In Maid to Queer: Asian Labor Migration and Female Same-Sex Desires, anthropologist Francisca Yuenki Lai illuminates the gender and sexual subjectivities of Hong Kong-based communities of Indonesian domestic workers who engage in same-sex relationships. Lai contextualizes her informants in the sociopolitical terrains of post-Suharto Indonesia, Hong Kong’s liberalism, and professional training centers, as well as the projected landscapes of the informants’ imagined future homes. Although niche in topic, Maid to Queer provides profound insight into how systems of migratory labor beget “productive possibilities of queerness and norm.”

The field of anthropology has long been criticized as a colonial force, giving hegemonic parties the power to publish a prejudiced view of marginalized communities. In an implicit response to these issues, Lai’s frank prose elucidates the difficult power dynamics of her ethnography and meets them head on — at various points she discloses a confusing relationship between herself and an informant, acknowledges and justifies the inclusion of certain uncomfortable subject matters, and situates herself as a lesbian Hong Konger actively participating in her informants’ community. Lai candidly describes her “coming out decision” as a catalyst to integrate herself into her informants’ community and further her project’s mission. This disclosure of identity also adds an implied kinship with the informants, along with Lai’s descriptions of engaging in joyful, recreational activities with her informants.

Lai takes care to provide readers with an in-depth review of Indonesia’s contemporary political context and resultant family, labor, and religious ideologies, which in turn inform her informants’ migration and identities. Indonesia’s contemporary history is marked by the 1998 fall of President Suharto, which “marked the beginning of reformation and democracy as well as the rise of Islamic conservatism in Indonesia.”

Lai frames Indonesian labor migration in the wake of Suharto-deployed “contradictory and class-specific gender and family ideologies” that reinforced class divide by encouraging lower class women to work abroad as “economic heroes (pahlawan devisa)”and middle class women to stay at home. Both classes of women are expected to care for the family, but in different capacities and from different shores.

Lai also contrasts LGBT movements between Indonesia and Hong Kong. According to Lai, homosexuality in Indonesia has historically thrived in the private realm under the guise of homosociality (platonic intimacy is acceptable and welcomed in same-sex friendships), and homosexual women have successfully lived together using “sisterhood as a camouflage.”

Same-sex relationships are tolerated as long as they remain unspoken of and do not disrupt Indonesia’s social harmony (rukun). But homophobic actions have been on the rise since local LGBT activist groups began publicly advocating for rights. The Indonesian government publicly denounced homosexuality as a “foreign concept imported from the west as a result of globalization.”

Lai’s informants migrated from Indonesia to Hong Kong, where homosexuality has been decriminalized since 1991 and the government sports an inherited “tradition of liberalism that tolerates rallies and protests” from British colonial power. Many LGBT activist groups are able to demonstrate in the public eye, and some specifically advocate for migrant workers. Despite this institutional liberalism, the LGBT community in Hong Kong still faces backlash from conservative Christian groups. In contrast to Indonesia’s culture of (self- and government-imposed) silence around LGBT issues, migrant workers in Hong Kong face explicit LGBT discourse in the public realm.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Participants hold a giant rainbow flag during a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pride Parade in Hong Kong November 8, 2014.

In Hong Kong, female domestic workers’ presence at home poses a “sexual threat.” Employers of Lai’s informants reportedly mitigated this threat by enforcing short haircuts and insisting on uniforms of men’s clothing — effectively disciplining “the body and sexuality of their migrant domestic workers.” Lai argues that this phenomenon, compounded with encountering Hong Kong’s unfamiliar LGBT ideologies, influences Indonesian migrant domestic workers’ sexual and gender subjectivities.

After covering the sociopolitical contexts of Indonesia and Hong Kong, Lai moves on to the migrant community itself. Building upon previous studies that characterize migrant communities as “a site of resistance” against a local community, Lai portrays her informants’ activities outside of work, with thoughtful analysis to organizational hierarchies and sexual ideologies.

The bulk of Lai’s ethnographic research is based on pop dance groups that rehearse dances to the music of Lady Gaga, Super Junior, and SHINee. Lai recounted her experience joining one of these groups (“I became an official member of [dance group] Champion... although I did not dance as vigorously as the other members”), participating in openly queer fashion contests that “confer prestasi (achievement)” and short play competitions on the theme of labor rights.

Same-sex relationships are prevalent and explicit within these groups, which are led by couples that take on the roles of mother and father and include sibling relations. Lai connects this element of LGBT kinship to the anticolonial Indonesian tradition of family-ism (kekeluargaan) and Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit, Marlon Bailey’s 2013 study on ballroom culture in Detroit’s Black LGBT community.

Central to Lai’s experience was her classification as a tomboi, a typically heteronormal Indonesian term that refers to a woman who likes to dress and act in a masculine manner. The term takes on new meaning in Lai’s study, as her informants use it specifically for masculine-presenting women interested in same-sex relationships. Furthermore, Lai reports that the classifications of tomboi and cewek, tomboi’s feminine counterpart, are so rigidly distinct in her informants’ community that they become new identity labels.

Lai analyzes her informants’ tomboi experience through the lens of Bailey’s concept of “‘double labor:’ (1) the work of material survival in a very homophobic public space and (2) the work of self-presentation of their queer identity.” At work, a tomboi has to perform a similar “double labor:” they are pressured to simultaneously perform masculinity and denounce lesbianism to appease homophobic employers.

Lai pays special attention to her informants’ “imagining of home.” The imagined narratives “reflect their desires, fears, confusion, and ambivalence; these emotions in turn inform and shape their sexual subjectivity — their identified gendered positions and how they address their same-sex relationship now and in the future.” Lai tracks how her informants’ migratory experience yields cultural and professional knowledge, opening their imaginations to new modes of living when back home in Indonesia. “Imagination can direct people to create new meanings in life,” Lai writes.

In popular media and mythologies, female domestic workers have been subject to narrow and oppressive portrayals: either as docile and silent servants, or villainous succubi. Maid to Queer: Asian Labor Migration and Female Same-Sex Desires turns this narrative on its head by investigating these women’s intentional sexual agency, shared gender and sexual knowledge, and narratives around love and domesticity.

Beyond the scope of private relationships, Lai’s lens includes how Indonesian state initiatives facilitate the creation of these single-sex migrant communities and their internal kinship, revealing how public ideologies can influence and infiltrate the personal realm. Overall, Maid to Queer provides a fascinating illustration of how connections and identities are forged from shore to shore.

READ NEXT: Queer Taiwan Beyond Pride

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.