Gender & Sexuality in Indonesia: Waria

By Charissa Dechène


This is part 3 in my blog series on gender and sexuality in Indonesia. You can read part 1 and part 2 here.

It was my second day in Yogyakarta, when my friend took me to the restaurant “Raminten”. She couldn’t have taken me to a better place to welcome me into the city. Apparently, the restaurant was a popular place for tourists, because the owner is a waria and on some days you can see a performance. I have been told that the owner of “Raminten” only hires men and young men who identify as gay or waria. I loved the place instantly, because the ambiance was so nice and the food was delicious.
I remember thinking that it was a good sign that my fieldwork started with a connection to my BA research, and also that it was amazing to see that gay and waria had a safe (public) place in Yogya where they could be open about their gender and sexuality. Later I had the pleasure of going to a club where a waria from “Raminten” performed and she also hosted the show. There were several waria and gay who were lipsyncing various songs of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and others.

Waria host of “Raminten” at the club (made by me with iPhone 4 in 2013)

The restaurant became one of my favourites and I sincerely hope that its employer and employees do not experience any hate or backlash from the growing intolerance towards LGBTQI in Indonesia. However, the first Islamic school for waria, Al-Fatah Pesantren, has been closed since last February.

When I watched TV I also noticed that there were several gay hosts, but also that there were a few waria who appeared in TV-shows.
Anthropologist Debra Spitulnik has stressed that the different processes, products and applications of mass media should be researched as complex fragments of social reality (Spitulnik 1993: 307). With the recent growth of anti-LGBTQI campaigns in Indonesia and a ban on all depictions thereof in media, it is especially important to highlight the value of representations of non-heteronormative forms of gender and sexuality in Indonesian media. In the next two blogs I will analyse movies in which (re)presentations of gay and lesbi occur by problematizing these in relation to reality and literature. As the title of this article suggests, this blogpost will be focussing on (re)presentations of waria and I will be using the award winning documentary “Tales of the Waria” (2011, directed by Kathy Huang), the short film “Dulu Banci” (2011, directed by Gading Martin) and the mainstream movie “Realita Cinta dan Rock ‘n Roll” (2006, directed by Upi Avianto). To illustrate that the ban on LGBT in media has taken off, I asked my friend in Indonesia if she could access the website of “Tales of the Waria”. As you can see, the video on the website is not available in Indonesia, also other websites have been blocked or forced to change their domain (instead of .id some websites are using .org).

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Waria is a combination of the Indonesian words for female (wanita) and male (pria).

In the movie “Tales of the Waria”, we meet Tiara who states that

a waria is a man who has the soul, instinct and feelings of a woman

The waria are also known as banci or béncong (but both are denigrating terms) and can be described as male-to-female transgender. They have been visible in Indonesian society since 1800 and are not limited to a specific ethnic group or place (Boellstorff 2007: 85). According to anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, the waria is not associated with ritualistic activities nor are they mentioned in traditional texts. Their visibility and acceptance is much more than tombois in everyday society. I will explain more about tombois in the last part of this blog series. However, despite them being visible in society, because of their jobs in beauty salons or in prostitution, the negative stigma attached to their subject position is still very much present, maybe even more now than a few years ago.
The waria subject position includes both gender and sexuality, but is not based on sexual orientation. The waria say that they are attracted to men, because they have a female soul (Boellstorff 2007: 99, Oetomo 1996: 267).

People often think that waria are asexual and the term banci is sometimes used by individuals, including children, when people are showing ‘wrong’ gender behaviour (Oetomo 1996: 261). People think that waria are asexual because the term banci means impotent. The fact that some waria are engaged in prostitution comes therefore as a surprise to some (Oetomo 1996: 261-2). What may be even more ‘surprising’ is that the waria who work in prostitution often get asked to penetrate their client, which is in contrast with western notions about who has the active and passive role in sexual encounters (Boellstorff 2007: 99). This highlights the difference between western male-to-female ­transgender or transsexuality and the Indonesian waria subject position. Moreover, the model of ‘passive-active’ may not even be applicable in relations between waria and men, because sex between a man and waria is not perceived the same as sex between two men, since the soul of the waria is female (Boellstorff 2007: 99).

