Medan, Indonesia – Iwan is transgender, and a “micro-minority” in Indonesia.
Before COVID-19, he employed four other transgender people as hairdressers and makeup artists at his Anna Sui Salon in Medan in North Sumatra, but now he can afford to hire only one.
“We used to have 10 to 15 customers a day, now we haven’t had a customer in over a week,” Iwan said. “Maybe we get one customer every two weeks now. It’s been that way since the pandemic started in March.”
Salon work and the wedding industry are two of only a few sectors in Indonesia that offer employment opportunities to those who are openly transgender.
“People in the transgender community are still considered ‘deviant’ in much of Indonesian society,” said Irna Minauli, a psychologist in Medan. “They are stigmatised and bullied. However, they are accepted in a few narrow sectors such as the beauty industry.”
Antonius Remigius Abi who teaches ethics at the Faculty of Law at Santo Thomas Catholic University in Medan, tells Al Jazeera that, “a mistaken school of thought has built up that transgender people are ‘abnormal’ in Indonesian society”.
The lecturer regularly discusses the transgender community in his classes, and says that students often criticise the community based on narrow perceptions of sexual behaviour and gender identity. All of this, he continues, has an impact on transgender visibility in civil society.
“From an ethical perspective, every human being is equal and must be respected. However, the transgender community are rarely accepted to work in public spaces other than salons or the entertainment industry in Indonesia,” he said.
Indonesia has been the most badly affected country in Southeast Asia by the pandemic with more than 20,000 deaths reported since March. The archipelago currently has nearly 127,000 active confirmed cases of coronavirus, and the beauty industry has been severely affected.
Forced to close
While the Anna Sui Salon has employed dozens of transgender workers over the years, Iwan says business has been so slow they now only have Emmy, 40, who has worked as a hairdresser there for 10 years. They say it is lucky that Iwan owns the building where the salon is located and does not have to pay rent.
“If we were still renting, we would have had to close by now,” Iwan said. “I have friends in the transgender community who also own salons and many of them have had to close as they couldn’t afford to pay their rent any more. Some of my friends have laid off all their staff and just call them in on a freelance basis when someone makes an appointment.”
Iwan says many transgender employees in the beauty industry use social media to get clients and do home visits, something which is no longer popular during the pandemic when people are fearful of outside workers coming to their homes and unable to afford non-essential services like beauty treatments.
Shinta Ratri, the head of Pondok Pesantren Waria Al-Fatah in Yogyakarta, believed to be the first transgender madrassa, or Islamic boarding school, in the world, tells Al Jazeera many transgender people are struggling because of the pandemic.
“The impact of COVID-19 has reduced the transgender community’s income by 60 percent,” she said. “They are finding it hard to pay for accommodation and they only have enough money to cover basics like food. That is why many of them are so stressed.”
As it is almost impossible for members of the transgender community to get jobs in more stable sectors such as education or the civil service, Pondok Pesantren Waria Al-Fatah has set up a food security training programme for 20 people for two months to help them diversify their employment opportunities.
“We have also set up a fundraising programme to help pay costs for 60 members of the transgender community and have set up mental health support for 20 more,” she added.
Across Indonesia, members of the transgender community often have difficulties accessing formal government support, because of the stigma surrounding gender identity and the fact that many of them are undocumented or have documents that do not reflect their identities.
Both Iwan and Emmy are disparaging of the government response to COVID-19, saying that they have received no financial aid or subsidies.
“We didn’t even get help to pay our electricity bills. Nothing,” said Iwan.
“Yet four government officials have just been arrested for corruption, including the social affairs minister while we are struggling,” said Emmy, who adds that they like to watch political commentary on TikTok since there is little else to do at the salon.
On 6 December, Juliari Batubara, Indonesia’s social affairs minister, was arrested on corruption charges regarding food aid earmarked for those affected by the pandemic after taking bribes from contractors in charge of supplying food parcels.
Both Iwan and Emmy say that they are becoming ever more fearful as the end of the year approaches, and they worry that Christmas will hit them hard. “We would have at least five customers per day just to do their makeup for holiday parties. No one is going to come now,” Iwan said.
“If we have to close, where will we work? We only have the salon business.”