Young Indonesian lesbians struggle with the pressure to marry
Celebrating the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) in Jakarta, May 2012. Lily Sugianto
In Indonesia, where same-sex marriage is illegal and homosexuality generally frowned upon, a group of young lesbians are discussing whether marrying a gay man is the way to solve their marriage problems. The pressure to marry is intense, they say. Many explain that their parents won’t be able to live happily until their children are all married.
‘What if he wants sex?’ One girl ponders. ‘He says he’s gay, but what if he decides he wants to sleep with you anyway? Won’t that just make more problems?’ Another girl exclaims it would be like a time bomb waiting to explode. What about marrying a straight man? ‘There’s no guarantee that would work,’ one young lesbian says, shaking her head. ‘Marriage is an institution protected by law - there could be trouble if something goes wrong.’
Most young Indonesians admit to feeling pressure from their parents to get married, but for young lesbians, the issue is doubly complicated. Forced to make the impossible decision between making their parents happy and making themselves happy, today’s lesbians are confronted by a dilemma that will permanently alter their futures. Should they marry a man, remain single, or live in secret with their female partner?
The pressure to marry
In almost all societies, marriage is seen as an important rite of passage, the crucial step that must be made to enter adulthood. Indonesia is no different. In a country where de facto relationships are neither legally nor religiously recognised, marriage offers the only path for couples wishing to live together and have children. It is seen as the only arena in which sex is acceptable. Pre-marital sex, while increasingly common, remains socially taboo, and most couples who date ‘Western-style’ are presumed to be heading towards marriage.
Historically, Indonesian women generally married young - before 19 years of age - and had children soon afterwards. With culture changing in recent years, however, the increasing length of time between adolescence and fully-independent ‘adulthood’ (that is, marriage) means that a large number of young women now exist in a state of limbo, neither children nor adults. For lesbians, this leaves them stuck in a never-ending state of ‘childhood’ - unable to marry their female partner, and unwilling to marry a man.
‘Marriage looms as a troublesome prospect for many Indonesian lesbians’, writes anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood in her book, Falling into the Lesbi World (2010). Both Islam and traditional Indonesian values place significant emphasis on marriage, to the extent that marriage is expected for all and by all. Marital status reflects not only upon the individual but upon the family as well. If a young man or woman fails to marry, it shames the family and can be viewed as a sign of disrespect for the parents. One oft-repeated Indonesian proverb, Islamic in origin, declares that ‘heaven lies under your mother’s feet’. It is widely taken to mean that you must respect your parents if you intend to enter heaven, for their happiness is your happiness, and their sorrow is your sorrow.
‘If you don’t show your devotion and make your parents happy, you feel wrong, sinful,’ activist Poedjiati Tan explains. ‘One of the ways to show devotion to your parents is to get married.’ From conversations with her own and others’ parents, Poedjiati says that most want their child to marry because they see it as meaning that their job is done, that their responsibility to look after their child has shifted to their daughter’s husband.
Caught between two happinesses - their own and their parents’ - young Indonesian lesbians understandably find themselves struggling. For many lesbians, reconciling their sexuality with their desire to make their parents happy seems almost impossible.
Pretend marriages, pretend happiness
For members of the Jakarta-based lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LBT) group Ardhanary Institute (AI), the question of marriage recently provoked heated debate when one young lesbian asked for help in finding a gay man to marry. Writing that she wanted to marry so that she could be free to spend time with her girlfriend, she brought to light a hidden trend where ‘pretend’ marriages provide a potential solution for Indonesia’s lesbians.
‘Do you think it’s really as simple as that?’ one of AI’s leaders, Agustine, asks during a discussion. ‘That if they get married he could bring his boyfriend home and she could do the same with her girlfriend?’ Some of the group’s younger members laugh the suggestion off, saying they can't even imagine such a situation.
‘If a woman does not get married before she is 25,’ Agustine explains to me afterwards, ‘her family will feel ashamed, and society will start calling her perawan tua (literally ‘old virgin’). It’s different for men. They won’t be pressured into marriage until they’re at least 30 years old. So there’s a big difference between the pressures felt by men and women.’ For lesbians, it is even worse. ‘Many lesbians already feel guilty for being attracted to other women,’ Agustine continues. If they do not marry a man, they worry that they are failing to fulfil their role as dutiful daughters.
Some lesbians offer hopeful stories of ‘educating’ and helping their parents to come to understand that being gay is not a bad thing. While a few say they have been successful in changing their parents’ perception of their sexuality, the majority who have come out to their parents wish things had gone differently. Since coming out, some have lost all contact with their parents; others have been pressed into accepting an arranged marriage. Tales of physical abuse at their parents’ hands, too, are worryingly common.
