Monday, September 24, 2007

The Waria of Indonesia

Islam, and to a lesser extent Catholicism, are two religions that may be influential in the lives of these transgendered people.

Defining waria

Indonesia’s transgendered community is raising its profile.

Irfan Kortschak

Popular stereotype: the waria hair salon worker
Irfan Kortschak

Before she even opens her mouth, the petite, jilbab-wearing and refined looking Shuniyya Ruhama Habiiballah has already gone a long way towards achieving one of her driving missions in life: to challenge the dominant stereotype of Indonesia’s large transgendered community, who describe themselves as waria, a term for transgendered people derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man).

As Shuniyya says in her softly spoken, decidedly feminine voice: ‘People see the waria as sex workers on the side of the streets at night, dressed in mini-skirts, with silicone-inflated breasts as large as watermelons. They see the show business drag queens who perform on stage and on television. They see these waria and think that they know what a waria is. They don’t. The waria they see are just the most obvious and easy to identify, and the ones the straight community are most likely to meet.’

Shuniyya is uncomfortable with many of the current definitions of the term ‘waria’, simply because these definitions are not sufficiently inclusive. For example, she disputes well-known gay activist Dede Oetomo’s definition of waria as men who imitate women in their clothing styles or mannerisms ‘while retaining a masculine identity’. She says that while this may be true for some, a significant proportion would strongly disagree that they consider themselves to be men.

‘The waria community is very diverse,’ Shuniyya declares. ‘It includes individuals who continue to identify as male but who imitate certain feminine mannerisms, and perhaps occasionally wear makeup and women’s clothing. Others identify so closely as female that they are able to pass as female in their daily interactions in society. As waria, these individuals become almost invisible.’

Shuniyya is strident in her dismissal of the stereotyped image of the waria as a flamboyant cross-dressing sex-worker living on the fringes of society. ‘Many waria come from middle class backgrounds and have a high level of educational attainment. Many hold respectable positions in established companies. There are waria who work as designers, psychologists and sociologists. The image that all waria are sex workers or employees of hair salons is simply a myth,’ she says. ‘In the end, only a waria knows what it means to be a waria. We have to define ourselves.’

Finalists ‘under quarantine’ in Jakarta
Irfan Kortschak

However, Shuniyya does acknowledge that social prejudice and discrimination mean that waria often find themselves with limited work options. Very many work in the beauty and cosmetics, entertainment and fashion industries, or in the NGO sector, particularly in NGOs dealing with gender issues. Describing her own employment at a foundation dealing with transgender issues, she says: ‘Looking at me, no-one would guess that I’m not a woman.’ However that does not mean that she has a woman’s freedom to choose her field of employment.

This is because while her identity card (KTP) shows her to be female, other official documents like her birth certificate and academic transcript identify her as male. Legally, there is no precedent for a transgendered individual, including post-operative transsexuals, to alter the gender that that they are identified with at birth. Thus, when applying for almost any form of formal employment or going through any other formal process at which a full range of personal documentation is required, a waria cannot pass as female.

HIV/AIDS education
Irfan Kortschak

Given social attitudes, this bureaucratic hitch is often a critical impediment to obtaining a job. It explains why Shuniyya’s examples of waria who hold respected professional positions seem to be the exceptions, rather than the rule. She seems reluctant to admit that in the face of this strong social prejudice, employment options are limited, and a significant proportion of waria do, in fact, at least occasionally engage in sex work.

The Miss Waria Indonesia pageant

Shuniyya herself is employed at the Yayasan Putri Waria Indonesia, an institute founded by former waria beauty queen Megie Megawatie to keep the Miss Waria Indonesia pageant running as an annual event. From these roots, it is now also involved in a range of other activities, including those related to sexual health education, employment creation, anti-discrimination, and advocacy.

In fact, according to the distinctly glamorous Megie Megawatie, the Miss Waria Indonesia pageant is itself a powerful means of achieving all of these aims. ‘First and foremost, the idea of the pageant is to challenge the stereotype of the waria, not only amongst the broader community, but amongst the waria community itself. We want to demonstrate to the public that we are capable of staging a spectacular, high-profile event in which waria can show the world that they have a diverse range of talents, skills and assets.’

‘We want to demonstrate that waria are an important, integral part of the Indonesian community,’ she says. ‘But perhaps even more importantly, we want to provide members of our own community who may not be secure in their identity with role models. We want them to know that they, too, can be accepted, valued members of society.’

A number of events staged at the pageant are clearly intended to demonstrate that the acceptance of waria into Indonesian society is part of established tradition. In 2006, performances by guest stars included a traditional performance by a troupe of bissu, the group of ritual specialists formerly attached to the royal houses of South Sulawesi, who are often described glibly as ‘transvestite priests’.

