LGBT people and Poverty in Indonesia: By King Oey, Arus Pelangi

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Indonesia has enjoyed steady economic growth over the past decade. It is fast becoming a middle-income country. Many observers consider Indonesia to be an example of a country that has successfully transitioned itself towards democracy and development. Nevertheless, 17% of the population remain below the poverty line. This is especially prevalent in the rural areas, as the economic growth has principally benefited the urban areas.

At the same time, social norms and values have also remained largely traditional and conservative. Religion permeates the daily lives of people, and crucially families form the only source of social security for the individual. These factors have far-reaching consequences for LGBT people because it is extremely difficult for them to extricate themselves from the influence of their families.

Arus Pelangi is an LGBT organisation, which concerns itself primarily with advocating LGBT rights. Aside from approaching government and policy makers, Arus Pelangi also concerns itself with public education and strengthening local LGBT organisations.

1) In your experience, what are the main issues that LGBTI people living in poverty face in your country?

King Oey from Arus Pelangi, IndonesiaLike all other people living in poverty, lower class LGBT lack access to information and facilities. Lack of information leads to LGBT having to live with the perpetual belief system that they are sinners and have to hide their feelings. Most gays have had to come to terms with their condition/sexuality by leading a double life. For lesbians that is less of an option because they cannot escape from the control of the (in-law) family. For the trans people it is a bit different, because people around them have already found out and ‘rejected’ them. That’s why so many trans youth have dropped out of school and left their families. They tend to move to the cities, where they congregate in boarding houses. They are visible and heavily discriminated against, especially when it comes to finding a job. For most of them prostitution is the only remaining option in order to make a living.

2) How do you think LGBTI people could overcome such challenges?

The staff of Arus Pelangi in a anti-bullying campaignInterestingly, for lower class lesbians, finding a job as a migrant worker in Hong Kong has become popular. Many stories exist that Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong can finally escape from the family control/ oppression back home and build meaningful (love) relationships with other domestic workers. At least, in Hong Kong, Sunday is officially a day-off and thousands of domestic workers congregate in public spaces, meet each other and have fun together. But nothing really lasts for them; once the contract is finished and they go back to their home village, they loose that freedom and their lives can turn into a living hell. The IOM is aware of this problem but has not tried to do much about it.

The “waria” (trans women) persons are generally resourceful; many have managed to make a living by starting small businesses, like a beauty parlor or a catering enterprise; some have become freelance entertainers. But for the majority of waria who are trapped in the vicious circle of low self-esteem, prostitution and drug addiction are relevant problems that need particular attention.

What kind of support do you think LGBTI people may need to step out of poverty?

Education and skills trainings are definitely important. But we also need research that will map the depth and breadth of poverty affecting LGBT; as of now, we only have limited data, most of which emanates from hearsay.

3) What are the advocacy tools/strategies that activists can use to help LGBTI people living in poverty improve their economic and social situation?

Strategies to help them are not different from those for other marginalised groups: empowerment and self-help. Of course, they need help to get started.

4) Have you had any successful experience in that sense? Please share with us!

One waria leader has started to open her house for elderly warias. They lack any family support and often have to spend their remaining years in tragic circumstances. It is a brave, first step. So far, she has managed to keep this endeavour afloat from her own pocket and from small donations.

5) What kind of recommendations/suggestions can you make for governments/ civil society organisations/LGBTI organisations/local authorities/service providers to help LGBTI people get out of poverty situations?

On the one hand, without a change in the societal perception towards LGBT persons, it will remain very hard to improve the living conditions of LGBT overall. All too often certain groups take the law in their own hands and discriminate and harm LGBTs, which they are able to get away with due to weak law enforcement.

It’s a government’s duty to protect, promote and fulfill the human rights of LGBT persons starting with an acknowledgment that LGBT are a minority that deserves their attention, and after that to start a public education drive to change public opinion.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Social Affairs is tasked to deal with social groups which are considered problematic, such as homeless people, street vendors, sex workers and trans women. In the past, the local Social Affairs Bureaus have doled out cash to trans women in the hope that they would stop with prostitution and start a small business for themselves. These well-meant, one-off gestures have largely failed to achieve their goal. And there is a pertinent lack of real dialogue in how to start a bottom-up development process for the marginalised trans women communities.