INDONESIA: Walking with Waria as LGBT Humiliation Accelerates in Aceh

INDONESIA: Walking with Waria as LGBT Humiliation Accelerates in Aceh
Credit: Reuters/TPG

What you need to know

The ongoing crackdown on expressions of LGBT identity in Indonesia has a painful human cost.

Monica hands me her phone to show me a selfie that she keeps as proof of a former life that ended abruptly in January.

Her hair is wavy, swept to the side and dyed a sort of strawberry blonde. She has tight fitting black singlet and she’s tastefully made up. Looking confident, if not sassy, her appearance in the photo is in sharp contrast to the reverse ball cap and moustache she awkwardly sports now.

In late January, Monica, was a one of 11 transgendered women, whom police rounded up in a series of raids on salons amid a crackdown on local transgendered women, or waria as they are known here.

Monica says she was beaten and her head shaved in front of onlookers. Police then took the captives to prison, where they were treated to a sort of reverse finishing school of push ups, shouting and marches that officers reckoned would man them up.

Credit: Jeff Hutton

The nightmare didn’t end there. On her return home, Monica, the youngest of five, was beaten and locked in her room by her older brother following saturated media coverage of her arrest. Now living in Jakarta, she can only talk briefly about her ordeal before asking to stop.

“It’s too traumatic,” she says. “Everyday I’m very confused. I live in other people’s world and have no power.”

The ritual humiliation of Indonesia’s gay lesbian and transgendered citizens is accelerating. Where once it was the subject of bizarre ejaculations of cabinet ministers and police raids on gay saunas, now the discrimination and harassment is so well worn it has become commonplace.

In February, police in the Jakarta suburb of Depok breezily reported that officers had been monitoring a lesbian couple after they had moved into the area four months earlier. Yayan Arianto, the local deputy police chief said his officers were acting on complaints from neighbors who were uncomfortable with their presence.

"Some residents, who live near the couple have said they are uncomfortable with them there because the way they live is not in accordance with the norms that exist in our society," the report quotes Yayan as saying. The report went on to give the names, ages and address of the women, who sell rose water for use in funerals.

Monica’s experience and that of the women in Depok illustrate what Indonesia’s anti-gay bigotry mean for its LGBT citizens. Their risk is less about physical and legal peril, although that is not insignificant, and more about dislocation, marginalization, and means for their income and quality of life.

Activists in Aceh interviewed by Human Rights Watch estimate there are upwards of 700 waria working in salons in Aceh. These women are unable to work without fear of harassment or arrest. Their clients also face legal problems.

On March 12, a transgendered stylist and her male customer were arrested and charged with violating the province’s anti-gay ordinances adopted in 2014. Evidence included condoms found on the premises and, oddly, Rp100,000 (US$7.30) in “transaction money”.

Another gay couple in Aceh, both university students, was seized by vigilantes and taken to police late last month (evidence included more condoms, and – disconcertingly – a mattress).

Aceh adopted a form of sharia law in 2014. In May last year a young gay couple were flogged in front of hundreds in what is thought to be Asia’s first public beating of homosexuals since colonial times.

To make ends meet Monica is now working in a clothing shop run by a company called SriKendes, which donates most of its proceeds to help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. She’s training twice a week to become a stylist and beautician and from time to time gets some counseling. SriKendes supports seven waria who have escaped from Aceh and now live in Medan and Jakarta.

Monica insists on her feminine name, which is just as well because despite the makings of a young man’s moustache, frankly, she isn’t fooling anyone. A hand will fly up to her mouth to hide a laugh, on the still too rare occasions she has to do so.

The dream seeing her through all this, Monica says, is to open a salon of her own. A more immediate concern is her health. She’s clearly anxious, ensures a persistent dry cough and has recently lost weight. I notice the backwards ball cap and tease her gently about how butch she looks. Her brother gave her the cap; stylish, black with a metallic sheen. A label is emblazoned on the front. Monica doesn’t know what the English word means: "Equal".

I explain the meaning and she agrees the cap takes on new significance.

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Editor: David Green