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Indonesian trans
woman's asylum case reopened

Indonesian trans
woman's asylum case reopened

Michelle Saraswati, a transsexual woman who was arrested in August in San Francisco and faced immediate deportation to her native Indonesia, has won the right for her asylum case to be reopened, according to a September 20 ruling by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals.

Saraswati, 40, who has been held in the Santa Clara County jail since her arrest, is an architect who came to San Francisco on a temporary work visa that expired 2001. Under the name Michael Setiabudi she then applied for asylum based on the violence and persecution she faced as an effeminate gay man. The application and subsequent appeal were both denied by the Board of Immigration, and Seitabudi decided to stay in the United States.

In the interim, according to a sworn statement, Seitabudi "started thinking more about the fact that I have always identified as a very feminine person. I also started to realize that I was actually not very attracted to gay men or comfortable in gay male relationships, and found myself much more attracted to heterosexual men." She medically and legally transitioned to Michelle Saraswati under the guidance of the Tom Waddell Clinic beginning in 2005.

As her original asylum case was based on sexual orientation, Saraswati's only hope for reopening her case was to argue that her situation had changed drastically as a transsexual woman.

"It is a traditional asylum case, but with unusual facts," said Saraswati's attorney Zach Nightingale. "It's not true to say that transgender asylum is legally novel, but we do need to make a case to the judge and explain why transgender people in Indonesia really have reason to be afraid. The case isn't over by any means. There is a role for transgender women in Indonesia, which makes this case factually interesting, but that doesn't mean a professional educated architect can function in her normal life there."

Although transsexuals do have a role in Indonesian society (known as warias), they are limited to jobs in the entertainment or service sectors, usually as hairdressers and prostitutes.

"I saw Muslim men hit the warias and throw rocks at them," Saraswati told The Bay Area Reporter. "I also saw how common it was for the men to sexually assault the warias by grabbing at their bodies without their consent. It is widely believed that there is nothing wrong with men grabbing a waria's body. If I am forced to go back, I know that I will be treated as the other warias are--beaten and sexually assaulted with no one to protect me." Saraswati is also Catholic, which makes her an even more vulnerable target in the predominantly Muslim country.

Concerned friends and allies have been responsible for most of Saraswati's legal fees, and those interested in contributing or finding out further information can send an e-mail to (The Advocate)

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