Research news by Wisnu Adihartono*
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people often experience discrimination in Indonesia. A certain degree of tolerance is there as long as they are ‘discreet’ and do not ‘come out’ or manifest themselves in public. They remain, however, an easy scapegoat for politicians in search of popular vote and ultraconservative religious groups, with few willing to defend them.
In this bipolar context, many Indonesian lesbians and gays play a form of “hide and seek”, being open in protected spaces– for example, in cruising spaces and in the homes of friends – and closed (tertutup) in others, such as the workplace or the family home. Another option is to seek a more open existence abroad. In my dissertation submitted to the
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), I studied the lifestyles of gay Indonesians in Paris (here quoted with initials only for confidentiality reasons). I choose this topic in the realization that not much is known about them, and also to show the features of their migration.
In their obrolan (informal talks) and curhat (curahan hati, loosely translated as a sharing from the heart/using a shoulder to cry on) the Indonesian gays I interacted with during the research often complained that the Indonesian State sees homosexuality as a moral threat that can spread across generations and therefore needs to be contained. Homosexuals are regarded as people who lack morality, and in the name of this supposed morality, the State issues statements and policies that encourage discrimination against them, and their gender and sexuality. In the formal definition of what is ‘normal’, they have been constructed socially to signify the “abnormal”. In doing so, State representatives refer to their interpretations of religion, in particular Islam (being a majority of the population Muslim) to define them as ‘deviant’, with disregard of the equal rights granted to them as Indonesian citizens under the Constitution. These views echoes and compound prejudices held in society and result in discrimination also at home.
One of the respondent explained that he was cut off from his family members when it became clear he was gay even if he was very close to them emotionally. As soon as he was expelled by his family, he went to city of Bandung to look for a job and later decided to go abroad.
To the interviewed Indonesian gay people in Paris, migration felt as a “must” instead of a “choice”. They argue that living in Indonesia is not a “rational” choice since to be tolerated and to protect themselves from contempt and ridicule they have to wear a “mask” and appear heterosexual. They perceived the consequences of coming out of the closet as generally dangerous even if there are individuals that do defy these norms. When opportunities opened up, they opted to migrate in search of places that offer more freedom to express their sexual identity and where they can live without fear of persecution. By linking Paris as a place of inclusion and acceptance they made it into their “home”.
Here is where the image of Paris as a romantic and artistic city personalizing freedom and human rights becomes an attraction, a “dream city” for Indonesian gays in search of a better “home”. This also because Paris has been welcoming to LGBT’s globally. For the past few decades, homosexuality has acquired a “right to the city”, which manifests itself in particular through the development of well-identified gay neighborhoods in the city of Paris, such as the Marais, which has more gay and lesbian establishments than the rest of the city.
The more liberal environment of Paris, as of other large international capitals, has been particularly vital for gays and lesbians to build and explore their homosexual identities. As a “gay friendly city” Paris has plenty of gay spaces characterized by the concentration of bars, clubs, saunas, cafes, shopping centers, as well as restaurants, discotheques, shops, travel agencies, bookstores, pharmacies and bakeries catering to LGBTs. In this case, the gay space of the Marais district with its streets, parks and recreational areas, offers the possibility of connecting with other homosexuals and validating one’s own identity also to Indonesian gays.
The “pink” image of Paris plays an important role in influencing their reasons for moving there. Anthropologist Kath Weston in his seminal book “Get Thee to a Big City” argues about there being a gay imaginary that influences gay men and lesbians to move to cities. In this imaginary, urban and rural environments are opposite entities with rural areas imagined to be hostile and isolative for gay men and lesbians, while urban areas are imagined to be tolerant and a setting for community and affinity. Seen in a transnational setting the “rural” will be Indonesia and the “urban” would be France and particularly Paris.
The imagenery is full of stereotypes such as the Eiffel Tower (“Before leaving, I imagined Paris as a city of Eiffel Tower” I, 30 years old), but also of deeper values like freedom: “Life in Paris is dynamic. Gay life is also very much alive. You know that Paris is one of the gay cities in Europe? That’s why we can find freedom in Paris” (J, 42 years old)
In Paris, Indonesian gays get the freedom to behave as “typical” gays in all domains, private as well as public. They are free to express their gender identity at work as well as openly visit gay bars and to connect with others of the same orientation. They can make appointments and meet gay friends and enjoy the communal atmosphere. If there are problems they can find support. This even if it may be a financial burden as many of them has limited resources. As one respondent shared:
“I go to the gay bar once or twice but if I go to the bar or disco every weekend, I don’t have any money. You know how many euros I earn as a server? Not much. I finished my internship, and then I do not have enough money to survive; Thanks to my boyfriend, he helps me a lot. It’s not easy to find a job in Paris, even as a waiter. Sometimes I babysit, I love children.”
Besides the gay bars, they also participate in gay pride parades that annually transform streets into queer sites of celebration and protest with drag queens, dykes on bikes, leather bears, marching girls, gay parents with their kids, gay and lesbian school children and many more being proud. S, 37 years old, said that:
“[t]he function of the parade is to encourage the world of gays. That’s why we have to support them. Paris as a country that accommodates freedom of expression can be used as an example of reflection. Homosexuality is not an illness at all. So, we must support it!”
In being openly gays In Paris, Indonesian gays overcome the disappointment of not being able to be “completely gay” in Indonesia. They need a new pride to overcome the shame that comes with the public insult they have experienced in their own country. What they want in life is to be proud to be gay without social and political discrimination and abuses. They want to be appreciated as gays by the society because all humans are born free and equal. And for this, they are willing to leave Indonesia and their “comfort zone” and stay abroad in, often, more precarious situations. But at least, they can find a real ‘home’ in Duyedek’s sociological sense. In Paris, they can escape discrimination, show their real identity and sexual preferences and feel ‘at ease’ ‘safe’, ‘secure’, ‘comfortable’, and ‘one with their surroundings’ and thus feel that Paris is where they belong.
Wisnu Adihartono has a Ph.D in sociology (gender, migration, family and Southeast Asian studies) at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) – Marseille, France. His publications include articles in the Huffington Post (French edition, in French), La Gazette de Bali (in French), The Jakarta Post, Kompas, Suara Kebebasan.org, Simplysxy.com, Philopolitics.org, Suarakita.org, Jurnalperempuan.org, Suara.com, Discoversociety.org He obtained a Diploma in Chinese Language and Political Sciences and an M.A. in European Studies at the University of Indonesia. Now he is an independent researcher in Jakarta (I thanked you very much to Annisa Beta for revising the English language in this writing and Rosalia Sciortino and Dede Oetomo for editing).