Indonesian market

Image credit: craftivist collective

Three lithe young women frolic around in short nightdresses. Smoking cigarettes, they’re slowly getting drunk from a bag of potent local wine. I’m in Kemang, a wealthy district of South Jakarta – home to flashy bars, beer-swilling expats and cashed up locals. But here in the backstreets, rats scurry around heaps of rubbish and decaying bajaj rickshaws in front of a crumbling tenement block.

In this small, shared room on the ground floor, I watch 20-somethings Hera, Betty and Rika get ready to work on the streets as prostitutes. Wigs are primed and coiffed, heels strapped on and tight dresses slipped into. A group of other women from the community of current or former prostitutes, sober and chatting, spill out of the room and onto the gravel below. The older ones have deep and tired lines on their faces. The etchings are a reminder that for many of them, life has not been easy.

None of the dozen or so women gathered here were born, biologically, as women. Nor are they officially recognised as women by the Indonesian government. They are part of Indonesia’s vibrant transgender community, estimated to number 32,000, though Dede Oetomo, founder of Indonesia’s first LGBT rights organisation, Gaya Nusantara, tells me that most activists say the real number is far higher (closer, in fact, to seven million). In society, they are known as waria, a portmanteau of the Indonesian word for woman (wanita) and man (pria).

As a young man and a foreigner, I should perhaps feel a little out of place here. But after two weeks investigating the waria community, I feel relaxed and comfortable in this environment. I’m in Jakarta on a university journalism exchange program and have been placed in the Agence France-Presse newsroom for six weeks. I have been chasing a story about a shelter for elderly waria, but in recent days I’ve become intrigued by the wider community. I’m struggling to understand how they seem to be simultaneously accepted and outcast in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

*   *   *

Many waria live outside mainstream Indonesian society, due to discrimination in formal employment. Oetomo says they can find work at ‘lower levels’ – in food stalls, beauty salons and in the entertainment world – but many also work as prostitutes or buskers to make ends meet.

Many of the dozens of waria and activists that I spoke to described harassment from the local police. Although prostitution is legal, Indonesia’s culture of enforced public morality often sees crimes against decency laws used against sex workers. Waria sex workers complain of being blamed by authorities during disputes with clients, of being forced to pay bribes, and, at times, having to perform sexual favours to buy release from police custody.

Waria must also deal with periodic intimidation from hardline Islamic groups, who are taking advantage of growing sectarian tensions in the archipelago to push their interpretations of Islamic law into the mainstream. Last December, the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) violently forced the shutdown of the Miss Waria pageant, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for the organisers. In contrast to the police, who are publicly expected to respect waria as Indonesian citizens, the radical FPI actively court publicity for their war on perceived immorality. The waria community also faces tragically high rates of HIV, as high as 34 per cent in Jakarta alone, according to a 2007 study.

Despite all this, waria have a centuries-old position in Indonesian society that adds to the ambiguity of their status. The Bugis people of South Sulawesi have traditionally recognised waria, who as a social group have been integral to Indonesian society for far longer than homosexuals. The Indonesian equivalent of Oprah Winfrey is a waria, Barack Obama’s childhood nanny was one, while thousands of waria are trusted with the hair and make-up of Indonesian brides every year.

Waria live openly in Indonesia and, as noted by journalist Aubrey Belford, are generally ‘more an object of ridicule than scorn’. And as Tom Boellstorff asserts in his book The Gay Archipelago, waria identity is one of few national phenomena in an incredibly diverse land. They are found across the country, from rural Papua to sharia-administered Aceh.

Yet that is not to say an ordinary Indonesian would be openly proud of their child being a waria. They are greeted more with a grudging acceptance in most quarters, equally mocked and accepted, and personifying what it means to straddle the complex and ever-changing boundaries that define this diverse nation of nearly 250 million people.

*   *   *

‘You can look into my eyes, you can look at my legs and you can see that I am a woman,’ says Hera, staring defiantly into my eyes through her emerald green contact lenses before bursting into high-pitched laughter. The most bold and playful of the group, she pulls a wad of condoms out of her purse. ‘Gratis!’ she exclaims. They were given to her by an NGO.

Almost all waria still have male genitalia, though many have breast enlargement injections or undergo hormone therapy. They dress and make themselves up as women and thus fill an interesting void in the surprisingly liberal sexual appetites of Indonesians. Most clients see them as women, which is also how waria see themselves. They have boyfriends, long-term partners, or are lovers of married men.

Tonight Betty, Hera and Rika will spend the night working a posh, tree-lined residential boulevard, home to the whitewashed villas of Indonesia’s elite. While still passing the bag of wine between them, the girls will approach tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, noodle vendors, the passengers of chauffeured SUVs and pretty much any man that enters the area. The sexual transaction usually occurs in thick bushes, away from the streetlight glare, and the price can be as low as a few dollars.

Sitting quietly on the sidelines and watching the girls with a mothering eye is Yulianus Rettoblaut. In an olive-green suit and pink shirt, with dark red lipstick and her black hair pulled tightly into a bun, Yulianus is all business.

After 17 years on the streets as a sex worker, Mummy Yuli – as she is known – has become a leading LGBT activist who is trying to drive change in the waria community.

‘I need to be an example of how to be a good waria,’ the 54-year-old tells me during an afternoon meeting at a local LGBT rights organisation.

‘But this is not an easy task, like turning the palm of your hand. It is a long process to change your life…you have to make many sacrifices.’

