For many people living outside their society’s gender norms, family relationships can be complicated. Anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood looks at how that plays out in the lives of the tombois of Padang, West Sumatra in Indonesia.
The tombois Blackwood met during her fieldwork between 2001 and 2004 identified themselves as men with “female” bodies, with the same ways of walking and dressing, the same habits, like smoking and drinking, and the same ability to physically defend themselves as any other young man in the city. They ranged in age from late teens to early thirties and in class from poor to wealthy. Most, but not all, were Muslim.
Most of the tombois Blackwood met lived in homes with parents or other family members and remained close with their siblings. At home, they wore the same masculine attire as they did in the rest of their lives. Their families did not limit or “protect” them in the way they did with their sisters.
“Since I was little I hung out with guys so my family understands that I’m more like a guy,” a tomboi named Tommi explained. “After high school I was given my freedom because I promised to protect myself… I can go out at night, like guys do. And I can also sleep wherever I want to, like guys.”
Yet, in some respects, family members didn’t treat tombois like other men. For example, many of them expected their tomboi adult children to do traditionally female chores. One of Blackwood’s interviewees, Dedi, explained that she accepted her mother’s request for her to wash dishes and sweep, but she refused to cook or wash clothes and was happiest when asked to do “male” jobs like repair work and painting.
For some tombois, a more fortunate side of their ambiguously gendered social position was that they were permitted to stay overnight with their girlfriends, something that would not be permitted for other young men.
Most troublingly for tombois, in many cases, their families expected them to fulfill the cultural and religious role of daughters by marrying men and having children.
“Tombois I interviewed understood that their families would be ashamed (malu) if they did not marry, yet most tombois that I knew told me stories about finding ways to put off marriage indefinitely,” Blackwood writes.
Blackwood cites findings from other researchers regarding methods used to circumvent cultural expectations around marriage, such as a calalai—a “female-bodied” masculine nonbinary person—in South Sulawesi, Indonesia—who married a wari—a “male-bodied” person who occupies a female identity—allowing them to maintain their preferred gender roles in the marriage.
Despite the friction caused by questions about marriage, Blackwood found that the tombois unanimously expressed loyalty to their families, on whom they relied for emotional and material support and for a sense of social identities.
“Family is number one,” a tomboi named Danny put it. “You have to protect your relationship to your family.”