Co-opted waria?: bissu from South Sulawesi
Irfan Kortschak
To include bissu in the group described as waria requires a quite extraordinarily inclusive and flexible interpretation of the term. As Sharyn Graham points out (Inside Indonesia No. 66, April-June 2001), while bissu do have certain effeminate mannerisms, they do not engage in cross-dressing, but have their own distinctive clothing. Furthermore, they are not men who identify as female. Rather, they see themselves as transcending gender, identifying neither as male or female, but as ‘a combination of all genders’. However, it is at least true that their existence challenges accepted gender stereotypes, and their association with one of the established high cultural traditions of one of Indonesia’s regions fulfils the purpose of their inclusion in the pageant.

The main event of the pageant, the selection of the year’s reigning Miss Waria, follows the pattern established by standard beauty pageants almost entirely, with the usual parades and talent quests. One finalist is chosen to represent each of Indonesia’s 30 provinces, by committees or representative organisations established in each of those provinces. These committees operate with a considerable degree of autonomy, although they conform loosely to standards established by the central organising committee. . . .

Transgendered in Malang

The waria community in this East Javanese city are out in the open, but misunderstanding and prejudice are still widespread.

Kim Heriot-Darragh

Ibu Siama at volleyball match
Ibu Siama at the volleyball match
Kim Heriot-Darragh

Jumping off a motorcycle in a kampung not far from Malang’s Gajayana train station, I asked some men where I could find Ibu Siama. She had insisted that anyone in this part of town could direct me. My question, however, was met with bemused expressions as the cluster of men tried to deduce just who Ibu Siama might be. Eventually, a look of realisation dawned on one man’s face. He broke into a smile and laughed. His friends were laughing too. ‘Oh, you mean Pak Saleh. He’s over here…’

The confusion arose because I was looking for an 82 year old male to female transgendered person – reputedly, the oldest waria in East Java. The men’s reaction was a good illustration of the position of the transgendered community in Malang: Ibu Siama was not treated maliciously, but she was not taken altogether seriously either.

Conflicting perceptions

While living in Malang in 2006, I encountered a number of waria who varied greatly in their perceptions of themselves, the transgendered community, and the extent to which they felt they were accepted in society. Some looked like men in drag; a couple of others betrayed no indication that they were anything other than women. Some saw themselves as ‘real women’ in a man’s body. Others understood themselves to be a third gender, neither male nor female. I also knew one waria who perceived himself to be fundamentally male: he liked to dress and act as a woman, but ultimately he would die and be buried a man. Though I knew some who sported impressive breasts, I never knowingly met any waria who had undergone a sex-change operation.

In the wider community, perceptions were similarly mixed. Many people are unaccustomed to using the word ‘waria’ to describe transgendered people. More often they use offensive terms like ‘banci’ and ‘bencong’. A neighbour of mine was quick to use the English word ‘faggot’ when he learned of my interest in the local waria community. A number of people were unaware of differences between homosexuals and waria: several times during research work I was introduced to baffled homosexual men.

Waria in society

Despite this confusion about who they really are, waria are certainly an identifiable presence in Malang. No one seems to have heard of any incidences of violence directed at them, even though expressions of hostility against waria are sometimes reported from other cities. Local political parties are aware of the issue of waria (as well as gay) rights. One occasionally hears stories of waria entering mosques dressed as women, and there are a small number of Christian waria who say they have never felt estranged from their religious communities. The majority of waria I knew claimed to have solid relations with their family.

Every few years the Malang city government has offered employment training programs in which waria participants are trained and financially assisted to establish beauty salons (part of an effort to dissuade them from engaging in prostitution). When I enquired in 2006, the Malang city government’s Social Affairs Division told me the last program was held in 2005 and had enrolled 25 participants.

Famous waria enjoy an extensive public profile as entertainers and talk-show hosts. Similarly, Miss Waria Indonesia 2006 Merlyn Sopjan captured considerable public attention, particularly in her hometown of Malang. All copies of her second book, Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman without a Vagina), had apparently sold out by the time of its launch in Malang. Arriving for the launch (broadcast live on a talk-show from the Malang town library), I was surprised by the size and diversity of the audience. The room was packed with university students, waria, and young women wearing jilbab. . . .

POV, Critique, Opinion: Where is our culture?

22 September 2007

Yesterday, I had an experience that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since. I was outside for a few minutes, and a kid, probably about eleven or twelve, pedaled by on his bicycle. He kept looking over his shoulder at me, and then quickly rode away. Just as I was going back inside, the kid came back around the block. As I was closing the door behind me, I heard a young voice say excitedly “I saw the homo! I saw the homo!”.

