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From Pa to Ma: navigating trans parenthood in Indonesia

June 13, 2023
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Indonesia, #LGBTQ+ rights, #trans rights, #queer activism
by:Belinda Yohana
Transgender parents in Indonesia confront a myriad of complex challenges, including societal pressures and legal discrimination. Some of them are actively combatting persisting stigmas.

In Indonesia, there has been a notable surge in attention and support for transgender rights and activism in recent years. Advocates are actively engaging in discussions on crucial topics like public awareness and acceptance of transgender individuals.

However, despite the progress made through these discussions, which are held mostly in activist circles, there remains a significant gap in recognising and addressing the challenges faced by transgender parents who endure discrimination and isolation. Indonesian society largely overlooks their experiences, leading to a lack of open dialogue surrounding their struggles.

These parents engaged in discussions centred around the unique challenges they face as they navigate both parenting and their personal transition within the context of Indonesia's conservative and predominantly Muslim culture. Within the LGBTQ+ community, many individuals conceal their sexual orientation or gender identity from their loved ones. This concealment often stems from the fear of persecution, which can come from religious organisations, law enforcement, and politicians.

In some cases, societal pressure from family and friends has led a few individuals to enter into heterosexual marriages, prioritising societal expectations over their own authentic love for one another. Transgender parents, in particular, encounter additional obstacles as they strive to navigate these complex dynamics.

Lenny is a trans Indonesian woman currently working at a Jakarta-based non-profit called Yayasan Srikandi Sejati, which provides mentoring services for trans women. Born as Eko Sugiharto Al Lenny, Lenny exudes warmth that makes people feel at ease after only a few minutes of knowing her. She was married back in 1988 for the sake of her family. 

"I wasn't sure what [happened] to me at the moment," Lenny told FairPlanet. "I eventually tied the knot. My wife claimed that she was pregnant, although I never slept with her even once."

Shortly after the birth of Lenny's son, Rhino Septaviandra, in September 1989, her wife left them, prompting Lenny to raise him as a single parent. As a result, Lenny's roles have evolved to encompass the responsibilities of both a mother and a father figure.

Lenny's life has been fraught with difficulties. While her son was in elementary and middle school, she had to hide her gender transition, cease taking hormones and conceal her breasts in order to pass as a "normal" dad by their community. 

"I discontinued my hormone medication for a time because many people know that I have larger breasts than a man, and I [didn’t] want to attract unwanted attention at my son's school," Lenny recalled. 

After her son's high school graduation, Lenny resumed her transition.

Her son Rhino admitted that Lenny's protracted transition prolonged the time it took him to be able to embrace Lenny as his mother. Searching for consolement, he often chatted with his grandparents about how he felt. 

He added that the most difficult part of accepting his mother was during teenagehood, when he would get bullied by classmates for having a trans parent. The bullying he experienced, he said, had strained his relationship with Lenny. 

"There was a time when I wished for a 'normal' parent. It was pretty strange for me to switch from calling her father to calling her mother," he told FairPlanet. "Because it was difficult for me, I used to rebel, such as stealing her phone."

Now in junior year of high school, Rhino is finally able to accept Lenny and appreciate her role in fighting for the rights of trans women in Indonesia.

Compound challenges

Apart from the ups and downs of parenthood, transgender parents typically face extra challenges, including mending the bonds of their strained relationships or confronting prejudice from others.

"You can call me Soli [Solena], since your biological mother is still alive and well back home. You need to consider her feelings," said New York-based entrepreneur Solena Chaniago to her daughter Ned.

At 44, Solena is one of the most visible leaders in the transgender movement among the Indonesian diaspora and boasts a social media following of over 400,000 people. 

Over the past decade, she has found her home in the Big Apple, driven by her personal aspirations to achieve financial independence and attain mental stability. Along the way, she explored various roles, including working as a hostess, hairstylist, and supporting actor, before ultimately finding her calling in the cosmetics industry.

Born in Padang to a devout Muslim family in 1978, Solena realised early on that deep down she is a woman. During her teenage years, she mostly concealed her true gender expression, an experience that she later revealed contributed to her struggle with depression while living in her conservative hometown.

"In middle school, I was depressed because I couldn't reveal my sexuality to my peers," she told FairPlanet. 

