Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Transsexuals see both sides of life

Adrian Smith and Dewi Kurniawati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

You see them at the side of the road, shadowy, statuesque figures lit up by car headlights: They are one of the haunting spectacles of Jakarta's nightscape.

For many, this is as good as it gets; the only ephemeral, detached encounter one has with transgenders and as a consequence, their identity is all too readily associated with being marginalized.

In Indonesian, the blanket term for transgenders is waria, part wanita (woman), part pria (man). It refers to varying degrees of gender disorientation, from those who dress up for performance only, occasionally dress up (transvestites), to those who live and feel like the opposite gender (transsexuals).

Considered neither fully male or female, they are often referred to in Indonesia as the "third sex".

Today, some waria are coming into the mainstream.

In July this year, 29-year-old Jenny Stavia, alias Avi, won an MTV award for best model in a music video. Her presence in Possesif, performed by local pop group Naif, was unusual, alluring and challenging.

The video captures the rituals that assist her daily transformation to face the outside world; showering, shaving, dressing and becoming someone else.

Born Joko Suwito, Avi counts her blessings.

"I am lucky with my glamorous looks. Adjie Notonegoro, the famous designer, took me on as a model in the early 1990s and since then I've performed regularly at shows, contests and on TV. With fame, people now acknowledge me more as a model rather than as a waria".

Her accomplishments do not stem simply from her physique though. "I have to thank my understanding family and close relationship with God for my well-being and positive attitude to life."

Entertainment and performance often call to waria, and it is still one of the few areas of professional life where waria are tolerated in the country.

"I guess it is all part of my identity as a waria. If I had been born a woman, I would be working in an office. I wouldn't be in entertainment," Avi said.

She appears regularly with The Silver Boys, a popular group of performing waria, whose shows are a glamorous mix of dance, comedy and impersonation.

"During the past several years we have been able to perform on TV and at an increasing number of venues, not just in Jakarta but all over Indonesia," troupe leader Tata Dado said.

It hasn't all been plain pandering though.

"Yes, we do encounter difficulties and stigma from time to time, but we have become more experienced at avoiding confrontation. I have also realized that if you just carry on with what you are doing, after a while people just give up having a go at you," Tata added.

Other professions, such as beauticians, the fashion and film industry, are more accepting of waria.

There are, of course, rare exceptions to the rule. "I know someone who works at a bank -- he is the one and only. At first, the bank wouldn't let him dress up as a woman, but now he does. He is the only man there with makeup on!" Avi said.

However, with many jobs closed to them, many waria become sex workers, exposed to the danger of diseases and harassment by the authorities.

Dr. Mamoto Gultom, a specialist in male sexual health, gets to see firsthand how the other half live. "Most of my patients are young sex workers who are confused, vulnerable and under a great deal of stress".

According to Dede Oetomo, professor of linguistics at Airlangga University in Surabaya and a gay activist, many waria are beaten and treated harshly, though they are generally tolerated in Indonesian households as long as they can earn money on a regular basis.

It is this combination of economic and cultural factors that more often than not conspire to complicate the waria identity.

"I realize I can't be like this forever. That is why 10 years from now I intend to lead a 'normal' life, be a 'normal' guy, get married to a woman and have babies," said one member of The Silver Boys, Zaenab, 25.

In the face of such odds, Avi expressed a blunt opinion. "I wouldn't like the idea of my own child being a waria because the world is cruel to them."