Sun, 20 Jul 2003

Entertainer Dorce goes it alone

Bruce Emond, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

If acceptance were measured by how full an entertainer's schedule is, then Dorce Gamalama is doing all right.

There are upcoming dates in Padang, West Sumatra, the province where she was born, then a show in West Nusa Tenggara, then back to Jakarta for various TV commitments.

She also has private engagements, called to the homes of people like tycoon Sudwiktamono, the half-brother of former president Soeharto, to sing a couple of songs and tell a few jokes, pack up and head off to another date.

It's her beguiling stage persona -- teasing, sometimes a bit edgy, with humor verging on the ribald but not quite crossing over into vulgarity -- that has won her a place in the nation's hearts and now brings her into living rooms as the host of several TV shows every week.

She turns 40 on Monday, a day which she will mark with the private publishing of her autobiography, written with cultural observer Norca M. Masardi.

Success tastes sweet after a long, difficult struggle to the top, during which she has had to prove herself beyond being the country's most famous transsexual.

"I think that people see that, whatever great sin they may think I've done by changing my sex, I haven't added to that," said Dorce last week.

"They can see that I'm closer to God, that I'm keeping to the straight and narrow."

She is dressed demurely in a gray jilbab (headscarf), decidedly different from her stage appearance of heavy makeup, garish evening gowns and bouffant wigs.

But Dorce also knows that her popularity, her public declarations of religion, her foundation for orphans or the fact that, legally, she is a woman will never silence those who cannot see beyond the issue of her gender.

Dorce, who has talked in the past about having an uncle who hated her but whose expenses she still paid to go on the haj, said that she took consolation from the example of Prophet Muhammad in facing those who reviled him.

For at least 10 years she has kept to a pragmatic philosophy of life: God will not change somebody's fate; the person must be willing to do it for themselves.

It's a belief that comes from her own hardscrabble existence. Born in Solok, West Sumatra, Dorce was raised by her grandmother after both her parents died before she was a year old.

The couple moved to Jakarta, living a nomadic existence of moving from one relative's home to another and feeling, Dorce remembers, like "lodgers". Her grandmother died when Dorce was eight, and she tells of picking through garbage and selling newspapers on buses in order to get by.

In 1981, she moved to Surabaya (she identifies herself as East Javanese), gradually building a career as an entertainer in small clubs and bars. But it was her choice to undergo a sex-change operation in 1984 and marry a local man that got headlines.

Until then, waria -- the polite term used for both transvestite homosexuals and transsexuals instead of the coarser banci -- were figures of fun, looked down upon as a highly strung, flamboyant community whose members either became beauticians or ended up prostituting themselves.

Even as her singing career took off, her status as a transsexual dogged her as her defining point. When Dorce went on the haj in 1990, a power outage provoked a stampede in a tunnel in Minna, killing several hundred Indonesian pilgrims. The entertainer took the blame in some quarters for "inviting God's wrath".

But, with her newfound success and acceptance, she has put those hurtful snipes behind her.

"God doesn't look at you as a lesbian, or homosexual or transsexual, but at the deeds you've done and what you've done for other people," she said.

"God created me this way, even though some religious people will say, 'ah, look, you're an infidel'. How can they say that when I've been a Muslim since I was born? I'm not afraid of what people say, only what God says."

She returns to the fact that she considers herself a "real woman ... I have breasts and a vagina, the only thing I cannot do is conceive a child".

But she does have concerns about the way that some transvestite entertainers, such as Tata Dado of the Silver Boys comedy troupe and Avi, most famous from the Naif video clip Posesif, are selling themselves by pandering to the banci stereotype.

After so many years as an entertainer, she also has the clout to criticize Inul Daratista, the singer whose gyrating dancing has made her a popular hero for the man and woman in the street.

"Inul has been made big by the print and electronic media," Dorce said. "Long before she became famous, I supported her, because we're both from East Java and she even calls me bunda (mother).

"But, and it's a big but, I said to her, 'we're in a country where 90 percent of the people are Muslim, so think about what you're wearing'. The thing is that right now anything she does sells ... but her experience is nothing compared to my journey ...."

She added: "Inul is really not that good as a singer, neither am I, but it's about her performance and the audience ... she needs to go to a voice coach ... "

From her own career, Dorce knows that it's better to be slow and sure in building a career than rocket to stardom and have it all fizzle out in the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

"Our singers have a short shelf life -- you can see that Krisdayanti is already going down -- except for Titiek Puspa .... But, I'm glad that my career has been step by step and it has never dried up."

Although her marriage broke up after her husband decided he wanted children, Dorce has raised three adopted children and now employs 11 teachers for her orphanage of more than 1,000 children in West Java.

She knows that she could be considered a catch for many men -- "I have a house, a car, money, who wouldn't want me?" -- but she is more concerned about humanitarian activities.

"What I'm really interested in now is doing good for the people," Dorce said. "I've read a lot about Mother Theresa, who cared about others regardless of their religions. I'm a Muslim, but we have to help others without thinking about who they are."