FORMER international student Budi Sudarto knows what it’s like to feel “alienated, alone, and unsure of which direction to take in life”. He talks to Tiffany Leong about “coming out” in an Asian family and the great work he’s doing promoting sexual health.
Indonesian-born Budi Sudarto has come a long way since his days as an international student in Australia. Now in his thirties, Budi works for the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) to help promote sexual health among gay men.We caught up with the cheerful chap to talk about being homosexual in an Asian society, sexual health and lots more.
Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you come from?
As you could probably tell from my name, I am from Indonesia. As an international student, I came to Melbourne in 1998 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University, and have stayed ever since.
What do you do at Victorian AIDS Council? The website says VAC provides “a range of services which include prevention education, treatment and care of PLHIV and counselling services”
I started off as a volunteer in 2001, until I was officially working for the Council about one and half years ago. I am now a peer education coordinator for Gay Asian Proud and Young & Gay, which are workshops for same-sex attracted males. Young & Gay is open for all nationalities while Gay Asian Proud is, well, evidently for Asians. These workshops help to address issues such as “coming out” and safe sex practice.
When did you know you were gay?
Even after I “came out”, I was bombarded with questions especially by my parents, like “How do you know you are gay?”, “How sure are you”, “is it just a phase? A trend among teenagers?”. Until today, I still don’t know how to explain it but I am certain I have always been attracted to other men. I just didn’t know there was a label for it – which happens to be “gay”.
What was coming out like for you? How did your family and friends react?
I came out when I was 17, back home in Indonesia. In high school, most of my friends knew and they were totally OK with it. Before my parents found out, I already started to chat with a few people online, meet them at the mall and quickly form my own network of gay friends. At first, my parents were curious with my lack of girlfriend, which I only answered with “not interested”. Until one day I just decided to break the news, and surprisingly, they took it quite well. They completely accepted me after I assured them that “it is who I am”.
Thanks to Facebook, my entire extended family found out too – but I’m grateful that they were OK with it. But of course, there were others who were not as supportive – so we ended up losing contact.
Any tips for how to come out to friends and family?
First, you have to find out what works best for you, which can vary from different individuals and their backgrounds. Consider your relationship with your family and sometimes, mutual understanding can be established even through silence. Back home, I know a friend who has been in a homosexual relationship for over 20 years, but never actually speaks explicitly about it with his family. Yet, things work and the parents do acknowledge his lifestyle and partner – which can be a sign of support especially in Asian societies.
You can always try to find the best time to come out, but understand that it’ll take time for others to adjust to your “new” identity too. Meanwhile, take sufficient time and effort to re-establish your relationship – don’t force it or you may risk “switching off” others. Especially for us Asians, do not compare your situation to others such as the Westerners who are free to assert their sexuality more strongly. Be patient, especially towards your parents who may not be exposed to such culture previously.
As for people who cannot accept your sexuality, don’t start a war – just part ways and live your own lives. Ultimately, it is important to make sure that there is at least someone – a family member or your best friend, who can provide support during this transition period.
Do you feel you’ve been treated differently as a gay man? What stereotypes are out there?
In many Asian countries, the term “gay” is often mistaken as “transgender” – which is a frustrating stereotype I had to deal with for a long time. People don’t understand that a gay person can be an effeminate or masculine man, not just the former. Also, being gay doesn’t mean that I want to become a woman!
So back to your job…Why did you choose to be a part of VAC?
I know what it feels like to be alienated, alone, and unsure of which direction to take in life. Back then even when I was certain of being gay, I didn’t know what to do. Now, I am inspired to help others and let them know that they are not alone. I was actually the first member of Gay Asian Proud, because I simply wanted to meet more new people. Through VAC, we have services to help provide better understanding on what it means to be gay or lesbian. We want to prevent people from falling victim to alcohol or drug abuse, or even suicide, without proper guidance.
Have you ever encountered any international students facing these challenges?
Definitely! We have had a fair number of international students in our workshops, from countries like Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Thailand. Our workshops aim to assist these students to find their own sexual identity, which was initially a problem for me too. Many of these international students come to Australia with the freedom to explore their sexuality freely, but what happens when they go home? It can be a very serious issue in countries like Malaysia, where homosexuality is not just a taboo but a potential criminal charge.
What are some of the major concerns for these international students?
I understand that many international students are excited to come to Australia to explore their sexuality more freely, as compared to where they are from. Some of them may be too eager to experience, which is when safe sex becomes a secondary option. It is OK to explore and have fun, but make sure you are doing “it” safely to protect both you and your partner. You will also feel good about yourself for doing the right thing.
So what would your advice be?
As compared to Melbourne, it can be more difficult to get support in these students’ home countries. This is why organisations like VAC can help connecting students to their local network or support groups, after they have returned home. Each student may have different future plans – some may even go home, get married and have children under the expectations of their family. Do it if that’s what you really want, but if you have any doubt that it will affect your health or well-being, get help and talk to a counsellor. No one should feel obliged to live a heterosexual life, which can create more problems in the long run.
In conjunction with Sextember, we trying to raise awareness about safe sex – do you have any tips?
The number one concern would be: who and how many people are you having sex with? It is all about communication with your partner regarding safe sex practice. Some international students may suffer from poor communication due to their limited English skills, or even fear that their partner may leave them if they bring up the issue. This is especially serious if they are relying on their Australian partner for visa sponsorship, which can turn into a power struggle issue. Some may also fear that if they don’t satisfy their partner (without the use of condom), they will fail their relationship and forced to go back to heterosexual life.
So how can you get help if you have any STIs/AIDS? Especially for international students – should you tell your parents?
VAC works with people with HIV, including international students in Australia. First we will connect them to healthcare services available, then consider their future plans. For international students who would like to extend their stay, we will consult the immigration task force for visa advice. With HIV, one will require constant medication to prevent AIDS, which may be helpful to get support from family and friends.
What about the stigma surrounding HIV?
I think many people have misconstrued perceptions of HIV users as drug-users or from lower socio-economic background. But often, the truth is the opposite. HIV can infect anyone of all kinds of sexuality, as long as you don’t practice safe sex.
Any last words for our MELD readers?
People need to understand that sexuality is not only defined by your sexual orientation or who you have sex with, it is your identity. It is fundamentally who you are. If in doubt, do your research online and have regular check-ups at the nearest sexual health clinic. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions and get help if needed!
VAC will be having an upcoming campaign called “The Drama Downunder” to discuss issues like STIs and safe sex (among gay men). For those who are interested, you can join VAC’s peer education program such as “Gay Asian Proud” and “Young and Gay“.
As for the ladies, Yellow Kitties is a Melbourne-based social and support group for Asian lesbian/bi/questioning/intersex/transgender of all ages.
This article was written for the month of Sextember. Find out more about the campaign and how you can contribute here.