Psychiatrists’ Association recently declared homosexuality and transgender-ism to be psychological illnesses, contrary to current medical consensus (American Psychological Association, World Health Organization). Earlier this month in Yogya, ‘Lady Fast,’ a feminist/punk music and art gathering, was sacked by the Islamic Jihad Front and the Islamic People Forum with aid from the police. This was done without a police warrant, or clear evidence of any illegal activity.
If this sounds scary…well, it is. There has been an ongoing re-framing of “real” Indonesian culture as whatever aligns with conservative Islam. In fact, the “real” Indonesian culture includes a long history of gender non-conformity, both in social structure and performance art. For instance, the Bugis people of South Sulawesi recognize five genders (full male, full female, male-female, female-male and something like ‘neutral’).
I was lucky to see Didik Nini Thowok for the second a few nights ago. The first time, he was dancing Sundanese tayuban at Institut Seni Indonesia Yogya. This time, it was at Taman Budaya concert hall; Thowok did his crowd-pleasing two-faced routine, along with additional masks/characters (followed by a student group doing a lip-sync’d, auto-tuned, stage rendition of a Javanese folk tale, with re-worded musical tracks from Phantom of the Opera and Frozen…but that’s another story).
In the video below, Thowok does a short version of his routine, followed by a speech (the available subtitles are decent)…