Yeah, fun times. Not that I actually care what a twelve-year-old and his friend think of me, but it is interesting nonetheless. I’ve apparently become something of a neighborhood attraction. I suppose this really shouldn’t surprise me. I go outside in all manner of gendered presentation, full makeup, no makeup, boobs, no boobs. Of course, I don’t actually go anywhere unless I’m properly put together, but I’m not going to bother just to walk to the mailbox or get something from my car. This particular time I was in full makeup, hair done, but I’d changed out of what I was wearing…all of it, including most of my bust…and was wearing sweat pants and a Josie and the Pussycats t-shirt. Oh and of course, my nails are done. In other words, I was looking about as totally genderqueer as I get. It’s a look I’m perfectly comfortable in at home or around certain close friends and family, but it’s not really something I do intentionally, by actually going for that look (anymore).

What’s most interesting to me about this is not that these kids think I’m a sideshow attraction, but that they think it’s because I’m homosexual. I resist the temptation to label this kid a bigot because I doubt he’s old enough to have any real understanding of what a “homo” actually is. Hell, he might turn out to be one himself in just a few short years. And yet, even though the ignorance of a child is surely not a reliable guide in such things, I find myself wondering if that’s part of the problem, that for the most part, despite all the political progress we’ve made recently, we’re still essentially socially and culturally invisible as transpeople in mainstream society.

I’m not talking politics here, not really. What I’m starting to wonder is if transpeople are perceived as joined at the hip with gays and lesbians because we want to be. That begs the question, of course, DO we want to be? Of course, it makes sense politically, but where is the culture that belongs to transpeople alone? Can we even say we really have one?

There are many aspects of gay and lesbian culture, especially those involving sex and romance, where transpeople often find themselves welcome to be present but not participate, or are simply excluded from. Where are the corresponding trans-exclusive spaces? They are out there, but you’ll have to search them out, and of course, that’s assuming you have a trans community in your area which cares enough to create one.

A few years ago, I co-founded a weekly trans group rap at my local Pride Center. We got a few people the first few meetings, and then…nothing. No one. After a few more, we gave up. As far as I know, the one and only trans group that still meets at the Center is the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey (GRAANJ), the political advocacy group.

There’s more to life than politics, despite how it probably feels to a lot of us sometimes. It’s wonderful that we share so many cultural spaces with gay and lesbian people. In many ways, it’s an excellent model of how other differences, such as race and ethnicity, can be all but ignored within the greater context of a community, even as many in that community will tend to divide up along gender lines socially. The problem comes in when you try to fit unconventionally-gendered people into gender-specific spaces. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it works for some but not for others.

Those of us who create media can help in that, but our impact goes only so far. We can give people a place to come together and to speak to each other through the media we create, but there’s always a buffer there, the media we use in which to get our message out. Some media, like talk radio, is personal, community-oriented, and very interactive. Other media, like the Internet or print media, is less or non-interactive but still helps tour community connect to each other. We can speak to and speak with our community on the grand, worldwide scale far more efficiently than we’re able to face-to-face, person-to-person.

Gays and lesbians generally don’t have this problem, or at least, not to the extent we transfolks do. Think fast: How many local gay bars or clubs can you name? Now, how many lesbian bars? And how many tranny bars?

I used to know of two tranny bars in Manhattan, but one got shut down during the Giuliani Administration. The other, Edelweiss, I believe is still around…and that’s it, as far I know, for the entire City of New York. Nothing in Jersey, except for a club I knew of in Atlantic City twenty-five years ago, nothing in Philly. Even the Pride Centers of these cities don’t offer a whole lot for us.

Where is transgender culture?

For transpeople, it seems that home is where the Internet is. The largest physical gatherings of transpeople almost always involve an event to which transpeople often must travel a long distance in order to attend, such as a organizational convention, and many of these events are wrapped up in political advocacy. Aside from those kinds of events, the vast majority of our intra-community socialization takes place online.

It’s not surprising, therefore , that most of our community-relevant media is Internet-based as well. Attempts have been made to bridge the cultural gap between the transgender community and the mainstream, but none have proven truly successful yet. We have no LOGO, nothing on Bravo, nothing that really serves that kind of gate-opening role for transpeople that Ellen Degeneres and “Will and Grace” did for gays and lesbians.

As someone who has made her own attempts at trying to span that divide, even after all this time I still wonder how long it will be before the mainstream media begins to get us as well and starts to incorporate us and our perspectives into the mainstream. When you’re still fighting for representation in even the mainstream media which is directly intended and marketed to your own community, hoping for real mainstream inclusion may be just a pipe dream..for now.

