POST D: Bissu – South Sulawesi’s Meta-Gender Half-Gods

POST D map-01

(content warning: homophobia, transphobia, self-harm)

The Buginese language of South Sulawesi offers five terms when referencing sex, gender, and sexuality. These are: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”), calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”), and bissu (“transgender priests”). Sharyn Graham Davies, an Australian anthropologist and long-time researcher in the fields of gender and sexuality in Indonesia provides these translations but asserts that they are “not exact, but suffice” (Graham 2016). Recognition of non-binary gender is a centuries old Buginese ideology and its role in local tradition has endured years of greater shifts in culture and politics. Throughout these changes, the practice of the Bissu have experienced especially tumultuous times.


Engel, a Bissu in the town Bone (Photo: Riemersma 2015)

Bissu are the venerated fifth gender in Bugis culture. They are often calalai or calabai who train under elder Bissu to learn the traditional mantras and rituals of the practice (Umar 2016). Bissu’s ability to transcend gender are also believed to translate to an ability to transcend mortality, and for centuries have acted as mediators between the people and the divine. One notable Bissu tradition is the dance of the Maggiri, where Bissus attempt to pierce themselves with ceremonial krises (knives), where their inability to draw blood prove their bodies are truly possessed by dewatas (the Gods) (Graham 2004).


A still from a video documenting a Maggiri ceremony carried out by Bissu in Bone. You can watch the full video here (Photo: still from DKB Peringatan Hari Tari Se-Dunia 2016)

Before the integration of the archipelago, Bissu played venerated roles in advising the two ruling kingdoms of South Sulawesi. They lived amongst nobility and were integral parts of social, cultural, and political traditions. In the mid 1960s however, a rise in the Islamic fundamentalist movement of Kahar Muzakar in South Sulawesi saw the mass persecution and disbandment of the Bissu community (Nanda 2014).


Since the 1990s there has been an attempt to revitalise Bissu traditions supported by new regional government policies. They now continue to play a role in local communities by providing blessings at weddings, before harvests, and before Bugis Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Time-honoured rituals have regrettably been radically simplified —occasionally performed exclusively for tourists (Boellstroff 2005) — and rice fields that were once given to the Bissu community as a form of income have been taken away (Latheif 2004).


Though incomplete, these local attempts to rejuvenate gender-diverse identity and tradition exist in stark contrast to the events unfolding in the country’s capital. Just last year, the  Human Rights Watch published a report condemning the rise of anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric as government officials proposed laws threatening freedom of organisation and censorship (Human Rights Watch 2016).  This rhetoric points towards the West as the influence behind LGBTQIA+ rights activism and the destruction of Indonesian society (Topsfield 2017),  though we need only to look at the Bugis to see that celebration of diversity has long been an integral part of Indonesian culture.


Reference List

Boellstorff, T. 2005, ‘The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia’ 1st edn, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Hasyim, W. ‘DKB Peringatan Hari Tari Se-Dunia,’ 2016,  video, viewed 30 November 2017, <;

Graham, S. 2004, ’Hunters, wedding mothers, and androgynous priests: Conceptualising gender among Bugis in South Sulawesi, Indonesia’, The University of Western Australia.

Graham, S. 2016, ‘What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders’ The Conversation, viewed 30 November 2017, <;.

Human Rights Watch, ‘“These Political Games Ruin Our Lives” Indonesia’s LGBT Community Under Threat’ viewed 30 November 2017, <;.

Lathief, H. 2004, ‘Bissu: pergulatan dan peranannya di masyarakat Bugis’, 1st edn, Desantara, West Java.

Nanda, S. 2014, ‘Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations’, 2nd edn, Waveland Press, Illinois.

Riemersma, F. 2015, ‘Indonesia’s transgender priests face uncertain future’, Aljazeera America, viewed 2nd December 2017, <;.

Topsfield, J. 2017, ‘Suspicion that LGBT rights are ‘Western agenda’ fuels Indonesian crackdown’, The Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 30 November 2017, <;.

Umar, U. 2016,  ‘Beautiful Lives: Priests, Beauticians, and Performance of Islamic Piety in a Non-Gendered Economy in South Sulawesi, Indonesia’, University of California, California.

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