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Performing at a Drag Queen Show in a gay café in Belgium. Meloza Bekinshell
Fantasising romance overseas

in INDONESIA, 12/10/2013

In an era of anti-homophobia campaigns worldwide, Indonesian transgender born-males, known as banci or waria, still cannot live in peace. Their gender identity, romantic love and sexual fantasies about men are seen as sinful, ridiculous and a threat to the dominant norm of heterosexuality. Even though transgenderism is integrated within cultural tradition in rural areas, this does not make their position easier. In modern Indonesian society, transgender people challenge middle-class decency and are punished for it.

The fantasy of moving abroad to escape their harsh life becomes a reality for transgender people who develop relationships with western men. However, life in Europe can also be depressing. Migrants grapple with many obstacles, from getting a residency permit to finding a job, while feeling the pressure to meet the dual expectations of their western partners and their families back home. What’s more, while life in Europe confronts them with different challenges, being away does not entirely rescue them from the dominant norms in Indonesia.

Harsh realities, sweet fantasies

In Indonesia transgenderism is not officially recognised as a gender category. In rural areas, there are various local terms for transgenderism, which traditionally is often associated with holiness, magic and healing power. In the cities, people mostly associate male femininity with homosexual practice. Therefore, ‘gay’ is a term that is often used to refer to effeminate men, as well as banci and waria. In contrast to rural areas where femininity and masculinity are not rigidly categorised, gender ambiguity in the cities is considered much more problematic. This exposes banci and waria to the scorn of a largely homophobic society.

Homophobia appears to be increasing as the hegemony of heterosexuality and the influence of Islamic parties grow. People’s dismissal of homosexuality often turns into hatred and violence towards banci and waria. Even when not physically abused, they have to deal with verbal abuse. People, usually men, tease waria street singers from their cars. When a waria becomes upset, they quickly shut the window and drive off. At home, banci and waria have a hard time meeting the expectations of their parents who want them to behave as men. From a certain age, their parents still hope that they will marry a woman, start a family and have children. These expectations put a great deal of pressure on them. 

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