Agustine’s own story is illustrative. After coming out to her parents at 17, she ran away from home after her family began physically abusing her. Only 15 years later did she begin communicating with them again. Likewise, when Nur’s* parents discovered she was lesbian, they were so upset that they beat her. She now says she is considering marrying a gay male friend. ‘I’ve even been bringing him home a lot, but what do I do now?’ She wonders. ‘My parents are so happy I’ve finally brought a boy home.’
As the discussion progresses, a number of lesbians come forward to admit to having seriously considered the idea of pernikahan pura-pura (pretend marriage). ‘I nearly did it,’ Kasmiati* acknowledges. ‘Not to make my parents happy, but so that I could have children. I made a promise with a gay friend, but when the time came to get married, I realised he was still sleeping with lots of men, so I was worried. Even though he said he used condoms, I couldn’t really be sure of his sexual history. In the end, we decided not to marry.’
A story of arranged marriage
22-year-old Mimy identifies as lesbian, but recently entered into an arranged marriage with a man after making a deal with her mother. ‘The biggest thing to think about is happiness,’ Mimy tells me. ‘Will it be your happiness or your parents’ happiness that gets sacrificed? Not all parents can be taught to understand.’
Mimy’s story began a few years ago, when she fell in love with a young tomboi (a masculine-presenting woman) named Fi*. Mimy and Fi dated for 8 months, but Mimy broke up because Fi was abusive. Mimy’s parents forbade her from seeing her again. Fi kept trying to contact Mimy, however. ‘I still loved her. It seemed as though she had changed,’ Mimy says wryly. ‘She invited me to move away with her, out of the city. I agreed, and said goodbye to my family. With a heavy heart, my mother let me go, but only after making me promise that if Fi ever hurt me again, I would have to come home and submit to my mother’s wishes.’ Mimy explains that in 2009, her mother had arranged a marriage for her, but that she had managed to avoid it. Her mother told her that if things didn’t work out with Fi this time, she would have to get married. Mimy felt so sure that she would be happy with Fi that she just agreed straightaway.
A few months after moving away with Fi, she started being abusive towards Mimy again. Her cousin saw the condition Mimy was in and told her mother. ‘My mum asked me to come home - she called in the deal we’d made,’ Mimy says. ‘So I had to go back to the city, and get ready for my wedding. I tried really hard to get out of it, but my mum refused, and I had to accept the consequences of my own stupidity.’
Mimy was married two months later, to the young man who had already been suggested to her before. ‘He knew I was a lesbian,’ Mimy says. ‘We made a deal, that we would split up later if I could give him a child.’ But even now, three months into their marriage, Mimy is not sure if she made the right decision. ‘I don’t want him to touch me, but if I don’t let him touch me, how can we have a child and separate?’
Mimy doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. She says she is still traumatised from her relationship with Fi, and although her husband is ‘nice enough’ to her, she feels stuck. ‘I always tell him how I feel. I think it’s his right to know, even if he doesn’t really understand it all. He always says, “I’ll always try to help you,”’ Mimy explains. ‘I’ve tried to sleep with him, but I can’t help but feel that it’s like being raped’. But Mimy says she will keep trying to make things work. ‘I have to, no matter how hard, if I want to break off our marriage later.’
No happiness without acceptance
Like Mimy, many of the young lesbians I spoke to are adamant that heterosexual marriage is not a good solution. They admit, however, that they are unsure how to resist the pressure to marry. They all want to make their parents happy, but at the same time, most question if they could really go so far as to marry a man and have children.
‘I would say to other lesbians, think 100, even 1,000 times about getting married to a man,’ Mimy advises. ‘Even if he’s gay. Even if he’s good to you, like my husband is to me, and never asks or forces you to have sex. Even if he’s like this, it doesn’t mean you’ll be happy, just because you’ve become someone’s wife. If you really are a lesbian, I am certain it will tire you out pretending to be someone else.’
And as for marrying with an agreement in place, like Mimy did herself? ‘It doesn’t free you from the expectations of how you should behave as a married woman,’ Mimy warns. ‘What I mean is that, for as long as you can, fight for your right to be your own person. Your future depends on it.’
Despite increasing awareness and visibility, same-sex-attracted women in Indonesia are unlikely to be accepted as lesbians by their families in the near future. The challenge lies not only in building society’s tolerance of different sexualities, but also of different ways of living one’s life, including remaining single or choosing not to have children. Emphasis on the importance of marriage and children needs to be reduced for all women before lesbians can feel truly at home in Indonesia.
*Names have been changed.
Kate Walton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, photographer and activist. She currently lives in Jakarta, where she works for a national women's organisation.
Related articles from the II archive Helen Pausacker, 'Review: Falling into the Lesbi World' Bram Hendrawan, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t make up things!’ Jamison Liang 'Homophobia on the rise' Dede Oetomo, 'Gay identities'