By Alice Picco, October 15th, 2021
“My voice is loud because there are not many voices.”
Growing up queer is certainly something that shapes your whole life. Especially in your younger years, discovering and accepting your own queer self might not be easy at all. Young queer people often feel alone, misunderstood and left out, and not everyone is lucky to live in a queer-friendly environment or have supportive families. This is the main reason why I chose to interview Kai Mata for my research project: her activism relies on the concept of “being who you needed when you were younger.” Kai Mata is an Indonesian singer/songwriter and an openly queer activist. She has chosen to make her queerness an important part of her artistic and musical production and uses social media to spread awareness on LGBTQ+ issues in Indonesia. Kai Mata has an Instagram account of nearly 6K followers, of which the bio reads “Indonesia’s openly LGBTQ+ musician.” In her account, we see the co-existence of her international fanbase as well as her attention to Indonesian issues and language. The captions to her Instagram posts and the subtitles to her videos are often both in English and in Indonesian, and there are numerous references to events or policies happening in Indonesia. However, the contents Kai Mata creates and the way she expresses herself are very international. As we will see, Kai’s primary activist strategies include re-appropriation of counternarratives and the use of recurrent visual symbolism.
Together with the interesting network of queer Indonesian activism and the historical peculiarities of the country’s views and policies on gender and sexuality, Kai Mata’s activism strategies interested me because of their ability to reach a wide audience, both Indonesian and international. Being a queer person myself, I too have struggled with both self and external acceptance. I often think about other peoples’ stories when it comes to acceptance, coming out and participation in queer activism.
The experience of queerness varies in different settings and backgrounds. These settings can change the way in which queerness expresses itself and the challenges queer individuals might face. How can a queer person’s story develop, according to the environment they live in? How does having a support network of organizations or familiar/peer support influence queer people’s lives? Having all these questions in mind, I decided to conduct a study that combines Kai Mata’s personal story and her activism strategies.
To conduct my research, I focused on digital techniques of communication, social media representation and data analysis of Instagram reels and posts. My digital ethnography also included Kai Mata’s music and video content. Since Kai Mata’s communication technique combines her career as a singer and musician with her activism, her musical work is explicit and unapologetic in explaining queer struggles and defending queer rights. Along with the cover tracks, Kai Mata’s music is explicitly directed at an LGBTQ+ audience. The song “So Hard” for example, explicitly refers to the struggles of queer women in heteronormative society. The main resources utilized in this study are the audio recording of the zoom interview I had with Kai Mata and her Instagram account, in particular the reel “Reaksi 🏳️🌈 Lesbi Terhadap ‘Bahaya LGBT’”.
I conducted my research along two main lines of inquiry. My first aim was to analyse the figure of Kai Mata biographically in terms of her story, what it meant for her to grow up in Indonesia, how and when she started her career and her activist activity, and what were the challenges she encountered. The second part of my research focused on online communication, social media and digital activism.
I loved conducting the interview because I instantly felt like Kai Mata enjoyed speaking about her career and activism, which definitely helped me to come up with new questions spontaneously.
When asked for her definition of “queer” and what this term means to her, she replied:
I think “queer” for me… Is my sexual orientation, is the identity that my love isn’t bounded by gender and that I am open to loving people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.
Kai Mata argues that “queer” encapsulates all kinds of sexualities, whereas terms like “gay” or “lesbian” may be limiting. She adds that she stopped identifying as gay or lesbian because she wants people to know she is not referring only to cisgender people: she argues that she is able to love people of various genders. Kai Mata specifies that although she identifies as queer, she would never call someone else queer, since it was used as a derogatory term in the past. Kai Mata argues that to some people, especially the elders, the term queer could still hold emotional value. Therefore, it is better not to use it unless someone uses it for themselves.
When I asked her about her about growing up in Indonesia, she told me about the discovery of her sexual orientation. She told me how she had trouble admitting to herself or other people that she was in love with a girl, how she felt confused, scared and alone. She felt like she had no one she could talk to. Kai Mata describes coming to terms with her sexuality while living and growing up in Indonesia as one of the most significant experiences of her life and thus inevitably present in her song writing. For this reason, the concept of “being who you needed when you were younger” is a recurring idea in Kai Mata’s activism strategy. She has taken on the mission to get into contact with young LGBTQ+ people coming out for the first time, and put them in touch with Indonesian LGBTQ+ networks.
When speaking about queer activism in Indonesia, what emerges from the interview is that although there is a variety of Indonesian LGBTQ+ networks, most of these operate underground. Kai Mata always highlights how she is grateful she has an international fanbase, but her focus is mainly on Indonesian issues: “Here is where I’m more present, because here is where I’m needed the most.”
