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Way of the waria

Indonesia's transsexual community has long lived in the shadows, but now a few defiant voices are calling for integration, writes Alessandro Ursic. Pictures by Giorgio Taraschi

 

A leafy street cutting into one of Jakarta's wealthiest neighbourhoods, Taman Lawang is only a few blocks south of the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, with its iconic fountain and nearby glitzy malls. Come midnight, however, the dimly lit road belongs to young beauties in stilettos with names such as Tiara, Marsha and Venus. Drivers - potential clients - pull over to look appraisingly at these pedestrians; giggling teenagers on scooters seem to be allured by a sense of taboo or erotic possibility. For these sidewalk queens are transgender sex workers, and Taman Lawang has long been their territory.

Prostitution is a common career choice among Indonesia's transsexuals, given the scarcity of alternative work. In the sprawling, predominantly Muslim archipelago of 246 million souls, the vast majority live by fairly moderate adherence to the Koran. But religion has clearly played a part in undermining acceptance of the " waria", a popular word combining the Bahasa Indonesia for woman (" wanita") and man (" pria"). Discrimination in employment is widespread and countless ashamed parents sever bonds with their transgender offspring once they reach adulthood. Many end up sleeping under bridges. Others busk or find jobs at beauty salons or food stalls.

Activists such as "Mami" Joyce are fighting for better integration of the waria, and are taking care of the more vulnerable. In the seedy looking, low-rise alleys behind Taman Lawang, she has recreated something close to a family for 20 fellow transgender sex workers. An imposing 50-year-old, whose buzz cut is concealed by a blond wig every night, Mami Joyce owns this part-brothel, part-commune, run-down apartment whose two floors come alive when its tenants start dolling themselves up for their anticipated customers. The rooms, containing little more than a dusty mattress and a cheap television set, are rented for 400,000 rupiah (HK$300) to 500,000 rupiah a month - the equivalent of three nights' work.

Mami Joyce takes no further cut. What the girls gain, other than proximity to their workplace, is a sense of community.

Aged from 18 to 32, all have witnessed HIV-related deaths; according to a 2007 study, one-third of transgender people in Jakarta have the virus. At Mami Joyce's, talking about Aids reopens old wounds.

"My mission is to instruct my 20 vulnerable children not to repeat the same mistakes," she says, sitting on her leopard-skin-clad bed.

She drills into them the importance of using condoms, a practice many customers want to shun.

Another "Mami" active on the transgender rights front is Yulianus Rettoblaut, a devout Catholic who, in 2008, became the first Indonesian waria to graduate from an Islamic university, after 17 years as a sex worker.

Mami Yuli, as she's known, set up the country's first shelter for elderly transgender people at her house in Depok, on Jakarta's southern outskirts, at the end of last year.

"I've already got 800 people on my waiting list," she says. Running the shelter with her own funds, partially aided by local churches, Mami Yuli dreams of gradually expanding it to host "all of Jakarta's elderly waria".

Among the shelter's eight resident "grannies" - as they're respectfully called by the younger transgender people who drop by - Yoti Oktosea's story illustrates the difficulties waria have traditionally faced. A stocky 69-year-old with drooping eyes and a caring manner, Yoti was disowned by her family at the age of 18. She became a sex worker, then ended up doing various jobs on cargo ships.

"Transgenders have always been a taboo that society didn't want to touch," she says. "Now parents are more accepting and the media have had a positive influence."

There are signs of incremental integration. Until 2011, Indonesia's transsexuals were officially deemed "mentally ill"; now the government provides a small amount of funds to programmes dedicated to them, including Mami Yuli's.

Some waria have become celebrities: Dorce Gamalama, a talk-show host nicknamed the "Indonesian Oprah" was born a man. In 2006, the first Miss Waria pageant was held and, later, a Yogyakarta hairdresser set up an Islamic school for transgender people. Many waria have boyfriends and are often the lovers of married men, many of whose wives are, surprisingly, aware of the situation. Some activists claim the transgender population in Indonesia amounts to seven million. That is an implausible figure, but no less so than the official estimate: 35,000. All agree that there are many more waria now than even a decade ago.

Yet discrimination is still widespread. Transgender sex workers say they are frequently harassed by police preoccupied with defending public morality.

The hardline Front Pembela Islam (FPI; the Islamic Defenders Front) represents perhaps the most vocal opposition to the waria. Epitomising resistance to progressive change, FPI members periodically intimidate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. A man dressed as a woman is haram: forbidden. Powerful friends and the authorities' reluctance to crack down on their excesses have seen the FPI's clout grow.

Since 2009, stick-wielding "Defenders" have forced the shutdown of Miss Waria pageants, of civil-rights training sessions for trans-sexual activists and even a popular LGBT film festival. Fearing trouble, transgender groups have reluctantly curtailed their social and educational events.

Many waria remain practising Muslims - although, as a precautionary measure, they dress as men when praying in mosques - and these religion-based threats make them bitter.

Most, however, shrug them off: "Some of my customers are FPI members," says Intan, a 28-year-old sex worker, with a wink, as she sips coffee at Mami Yuli's shelter.

A transgender friend, Darni, a singing hawker, even has a boyfriend who recently joined the FPI, says Intan. Everything is going well between them, she explains; he regularly updates her on FPI activities. But the fear of being stigmatised haunts her pious lover and he keeps their relationship a secret from his fellow hardliners.

 

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