Mummy Yuli’s darker skin betrays non-Javanese roots. She was born in a remote village in Papua, a tough place to grow up if you are an adolescent grappling with your gender identity, she says.

The first indication that she was different came at age 10, when she used to play with girls’ toys and dress up in her mother’s clothes when no one was around. Sent away to an all-boys Catholic boarding school in her early teens, the effeminate teenager’s first sexual experiences took place with the other adolescent schoolboys. She now recognises what occurred there as rape, something she didn’t understand at the time, she tells me.

‘I didn’t understand the world then. I thought that the way I felt was a disease and I never spoke about what happened to anyone else.’

At 16, she encountered waria for the first time at a relative’s house – a revelation that she wasn’t ready for. Influenced by her religious parents, she sought advice from the local church.

‘The father said I had to pray a lot and have faith in my heart that we were created by God as men,’ she says.

Still a devout Catholic today, this is a belief Mummy Yuli continues to hold true.

Self-described as ‘men with the souls of women’, many religious waria like Yuli will not undergo a sex change operation as they believe they were physically born as men under God and should die that way, despite identifying as women. The Indonesian government allows waria to legally change their gender if they undergo reassignment surgery, but even without the religious barriers the costs of doing so are prohibitive for most.

At 18, Yuli’s real awakening occurred when she moved to Jakarta for university and a friend took her to Taman Lawang – a notorious and colourful waria beat in the centre of the city. ‘He told me that we have a world. This is our world,’ she says.

Intoxicated by the comparatively thriving and liberal waria life available in the capital, she began dressing as a woman and working as a prostitute, quitting her studies in the process. At that point, her relationship with her parents quickly disintegrated. ‘When they discovered I had quit my studies and started dressing as a woman, they disowned me. They decided that I was no longer their son.’

Seventeen years as a sex worker followed, until under the guidance of the church, she began training to be a rights activist in 1997.

‘I realised I wasn’t pretty anymore,’ she tells me. ‘I was getting too old for sex work.’

With the highest education among a community of sex workers, the pastor asked Yuli to handle some transgender rights cases – the catalyst for a career in activism that continues today. From there she went back to university to study law, becoming the first ‘out’ waria to graduate from an Islamic university at the age of 46.

Her parents had passed away by then but her policeman brother – who, blaming her for their mother’s death, had once stripped her naked, shaved her hair and put a gun to her head – attended her graduation.

‘Previously all my relatives said I was just a worthless street hooker, they never respected or accepted me. But my brother came and told me at my graduation, “Now that I can see you have become somebody helpful and a leader in society, I can accept you.” We were all crying,’ she says.

*   *   *

Romo Mardi is a kind and soft-spoken Catholic priest at Jakarta’s Saint Stefanus church. Each week he sits in the pews with Yuli. Usually cheeky and forthright, she listens calmly and seriously, clearly cherishing the advice dispensed by this holy man.

Yuli and Romo

Yuli and Romo Mardi

It is an opportunity to let someone else take the lead. She acquired the Mummy Yuli moniker in her 20s, becoming known for taking care of vulnerable younger waria when she had not long ceased to be one herself. Since then, she has settled into the role of mothering hen in the community, making sure the younger ones stay out of trouble and encouraging them to learn skills in order to leave prostitution. Tellingly, drugs and alcohol are hidden when she is around, and if harassed in Taman Lawang the mere mention of her name elicits sincere apologies from streetwalking waria.

The Catholic Church and transgenders may seem an unlikely union but here, in typically Indonesian style, the relationship is surprisingly strong. ‘I offer spiritual guidance,’ Pastor Mardi tells me, ‘whatever we can do for them, we try to support them…especially for spirituality and for their every day needs.’

A group of Sunday school kids and altar boys hurry past, paying no attention to the 5-foot-10 waria that is chatting intimately with their priest. ‘Their presence is accepted as a reality. We cannot banish them and make them undeveloped as a person because they are waria,’ he says.

Unfortunately, not all houses of worship are as accepting as Pastor Mardi’s. Most waria, like most Indonesians, are Islamic and want the freedom to follow their religion. In general, waria can pray in mosques if they dress as men but the Indonesian Council of Ulema, the guiding body for Indonesian Muslims, does not recognise that a so-called ‘third gender’ exists.

There are bright spots though – in 2008, a unique Islamic school especially for waria opened in the backstreets of Yogyakarta, offering a safe place to pray and study the Koran with the guidance of religious teachers.

As Yuli kneels at the grotto of mother Mary and solemnly makes the sign of the cross, Romo looks on. ‘Waria like Mummy Yuli and her friends who are educated and making change will be seen by other people and other communities. They will see them developing well and slowly accept them,’ he says.

*   *   *

Back on the street, the girls are having a tough time finding a client and the third bag of wine is almost empty. Betty totters in front of a car, putting her hand out and waving seductively. It speeds past and she curses after it. It is close to 1am and the street is empty. The girls sit down on the footpath under a lamp, their four-inch high heels lined up on the gravel in different colours. They say three out of 10 men don’t pay. But tonight no one comes at all.

Kevin Ponniah is a journalist whom has recently moved from Melbourne to South-East Asia. He is currently based in Cambodia after spending two months in Indonesia with Agence France-Presse. His work has been published in The Age, The Jakarta Globe, The Phnom Penh Post, Crikey, ABC Radio Australia, The Diplomat, New Matilda and others.