‘Please, don’t underestimate us’: Community-led initiatives are helping Indonesian transwomen survive COVID-19

Indri performing on the street in Tangerang. Photo: Lexy Rambadeta
Indri performing on the street in Tangerang. Photo: Lexy Rambadeta

Indri was on the train to Tangerang when we spoke at the end of April. She was on her way to mengamen — to perform on the street for money — and also to distribute basic essentials to fellow transwomen. Like thousands of other transwomen across Indonesia — known locally as waria or increasingly, transpuan — Indri worked as a makeup artist before COVID-19 closed most salons. She hasn’t had a shift in over a month. Indri has, however, become part of the vanguard of a movement called #BantuanUntukWaria (#AidForTranswomen), which is supporting the transgender community of Pasar Pos Duri and Kali Anyar in West Jakarta. From Medan to Maumere, it’s one of many community-led initiatives helping some of Indonesia’s most marginalized communities withstand the pandemic. 

As most Indonesian transwomen own or work in salons, are street performers, sex workers, entertainers or in the events industry, physical distancing has meant almost all have lost their ability to earn a living. Combined with stigma, discrimination, and a lack of access to health services and government support, COVID-19 is threatening their survival. Last month saw the horrific death of Mira, a 42-year-old transwoman who was beaten and burned alive by six men in North Jakarta, with only two of them charged with aggravated assault. While earlier this month, a popular Indonesian YouTuber uploaded a prank video of himself and friends giving transgender women in Bandung boxes of sembako (basic essentials) that actually contained bricks and rotten beansprouts. But as testament to the resilience of Indonesia’s LGBT community, gotong royong — the spirit of mutual assistance — has perhaps never been stronger.    

#BantuanUntukWaria is a collaboration between community leaders Indri, Mama Atha, and Nuke; Sanggar Teater Seroja, a creative community space for gender minorities; and the Jakarta branch of Queer Language Club (QLC), which conducts inclusive activities and has six branches across Java and Bali. By May 1, the movement had raised over IDR94 million (US$6,223), after opening limited donation windows at the end of March.

Initial donations were used to buy ingredients for nasi bungkus — packages of rice and side dishes — that Indri, Mama Atha and Nuke cooked and distributed to 67 women. After the capital’s Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB) were introduced on April 10, the model shifted to twice-weekly donations of sembako and a small cash sum of IDR50,000. #BantuanUntukWaria also conducts a revolving funds program. So far, funds have been distributed to four transwomen to start small food businesses, with QLC Jakarta members assisting with marketing collateral design and promotion.    

“Before PSBB, we would cook, and then distribute nasi bungkus to our waria friends. And then we’d cook again in the evening, and distribute more nasi bungkus after that,” Indri explained. “PSBB has meant that the vast majority of waria here, who work in salons or as street performers, simply have no work. So we feel greatly assisted by this movement. This is about fulfilling basic needs at a time when income has drastically reduced.”

Three days before PSBB came into effect, Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan declared that “the Jakarta administration, together with the military and police forces, will distribute sembako for the poor and vulnerable groups whose source of income has been heavily affected by the coronavirus.” In order to receive the sembako, one must present a valid ID which corresponds to one’s current location. As internal migration is common, however, especially to the capital, many Indonesians’ ID is still registered in their hometown. In this case, one can apply for a certificate of residence to be eligible for aid. 

One of #BantuanUntukWaria’s initiators, Nurdiyansah Dalidjo, known as Diyan, reported that even requesting this certificate is often difficult for transwomen. “So far, among the community of 67 waria in Pasar Pos Duri and Kali Anyar, only a few have successfully accessed the government-provided sembako,” he explained. “There are many among them who’ve been rejected simply because they’re waria.” Indri confirmed this: “even for those who’ve already obtained the certificate of residence, they still haven’t been able to access government support.” 

This situation isn’t unique to Jakarta. Medan-born transman Amek Adlian is head of operations at Cangkang Queer, a community-based non-profit LGBT organization founded in 2012, which works across eight districts of North Sumatra. Cangkang Queer opened donations to purchase sembako and sanitation kits for LGBT people at the beginning of April. By the end of the month, 550 members of the community had received their support. Among this group, Amek reported only two had received government support. “But it was only rice. Just rice.”

Cangkang Queer members distributing sembako and sanitation kits in North Sumatra. Photo: Cangkang Queer
Cangkang Queer members distributing sembako and sanitation kits in North Sumatra. Photo: Cangkang Queer

Despite the lack of government assistance, the 32-year-old small business owner is bolstered by what he’s witnessing during the pandemic. “Solidarity among the communities is strengthening. People are sharing their accommodation with those who can no longer pay rent. I’ve also heard many are helping friends to lobby accommodation owners to allow late rent payments. Indeed, if you don’t have access [to government support], you turn to your friends.” 

