Authors: Ania Filipowicz and Kevin Lopes
“This is a story about normality and insecurity, it’s the portrayal of those living a different life in the big city of Jakarta. Of people who’ve endured toughness on the streets, a series on the question of self-identity and control on one’s own body.”- Sasja van Vechgel
It was with these words Sasja van Vechgel welcomed us to her photography exhibition at the Global Art Gallery in outskirts of Copenhagen. The project: “Transcending gender; an intimate encounter” displays the journey of trans women making a living as sex workers in Jakarta, whose lives the artist followed over the course of a year. It all started with a human rights organization, Yayasan Srikandi Sejati (YSS), which focuses on HIV/AIDS care. Here, Sasja met Adil, a charismatic woman who with her courage sparked fascination in the artist, and who later became a gateway into her own world. Adil lived in Jakarta with a group of her peers who came from different parts of Indonesia to find work and explore their identity.
The exhibition portrayed five women, each of them had their story written and hung at the beginning of the gallery. The strength and character of the women was clear throughout the exhibit. Despite the women’s various challenges and experiences of stigmatisation, Sasja was of the opinion that they were happy. She believed that, having found peace with their own bodies, these women could finally live their lives as their true selves.
It was in 2016 that the Indonesian government began to promote an anti-LGBT+ rhetoric. The hateful discourse put transgender people and the whole LGBT+ population in the spotlight for social and state discrimination. While the anti- LGBT+ comments stemmed from the government, the discourse spread to many religious groups and NGOs. As Indonesia is a highly religious country with approximately 87% of people identifying as Muslim, the intriguing question about the women’s relationship with religion crossed our minds. The photographer shed a light on this issue and explained that most of the women she followed were raised Muslim, apart from their Christian guardian, and they all have stayed loyal to their religion. Despite not being able to openly pray in the mosque, they regularly pray with each other. They also pray when they have health checks at the NGO; connecting to both healthcare and religion outside of formal structures.
While speaking with Sasja, we came to understand that the journey of these women are extremely personal despite common societal generalizations. Sasja’s camera helped to portray a multifaceted identity built from each woman’s relationship to her past, her surrounding culture, personal religiosity, current sense of belonging, and pace as well the stage of transition. These photos and shared stories of the women spark questions about the nature of local and global transphobia. Indonesia is not an isolated case when it comes to structural LGBT+ oppression. Issues experienced by these women, including the lack of access to healthcare and the impossibility of obtaining an official ID that reflects their true gender, are also relevant globally.
Having worked with trans women in the Netherlands as well as Indonesia, Sasja believes that despite liberal laws, the issue of fluidity between genders is even more visible in the European context. Some of the women in the Netherlands she interviewed felt that the prescribed healthcare routine didn’t give them the full freedom in choosing a pace or a desired end stage of their transition. From what the artist described it appeared that there was a binary ideal of gender and of what it means to be a woman. Thus systems that may seem more progressive on the surface can create new challenges for trans men and women.
During the event we also had a privilege of speaking to a Danish women who had experienced many challenges during her transition journey. She spoke strongly about the complexity of relationships she experienced, and a need for people to be actively reflective even while coming from a liberal country like Denmark.
The key message that we took from the exhibition was the importance of accepting fluidity between genders and its individual nature. “Transcending gender; an intimate encounter” is an important piece of work advocating for the rights of trans women. It can be problematic for a cis person to portray trans stories, however it is important to spark a dialog. The exhibition rather than being a spectacle, invites a deeper understanding and reflection on one’s own relationship to gender and its role in the society. Listening to the stories of the women we met and heard appeared to us as an important part of reshaping our social structures, while going beyond gender binaries. From a global health perspective, these insights are vital for understanding the health-related harms caused by transphobia. A lack of access to trans-specific healthcare, or an overly medicalised transition process based on cultural ideals about gender and sexuality, may each be harmful in their own way. We are very grateful for the opportunity to have attended this exhibition and to have heard about the experiences of this group of women in Jakarta.