Why you should care
Because as Indonesia’s president courts religious conservatives, he’s maintaining a big tent — including transgender cosmetologist Kety Haji Jalla.
The province of North Maluku is one of the least densely populated in Indonesia. Its capital, the island city Ternate, rests in the shadow of a spectacular volcanic dome. There, Kety Haji Jalla serves her community as an educator, imparting life and job skills where a large portion of the economy is powered by low-paying agricultural work. A former politician from incumbent president Joko Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), she is supporting like-minded office seekers across eastern Indonesia as a respected matriarch. But since she is a transgender woman, Indonesia as a whole is debating her place in society as intolerant rhetoric and targeted violence is on the rise ahead of this week’s contentious elections.
At her cosmetology foundation in Ternate, she works with around 1,000 students ages 16–35, teaching them hair and makeup skills that will let them work in salons or start their own beauty businesses. Many of her students bring their children to the workshops, adding an extra layer of chaos to the environment. Jalla handles the constant barrage of questions from students and teachers with gentle warmth and patience as children of all ages play around her skirt.
“It doesn’t matter what people label me as, but what matters is my skill,” Jalla says as a pair of animated young women approach with a technical question. Her skills as an educator have earned her numerous accolades, including being recognized by former first lady Ani Yudhoyono as one of the country’s best teachers and an inspirational female figure — even after she opened up about being transgender. “It was quite validating,” Jalla says. Her defiance of labels acts as a source of power for her but also highlights the contradictions rampant in Indonesian politics.
North Maluku is more open to us being who we are.
Kety Haji Jalla
After being elected as regional representative for North Maluku in Indonesia’s House of Representatives in 2009 and declining to run for another term in 2014, Jalla is now informally managing campaigns and mentoring other LGBT candidates from the PDI-P, while running two educational foundations. Widodo — or Jokowi, as most people call him — has faced criticism from groups around the world for his conflicting statements on human rights. Jokowi has expressed his support for all minorities in Indonesia, including LGBT people, but qualified it by claiming that while his country respects human rights, there are social and religious norms that do not allow homosexuality.
“Jokowi needs to be supported at all costs,” Jalla says, pointing to the ports, roads and power plants built and expanded during the president’s first term. Aside from the material aspects of providing for a quarter-billion Indonesians spread across more than 17,000 islands, Jalla also says that Jokowi is dedicated to Indonesia’s foundational ideology of social justice — laid out in the fifth precept of Indonesia’s “Pancasila” national philosophy. However, Jokowi’s choice for vice president this term, Islamic cleric and anti-LGBT hard-liner Ma’ruf Amin, has shown Jokowi is not above pandering to the rising tide of Islamists in the country.
“It’s like Donald Trump and the Christian fundamentalists,” says Dédé Oetomo, founder and trustee of Indonesia’s oldest LGBT activist group, Gaya Nusantara. Oetomo describes the reaction to Amin from the more than 200 LGBT organizations in Indonesia as, at best, lukewarm.
According to Oetomo, East Indonesia is much different in its acceptance of LGBT folks than the western, more densely populated parts of the country. When foreigners ask where LGBT Indonesians should run if things continue to deteriorate, Oetomo tells them to go to Ternate. “There’s no Islamic fundamentalism; there are no attacks on people there,” Oetomo says. He calls Jalla “a very passionate and active leader in Ternate. She truly makes a difference to the livelihood of local trans women. She’s a well-respected leader in the community, not only by trans women.”
“North Maluku is more open to us being who we are,” Jalla says. “Families usually don’t disown their kids who come out as transgender or gay.” While she served as a regional representative, the governor of Ternate was an imam. “He didn’t show any negativity toward the community,” Jalla says with a pragmatic smile. Still, Jalla is not ignorant of the challenges faced by others in Java and elsewhere.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest country and home to the largest population of Muslims. Despite the wave of anti-LGBT acts and speech, there is no governmental policy that discriminates against LGBT people, unlike in some U.S. states. Many parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia have a long history of accepting non-binary gender roles. The Bugis ethnic group on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, for example, has long revered a third gender called bissu in religion and conflict negotiation.
Still, there are no Indonesian laws guaranteeing LGBT rights either. “People harass and discriminate with impunity, and from my experience, this is getting worse and worse for LGBT communities,” says Sharyn Graham Davies, associate professor at Auckland University of Technology, who earned a Ph.D. studying gender in Indonesia.
While Jokowi has equivocated and tried to placate both sides, his opponent, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, has catered strongly to religious conservatives. (This effort comes even as Subianto’s son, Didit Hediprasetyo, has spoken out in defense of LGBT rights from his home in Paris, where he works as a renowned fashion designer.) In September, Prabowo signed an “integrity pact,” pledging to protect hard-line Islamist groups’ interests — including punishing blasphemers and outlawing “immoral” LGBT activities.
A practicing Muslim herself, Jalla doesn’t see people like Jokowi’s running mate, Amin, as a threat at all, despite his past support for fatwas against homosexuality. LGBT Indonesians, she says, can fight for their rights while supporting the economic progress made under Jokowi. As she inspects the work of her students one recent afternoon, the call to prayer sounds from the neighborhood’s mosque.
Read more: The new bogeyman in Indonesia’s coming elections: China.