Since it started to blow up in 2016, Indonesia is overwhelmed by the issue of LGBTQ+ and it became one of the topics in daily conversations. Many people put opinions on the LGBTQ+ issue, and still, a lot of the opinions are discriminating and/or degrading the existence of the community within society. Meanwhile, there’s a part of LGBTQ+ in Indonesia that has been accepted more easily since a long time ago which is called ‘waria’. The word ‘waria’ is a combination of the words ‘wanita pria’ (woman and man) which can be interpreted as ‘male transvestite’. Boelstorff* argues that waria belongs to transvestism instead of transgenderism because they strongly relate with the male world in Indonesia. Waria is not considered as the “third gender”, rather it is considered as male femininity. This brings about a myriad of problems such as the “toilet problem. In a world where the third gender is accepted (or at least, where people tend to be more tolerant), which toilet a trans person chooses is not a big deal. And there is even places that provide “gender free” bathrooms.
But Indonesian culture knows no gender free toilet, the presence of waria in women’s restrooms is still unacceptable, which is simultaneously also true for the men’s restrooms.
Gender diversity is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia
To this day a lot of Indonesians still believe that the existence of the LGBTQ+ community in Indonesia was caused by the hit of globalization, the easiness to get internet access, and that the idea of LGBTQ+ is a product of western culture. And it strikes them as a surprise to learn that the Bugis in Sulawesi has known two additonal gender categories aside from only male and female, namely ‘calabai’ (male transvestites), and ‘calalai’ (female transvestites). Both of them are even considered as honored people in the community because of their “specialty”. Tracing these diverse gender categories historically and culturally is one of the most important units of analysis to show how Indonesia has already been on its journey of gender diversity for a long time, and how this journey is part of most societies through space and time.
The term waria has existed in Indonesian for a long time and it has always been associated with entertainers, beauty artists, and also sex workers. As I already mentioned, amongst other LGBTQ+ members, waria is accepted easier and can easily be seen in public. The fact that warias have the stereotype of being entertainers is the reason behind the familiarity of Indonesians with warias. Television shows in Indonesia portray men that show femininity, though rather jokingly. But those jokes easily turn into mocks, or even harassment. These televised displays of mockery and harassment cause a normalization of discrimination toward warias – and this, in turn, leads people to believe warias deserve to be mocked and discriminated against. The mocking, called ‘banci’ in Indonesian, has literally the same meaning as waria but with a negative connotation.
There is more to warias. Most of them are practicing Muslims.
I did several researches on waria in 2016 until 2017 to understand more about how warias manage their daily lifes amongst other Indonesian people. I learned a lot of interesting facts, but one that stuck with me was how warias perform religious activities as muslims, and how they take care of their “demographic matters” (i.e. starting/having a family). In my opinion these two things are one of the most basic human rights, yet warias tend to be denied those rights.
The majority of Indonesians are muslims and in Islam most teachings in Indonesia are divided by sex. Men and women have different religious practices and duties – a dilemmatic situation for warias. In the end many of waria just follow the expectation of people around them to do the religious practices as a man, but there is still hope in the form of an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) for waria that give them space to express themselves as they are. In that pesantren, warias are free to choose whether to do the religious practices as a man or a woman, but they’re required to be consistent in their choices. The main purpose of this pesantren is basically to teach warias about religious teachings, since there’s no other place for them to learn about it.
A lot of warias I met did not come from the same area where I met them, instead they “ran away” from their hometown because they weren’t accepted by their families and friends. This kind of rejection is a common trigger for warias to look for another place that is friendlier to them and save places for warias usually exist in big cities where there are progressive waria communities like Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, Cirebon, and Bali. This ‘migration’ often causes difficulties for warias, as Indonesians have to be registered at the place of their residency which is impossible without an ID card (which they usually don’t have). The later consequence of this is the emergence of fake ID services, but to the extent that it can help warias to access several facilities just like ‘regular’ citizens.
To conclude, the fact that warias can be accepted more easily by Indonesians because they’re considered entertainers doesn’t mean that discrimination is no longer a daily experience for them. Life as a waria in Indonesia nowadays cannot be categorized anywhere close to being well – it is a day-to-day struggle for same rights, same opportunities and same status as a citizen. Moreover, the rise of the LGBTQ+ issue in Indonesia’s media and public discourse doesn’t make it any easier for Indonesians to make peace with the waria community.
It is still a long way, and a lot of effort has to be made until warias can live proper lives in Indonesia with their basic human fulfilled. For this, we need to create awareness of gender diversity, something that has existed in Indonesia ever since.
*Boellstorff, T. (2004). Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian