Transgender Indonesian migrants are looking for romance and security in Europe, but nothing is easy
Tanti Noor Said
In an era of anti-homophobia campaigns worldwide, Indonesian transgender born-males, known as banci or waria, still cannot live in peace. Their gender identity, romantic love and sexual fantasies about men are seen as sinful, ridiculous and a threat to the dominant norm of heterosexuality. Even though transgenderism is integrated within cultural tradition in rural areas, this does not make their position easier. In modern Indonesian society, transgender people challenge middle-class decency and are punished for it. They experience a hard time finding love, economic and social security in their home country, so migration to Europe seems an attractive proposition.
The fantasy of moving abroad to escape their harsh life becomes a reality for transgender people who develop relationships with western men. However, life in Europe can also be depressing. Migrants grapple with many obstacles, from getting a residency permit to finding a job, while feeling the pressure to meet the dual expectations of their western partners and their families back home. What’s more, while life in Europe confronts them with different challenges, being away does not entirely rescue them from the dominant norms in Indonesia.
Harsh realities, sweet fantasies
In Indonesia transgenderism is not officially recognised as a gender category. In rural areas, there are various local terms for transgenderism, which traditionally is often associated with holiness, magic and healing power. In the cities, people mostly associate male femininity with homosexual practice. Therefore, ‘gay’ is a term that is often used to refer to effeminate men, as well as banci and waria. In contrast to rural areas where femininity and masculinity are not rigidly categorised, gender ambiguity in the cities is considered much more problematic. This exposes banci and waria to the scorn of a largely homophobic society.
Homophobia appears to be increasing as the hegemony of heterosexuality and the influence of Islamic parties grow. People’s dismissal of homosexuality often turns into hatred and violence towards banci and waria. Even when not physically abused, they have to deal with verbal abuse. People, usually men, tease waria street singers from their cars. When a waria becomes upset, they quickly shut the window and drive off. At home, banci and waria have a hard time meeting the expectations of their parents who want them to behave as men. From a certain age, their parents still hope that they will marry a woman, start a family and have children. These expectations put a great deal of pressure on them.
Living in an environment that does not accept their gender and sexual identity motivates them to escape to western countries, which they imagine to be paradise for non-heterosexual people. This image of the west intertwines with the romantic and sexual fantasies many banci and waria have of western men as white, muscular, wealthy and modern. Like many Indonesian women, they form this image from Hollywood movies, which may portray western men as romantic heroes who shower their lovers with dinners, flowers and wine. They also imagine that western men find Indonesian women and banci attractive and beautiful, because of their petite bodies and tanned skin. The fantasy of being adored by western men motivates them to migrate to countries like the Netherlands and Belgium in search of a better life.
Double lives and broken hearts
Rika graduated from university about ten years ago. She was raised in a middle-class Muslim family in Jakarta. Her family was aware of her tendency to dress up as a girl from childhood, when she liked to try on her sisters’ clothes. Rika’s parents tried to put her into a karate class and pushed her to play football with other boys. She did what they asked her to do. However, she continued to play secretly with her sisters’ dolls while her parents and siblings were not home.
During her college years, Rika’s friends suspected she was gay. She spent a great deal of time hanging out with girls, rather than boys. She tried to dress in gender-neutral outfits and hated that she had to play-act at being masculine to avoid bullying.
While pretending to be ‘normal’ in daily life, Rika has been attracted to men since puberty. Like many banci, she had sex with Indonesian men. But her heart was broken constantly, because those men were only interested in sex. No Indonesian man wanted to start a romantic relationship with her. Due to the stigma and the pressure to have children, they choose to marry a woman while maintaining sexual relationships with banci.
Some banci are willing to accept this arrangement as long as they can keep the relationship with their boyfriends. But Rika could no longer bear living a lie. After graduating, she heard about the possibility of studying in the Netherlands. She obtained a scholarship to study Dutch and went to the city of Utrecht for one year. She met a Dutch man who was attracted to her and offered to be her sponsor, so that she could live in the Netherlands for longer. She took up that offer. Upon returning to Indonesia, she applied for a residency permit and now lives in the Netherlands.
New and old pressures
Once there, Rika and her friends faced a reality that proved to be dramatically different from what they had imagined. Instead of living their dream, they encountered racism and social inequality. No longer pressured by sexual stigma, they now had to deal with ethnic ostracism and the economic and social insecurity of living in a foreign country.
Rika lived with her Dutch boyfriend for several months. She never loved him. Having sex with him was a torture for her. She tried to swallow her pride so that she could stay in the Netherlands. After some time, she got fed up and told him that she did not love him. He got angry and slapped her, so she ran away and started to live alone.
After several months her residency permit expired and she became an illegal resident. Her banci friend, Dety, gave her a place to stay. They lived together in a humble studio apartment. Rika survived on instant noodles, cleaned houses and worked as a prostitute at night to support herself.
Dety had a relationship with a wealthy, older Dutch man. She comes from an impoverished peasant family in Java. Unlike Rika, Dety never had the opportunity to finish school. She also has very limited job skills, and does not speak Dutch as well as Rika. Her partner supports her family in Java financially. He sends large sums of money every month, so that her siblings can study at university. Dety does not love him. She stays with him for her family’s sake. She feels awful about having to sacrifice her own emotions.
The economic position of transgender migrants can have a major impact on their personal choices, including on their romantic and sexual lives. Banci from middle-class backgrounds are less likely to live with older men. During hard times, Rika also thought about starting a relationship with a rich, older man. But she has since decided that she will not live with a man for money or a residency permit. As a son from a middle class family, she does not feel a necessity to sacrifice her feelings. She can get money from her family if she asks. This gives her the freedom to avoid living with an older man purely for financial reasons.
But Rika also insists on living alone for another reason – to avoid gossip spreading back to her family in Indonesia. The one drawback of her middle-class background is that her family has a wide international network, which constrains her freedom, even in the Netherlands. Very often, Rika bumps into acquaintances of her siblings at Indonesian events in the Netherlands. Her family is highly respected by these people and holds prominent government and university positions, so Rika avoids speaking about her personal situation to new acquaintances to protect her family’s good name. Religion can be another pressure that extends from Indonesia to life abroad. Rika and two of her friends, Dona and Susy, are Muslims. Rika’s family is ethnically Minang from West Sumatra, an ethnic group known to be strict Muslims.
Rika says, ‘I am still Muslim. And I do not think God will be angry with me, because there is also a saying, ‘we should be grateful for the way God created us’. And this is how God has created me, to be banci, and I am grateful for that.’ But she knows her family will never accept it. ‘Not only because they are Muslim, but also because they are respected in society. My brother and sister have important positions in the government. I do not want to jeopardise their honour.’ Not all Muslim families are so strict. Dona’s family acknowledges her banci identity. They have known since she was in high school. At first they were shocked, but they have learned to accept it. Her family has also accepted her partner as a son-in-law and expect them to share a room whenever they come to visit in Sumatra.
Susy has had a more difficult time since her mother recently found out about her identity. Her mother has since hidden this information from her siblings to avoid their anger. On the other hand, she has made no effort to make Susy change. Like Dona, Susy supports her family. She has had breast implant surgery to obtain a job in the sex industry in the Netherlands.
When I asked Rika about this, she answered, ‘Yes, it’s true. But their family depends on them, while mine does not.’ The combination of religious and economic background can put different pressures on the sexual practices of banci abroad – sometimes one outweighs the other.
Pursuing the fantasy
Regardless of their social or economic status, all banci also have their own sexual desires to consider. Despite the liberation and sexual freedom Dutch society offers them, many soon discover that there are limits to living their fantasy of romance with young white men. As many depend on an older partner, this limits their opportunities with other men. Moreover, they find that many young Dutch men are not as attracted to them as they had imagined, preferring Asian women and transgender people, or more muscular Asian men.
In an attempt to broaden their appeal, many attempt to transform their looks, becoming cross-dressing banci with dramatic feminine appearances. Rika taught her friends how to dress and put on make-up. This enhances their chances of attracting the young Dutch men they desire. Now they cross-dress regularly at night and have created a blog to promote their profile.
Rika admits that dressing up has changed things for her. ‘Many men desire me and I have a boyfriend now.’ Dona, on the other hand, is well aware that most of the men they meet in nightlife venues are only enjoying their sexual adventures with Asian transgender people and are hesitant to get romantically involved. She therefore never takes her sexual escapades with these men seriously. While cross-dressing occasionally, she still lives with her older partner, who takes care of her and loves her deeply.
Rika now has an office job and a relationship with a student several years younger. She explains that she does not want to be labelled as the stereotypical Asian lady-boy who works in prostitution. She often experiences low self-esteem due to working in poorly paid jobs and wonders sometimes whether she could have been more successful, like her siblings and college friends, if she had stayed in Indonesia. But she is happy now in the Netherlands, living her dream of love with her boyfriend, although she continues to grapple with the pressures from her family.
Tanti Noor Said (firstname.lastname@example.org) obtained her Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam in 2012. Her thesis is entitled, ‘Transnational love, migration and kinship: Gay and transgender Indonesian in the Netherlands and Belgium.’ All names have been changed.
Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013