In the age of Instagram influencers it can be really hard to draw a clear line between someone's personality and a brand. In some ways, this democratized mass media. As a young queer man, I grew up without seeing a lot of people like me in mass media. But today on Instagram, I can see openly queer men with great style like Troye Sivan, Nyle DiMarco, or Bretman Rock finally have their moment in the spotlight. But those men live overseas. What's it like to be an openly queer influencer in a country as deeply homophobic as Indonesia? Really fucking hard.
“It is harder because the image that you want to create is going to be very limited,” explained Samrisux, a 21-year-old influencer who, like most people quoted in this article, declined to use his real name because, you know, this is Indonesia.
Samrisux's Instagram feed is a lot like his personality—bold and sun-kissed. He slowly amassed a pretty sizable following of more than 16,000 thanks to his posts about ready-to-wear fashion, his experiences traveling abroad and the nightlife scene in Bandung, West Java, and Jakarta. But, both online and offline, his image is seen as "controversial." He wears "racy" clothes, changes his hair color often, and parties all the time.
Samrisux also organized LGBTQ-friendly parties down in Bandung, where he lives, and after a brief stint on the marketing staff of one of the city's nightclubs, he started to get hired by companies as a lifestyle blogger. Soon, Samrisux was being flown to Singapore, Japan, and Los Angeles, to create content for Instagram.
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But, one day, a manager at the company he worked at saw him kissing a man in LA. At first, it didn't seem like too big a deal, but then, as soon as Samrisux's contract ended the company instituted a new rule—no more queer men as influencers. Why? The company was too scared of hurting its image in a country where nearly 90 percent of Indonesians view the LGBTQ community as a "threat" and the police routinely target queer nightlife spots, and even private residences, as part of an intensifying crackdown.
Irin, who also declined to use his real name out of safety concerns, was a pretty well-known karate athlete when a modeling agency scouted him four years ago. Now, he makes sure that his Instagram feed is squeaky clean, full of only high-end fashion shots of him and other models. Irin told me that he prefers it this way, but admitted that his agency also monitors his feed.
“They tell us to act a certain way on social media,” Irin told me. “We can’t diss or throw shade at other models or agencies because the agency I’m in is kind of ‘classy’."
Other queer men working in the influencer world told me that they were told to tone down their "flamboyant," personalities, their fashion choices, and to keep their political views to themselves. Valerie MS, another pseudonym, got a job as an influencer for a cigarette company, but he was told that he needed to act "tough and macho"—the exact opposite of his fashion-focused image.
The tobacco company said it hired him because he "represents the boldness in society," but they then took great pains to tell him that he couldn't be too bold. Eventually, the company stopped trying to recast Valerie MS as some kind of macho man and let him be him, to a certain extent.
"The company has since realized that they need to be more realistic, because they know that not all male influencers, especially queer influencers, do the typical muscular, rugged, kind of ‘manly’ anymore," he told me.
It's one of the ironies facing queer influencers in Indonesia. Brands want to associate themselves with their style and attitude, but not with what it actually means to be queer. They want to profit off these men's followers but, at the same time, tell them that they can't be themselves.
Is it always going to be this way here in Indonesia? I reached out to Ilonk Sarizqi, a fashion stylist-slash-influencer and the only person in this article who let me use his real name. Ilonk rose to fame with fashion sketches and outfit of the day photos posted to ASK.FM and Instagram.
It didn't take long for the brands to come knocking. But one of the things they liked about Ilonk was his androgynous senses of fashion and love of travel. I asked Ilonk, does he think that companies in Indonesia will be more willing to support LGBTQ influencers and let them be themselves in the future?
"They have to,” Ilonk said. “Because of all people, they chose me. So I think they can [embrace LGBTQ issues]. In the future, if they want to hire more gay influencers, they already know how to work with us, and how to deal with the potential backlash—especially here in Indonesia."