Last year, I had an opportunity to be involved in a research project on HIV/AIDS prevention on transfemale sex workers and gay males community in Bandung. The LGBT community is among the key populations most affected by HIV/AIDS in Indonesia. According to UNAIDS, HIV prevalence among gay men reaches 25.8 percent, 24.8 percent among transgender people, and 5.3 percent among sex workers, making these groups of people key populations in the project.
During the project, I met a lot of transwomen who are a part of a transwomen and gay men-led NGO in Bandung focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention. Their main activity is simple: they conduct outreach to transfemale sex workers and gay males community by giving out free condoms and lubricants.
Little did I know that being a part of this project would change both myself and my activism as a part of the LGBT community, and that everything we do for the community, even as simple as giving out free condoms and lubricants, can help change the world.
I have always been a firm believer that sexuality is strictly a matter of preference, and thus, should lie in the personal sphere of life. I believe that my identity and sexual preference should not be a business of other people and that therefore in my career, it should not be the main identity and label that people associate me with. I want people to judge me based solely on meritocracy – that is, my skills and capabilities, not a predetermined judgment of an identity I am associated with.
This narrative, as it turned out, has been restraining me from involving myself in any kind of activism of the community.
The first time I went to the office of the NGO we worked with, I did my best effort not to cry. It was shame that engulfed me. I was ashamed of myself and everything I had done (or everything I had never done). While I had been hiding my identity all this time, these people sitting in front of me were so brave that they had no problems owning and being proud of their identities. Another thing that struck me right there was how much they were willing to make changes in the world, despite their limited knowledge of how to do it.
Throughout the project, I made an acquaintance of Teh (sister) Arin, a trans woman in her mid-thirties who works as an outreach worker of the NGO. Wearing her bright brown wig, Teh Arin would walked through those streets with pride, unashamed of who she is and how she identifies herself. Every day, Teh Arin has a similar routine: distributing condoms and lubricants to outreach hotspots, places where trans female sex workers and gay men usually gather. To my surprise, there were a lot of hotspots; gym, badminton fields, and even a small warung kopi.
The experience also exposed me to another layer of the LGBT community that I had never encountered before. While the LGBT community that I was familiar with is one comprising intellects and gorgeous internet celebrities, among the lower income part of the LGBT community, the climate is entirely different. There’s only one word to describe this difference: privilege. As we are aware of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), our privileges also allow us access to safe sex. For them, however, access to safe sexual healthcare and awareness can be a determinant of life and death. For these trans sex workers, access to free condoms and lubricants are necessary for them to do their jobs so they can pay rent, feed themselves and basically survive.
The experience was a wakeup call for me: that even within the same community of minorities, a lot of people don’t have the same privileges and platforms like you do. It is important to pay attention to the plights of those less privileged.
We should be like Teh Arin, be proud of who we are and own our identity. And while we’re at it, we should help those in need. Here is to Teh Arin, and the acquaintances I made during the project. The unsung heroes.
Jude W is a third year economics student who likes to use aliases on his writings. His interests include gender, environment, and political economic.