It’s tough to be a woman today, and it’s even tougher to be a transgender woman. One might well assume that a transgender woman in a Muslim country would have the toughest life of all.
But the truth seems to be a little more complicated, at least in the Indonesian state of South Sulawesi. Here, transgender women – or waria, as they’re called in Bahasa Indonesia – are recognised and even respected for their role in society.
I discovered this several months ago, when I attended the Makassar International Writers Festival. One event featured the writer/entertainer Tiara Tiar Bahtiar, Vice-President of the Transgender Society of South Sulawesi and East Indonesia. She’d just launched Namaku Bukan Waria, a book of anecdotes, poems and photographs of local transgender culture, which she’d co-authored with poet Rizal Rais.
Over coffee, she explained to me that South Sulawesi is home to the Bugis, a people renowned in history for their skills in seamanship. They built the mighty kingdoms of Luwu and Bone, developed their own writing system, and set up a network of trading and piracy that extended from Sumatra to northern Australia.
They adopted Islam early in their history, but they’ve never been very transphobic. In fact, they traditionally believe that humans can be grouped into five different gender categories: oroané (“masculine” men), makkunrai (“feminine” women), calabai (“feminine” men), calalai (“masculine” women), and, most importantly bissu (holy transgender women).
Traditionally, the bissu served the Bugis kings as guardians and protectors. Their role was recorded in the La Galigo, the great Bugis epic, which happens to be the longest epic poem in the world. They’re described as being gifted with magical powers of healing, summoning the rain and physical invulnerability – sometimes they would pierce their skins with knives to show how weapons couldn’t harm them.
This noble heritage has prevented transgender people like Tiara from being persecuted. Certainly, she still encounters prejudice – in fact, the full English translation of Tiara’s book title is: 'My name isn’t "transgender" – call me "human"'. But she’s grown up with positive waria mentors, is able to practise her religion, and receives some government cooperation in her advocacy programs. She’s in a much better position than many transgender people elsewhere.
She’s also doing her part to preserve her culture by training to be a bissu. The learning process is difficult: she has to fast, and study countless rituals and mantras.
We at Fridae wish her the best. After all, the Bugis system of five genders is an inspiration to us all. It’s proof that LGBT people have always been part of Asian culture, and that we deserve dignity, not shame.
æ: Age, sex, occupation, location?
Tiara: 33, transgender, entertainer (lip sync-er, MC host, modeling choreographer) and writer, Makassar.
æ: Why did you write this book?
Tiara: First reason: I love reading books, but I never read books bout transgenders that have good stories. All the stories are about violence and prostitution and transgenders who have to stay away from their families. And then I think there are never photos of transgender models.
So, everything I saw and heard, my experiences, I wrote them into my diary. It was like I was telling my heart, my stories. Finally, I showed Rizal Rais my diary. [He said,] “Oh my god, Tiara, that is good. Your experiences are so different, so honest, so sexy.” From the diary he picked and chose parts to put into the book.
æ: How have people reacted?
Tiara: My family said, “You’re like an artist now, you have a book.” My friends said: “Oh my god Tiara, you tell the people what we are like in the morning, when we are pulling out our beards!” My boyfriend said: “I’m just afraid my friends will read this story and say it’s me!” I interviewed him when he was drunk, when we were relaxed. He didn’t realise I was taking down notes.
æ: Have you always known you were transgender?
Tiara: I realised I was transgender when I was young, when I was maybe three or five years old. In my neighbourhood there were many waria, so they taught me how to be a good waria: how to get men, how to wear powder and makeup, how to perform.
æ: Was it difficult growing up as waria?
Tiara: Yes, so difficult, because I’m part of a religious family. My family has just two genders: man and woman. There are no chalalai, no chalabai, no lesbians, no bisexuals, just men and women. In my book I write about how hard it was to educate Omar, my father. He is so strict, he could only accept people if they are male or female.
æ: When did you tell your family you were waria?
Tiara: In 1998, when I was the winner of this competition, the Beautiful Waria Who Cares About AIDS and Drugs Pageant. It was a big event, because it was the first one.
Before I joined the competition, I stayed away from my home for one year, because my father didn’t understand me. I only made contact with my mother. But when I won this competition, I went to my mother, my brother and sister, and we sat together to talk about me. And I told them this is my life, this is my option, this is my destiny. My life is a scenario from the gods. This is how god has created me, in this way.
So my father and my mother said, “Anyway, you’re still my child. But one thing: please, don’t do surgery. Don’t cut your penis, don’t have a breast operation or operate on your face. Don’t change anything that you are.”
“There are so many roles in this world. There are men who practise polygamy, there are women who do prostitution. Your role in this world is to be a transgender. But you are born as a man, you have to die as a man. And you must not change that.”
æ: Can you talk about your role in transgender activism?
Tiara: I joined the Transgender Organisation in 2000. I first worked as a volunteer. I helped to organise a big event once a year: a sports and arts ceremony for waria. We have soccer, tug of war, and then singing, beauty pageants, dangdut competitions, Quran recital.
We collect data about transgenders in Makassar: how big the population is in South Sulawesi, their activities by their age, how may are younger, how many are old, how many work in salons and prostitution. And then we try to make a relationship with the government to get programs. We have an organisation that tries to get help for poor transgenders who have no work, especially for those who live in the street.
æ: Does the government actually give you money?
Tiara: Sometimes, but just little amounts. Sometimes we can give it to ten persons, sometimes just three.
æ: I think many people will be surprised they give any.
Tiara: Actually the reason why some people accept for transgenders is because of the story of bissu. In Buginese places like Bone, Wajuk, Sengkang, they accept transgenders because of the stories. When religion gets in, there are problems.
æ: I’ve heard that you also do charity for non-transgenders.
Tiara: During the fasting month, we also give free haircuts, and we give food to orphanages and to poor people. The transgenders who are very rich sometimes build orphanages. I think it’s important that we give something to the people. We have talent, and if we have money, we will help people and their families, and step by step, they will accept us.
æ: What are your plans for the future?
Tiara: There’s still so much for me to talk about, perhaps in my second or the third book. I hear my family talking with my neighbours with other people, I hear how they stereotype transgenders. So I think maybe my next book will be opinions about transgenders.
You know, my parents asked me, “Won’t you feel lonely later, when you’re old? Because you won’t marry a girl, and you won’t have children.” And I say, “No, I will never feel lonely, because I can adopt my nephews, I can adopt a baby.” I’ll never feel lonely. I will stay with all of my community. It’s so fun; there’s nothing to make me sad. When we gossip, it’s so fun. So that’s why my community always stays young. Forever young.
Maybe god created us just to make this world more wonderful. All people have problems, but we always try to smile every time, we always try to make happiness every time. People come to our community because we make them laugh. They come to us if they are having trouble with their business or their family, and we make them laugh. And that’s the reason why my boyfriend enjoys it so much when we spend time together.
æ: Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
Tiara: Firstly, I hope that step by step, people can understand about the reality of transgender life in Makassar. We have a long history of bissu, and transgenders in Makassar have a very good relationship with society – even though we still get violence from the Muslim fundamentalists like SPI. I hope this book can give a little colour to our lives, and show that Makassar has a story too about transgenders and gays.
“Namaku Bukan Waria – Panggil Aku Manusia” is published by Digna Pustaka and is only available in Bahasa Indonesia. You can contact Tiara at email@example.com. Offers to translate the book will be especially welcome.