In Bandung, capital of West Java, diversity collective Panggung Minoritas is collaborating with Srikandi Pasundan, a transwomen’s organization covering all 17 West Java regencies, to support 150 women requiring assistance. The collective’s head of operations, Yoga Palwaguna, echoed Amek’s report of people sharing accommodation to decrease costs, despite the city’s PSBB measures, which were introduced on April 22.   

In Greater Jakarta and Semarang, a charming city in Central Java, coalitions of civil society organizations are supporting transgender people with sembako and sanitation supplies. Across the former, which has a population of around 30 million, the Crisis Management Response Coalition, comprising LBH Masyarakat, Arus Pelangi, Sanggar Swara and GWL Ina, with support from UNAIDS Indonesia, had helped 1,344 people by the end of April. Coordinator of QLC Semarang and Rumah Pelangi Indonesia’s Media Division, Natalee Kartika, reported that the Semarang Crisis Fund, which comprises 12 organizations, is still in the fundraising stage. It will commence distribution of basic essentials to 64 transgender women this month.

Sembako packages for Jakarta's transgender community distributed by QLC Jakarta. Photo: QLC Jakarta
Sembako packages for Jakarta’s transgender community distributed by QLC Jakarta. Photo: Sanggar Teater Saroja and QLC Jakarta

In Yogyakarta, the Donasi Teman Waria initiative had assisted 105 women by the end of April. Along with sembako, freshly-cooked meals and sanitation supplies, a rent subsidy of IDR300,000 was also distributed. Tamarra, the initiative’s 31-year-old leader, feels that “despite the lack of public acceptance of waria, there are unique interactions and social relations between Indonesian people when faced with difficult situations, such as the one we do today.” 

In Bali, where expat-founded charities are dominating international media attention, QLC Bali is working alongside Yayasan Gaya Dewata (YGD), a community-based non-profit providing HIV/AIDS education, prevention and support programs. QLC Bali and YGD have conducted two rounds of fundraising to support the island’s 243 transgender women identified as in need. QLC Bali’s Jaganatha admitted that securing funds during the second round was much more difficult. “Perhaps because our friends who want to help are already feeling the burden of the coronavirus themselves, making it difficult for them to donate. That’s why we’re currently searching for alternatives, such as international organizations who might want to help.” 

For those in more remote parts of the archipelago, fundraising can be especially challenging. Mayora Hendrika Victoria founded the organization Fajar Sikka to support minority groups in and around Maumere on the island of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. The charismatic community leader and religious elder affectionately known as Bunda Mayora said that the donations Fajar Sikka is able to obtain aren’t as large as those received by others. “We’re more remote, we’re not in a capital city. We’re receiving small amounts and are accepting whatever is available, as even small amounts help us greatly.” Fajar Sikka has so far assisted 80 among the 200 members of Maumere’s queer community identified as in need, with many of them family breadwinners or elderly transwomen.

Bunda Mayora Hendrika Victoria speaking at a church in Maumere. Photo: personal archive

Amid the torrent of negative media coverage of Indonesia’s response to the pandemic, Jakarta-based Australian journalist Shane Preuss contended in a recent article in The Diplomat that “what the Australian media has missed is the resilience of the Indonesian people.” This includes the resilience of Indonesia’s LGBT community. “There are some who think, ‘what kind of work is that?’” Indri said. “But we dare to be brave, and we have families, and each of us has a story. So for those who don’t understand our situation, please, don’t underestimate us.”   

Early last month, the ANU Indonesia Project conducted a webinar on public health outcomes and economic consequences of restricting human movement. During his presentation, I Nyoman Sutarsa of the ANU College of Health and Medicine emphasized that managing the pandemic from a public health perspective alone is insufficient. “Risk is multi-dimensional. If physical distancing is our only hope, then a systematic social protection program must be carefully designed to meet the needs of vulnerable communities.” 

Sutarsa, who is originally from Denpasar, recommended that “sporadic actions from various community systems” should be accommodated. “What are the best strategies to leverage the social capital of these systems? How can we strengthen their roles?” he asked. A clear answer is by financially supporting the organizations supporting marginalized communities. Details of all organizations mentioned above can be found here.  

Indri distributing sembako. Photo: Sanggar Teater Saroja and QLC Jakarta
Indri distributing sembako. Photo: Sanggar Teater Saroja and QLC Jakarta

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