• Vira ran away from home to Jakarta after being rejected by her family. (Lexy Rambadeta)Source: Lexy Rambadeta
Indonesia has a vibrant transgender culture and tradition, but there’s been a rise in intolerance in recent years from Muslim fundamentalists. David O’Shea gets an insight into the community and its fight for equal rights.
David O'Shea

26 Nov 2015 - 11:11 AM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2015 - 11:17 AM

“This is me. You can’t stop me being like this,” transgender woman Vira tells David.

She was rejected by her parents and ended up as a sex worker on Jakarta’s streets – a story that’s all too common amongst transgender women in Indonesia.

“I’m just trying to do my best for my family,” she says. “I went home once, but my father still couldn’t accept me.”

But a tireless campaigner for their rights, Mama Yuli, is determined to change all of that. She’s the undisputed queen of the ‘waria’, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for woman and man.

“Let’s open the discourse in Indonesia for waria to explore their potential,” she says. “They could be bank directors, ministers of state. That could change society’s negative image.”

Her journey too has been a difficult one, after she was also rejected by her family.

“I cried every day. When I got up I had nothing to eat. I was hungry. No one would give me food,” she tells David. “I cried. But who helped me? No one did.”

She took a low paid job cleaning rooms at a brothel and became a sex worker, but the money ultimately helped her become the first waria to graduate from an Islamic university in Indonesia.

Now she runs a support centre, which also serves as a retirement home for waria.

“Waria have been set alight, shot dead, mutilated,” she says. “Even though I’ve seen so many incidents, when we go to the police, they never help. They always say that it’s our fault.”

Indonesia’s waria hit the headlines in Australia when Marcus Volke murdered his transgender girlfriend Mayang Prasetyo in Brisbane, before taking his own life.

Many criticised the coverage in the tabloid press as stigmatising towards Mayang as a transgender person.

“It was provocative and negative towards Mayang,” her friend Michel tells David. He retrieved her body and took her home to her parents in Indonesia.

“There were 40 or 50 cars in the procession with her body. We’d only planned for ten cars at the most… all along the road, the people of Lampung lined the road to see Mayang.”

But while acceptance is growing in some areas of society, a small but vocal group of Islamic hardliners is making its voice heard.

“We’re disturbed by the way they dress, by their presence, their behaviour,” Muhammed Fuad from Forum Umat Islam tells David. “They shouldn’t be allowed to feel normal.”

But waria say that both their culture and Islamic tradition can exist together. Mama Shinta runs a Islamist school in Yogyakarta especially for waria.

“Waria is something we have to live with and accepting that makes us closer to the creator,” she tells David. “The one who makes us waria is Allah.”

Watch the story in full above.