Sun, 13 Aug 2000

Transvestites place a priority on practicing safe sex

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Tamara, 21, has been on the street just for half a year. The Bugis transvestite, with lustrous hair cascading down her slender back, enjoys the job and has no intention of doing anything else. Besides, Tamara just loves men. "Those nights are divine when I get to spend time with handsome and rich men," giggles Tamara in fake ecstasy.

Tamara is only one out of nearly 5,000 transvestites living in Jakarta who are mostly engaged in the business of sex and a living example of the fact that the oldest profession in the world is here to stay even though the income of most involved is perhaps one of the lowest. However, the most dangerous aspect of a transvestite's existence is that they face a very high risk of being infected with sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS.

Nearly 2,000 of this population are known prostitutes and half of them are extremely poor, seldom earning more than Rp 1,000 from one client. Prostitution is perhaps also the only profession where a new recruit is paid a higher wage than a wiser and more experienced one.

Youthful Tamara refuses any client who wants to pay less than Rp 10,000 per act.

Since most of them refuse to give up the profession, whether due to lack of choice or sheer joy, AIDS campaigners feel that sex education is the only alternative to keeping prostitutes clean. There is a vigorous movement around the world to encourage safe sex among transvestites by providing them with adequate information, although this is not an easy task in societies where public discussion of sexual matters is often taboo.

Asia may not be in the grip of AIDS quite like Africa is but the deadly disease is spreading in the region like wildfire. China already has 600,000 HIV carriers and AIDS cases are rising by nearly 30 percent each year. In India, about 2 percent of the adult population live with HIV and AIDS. In Vietnam, the government supports the Cafe of Hope where free condoms and clean needles are offered along with coffee. The use of condoms is also on the increase in the Philippines, due to aggressive campaigning by AIDS activists. The inspiration has come from Thailand where campaigns have helped slow down the rate of infection that once touched one in every 60 people in that country.

AIDS awareness hit Indonesia back in 1988 and the HIV/AIDS Prevention Project of the Indonesian Public Health Association (IPHA) started its work with Jakarta's transvestite community in 1990. Under the project, peer education is imparted using a comprehensive approach when one transvestite informs another about the dangers of indulging in sex with multiple partners on a regular basis and also anal sex.

"Since 1992, we have had hundreds of transvestites take the HIV test. We follow up with an intensive AIDS education curriculum and have trained transvestites to distribute condoms and to spread the word about the dangers they face in their profession," said Beby Amaliah, a project officer who works with eight others on a team, including a doctor, nurse and a counselor.

The team established a Community Health Service (CHS) in North Jakarta to facilitate transvestites to keep a regular check on their health.

From the day it was realized that they were different from both men and women, transvestites have been constantly singled out and teased endlessly.

The result is that they grow up with very low self-esteem and as adults they are forever afraid of further rebuke from mainstream society. They tend to drop out of school early in life and invariably cling to their own kind, leaving themselves a limited choice of job opportunities.

"The best thing about a CHS is that transvestites are not shy about coming here. We try to win over the confidence of all visitors and be sympathetic to their lot," said Lisa Waradya, a therapist who offers counseling to all those interested in wanting to heal the body along with the soul. Feeling at home with others like themselves, they are more willing to visit the CHS for regular medical checkups and to participate in other activities that promote a comprehensive approach to a behavioral change towards safe sex.

However, not everyone who comes to the CHS is a prostitute. Myrna, 53 is an entertainer. "I suffer from the usual illnesses of a person my age, like high blood pressure and stress but otherwise I am clean," Myrna told The Jakarta Post.

In fact, Myrna has never been a prostitute. "I have had seven lovers and the current one has been with me for six years," said the transvestite who has a twin brother. She feels that transvestites are tolerated more today than the time when she was young. She was teased so much in school that she left. Her twin brother played the piano and she started to sing with him. Together they founded Fantastic Dolls and earned their living entertaining as a group on television and stage.

But Myrna's greatest contribution has been to try and lure young transvestites away from a life on the street and into the entertainment industry or to set up small businesses like a beauty salon. For her tireless efforts to bring some dignity and money into the lives of hundreds of helpless transvestites, Myrna was honored last June with an award from International Management Indonesia along with 16 other entertainers.

"What I would like to say to all you straight people is that I may be a transvestite but I am also a human being," said Myrna, a chain smoker and wig wearer who has come to terms with her male body and female emotions.