A Black American woman who moved to Bali, Indonesia, last year is facing deportation and intense backlash after promoting the sale of an e-book she wrote with her girlfriend to help others move to the country during the pandemic.
Kristen Gray and her girlfriend, Saundra, had been living in Bali, an island in the Southeast Asian country with a large tourism industry, for more than a year as "digital nomads." Gray, a graphic designer, was prominent on TikTok and Instagram, sharing videos and photos of their lifestyle in Bali.
It wasn't until a Twitter thread she posted Saturday about her experience in Bali, while promoting the sale of the couple's e-book, Our Bali Life Is Yours, that backlash started brewing.
"After getting rejected for jobs and living off savings trying to make my business pop, my girlfriend and I decided to book one-way flights to Bali, Indonesia," she wrote in the now-deleted thread. "This island has been amazing because of our elevated lifestyle at a much lower cost of living."
"In March, when the pandemic hit and our 6-month plan went out the window, we decided to stay in Bali to 'wait it out' and we've been here ever since," Gray wrote, adding a list of "major benefits of moving to Bali" that included "Luxury Lifestyle" and "Queer Friendly."
Their e-book, which sold for $30, included "direct links to our visa agents and how to get into Indonesia during COVID," she wrote.
The thread sparked massive outrage among Indonesians and the wider Southeast Asian community. They said Gray was encouraging an influx of Westerners to travel to a country that has closed its borders to foreigners over the worsening COVID-19 situation.
Gray (whose social media accounts have been removed) and her girlfriend could not be reached by BuzzFeed News. The Bali office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Bali is a major tourist attraction for many Americans, Europeans, and Australians. It is heavily reliant on tourism, but its booming expatriate population has accelerated the gentrification of some neighborhoods, where foreigners build luxury properties and open businesses that cater to tourists and expats. Locals have been steadily priced out of certain parts of the island, and unfettered development is decimating the industries that Balinese people have historically relied on to survive.
It’s unclear if the couple paid any income taxes to the Indonesian government while working in Bali, but Saundra had suggested in a tweet that they were only paying taxes in the US because they were earning US dollars.
As OneZero reported last year, many foreigners work and stay in Bali on a tourist visa to avoid paying income taxes to the Indonesian government. The law requires those who want to work to obtain an official permit, but many who work remotely maintain tourist or other temporary visas against the government’s requirements, and earn foreign currency that they declare in their home country.
Indonesia, which has recorded the most COVID-19 cases in the region to date, is also experiencing a surge in cases right now. Westerners in Bali account for a large share of COVID safety violations, and a local media outlet reported that officials have said foreigners flout safety guidelines because they can afford to pay the Rp 100,000 ($7) fine.
Gray's characterization of Bali as a queer-friendly place also led to criticism from the queer community in Indonesia, where lawmakers have championed legislation to force "conversion therapy" onto LBGTQ people, police conduct raids on gay parties, and transgender women face deadly, targeted violence.
This isn't exactly a straightforward case of a couple of Westerners moving to a developing country and the complications that come with it. Racism and anti-Blackness are very much present in Southeast Asia, as seen in the historical, violent marginalization of Papuans in Indonesia and the discrimination against African students in Malaysia.
Many who have defended Gray say she is facing this level of criticism because she is a Black woman, and the responses to Indonesians calling out Gray have also been inundated with racist and xenophobic insults. Others have pointed to outrage over incidents involving white and other non-Black tourists.
In a statement announcing Gray's deportation on Tuesday, the Indonesian government said that she had extended her visa in December, and it was due to expire on Jan. 24.
Her remarks about Bali being queer-friendly and her attempt to encourage people to travel to the country during the pandemic were unsettling to the public, the government said. She also conducted business through selling her e-book and offering consultations for moving to Bali, which authorities said was against the law.
Gray briefly addressed reporters on Tuesday to say that she was being deported because of her comment about the LGBTQ community.
"I am not guilty, I have not overstayed my visa. I have not made money in Indonesian rupiah in Indonesia," she said. "I put out a statement about LGBT and I'm being deported because of LGBT."