Where is transgender culture?

Chances are, you’re not going to find it by turning on your television or even your radio. If you’re not actually travelling somewhere where it happens to surface periodically on a regular basis, you’re probably going to find it online and in print. You can read a hundred writers and get a hundred different takes on what it means to be a transgender person. You can listen to and participate in shows like mine or Ethan’s for social and political talk and debate. You can listen to any of the many great podcasts being created by transpeople. There’s relevant trans community media out there for those who want it and seek it out, but precious little for those who can’t or won’t dig deep enough to find it.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that the reason why everyone seems to think we’re all just another variety of “homo” is because that’s what most of our popular media tells people we are, intentionally or not. We can create our own versions of virtual transgender community centers and rap groups, but it won’t be until our faces, voices, and perspectives become an integral part of popular media that we’ll begin to see that perception begin to change socially and politically in the mainstream in any real way.

Where is transgender culture?

When you really get right down to it, it’s in our hearts, in our minds, in our voices, and in our fingertips. It’s in our collective desire to reach out to each other and be a part of something far greater than ourselves. It’s in the lives we live, the media we create, and the relationships we develop with others like ourselves and those who care about us. It’s in the way we present ourselves, both to the outside world and to each other. It’s in the way we work together, play together, love together, mourn together, and fight together. It’s in how we speak up and say “We are here!”.

It’s not what others have, and maybe it never will be, but, for now, transgender culture is whatever those of us who reach out to touch each other make of it. Until we have the tools to take it to the next step, though, it’ll have to be enough. I just hope we won’t have all that much longer to wait.

Brown University: Deserving a debate

Issue date: 9/24/07 Section: Editorial

Excited rhetoric on both sides may obscure the issue, but the debate over gender-neutral facilities at Brown has a fairly straightforward problem at its core: Transgender students, who are among those in our community most vulnerable to abuse and discrimination, are not well-served by gender-segregated housing and other facilities. Greater flexibility for first-year housing and gender-neutral housing for upperclassmen deserve serious campus debate and consideration.

Taking the issue of gender-neutral housing and bathrooms seriously is difficult because, quite simply, we do not live in a gender-neutral society. Our language isn't equipped to deal with people who do not fit into the so-called "gender binary." Our society recognizes important and real differences between men and women. Allowing male and female students to live together is not the purpose of these changes. But the implications of that - and the potential that male and female students would be uncomfortable sharing a bathroom - are legitimate concerns.

Yet ultimately, as Interim Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Russell Carey '91 MA'06 points out, the purpose of gender-neutral facilities is "to provide choice and options so all students feel comfortable and safe in their living environment." The Human Rights Campaign notes that one expert estimates that transgender individuals in the United States have a one-in-12 chance of being murdered, compared with a one-in-18,000 chance for the general population. Brown is and should be a space of tolerance and respect. But between 2003 and 2005, there were 52 hate crimes on campus ranging from assault (reportable) to vandalism (non-reportable), according to Department of Public Safety data. We shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that discrimination is a problem for other people.

UK: ‘It took 46 years to stop me living a lie’

Sep 24 2007

by Peter Collins, South Wales Echo

FOR most of his life, 46-year-old Andrew Cross has been tortured by the feeling that inside his man’s body and mind a woman has been aching to get out.

Suppressing the almost overwhelming feelings he had of being a woman led the former chef in the Royal Naval Reserve to sink into the depths of depression.

From his early 40s he suffered Bipolar Affective Disorder, often known as manic depression, which saw his moods swing like a pendulum from abject despair to sublime elation.

Various treatments and medication for the disorder helped for short periods, but the underlying cause – his need to be a woman – remained.

That was until December 12 last year when Andrew John Cross, of Barry, decided to become Anne-Marie Cross, of Barry.

The life-changing decision was celebrated at the Golden Cross pub, in Cardiff, and also at the city’s Barfly nightspot.

In her first press interview on her life-changing experience, Anne-Marie told the Echo how, despite losing friends and family because of her decision, she was optimistic about the future and was preparing to launch a book about her life. The book will tell how Cardiff-born Andrew was engaged to be married on two occasions, first when he was 28 and again when he was 32.

Both relationships failed because of his need to be a woman.

He had “15 great years” travelling around the world with the Royal Naval Reserve, ending when he was 40 years old, when he suffered his first major attack of manic depression.

“The depression was always there,” said Anne-Marie. “But it surfaced when my father died and because I was suppressing my need to be a woman.” . . .