As a teenager, Solena told her mother that she identified as a gay man - an admission that did not resonate well with her parents.

A 2020 study from Indonesia titled "The Relationship of Risk Factors with Depression Levels among Gay, Transgender, and Men Who Have Sex with Men" indicates that 37.1 percent of queer people in the country suffer from serious depression. A number of factors, such as education level, the availability of social services and average age influence the community's mental health. 

Solena doesn't hold a grudge when thinking about her first love during adolescence. "From what I can recall, it was a truly memorable occasion. My first crush was a senior in high school and I had my first gay relationship in 1993, while attending college in Jakarta, where I could just be me,"  she said. 

Lasting stigma

Much like Lenny, Solena also had to keep her identity hidden at first. She felt forced to lie both to herself and to her wife, whom she felt she couldn’t love sincerely. After two years of marriage, their relationship ended. 

"I knew I couldn't love her from the point of view of a man, and it wasn't a great feeling. She deserves someone who truly loves her," Solena recalled. 

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) about public perceptions og LGBTQ+ people in Indonesia, 87.6 percent respondents said they feel unsafe in the company of queer people, while close to 80 percent said they didn't want LGBTQ+ people living nearby.

In 2017, 973 people in Indonesia were recorded as victims of stigma, discrimination and violence due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression that did not conform to heteronormative binaries, according to a survey conducted by the Community Legal Aid Institute Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Masyarakat (LBH).

These reports were traced to various places around Indonesia, with the most significant number, 715, filed by individuals identifying as trans. 

Opening up is key 

Solena moved on her own to the United States to search for better work opportunities and escape queerphobic stigmas, while Ned stayed in Jakarta with her biological mother. The businesswoman confirms that she visits her daughter once a year and is in regular contact with her former wife. 

LGBTQ+ people in Indonesia are prone to legal discrimination. In 2022, the Indonesian parliament passed a new Penal Code that criminalises extra-marital sex. Although the new law does not take effect until 2025, its clauses may nonetheless be utilised to discriminate against queer people. 

In addition to being subject to laws that criminalise same-sex behaviour, trans Indonesians may be prosecuted under Article 281 of Penal Code 1999, which criminalises "offences against decency." Under these statutes, the maximum penalty is eight years in prison and 100 lashings.

Until she turned seven, Ned knew Solena as a relative. But in 2011, Solena finally confessed to her that she was her biological father. 

"It saddened me," Solena shared. "At first, it was nerve-wracking, but she told me it was the most liberating time, [in] that finally she knew who her father was." 

Meanwhile, Lenny values the positive reinforcement her son gives her. "Even my wife treats me with a lot of tolerance," Lenny said. Rhino remains close to Lenny to this day, and the two talk openly to one another about what makes a good husband and father. 

Rhino told FairPlanet that he feels deeply proud of his mother’s positive impact on the trans community. "I'm amazed at how she [Lenny] contributes back to the community, how she educates fellow transwomen in the community through various activities, such as conducting discussions about sexual health, safety and health at work, among many others."

Solena's daughter, Ned, has embarked on her own journey of self-discovery by embracing her true identity and coming out as a lesbian to her mother. Solena shared that after Ned's coming out, their relationship transformed into one of openness, and she expressed her unconditional support. "I told her I just want her to be happy and do well with her studies," Solena remarked, highlighting how open communication has shattered any barriers between them.

Lenny, who is fighting against the stigma surrounding the transgender community, emphasised the importance of shattering society’s misconceptions about trans people’s level of education and highlighted the need for societal acceptance to eliminate such stigma.

Within her non-profit organisation, Yayasan Srikandi Sejati, Lenny actively represents trans women who have experienced sexual abuse while providing education to the LGBTQ+ community on sexual health, specifically emphasising HIV/AIDS screenings. Lenny added, "As members of society, [queer people] show our concern for the well-being of those around us."

Image by Sharyn Davis.

Article written by:
Belinda Yohana
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Transgender parents are rarely acknowledged by society, which means their experiences are seldom spoken about openly.
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Some trans people in Indonesia end up marrying heterosexual partners, bowing to pressure from friends and family members.
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“As members of society, [queer people] demonstrate that we care about our surroundings.”
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