In a country fraught with intolerant views towards LGBT individuals, the drag queens of Seminyak offer some light-hearted relief
Text and photography by Putu Sayoga
Backstage, Renata is busy slipping into her elaborate stage costume. Once her bedazzling, feathered headdress is firmly in place, she adds the finishing touches to her heavily made-up face – fluttering false eyelashes, shimmering cheeks and precision lipstick. She’s ready to own the stage.
Renata, as she is known, is one of the most popular drag queens at the Bali Joe bar in the island’s tourist hotspot of Seminyak. One of the most famous gay bars in the area, Bali Joe prides itself on signature cocktails such as the Cinderella and, of course, its flamboyant live entertainment.
With her fellow drag queens by her side, Renata gears up to take to the stage and belt out a rendition of a Tina Turner classic to celebrate the drinking hole’s fifth anniversary. It’s getting late, and the bar is quickly filling up with an almost entirely male crowd.
Fiona, in a figure-hugging sequinned fishtail gown, opens the show with a sultry, lip-synched number from Moulin Rouge. The crowd goes wild as Renata takes her place and throws herself into Tina’s famous GoldenEye, all hip-thrusting and butt-shaking, bringing the star’s signature performance-style back to life.
According to Fiona, one of the most prolific drag queens in Seminyak, the Bali Joe show has been running for about five years. She says its emergence, and that of the other drag shows on the island, is closely connected to the development of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In Bali Joe’s neighbourhood, Dhyana Pura, LGBT individuals are well catered for, with hotels, spas and certainly bars aplenty. “Unlike other areas in Indonesia, the LGBT community here are relatively open and feel free to express themselves,” she says.
Outside of Dhyana Pura, however, the picture is somewhat different. According to 2013 research by the Pew Research Centre, Indonesia is categorised as relatively intolerant towards homosexuality. There have been many examples of this in action, such as in 2010 when a fundamentalist religious group coercively disbanded an International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) meeting in Surabaya.
But back at Bali Joe’s, the atmosphere is light. As the two-hour show comes to an end, the night is full of glitter and giggles. A lively go-go dance, performed by the bar’s buff waiters, tops off the festivities and the performers are bathed in rounds of applause.