COVID-19 has amplified existing societal fissures and exposed the alarming fragility of the lives of Indonesian transwomen who work as drag performers
Emily Rowe, Melati Adelia Dewi & Hafizt Afrizal
In Indonesia, if the socio-cultural climate permits, many transgender women make their living as drag queens. In Bali drag is a heavily stylised and depends very much on the tourist dollar. Rent is paid, money is sent to home villages for family hospital bills and school fees, covered with the tips gleaned from nightly performances on the gay bar strip in the Badung district. But government enforced COVID-19 restrictions on the movement of people, curfews and forced closure of entertainment venues across the island have ostensibly stripped all drag queens of their main source of income, with no financial back up and limited prospects.
In lower middle-income countries, LGBTQI peoples are over-represented in the informal economy with little or no job security, and this is especially true for the transgender community in Indonesia. COVID-19 has exacerbated this precarity, amplifying the range of social issues already faced by transgender people and exposing the financial fragility of the broader queer community in Indonesia.
Many Indonesian trans and gender diverse people are estranged from their families and therefore excluded from any financial support that may come with through these networks. Furthermore, they may be unable to access formal employment due to their gender identity and/or expression, and often face the very real possibility of homelessness, sex for survival, and communal living, all of which makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
And while drag queens in the global north are taking advantage of readily accessible digital media platforms, for queens in Indonesia, going virtual is by no means a panacea. Not only is the internet in Indonesia notoriously unreliable, for many queens, it can also be prohibitively expensive.
The community is well aware of the seriousness of their predicament. They know that without the support from one another and from the broader LGBTQ community, life would be indescribably difficult at the moment. Community reports tell of drag queen friends who have stopped taking their lifesaving HIV medication, of concerning and increasingly problematic substance use and mental health issues fueled by social isolation and despair. Compounded with financial insecurity and a lack of access to social protection mechanisms, queens in Bali are facing a very uncertain and arguably untenable position.
Despite this hardship, Balinese queens demonstrate resilience and express hope. Jenifer Puji, Dewi, Garneta, and Meghan Kimora Less, share their personal stories and in doing so articulate the living experiences of Bali’s drag queens in the time of a pandemic.
‘I get real personal and professional satisfaction from performing – it is at the core of my identity. However, if I were to be honest, sometimes I feel like a topeng monyet or like a clown whose only function is to entertain. So yes, often we have to face disrespectful and transphobic customers. We have to mind our manners though, as they are our guests.
But we are so dependent on tourism to survive, and even though we have experienced natural disasters like the Mount Agung eruption, or terrorist attacks, like the bombings, nothing could have prepared us financially and emotionally for this pandemic.
As a transgender woman becoming a drag queen was a clear choice for me, and as it turns out - can also be very lucrative. I can support myself and my family, I can make IDR 15 million a month! Now I only have the odd gig, but I feel very nervous about that. I am afraid I will become infected, and then infect my elderly parents. I worry about their health every time I leave the house.
I have never had to question my career choice, nor had I ever imagined that work would dry out. I regret neglecting my health and being totally unprepared for no income. I don’t have financial literacy. No savings. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me.’
Meghan Kimora Less
‘I come from a small town, a quiet village in Jembrana, West Bali. As a child my hobby was dancing, especially traditional dance. I had never heard of drag, but I was fascinated from the first time I saw a show. These women were so beautiful and looked exactly like the stars they were impersonating.
My gay friends told me to enter a competition for baby drag queens. In the beginning I never won a thing even though I entered so many competitions! To become a professional drag queen takes time, skill and passion. I am by no means an ‘instant artist’.
In the beginning, I didn’t earn enough to cover my make-up expenses, but over time I found out that work as a drag queen can bring in a lot of money. But it also costs money –much of what I earn goes towards make-up, stockings and material for my costumes.
I have gained a lot of confidence through drag. Become more comfortable in my own skin, as a transwoman. It isn’t all fun though – I have fallen off the stage before, pushed by a drunk tourist. Blood everywhere!
Things are really bad now. Many of my friends have had to return to their village because they have no money left. Many actually moved away from their village because being transgender was heavily stigmatised. Now they have to go back. I worry about how they are doing.’
‘I am originally from Cilacap, Central Java, but moved here with another trans friend a few years ago. I feel much more comfortable to express my gender identity in Bali, than back home. In the beginning I didn’t really know what drag was, but I fell in love with it instantly.
Sometimes I feel drag has changed who I am inside – maybe it is my attitude or being exposed to negative side of tourism, I am not sure. My family were really against it in the beginning – ‘you do what for a living?’
I love living in Bali. There are opportunities for trans people here- not only in sex work, but also working in HIV prevention, supporting friends living with HIV, and in the entertainment industry.
Not everyone knows this, but there is a hierarchy among drag queens. You have to respect your seniors and prove yourself through regular competing. This could be an impersonation show, or lip sync show. You have to really hone your skills in facial expression, make up and costume design. As a bigger girl who can’t dance I really have to choose the star I impersonate. Aretha Franklin is my go-to, especially her sad songs. I guess I am galau melancholic too.
I am lucky as I still have some day time work. Not enough though. Some of my sisters have tried doing virtual shows but you end up spending more money than you make. Some are suffering so badly.
I realise now how I took for granted all that I had before the pandemic. We all need to learn to prepare for the future and not live in the moment like before.’
‘I was born in Banyuwangi but have lived in Bali since I was little. I live here with my aunt; my parents are back home. Before becoming a drag queen, I worked in sales. My friend introduced me to the world of drag and I was hooked. I love dancing, and costumes and makeup, so with drag I have really found my profession. Before the pandemic I performed in a number of places, freelance shows, including small cruise ships.
I have learnt so much and have been exposed to so many different kinds of people in my work. Some great experiences, some not so great. I am sure that the experience of most performance artists would resonate with mine. But with drag it is a bit different – you have to put up with a lot. Wearing the heavy makeup and uncomfortable outfits night after night can be tough too. Over time I have learnt to speak English and come to understand other cultures. I love the social aspect of my work.
In drag we have flexibility and a certain amount of freedom, avenues for creative expression and financial independence.
Now with COVID-19 my life has become incredibly difficult. I am stuck at home with my aunt, who I love, but I feel my mental health is struggling. I feel like a burden. Helpless. I meet up with the other girls when I can which helps. Sometimes we can access handouts, but generally we take care of our own.
We have no job security. To go from working every night, to zero work is an awful feeling. I literally have no income now. I hope we all learn something positive from this experience.’
COVID-19 has amplified existing societal fissures and exposed the alarming fragility of the lives of Indonesian transwomen who work as drag performers. A lack of financial literacy and access to social protection mechanisms has further exposed the precarity of Bali’s drag queens, but at the same time Jenifer Puji, Dewi, Garneta, and Meghan Kimora Less reveal an ability to stay fierce, and hopeful, for a shinier future.
Emily Rowe (email@example.com) is a health anthropologist whose work focuses on HIV prevention and treatment and amplifying the voices of marginalised communities in Asia. She is co-founder of Dare This, and based in Bali. Melati Adelia Dewi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a transgender activist and outreach worker for the transgender community in Bali. She is engaged as the transgender and sex worker Sub-Unit Lead at Dare This Indonesia. Hafizt Afrizal (email@example.com) is a LGBTQ peer researcher and HIV prevention outreach worker working with the queer community in Bali. He is engaged as the HIV and male sex worker Sub-Unit Lead at Dare This Indonesia.