On the Front Line with Indonesia's Transgender Community

On the Front Line with Indonesia's Transgender Community
Credit: AP Photo/Irwin Fedriansyiah
What you need to know

Amid an increasingly conservative national mood, Indonesia's transgender community is once again on the front line in the battle against intolerance.

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One of the gems of being a reporter in Indonesia is that it’s relatively easy to interview interesting and high-profile people. The first time I met President Joko Widodo was at his residence while he was governor of Jakarta.

Back then he was bicycling to work every Friday in a quixotic attempt to prod Jakartans out of their cars. In the run up to his presidential bid he was also taking the opportunity to reach out to reporters. Shortly after 7 a.m., once he’d emerged from his official residence – mercifully not clad in cycling spandex – I asked whether I could have a few words with him once he arrived at City Hall. His answer summed up his attitudes to a lot of things back then: “Why not?”

Imagine my surprise then when I sat down to interview Mama Yuli – a self-styled leader of transgendered women, or waria, as they are known here – only to be told in no uncertain terms that there would be no interview unless I paid for it.

Back in 2010, Yuli built a tiny three-bedroom house outside Jakarta to act as a shelter for elderly transgendered women with nowhere to go. Nine were living there when I visited, and many more would pass beneath its leaky roof and make use of its broken toilet.

Of course, everyone needed money. I was making money from the story. The publisher would as well. Why shouldn’t my interviewee and her charges get a cut?

“Those are the rules,” she told me plainly, staring back from behind her imposing 180 cm frame and long black hair, before returning her attention to her phone. After some skilled negotiating on behalf of my colleague, Imam, she relented on the proviso I gather donations later (a promise I kept).

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Credit: Jeffrey Hutton
Mama Yuli (far left) presides over her charges, including the author (second from right).

Earlier this week, my thoughts turned to Yuli again when North Aceh Police, led by Chief Untung Sangaji, rounded up and bullied 12 waria in a bid to toughen them up and unveil their manliness.

In Aceh, the only part of Indonesia allowed to enforce Sharia law, homosexuality is a criminal offense punishable by caning, but amid an increasingly conservative national mood, authorities are turning their attention to transgender targets. The swoop on the waria, who were at work in salons, reportedly had the backing of local Islamic leaders.

As I took in the news, I suspected chief Sangagi would meet his match in Mama Yuli.

Born Yullianus Rettoblaut, in a village in Papau, the largest and eastern most province of Indonesia’s sprawling archipelago, the 54-year-old is thought to be the first openly identified waria to graduate from university.

That high point came after some 17 years of living on the street begging and turning tricks. She may or may not have stabbed a man to death, having once confessed to doing so to a BBC reporter before retracting the claim.

In any case, she’s plenty tough. She and her sisters have to be because, while anti-LGBT hysteria has ramped-up over the past two years, it’s the waria who are the most vulnerable.

The Aceh detentions – and the “coaching” in manliness that came with it – aimed to stem the spread of “disease”, according to Sangali. In his defense, while melodramatic and shrill, his reasoning is not altogether different from the justifications given by police in Jakarta and Surabaya following the 200 or so arrests of gay men last year. In these cases, usually raids of gay saunas and hotel rooms, community morals were deemed under threat.

What’s different this time is that the police weren’t busting up a gay orgy – which, frankly, is an icky image for most people anywhere. Instead, these were people cutting hair in their own places of business. Once again, transgendered women are on the front line as hysteria ratchets up.

While the gays and bisexuals and lesbians can more or less linger in the closet, the transgendered don’t have that luxury.

When the chips are down, the gays are gone. – Mama Yuli

For Mama Yuli, this division underscores separatist notions. She scoffs at any notion of LGBT solidarity because in her experience, when the chips are down, the gays are gone. The trannies are the only ones left – fighting for their lives, all on their own.

“I do not believe in LGBT,” she tells me in English, her contempt for my own homosexuality palpable.

“I only believe in T.”

She has a point. I wrote a piece in The New York Times about one of the defendants of the arrests at gay saunas in Jakarta last year. His name was Stephen Handoko. He was sentenced to more than two years in prison.

In the weeks of conversations with him in preparation for that article late last year, Handoko told me of the derisive comments he saw on Twitter immediately following his arrest last May suggesting he and the others were foolish for getting caught.

More than 140 guys were rounded up by police in that raid on the now closed Atlantis Gym in north Jakarta, which was located in a red-light district with dozens of massage parlors for straight men. Despite the overwhelming hypocrisy there were no protests.

“There is no solidarity here,” Steven told me.

Mama Yuli blames the current hysteria on the adoption of same-sex marriage abroad, particularly in the U.S., and more recently close to home in Australia. This fanned the country’s latent xenophobia and now the country’s conservatives are circling the wagons.

Mama Yuli believes that “the gays jumped too high.”

The national mood toward gay and lesbian Indonesians, which was already sour, is becoming increasingly toxic. Parliament is considering draft legislation to ban all sex outside of marriage. It’s thought the true target for such a draconian measure is same sex couples since they have no right to marry here. A poll late last month showed nearly 90 percent of Indonesians said they felt threatened by their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered countrymen.

Mama Yuli hopes grit and solidarity among the waria will help see them through. But there is only so much they can do. There’s no denying the fact that life has changed. Residents of her shelter tone down their appearance. During my visit they were dressed in men’s clothing with muted make up.

“Previously we could go around in our costumes but we can’t anymore,” Mama Yuli says.

“The situation is dangerous if we fight back.”

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Editor: David Green