Dorce Gamalama. Photo by Feri for Antara.


When Dorce Gamalama — a prominent transgender entertainer, singer, talk show host, comedienne and celebrity for the greater part of the last four decades — passed away on 16 February 2022, Indonesians’ ubiquitous WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms exploded with expressions of condolence. It was not surprising to see this kind of outpouring of grief from sexual and gender minority activists and communities, but the fact that it also came from the general public was a sign of how far Dorce’s appeal extended.

Dorce was born in Solok, West Sumatra, in 1963. She began her career as a member of an all trans women dance group known as The Fantastic Dolls, eventually leading to her first national television appearance in 1989, for the 27th anniversary celebrations of state television station TVRI.

She came to wider public prominence with further television appearances and the release of the films Dorce Sok Akrab (Dorce Up Close) in 1989 and Dorce Ketemu Jodoh (Dorce Meets Her Match) in 1990. She was a prolific recording artist, too, at one point recording nine albums over a period of just five months. But it was her five-year run as host of talk show The Dorce Show on Trans TV from 2005-2009 that saw her beamed into the homes of Indonesians across the country.

Dorce presented herself as a pious and maternal figure, and was commonly called “Bunda Dorce” (Mother Dorce). She went on the hajj in 1990 and 1991, adopted three children, and founded a charitable organisation to care for orphans and other vulnerable children.

The fact that she was transgender did not seem to matter. In fact, after Dorce had sex reassignment surgery in 1983, and the government legally recognised her as a woman in 1988, she always insisted she was a woman, rather than a waria (a somewhat contested term often translated as ‘trans woman’). She boldly stated as much in the title of her 2005 autobiography, co-written with FX Rudy Gunawan: Aku Perempuan: Jalan Berliku Seorang Dorce Gamalama (I Am a Woman: The Winding Path of Dorce Gamalama).

It could well be that the mostly positive reflections on Dorce’s life over the past two weeks simply reflect the common custom of not speaking ill of the dead. But closer scrutiny reveals that the public commentary can be separated into two main categories.

On one hand, her death two weeks ago, after she fell ill with Covid-19, prompted respectful messages of condolence, expressed both by gender and sexual minorities, their communities, organisations and their allies, as well as by people who could be labelled secular or moderate Muslims.

On the other hand, many comments by more conservative Muslims were couched in language of care and protection, and related specifically to reports about how her family, apparently under pressure from her neighbourhood mosque, decided to prepare her body for burial as a male. In his recent article, “Discordant Emotions: The Affective Dynamics of Anti-LGBT Campaigns in Indonesia”, Ferdiansyah Thajib wrote that “the violent delegitimisation of sexual and gender minorities in the country involves affective shifts from shame and fear to care and protection”. Many of these conservative commenters noted approvingly that Dorce “returned to his original identity, that of a male”. Although the commenters framed their remarks in terms of concern for Dorce in the afterlife, much like Thajib observed, the “caring and protecting” attitude they displayed was ultimately rooted in a rejection of gender diversity.

To provide further background, Dorce made clear her wish to be buried as a woman, as recently as a few weeks before her death. Her burial became her final controversy, amplified by the media. It provoked the same old condemnation from conservative Muslim clerics, but at the same time also triggered statements of defence from gender and sexual minority activists and their allies, as well as pluralism and diversity activists. They argued that ultimately Dorce had the right to choose how she wished to be buried.

In the days after Dorce’s death, it seemed as though every one of the hundred-odd gender and sexual minority organisations in Indonesia posted messages of condolence on social media, stating that Dorce had been an important role model for them. Many argued vehemently for her right to be buried according to her wishes. A group of faith-connected gender and sexual minority activists even held a virtual interfaith memorial, defying conservative Muslim clerics by explicitly describing Dorce as a woman, and reading prayers from different faiths.

This is all the more remarkable since Dorce never described herself an activist, and was not closely connected to the transgender and activist communities. Nevertheless, her position as Indonesia’s most prominent transgender celebrity went beyond dedicated activism. Most gender and sexual minority activists are in their twenties and thirties, and grew up with Dorce on their family’s television screens and in newspapers and magazines. Given her fame and wide public acceptance, she was a fairly safe role model for these people to look up to within the context of their family life.

In many ways, perhaps inadvertently, Dorce desensitised issues of gender and sexual diversity among the general public, thus making it possible for young people of non-normative gender or sexuality to be tolerated, or even accepted. At the same time, Dorce’s largely positive representation in mainstream media allowed her to act as an unintended role model, helping these young people to find the courage to gradually live out their differences.

One lesson Indonesia’s gender and sexual minority activists can learn from Dorce is that the paths of activism are many. While assertive activism is needed, strategies that are less confrontational and more entertaining can also be effective.

Amar Alfikar, a queer trans man Muslim activist and scholar, one of the organisers of the virtual interfaith memorial for Dorce, was right when he quipped on Twitter that even in death, Dorce was still educating society about the complexities of gender and sexuality.

One wonders how long Dorce’s legacy will last, given the rapid pace at which popular culture moves on. But maybe there is no need to worry. Other personalities are already emerging, such as celebrity Dena Rachman, medical doctor Alegra Wolter and activist Hendrika Mayora Victoria Kelan. They and others like them will continue to carry Dorce’s torch forward, towards what will hopefully be a better future for minorities in Indonesia’s diverse society.

, ,

We acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which our campuses are situated.

Phone:13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +(61 3) 9035 5511
The University of Melbourne ABN:84 002 705 224
CRICOS Provider Code:00116K (visa information)