RR. Sri Agustine: A happy lesbian advocate

Attraction comes early to some people. For RR. Sri Agustine, she had her first crush at the tender age of six, on a girl in her class.

What first started as a sweet feeling became the start of a struggle to find her place in the world. After grappling with depression in her teenage years over her sexuality, which was different from the mainstream social norms; a spiritual crisis; running away from home and escaping poverty, she has now found solace as an open lesbian activist, advocating for the rights of lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

The director of the LBT (Lesbian, Bisexual, and Trangender) organization Ardhanary Institute, a research and advocacy group that supports the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation said she knew her life would not be simple when she accepted that she was a lesbian.

“My sexual orientation is different to the mainstream norms. I’m here and they’re there and I know that they will reject me because of the difference. But I have to fight so that society will eventually accept me as I am,” she said recently in her office.

With a crew cut, T-shirt and pants, Agustine is a slim, soft-spoken, butch female. Sitting in
Ardhanary’s modest office, she requested that the address of the office not be published, for fear of violent attacks.

She was recently in Surabaya, where a hard-line religious group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), barged in a hotel and intimidated organizers of the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) to cancel their planned conference.

Born into a strict Catholic family in Bandung, she said when she first started to feel sexually attracted
to girls in high school, she became depressed.

“My friends were able to talk about their crushes while I could only remain silent,” she said.

A friend of hers sensed that Agustine was a lesbian and advised her to talk to her psychologist aunt. The psychologist told her she should just let go of things that were burdening her. She said Agustine needed to be honest and open with herself and develop a high self-esteem by being a high achiever.

“She said Jesus himself was carrying one cross, while it was as if I was carrying a cross with the
addition of the guilt of being a lesbian. She said I should just let it go,” Agustine said.

When she started to accept herself, her grades went up again. She was intrigued to find out information about lesbianism and, in her quest, found an article on GAYa Nusantara, the first gay movement in Indonesia.

She wrote to the founder, Dede Oetomo, who replied by sending her the GAYa Nusantara magazine, the first publication in Indonesia intended for gay and lesbians. There were sections for correspondence, and she wrote to other lesbians in other cities.

“I finally found a community,” she said. Previously, Agustine said she had felt so isolated and alone.
She came out to her parents in her senior year in high school, bringing home her girlfriend. She said her parents had always sensed that she was a lesbian by the way she dressed and acted but were in denial. “They didn’t take it very well, and I was hit,” she said.

As she could not stand the pressure any longer, she ran away from home with a gay friend when she was in her first year at college. She started from scratch.

“We worked in factories,” Agustine said. She once sold teh botol drinks on trains.

While she uprooted herself from her home, one habit she kept from her father was his love for books. “My dad was very proud of being an intellectual. One sign of intellectuality, for him, was the collection of books one had,” she said.

Her father would make her choose between buying books or a motorcycle. “He would say, ‘If you buy a motorcycle, you won’t be able to buy books. But by buying books, you might be able to buy a motorcycle’,” she said.

So from the little money she could save, she would buy a book, thinking that by buying a book she would be able to pull herself out of poverty.

She attempted to study philosophy at the Driyarkara School of Theology but was not able to complete her studies due to having to work to support herself. In 2006, Agustine received a scholarship
to study sexuality and methodology in a sexuality research project in Amsterdam.

Through her astute ways, Agustine lifted herself out of poverty. She applied to a company for a graphic design job, saying she had mastered the graphic design software.

“I told them that I needed one week to relearn the software because it had been a while since I had used it. I had never used it in my life. I taught myself in that week. If I hadn’t done that, I would never have made it,” she said.

She joined the women’s movement in the early 1990s and eventually landed a job at the Indonesian Women’s Coalition (KPI) women’s group, to work for their in-house magazine Semai.

For Agustine, one way to make people accept her was to deconstruct people’s image of lesbian women.

When she first worked at KPI, most of her colleagues were scared of her. They were prejudiced and thought lesbians were sleazy, liked to poke their fingers, and were prone to harass her sexually.

Agustine said they were afraid she would fall in love with and pursue one of them.

She slowly changed the way her colleagues saw her by bringing her lesbian friends to her workplace and introducing them to her colleagues. After a while, her colleagues would come up to them and say, “Oh, lesbians are the same as other people”.

She is doing the same with her work at the Ardhanary Institute. She said people would not respond kindly to harsh or aggressive words such as to stop homophobia or the like. So at every event, we choose to use positive words for ourselves, for example: “Lesbians are happy because of their choice of sexual orientation”.

She gives interviews to morning talk shows on television. “We want to present a positive image of lesbians, that we can function well in society and achieve something,” she said.

Agustine said the struggle was still ongoing. While the LBT movement ally themselves with the women’s movement, she said within the movement there was some resistance to lesbians.

Agustine said she returned home after 10 years. Her father now has passed away, and her mother and siblings are more accepting. Her family’s openness is now being passed on to the younger generation, she said.

“One day, my nieces and nephew were sitting in the back of the car. My nieces were hugging each other and their brother said: ‘When two women love and care for each other that’s called lesbian’. The girls asked: ‘What about two men?’ and their brother said: ‘That’s called gay’. And what about hugging without [romantic] feelings the girls asked again, and the brother said ‘That’s called friendship’.”

For Agustine, one way to make people accept her was to deconstruct people’s image of lesbian women.

Courtesy of RR Sri Agustine
Courtesy of RR Sri Agustine

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Sat, April 10 2010

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