January 27, 2022
JAKARTA – As an outlier in the country’s medical field, the general practitioner tries to make the most of her unique position to help others in need.
At just 27 years of age, Alegra Wolter is already a rarity among Indonesia’s medical workers.
Having obtained her doctorate in medicine from Atma Jaya Catholic University in 2018, Alegra currently works as the partnership manager of Docquity Indonesia, a start-up focusing on medical network and education. She is also a general practitioner at Angsamerah Clinic in Jakarta, which focuses on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, as well as being an activist at rights advocacy group Suara Kita.
Aware that many LGBT individuals in Indonesia experience challenges when it comes to health care, the general practitioner last week decided to publicly come out as a trans woman in a mass media outlet. While she had always been open prior to that, Alegra maintained that with her making it public, she hoped to raise the issue of harmful gender practices in the country.
“I haven’t seen someone openly trans woman working in the medical field. I’m sure there [are others] but sometimes [trans people] choose not to transition or choose not to disclose their identity. And that is okay,” Alegra told The Jakarta Post.
By doing so, Alegra has established herself as the first openly trans woman doctor in Indonesia. It was an action that required plenty of courage and a preparedness for vocal opposition. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, stigma and hostility toward sexual and gender minorities has steadily risen over the past few years.
Among other forms of harassment in February of last year, several LGBT activists received an anonymous message encouraging them to “repent to God” with a link to a website offering conversion therapy.
“Sometimes people use [the term] ‘mental disorder’ as a form of attack against [LGBT individuals]. [They label us as] ‘mentally ill’ and say that we need to be treated,” said Alegra, adding that so-called “conversion therapy” in any form is already banned by the World Health Organization.
Alegra added that she felt “tremendously privileged” as she is now able to educate more and more people about the importance of providing better healthcare support especially for LGBT individuals—like herself.
“I’m very passionate about mental health because I grew up with a lot of mental health challenges as well. I don’t feel like I received enough of the support that I was supposed to get from professionals I met in the past,” she said.
For Alegra, the decision to pursue a career in medicine came naturally back in high school.
“It sounds cliché but I really wanted to help other people,” said Alegra, adding that she hopes to provide the type of comfort that she herself searched for during her darkest days in the past.
Alegra attended Canisius College, a private Catholic secondary school for boys in Menteng, Central Jakarta. While Alegra had yet to fully realize her identity then, being in an all-boy school exacerbated the depression that she suffered since childhood.
“I learned a lot through high school. There was some bullying but I managed to get through,” she said, reminiscing that she focused on her studies while praying to God for strength.
She credited her teachers, mentors and supportive friends who helped her overcome challenges in school.
As Alegra was close to graduating from high school, a senior who already graduated and became a doctor returned one day to give a career presentation. For her, it was the moment when she felt inspired to become a doctor herself.
“I had the chance to see the perspectives of a doctor’s life,” she said, adding that she had always enjoyed psychological thriller movies because of her interests in understanding the human mind.
After graduating from Canisius College magna cum laude, Alegra began pursuing education in medicine by attending Atma Jaya Catholic University.
In her second year, Alegra attended a class taught by a lecturer who was also a psychiatrist. The lecturer mentioned a senior of Alegra’s who had become an outcast among their peers for having a different gender expression.
“I thought to myself that I can definitely talk to this particular lecturer,” said Alegra.
Following a session with the lecturer/psychiatrist, Alegra came to realize her identity as a woman, which resulted in some repressed memories resurfacing.
While she felt overwhelmed at first following the realization, Alegra resolved to study as many journals as possible about transgender issues and health before deciding to transition.
At first, there were people who suggested she wait until she graduated from university before transitioning. For Alegra, however, it was a matter of life or death.
“At the time, it was either pursuing myself as a woman or ending my life,” she said.
Ultimately, Alegra stuck to her guns and avoided negative comments from people who did not support her. Slowly but surely, Alegra began transitioning and, in addition to finding herself, she also transformed herself into a better doctor.
Her background as a trans woman and a general practitioner who is passionate about mental health issues allows Alegra to be a doctor who uses her empathy in approaching her patients.
“My role as a doctor became clearer after the education and the transition processes,” she said.
‘Pay it forward’
Alegra conceded that while she is currently the sole openly trans woman in the country’s medical field, at the end of the day, her voice alone is not enough.
“We need to amplify more love and more support toward each other,” she said, admitting that Indonesia’s medical sector in general is still quite conservative.
Still, Alegra wants to continue her work in ensuring that the younger generations, especially LGBT individuals, will receive better healthcare support both mentally and physically.
“After attending medical school, I really felt that there was a gap. We all should have the capacity and the awareness on how to treat [LGBT individuals] in a respectful and meaningful way,” she said.
“Sometimes a lot of Indonesians including [medical] professionals do not understand the differences between sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and also sex characteristics,” she added.
One of Alegra’s patients, Dwi, 35, who prefers to use his first name only, said that he first met Alegra at a sexual health clinic where the latter worked as a counselor.
Before meeting Alegra, Dwi experienced panic attacks from time to time but he preferred to sweep it under the carpet.
“I convinced myself that these attacks would go away by themselves,” said Dwi, adding that Alegra gave him a safe space with her open-mindedness.
In a one-hour counseling session with Alegra, Dwi revealed that he had suffered panic attacks since his high school days. In addition, he had only accepted himself as a gay person in the past three years.
“[She’s] friendly, smart and focuses on solutions. She was the one who encouraged me to seek further help to tackle my anxiety. I did what she suggested and my life has never been better,” Dwi said.