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Lavender Languages | 2008 Keynote

Tomboi Vernacular and Claims of Identity:
Self-Positioning and Community in the "Lesbi World"

Evelyn Blackwood, Purdue University

Located in a regional metropolis outside Java, tombois and their girlfriends participate in and reflect the circulation of national and transnational queer discourses but access them in uneven ways, producing different readings in different locations. National activists tend to identify with the global queer discourse of modernity that assumes modern lesbian and gay couples should reflect gender sameness not gender difference. Meanings of “lesbi” and “gay” in Indonesia, however, remain somewhat fluid, reflective both of discourses of global LGBT organizations and a desire to maintain specific “Indonesian” meanings.

I examine the terms and phrases that tombois and their girlfriends in Padang use to describe themselves and what that says about their self-understanding, their sense of community with individuals like themselves, and their relation to the label “lesbi,” which they stand under but do not exactly fit. Their use of waria (transgendered males) vernacular and gendered terms of endearment create and substantiate their self-positionings as differently gendered tombois and femmes in contrast to the way “lesbi” is used to identify a group of women-loving women.

Tombois’ use of masculine pronouns points to the agency of speakers in creating and substantiating their gender identity as men. Girlfriends’ speech practices signify their membership in the category of normative woman and indicate an ongoing desire to be seen as proper women. Although tombois do not create new terms for themselves, and thus do not evidence certain expected U.S. queer strategies of resistance through re-naming, their use of gendered pronouns and kin terms shifts the meanings of those terms onto bodies that do not match with normative gender meanings, in effect challenging dominant constructions of gender and family. Their speech practices bring into being a vision of the world that ignores the incongruity of the tomboi’s body to h/er masculine self and creates a space for two female bodies to be together in a relationship.

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Evelyn Blackwood is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Purdue University. She is author of Webs of Power: Women, Kin and Community in a Sumatran Village (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) and editor of the classic collection The Many Faces of Homosexuality (Harrington Park Press, 1986). She co-edited Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures (Columbia University Press, 1999) and Women’s Sexualities and Masculinities in a Globalizing Asia (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007). Her many publications argue for sharper analyses of the categories and experiences of gender and sexuality in daily life. She is completing work on a full-length monograph on tombois and their girlfriends in West Sumatra, Indonesia; her keynote address draws on material from this monograph. See more about Professor Blackwood at