Issue 13.4, November 1998

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Essay Excerpt

During anthropological fieldwork on gender and agricultural development in West Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1989-90, I pursued a secondary research goal of investigating the situation of "lesbians" in the area. I met a small number of "women" who seemed butch in the way that term was used in the United States at the time. In West Sumatra these individuals are called lesbi or tomboi (derived from the English words lesbian and tomboy). Although there are similarities, a tomboi in West Sumatra is different from a butch in the United States, not surprisingly, for social constructionists have shown that sexual practices reflect particular historical and cultural contexts (Elliston 1995; Weston 1993). The term tomboi is used for a female acting in the manner of men (gaya laki-laki).Through my relationship with a tomboi in West Sumatra, I learned some of the ways in which my concept of "lesbian" was not the same as my partner's, even though we were both, I thought, women-loving women.

This article explores how tombois in West Sumatra both shape their identities from and resist local, national, and transnational narratives of gender and sexuality. By focusing on West Sumatra, I provide an in-depth analysis of the complexities of tomboi identity for individuals from one ethnic group in Indonesia, the Minangkabau. This piece is not a general explication of tombois across Indonesia, although there may be considerable overlap (see Wieringa 1998). Much excellent work on postcolonial states explores the interplay of national and transnational narratives in the production of genders and sexualities.This article provides a cultural location for tombois oriented to Minangkabau culture as well as national and transnational discourses (p. 491).

From: Blackwood, Evelyn. "Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire." Cultural Anthropology 13.4(1998): 491-521.