Society

I couldn’t see a future as a gay man in Indonesia, so I sought asylum in Canada

In Toronto, I found a new purpose running an Indonesian restaurant

(Illustration by Adrian Hogan)

As early as four or five, I knew I was different. I thought the men on TV were handsome, but I was raised to believe that homosexuality was wrong. I was born into a Muslim household in Malang, Indonesia, a household where my family wouldn’t even say the word “gay.” For most of my childhood, I was certain I was the only boy who was attracted to men. Everything changed in 2003, when I was 15 and visited an internet café for the first time. As I explored websites, I found anonymous chat rooms for gay men nearby. It was such a relief to learn I wasn’t alone. Although homosexuality isn’t illegal in Indonesia, it’s extremely taboo. The police raid underground gay parties, arrest gay men and parade them in the streets for public shaming.

I met a guy in the chat rooms who lived in West Java. As our connection deepened, I visited more internet cafés, and my mom became suspicious. One night, while I was asleep, she found flirty messages on my phone. She was furious and sent me to a therapist to “fix” me. I was terrified. We only had one session, where I said I wasn’t attracted to men. My relationship with my mom, meanwhile, was fractured. We barely spoke, and when I finished high school, I went to university in Jakarta, 10 hours away.

I graduated in 2010 and stayed in Jakarta, where I got a job in PR. In 2014, I visited Paris, and saw men kissing on the street for the first time. On the flight back, I bawled my eyes out. That’s when I knew I needed to leave my country. I couldn’t see a future for myself as a gay man in Indonesia. If people knew I was gay, I could be ostracized. I didn’t want that for my life. I wanted to live somewhere I could hold my partner’s hand in public and kiss him in the streets. I wanted to live somewhere I could start a family.

Three years later, I moved to Australia for 10 months on a working holiday visa. From there, I got a tourist visa for the U.S. and went to New York City. A friend from Indonesia let me stay with him, and we checked out the gay scenes in different cities. I loved the U.S., but the immigration process can take decades. It wasn’t feasible to stay, so I flew back home in 2017. I read that Canada was friendly toward gay people, and I could make a refugee claim because I could be persecuted for homosexuality in Indonesia. A year later, I booked a flight to Toronto. I still hadn’t come out to my mom, but the night before I left, she asked me, “Are you moving to Canada because you’re gay?” I said yes. “I want you to know that my views are very different now,” she said. “I wish you all the happiness, and I support you in your move.” Her blessing made my next steps feel so much lighter.

I came to Toronto on a tourist visa in January of 2018 and applied for asylum when I arrived. While I waited for my court date, I lived in an Airbnb downtown, where I found a job with a PR firm. Five months later, a judge granted my asylum request. I was so relieved—I finally had a new home.

Over the years, I’ve settled down in Toronto and met new people. I like to host dinner parties, and I introduced my friends to Indonesian cuisine in 2019, after my grandmother passed away. I wanted to honour her by cooking her recipe for soto ayam—a chicken soup with lemongrass, ginger and turmeric.

In 2022, a friend told me about a new app called Cookin that allowed people to sell food they made at home. You can get your kitchen accredited, and the app helps coordinate orders and deliveries. I quit my job and signed up under the name Java Bali Kitchen. I started selling dishes like beef rendang, soto ayam and beef satay skewers, which I advertised on social media. People loved my food, and in February of 2023, I moved my kitchen into Cookin’s commercial space to keep up with the orders.

My mom is excited about my new life in Canada. I send her pictures of the dishes I’m cooking and, when I go on dates, she likes to hear about them. It feels good to know I have her support. In the meantime, I’ve expanded my restaurant’s presence in the city. In August, I hosted a pop-up in Little Italy. I was so excited to finally meet some of my regular customers and see them enjoying my cooking. I felt like a part of the community—like I could finally call myself a Torontonian. I thought to myself: This is home.

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