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Migration, diaspora and essential freedom: The new meanings of migration

Wisnu Adihartono.jpg

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash.

Around 150 Indonesian gays have migrated to Paris because they were disappointed with the Indonesian government’s discrimination and even criminalisation of their existence. Some of them have lived in Paris for decades. They all interpret the word ‘migration’ in very different ways. What they experience as gay migrants is not easy. Before leaving Indonesia, they have to find out which countries are LGBTIQ+ friendly and therefore spend some of their money to buy mobile phone credit or use internet cafes. Many of them come from low-income families, thus for them spending so much money is a bit difficult. When they arrive in Paris, their lives usually do not run smoothly either. France is a country that requires migrants to learn French with a minimum level of A2. It is not only the French language that is a barrier but the complicated administrative process. 


In simple terms, the word ‘migration’ can be interpreted as a ‘seasonal to-and-fro movement of populations between regions where conditions are alternately favourable or un-favourable’. Those who are unable to express their gender and sexuality in Indonesia can now express them in France. They can, for instance, dress up and act in a feminine way. They can also spoil their partner in public. However, there are also gay migrants who do not get the opportunity to express themselves. Although they might feel lucky to be able to migrate, they have to work very hard because of their partners’ limited economic means. It has become a competition between some gay migrants to get rich partners. 


In light of these different experiences, the word ‘migration’ is defined and interpreted differently by Indonesian gay migrants in Paris.


Hananto*, 37, is working in a coffee shop. He has been living in Paris for about seven years. He has a French partner. Before Hananto went to France, he always hoped his future partner would be well-established and have a good job. Yet, fate decided otherwise. He met Michel*, 49, who worked as a regular clerk in a perfume shop. Hananto and Michel now live together in the suburbs of Paris. Hananto has to work to be able to meet his daily needs. He has to get up at half-past five in the morning, to prepare food and his partner’s outfit. Then at seven in the morning, he has to go to work because he has to take the metro and the bus and walk to the coffee shop where he works.


One time, we met at one of the coffee shops near where he lives. That is where he explained to me that he interprets migration as a diaspora. Hananto’s understanding of diaspora is closely related to William Safran’s definition (as put forward in Kim Butler’s article): A community (1) that is dispersed from an original ‘centre’ to at least two ‘peripheral’ places, (2) that maintains a ‘memory’, vision or myth about their original homeland, (3) that believes they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host country, (4) that sees the ancestral home as an idealised place of eventual return when the time is right, (5) that is committed to the maintenance or restoration of this homeland and (6) whose group’s consciousness and solidarity are ‘importantly defined’ by this continuing relationship with the homeland. In Hananto’s words:


‘Migration is tantamount to diaspora. Everyone will go to the destination country and when they get there, they will do diaspora either with the local community or with the people who come from their homeland. For me, doing diaspora is something that can be said to be difficult but can also be said to be very easy. In carrying out diaspora, it depends on who does it and to whom they do it. The point is whether the person is easy to do diaspora with or not. For example, I have a gay Indonesian friend who has a very difficult time associating with Indonesians. He always had reasons not to want to be invited to meet and later I found out he had a very wealthy French partner. So it is with migration. In migration people move from place to place but are they also liked when they do diaspora? Of course there are those who like it and there are those who don’t like it. Like me, I don’t like the Indonesian gay friend that I’ve mentioned. He looks very arrogant and in my opinion he doesn’t want to hang out with his Indonesian friends at all. To me the diaspora is a group of people who come from different parts of the world and they do things according to the behaviour of the local people. In the diaspora we consciously or unconsciously imitate the behaviour of local people and in that imitation there are people who like it and there are also people who don’t like it. In migration there is movement and this movement can also be pointed out as a movement that is not liked or liked by the local community, even in the diaspora there is also something like that. Migration and diaspora cannot be separated in this century because migration affects the diaspora and vice versa.’


The meaning of migration is interpreted in yet another way by Andi*, 40. He works in a shop and lives with his partner in the centre of Paris. His partner works as a director in a company, thus Andi feels that he is very lucky. He had just returned from shopping for women's clothes and accessories when this interview took place. He is determined to begin a gender transition (he currently uses male pronouns). We met in a park in the Jardin de Luxembourg area. For Andi, migration means an essential freedom. He feels very lucky to have migrated to such a romantic city. He said that Paris was everything to him. He has cut off any family ties to Indonesia because he is gay and also wants to change his status. His family was very angry and decided to end their relationship. 


Stories like Hananto’s and Andi’s give different meanings to migration. For many migrants, migration is not only defined as displacement, but it is also closely related to the aspects behind it, such as diaspora and freedom. Migration today is not only interpreted as it was done in the past. Migration is a term loaded with overlapping meanings from various sides and perspectives, not least because migration research is developing so fast. In the case of Indonesian gays who migrated to Paris, migration and diaspora cannot be separated. These two concepts are defined differently by each person who experiences them, and thus vary according to their level of education, achievement, and income. Sometimes migrants confuse the definitions of migration and diaspora, or deliberately use the terms interchangeably, deliberately, which goes to show that diaspora and freedom might just be two of many layers of the concept of migration. 


*Names have been changed.


Further reading and resources:

  • Anteby-Yemini, Lisa, and Berthomière, William. 2005. ‘Diaspora: A Look Back on a Concept’. Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, 16, 262-270. Open access:

  • Adihartono, Wisnu. 2020. Migration et soutien familial: Le cas des gays Indonésiens à Paris. Generis Publishing.

Wisnu Adihartono_photo.JPG

Wisnu Adihartono

Wisnu Adihartono is a sociologist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He obtained a PhD in sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), France. His areas of functional expertise are gender studies, gay studies, sociology of migration, diaspora studies, family studies, sociology of everyday life, micro-sociology and Southeast Asian studies. He is the author of Migration et soutien familial, le cas des gays Indonésiens à Paris published by Generis Publishing (2020). He is also working for the Global Advisory Committee at Equal Asia Foundation (EAF) and is a member of the Indonesian LGBTIQ+ NGO Suara Kita.

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