Another prominent aspect of Kai Mata’s communication on social media platforms is that of the focus on Indonesian issues and problems, together with references to Indonesian tradition and diversity. In the interview, for example, she explained that she could move to the US or a European country and live a more relaxed life, face less backlash and continue her music and activism career without having to worry – or worry less – about homophobic attacks. Although her communication strategies and her audience are largely international, she has a strong focus on Indonesian issues, and a strong sense of belonging to Indonesia. She stays in Indonesia because while she has the possibility of moving, other people don’t have this possibility. Kai acknowledges that the critique that could be directed to her activism is related to her coming from privilege. Not every queer person in Indonesia would want the degree of exposure that she has; “visibility” does not sound like a promising perspective for everyone. Some would feel in danger with increased visibility, others would feel uncomfortable, and again others would just not be interested in sharing their sexual preferences with the world.
A recent example that illustrates Kai’s online activist strategy is her Instagram reel “Reaksi 🏳️🌈 Lesbi Terhadap ‘Bahaya LGBT’”. This reel is an example of Kai Mata’s visibility techniques to counter homophobic attacks and backlash. In fact, it is meant to be a reply to an offensive and homophobic video of a song saying “lesbians are singing” which displayed the “dangers of the LGBT”. This video was sent to her, challenging Kai Mata to reply to the backlash. She did so with her own version of the song.
When confronted with the video “Bahaya LGBT” and asked to respond to it, Kai Mata said: “despite the fact that is mocking us and saying that we don’t deserve the right to be legal, it kind of sounds like a queer anthem”. The re-appropriation of counternarratives is an effective way to respond to this kind of internet backlash. Kai Mata uses the offensive parody to create a musical celebration of being LGBTQ+: “Lesbians are singing, transgender women are dancing. Because we are happy, proud to be LGBT.”
This celebratory song Kai Mata has composed is useful to understand her focus on Indonesian issues and her attention to Indonesian history and culture. Hereby, she mentions Indonesian diversity and tradition and states the contradiction between the country’s history and its current policies (such as conversion therapy):
So come take a look at the culture of our country: the Bugis tribe tradition, the Lengger’s tradition…if this makes you alarmed, remember our nation’s motto: “Unity in Diversity”. Rainbows also shine in our skies, don’t forget the 5th principle of our nation’s philosophy: “Social Justice for all Indonesians”.
Her communication strategy focuses on re-appropriating backlash and homophobic attacks and responding to them with positivity. Positivity, re-appropriation, and visibility form key parts of Kai’s activist strategy. For example, she relies heavily on the use of symbols like the LGBTQ+ flag.
She frequently uses this symbol both in the photos she posts, as well as in emoji form on her Instagram account. She also had a small pride flag on her desk when I interviewed her. Kai Mata argues that she uses the pride flag as a mean of representation:
I wear rainbow paraphernalia in hopes any queer individuals around recognize they are not alone. When I was first accepting the fact I wasn’t straight, I had no idea queer Indonesian women existed. It felt isolating and lonely. So now, I use the rainbow socks or mask to showcase to any LGBTQ+ individuals walking down the street that there is someone around that may relate to them, and that their sexual/gender identities do not need to isolate them.
In her perspective, the rainbow flag serves as a means to visibility and a reminder of pride. Coming from left-wing queer-punk activism in Italy, this aspect was especially interesting for me personally. In my particular context, the use of rainbow paraphernalia is often associated with rainbow-capitalism and companies appropriating queer culture. Visually, queer-punk activism tends to use the classic aesthetics of punk combined with the colours red and pink. The use of rainbow colours has actually become more diffused in mainstream communication during the last years, for example when companies started creating limited edition “pride” product lines.
In the context of Indonesia, however, Kai uses the rainbow flag to be recognizable to people who – for many reasons – are not comfortable openly expressing their sexuality. This shows that the experience of queerness varies from context to context, together with the necessities and strategies of representation as well as the mechanisms of recognition between queer individuals.
Kai Mata’s persona and music are part of a wider trend of the increasing popularity of online community building and activism. Especially since the start of the pandemic, the internet has substituted public spaces in creating and expanding networks. When we talk about LGBTQ+ activism, we talk about networks of care: connections that can help people struggling with their sexuality to find someone they can talk to and receive emotional and material assistance, without necessarily having to meet in person. Some of the most prominent associations in Indonesia are GAYa NUSANTARA and Arus Pelangi. These networks often help young queers with any kind of emergency that can occur in coming out in a non-accepting environment, such as housing or financial problems. Kai Mata is often contacted by these young LGBTQ+ individuals, and helps them to get in touch with these networks.
Through this research, I discovered that it is possible to conduct an ethnography without necessarily being physically present on the field. Digital and social media technologies can also help create networks of aid and care that go beyond physical distance, as Kai Mata explains when she speaks about young queers needing housing or financial help.
One of the most interesting aspects that is present in Kai Mata’s communication strategy is that of the re-appropriation of counter narratives, as seen on the reel where she replies to backlash in a “positive” way. Re-appropriation is something very prominent and discussed in the queer community, especially when it comes to slurs and derogatory terms. Furthermore, her social media strategy emphasises visibility and visual symbolism, and has a decidedly international outlook – evidenced by for example her repeated use of the rainbow flag, and her use of both English and Indonesian language.
I would like to thank Kai Mata for wanting to share her story with me and help me with this project. This research has been an interesting moment of reflection on the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community in Indonesia, as well as the caring networks and activist strategies that can be cultivated on social media.