Transgenderism has been hitting the global headlines of late, and Indonesia is a nation with its own cross-dressing traditions.
Whilst returning home recently after a particularly hedonistic evening, my Uber hansom cab rolled the canal flyover that connects Menteng with the skyscrapers of Jl. Rasuna Said. From the flyover, I observed several tradesmen on another gruelling nightshift plying their wares. Those of you who have also seen these fellows before whilst driving south of an evening will no doubt be aware that the gentlemen in question were what are colloquially known as ladyboys, transvestites or transgendered folk, if you will. Looks like a lady…in fact it’s a chap.
The area of town in question is known as Taman Lawang and extends from the aforementioned flyover into the pleasant, leafy environs of Menteng. I have often speculated about this somewhat peculiar arrangement. Other cities and countries make sure that street walking, particularly that of the gender-bending variety, is confined to the cheesy side of town. Menteng though is one of the poshest, priciest and most gentrified districts in the city. Ex-President Suharto was the area’s most famous resident, but a number of other powerful politicians, businessmen and generals are also domiciled here. I wonder how these high rollers feel when they leave their expensive pied-à-terres of an evening, only to be confronted by gentlemen in lipstick and skirts attempting to press the flesh of passing curb crawlers.
Homosexuality is largely frowned on by Indonesia’s nominally Islamic population, of course. Nevertheless, ladyboys, commonly known as bencong, banci or waria here, are generally treated as figures of fun and are surprisingly visible in daily life and culture.
Waria are viewed as society’s clowns; laughingstocks for people to point and laugh at.
In fact, as I mentioned in a previous piece on LGBT issues, transgenderism stretches back deep into the roots of Indonesian history and the cross-dressing palace guards of the Bugis of Sulawesi. Indeed these antediluvian transvestites predated the arrival of both Christianity and Islam to Indonesian shores.
Your modern-day Indonesian transvestite/transgendered citizen, however, is definitely not treated as an equal member of society and would be unlikely to find employment as a palace guard. She will often suffer discrimination from both family and neighbours, as the obligation to enter into a heterosexual marriage is strong in Indonesia. She will also be pretty restricted in terms of a career. Many waria can be found working in hair salons or as street-musician figures of ridicule, or, of course, walking the streets of Menteng and other similar districts at night. The latter of which is a hazardous way of life to say the least, and many have fallen prey to the scourge of AIDS.
Also, she-males often star in Indonesian TV shows, which demonstrates the socially ambivalent status that these she-hes have here. Indeed, these days an increasing number of transgendered Indonesians have respectable jobs, making a living as designers, sociologists and the like. However, widespread social prejudice means that these trans-pioneers remain the exception rather than the rule.
Moreover, with increasingly militant Islamic groups taking to the streets, Indonesia’s gender and sexual minorities perhaps face an uncertain future, and a more sexually mature and egalitarian republic still seems a long way off. Indonesia’s waria have of late suffered increasing persecution from the ascendant Sharia-law lobby and its strict Saudi Wahabist creeds (which, according to many sources, are being propagated over here with hard Saudi petrodollars). Beauty shows such as the Miss Waria pageant, for example, have previously been broken up by the FPI (Islamic Defenders Front).
All of this contrasts strongly with the veritable sexual revolution that has taken place in the West over the last couple of decades. Gay marriage has seen its rainbow-coloured thread being woven fully into society’s rich tapestry, proving that homosexuals can be just as dully conservative as their heterosexual peers. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years, it has been the turn of the transgender community to grab their civil rights firmly by the scruff of the neck of the…ahem.
And so it has come to pass that Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner, the pater-(and I guess mater)-familias of a family which has become inordinately famous for doing nothing, has been controversially named ‘Woman of the Year’. Meanwhile, US Republicans are getting all worked up about transgendered individuals using public restrooms (although recent scandals suggest that it is, in fact, Republican lawmakers themselves who represent the greater danger in this environment). It’s not really about the bathrooms for these conservative US types though, is it? Just as it wasn’t really about the water fountains half a century ago, but I digress.
Other voices, such as those of irascible feminist Germaine Greer, have been somewhat more cagey and cautious regarding the issue of men who now claim that they are women. While acknowledging that the transgender community should be able to assume their full civil rights and live lives free from persecution, some have noted that those of a transgendered disposition often have identity problems, which pretty crude gender reassignment surgery doesn’t ultimately address, leaving many post-oppers somewhat depressed and disillusioned.
Sexuality is mental first and physical second, and if the mental element isn’t in place, then the physical part cannot happen.
One piece of evidence in support of this thesis is male impotence and erectile dysfunction, which only has a physiological cause in around 10 percent of cases, the other 90 percent being caused by stress and various psychological issues. In this situation, perhaps a slightly less celebratory and more reflective tone could be adopted. These are matters of vigorous ongoing debate and you may strongly disagree with this assessment before aiming a judiciously thrown stiletto in my direction.
Back in Indonesia, there have been some more encouraging signs. Suara Kita (Our Voice) is Indonesia’s foremost LGBT NGO and has become a vibrant media portal in recent years, hosting workshops on journalism, documentaries, writing and photography, and offering hope to many who have to endure the country’s prevailing homophobia. According to Suara Kita, Indonesia represents a kind of middle ground; the country is still miles away from the US and Europe in terms of LGBT rights, but things here aren’t nearly as bad as they are in some African or Middle Eastern countries.
Indeed, transgendered Indonesians of a more religious bent have even set up special prayer groups here, despite the prevailing view that there are only two nonnegotiable gender identities under Islam. In this context, many transgendered Indonesians are not interested in gender reassignment surgery, asserting that they were born as men and must return to God as men. Indeed, many waria have ideas about womanhood that modern feminists would find highly reactionary, and would love to find a real man to look after and play the traditional wife to.
Traditions aside, this is obviously the Internet age and so, to finish on a more technologically cutting-edge note, I thought that a quick trawl through some of Indonesia’s transgender dating sites would be in order. So, if anyone is interested in a “young shemale fropessional [sic]”, a “super mega tool” or a little “versatile deeply sucking” then I suggest you swallow your pride (so to speak) and fire up your browser. Onwards and upwards, chaps. Tally ho.