October 14, 2017

Caught Between Two Happinesses

In Indonesia, where same-sex marriage is illegal and homosexuality generally frowned upon, a group of young lesbians are discussing whether marrying a gay man is the way to solve their marriage problems. The pressure to marry is intense, they say. Many explain that their parents won’t be able to live happily until their children are all married.

‘What if he wants sex?’ One girl ponders. ‘He says he’s gay, but what if he decides he wants to sleep with you anyway? Won’t that just make more problems?’ Another girl exclaims it would be like a time bomb waiting to explode. What about marrying a straight man? ‘There’s no guarantee that would work,’ one young lesbian says, shaking her head. ‘Marriage is an institution protected by law – there could be trouble if something goes wrong.’

Most young Indonesians admit to feeling pressure from their parents to get married, but for young lesbians, the issue is doubly complicated. Forced to make the impossible decision between making their parents happy and making themselves happy, today’s lesbians are confronted by a dilemma that will permanently alter their futures. Should they marry a man, remain single, or live in secret with their female partner?

The pressure to marry

In almost all societies, marriage is seen as an important rite of passage, the crucial step that must be made to enter adulthood. Indonesia is no different. In a country where de facto relationships are neither legally nor religiously recognised, marriage offers the only path for couples wishing to live together and have children. It is seen as the only arena in which sex is acceptable. Pre-marital sex, while increasingly common, remains socially taboo, and most couples who date ‘Western-style’ are presumed to be heading towards marriage.

Historically, Indonesian women generally married young – before 19 years of age – and had children soon afterwards. With culture changing in recent years, however, the increasing length of time between adolescence and fully-independent ‘adulthood’ (that is, marriage) means that a large number of young women now exist in a state of limbo, neither children nor adults. For lesbians, this leaves them stuck in a never-ending state of ‘childhood’ – unable to marry their female partner, and unwilling to marry a man.

‘Marriage looms as a troublesome prospect for many Indonesian lesbians’, writes anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood in her book, Falling into the Lesbi World (2010). Both Islam and traditional Indonesian values place significant emphasis on marriage, to the extent that marriage is expected for all and by all. Marital status reflects not only upon the individual but upon the family as well. If a young man or woman fails to marry, it shames the family and can be viewed as a sign of disrespect for the parents. One oft-repeated Indonesian proverb, Islamic in origin, declares that ‘heaven lies under your mother’s feet’. It is widely taken to mean that you must respect your parents if you intend to enter heaven, for their happiness is your happiness, and their sorrow is your sorrow.

‘If you don’t show your devotion and make your parents happy, you feel wrong, sinful,’ activist Poedjiati Tan explains. ‘One of the ways to show devotion to your parents is to get married.’ From conversations with her own and others’ parents, Poedjiati says that most want their child to marry because they see it as meaning that their job is done, that their responsibility to look after their child has shifted to their daughter’s husband.

Caught between two happinesses – their own and their parents’ – young Indonesian lesbians understandably find themselves struggling. For many lesbians, reconciling their sexuality with their desire to make their parents happy seems almost impossible.

Pretend marriages, pretend happiness

For members of the Jakarta-based lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LBT) group Ardhanary Institute (AI), the question of marriage recently provoked heated debate when one young lesbian asked for help in finding a gay man to marry. Writing that she wanted to marry so that she could be free to spend time with her girlfriend, she brought to light a hidden trend where ‘pretend’ marriages provide a potential solution for Indonesia’s lesbians.

‘Do you think it’s really as simple as that?’ one of AI’s leaders, Agustine, asks during a discussion. ‘That if they get married he could bring his boyfriend home and she could do the same with her girlfriend?’ Some of the group’s younger members laugh the suggestion off, saying they can’t even imagine such a situation.

‘If a woman does not get married before she is 25,’ Agustine explains to me afterwards, ‘her family will feel ashamed, and society will start calling her perawan tua (literally ‘old virgin’). It’s different for men. They won’t be pressured into marriage until they’re at least 30 years old. So there’s a big difference between the pressures felt by men and women.’ For lesbians, it is even worse. ‘Many lesbians already feel guilty for being attracted to other women,’ Agustine continues. If they do not marry a man, they worry that they are failing to fulfil their role as dutiful daughters.

Some lesbians offer hopeful stories of ‘educating’ and helping their parents to come to understand that being gay is not a bad thing. While a few say they have been successful in changing their parents’ perception of their sexuality, the majority who have come out to their parents wish things had gone differently. Since coming out, some have lost all contact with their parents; others have been pressed into accepting an arranged marriage. Tales of physical abuse at their parents’ hands, too, are worryingly common.

Agustine’s own story is illustrative. After coming out to her parents at 17, she ran away from home after her family began physically abusing her. Only 15 years later did she begin communicating with them again. Likewise, when Nur’s* parents discovered she was lesbian, they were so upset that they beat her. She now says she is considering marrying a gay male friend. ‘I’ve even been bringing him home a lot, but what do I do now?’ She wonders. ‘My parents are so happy I’ve finally brought a boy home.’

As the discussion progresses, a number of lesbians come forward to admit to having seriously considered the idea of pernikahan pura-pura (pretend marriage). ‘I nearly did it,’ Kasmiati* acknowledges. ‘Not to make my parents happy, but so that I could have children. I made a promise with a gay friend, but when the time came to get married, I realised he was still sleeping with lots of men, so I was worried. Even though he said he used condoms, I couldn’t really be sure of his sexual history. In the end, we decided not to marry.’