Boellstorff has argued that he would not categorize the waria as a third gender construct, because their subject position comes from the male gender. Rather they are a male femininity operating within the male gendering, he argues (Boellstorff 2004: 161). He describes an example of how the toilets are divided in Taman Remaja (a famous showcase for waria in Java). Here the waria are going to the pria stalls, which implicates that they are seen as male and not as a different, third, gender (Boellstorff 2007: 82 and 109). “Waria appears not to be a third term but part of a secondary binarism within maleness.” (Boellstorff 2007: 109). He also states that they themselves view their existence from the ‘male’ category’ (Boellstorff 2007: 90). He quotes an informant who stated that:
I am an authentic (asli) man. If I were to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, I would dress as a man, because I was born a man. […] I was born a man and when I die I will be buried as a man, because that is what I am.” (Boellstorff 2007: 90).
However, Dédé Oetomo disagrees with Boellstorff and says that the best way to describe and understand the waria identity in Indonesia is as “a third gender that incorporates both maleness and femaleness” (Oetomo 1996: 267).

There are thus different opinions and views in the discussion about waria being a third gender. Nevertheless, as I have stated before waria do not see themselves as women, but as waria: nor male nor female, but both. Often their goal is not to ‘pass’ as a woman, but to look like a waria. Boellstorff has stated that in this way there can be spoken of a third gender subject position (Boellstorff 2007: 109). I think the waria identity can be seen as a third gender in the way Oetomo has described it. However, I also agree with Boellstorff, because despite their female soul, their male body seems to play an important part in their lives as they often do not want to ‘pass’ as a woman. They pray as male and most of them do not want to have a sex-change operation.

To look like a waria, one must engage in a few activities which fall under “putting on make-up”, like hairstyling. This practice is called dandan or déndang, and is a very important part in the waria subject position.

“Warias and non-warias alike, expect that a man who identifies as waria will déndong, and conversely that a man who déndongs on a daily basis is waria.” (Boellstorff 2007: 93).

In “Tales of the Waria” Tiara, who is also an associate producer of the movie, expresses that the waria believe that they are born as male and have to return to God as such. Which is the reason why she and most other waria do not have a sex-change operation.
In her storyline we see her direct a beauty contest in which the viewer is witness to the importance of dandan. She accentuates her cheekbones before her photoshoot, which she does to change her appearance and to look more ‘feminine’. Tiara’s storyline also shows that the waria learn their knowledge and other concepts from their peers and waria culture. Tiara has a protégé, Febri, whom she teaches about what waria do and encompasses. When the beauty contest has come to an end and the winner is announced, it is interesting to see that she is accompanied by very masculine men. These men are noteworthy, because they have oiled bodies and their pants buttons are opened for no particular reason. I thought that this may be a statement to emphasize that the waria are seen as extra feminine, sometimes more so than ciswomen, and that masculinity is seen as the base manliness (see Fenella Cannell 1999 about this notion of the bakla in the Philippines). What I also noticed in this scene was the diversity of the audience: there were men, women and waria. Tiara also visits her mother to show her the photos of the shoot. Her mother seems proud when she tells Tiara that “you’ve really became a real woman. You look so beautiful”. However, in the next scene we hear her mother say that looking at the pictures is making her sad and that she doesn’t like it, but that “he’s still my son”.
Tiara also explains that the acceptance of the waria community high is in Makassar, because of the history the city has, pre-Islam, with men who dress as women.

The men she was talking about are called bissu and they were appointed to take care of the king. The bissu is the fifth recognized gender in Bugis society and is a person who both incorporates masculinity and femininity and would, in the traditional believe of the Buginese, be the perfect person to make contact with the spiritual world. Nowadays the bissu are associated with men, but history shows that a majority were women. Their rituals had been existing for more than a hundred years next to Islamic faith. However this dramatically changed when the fundamentalist movement of Kahar Muzakar made a rise mid 1960’s (Boellstorff 2005b: 39). According to this movement, the bissu rituals were conflicting with Islam. As a punishment sacral objects were destroyed and bissu were forced to choose between death or leaving their duties as bissu. As a warning to other bissu the heads of killed bissu were publicly exhibited. Many other bissu also suffered death (Boellstorff 2005b: 39). For more on bissu please watch the film “The Last Bissu: Sacred Transvestites of I La Galigo” by Rhoda Grauer (2005).

The (re)presentation of the waria subject position seems to be the most positive in “Tales of the Waria”. I really liked the way the movie portrays the four waria as human beings, showing them as people with feelings, something which is epecially important to portray when visualizing people who are often stigmatized.

In the documentary film we meet four waria and the viewer is invited to see a, very intimate, glimpse of the waria community in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. It invites the spectator to look at the way they engage in their everyday lives in relation to love, religion and family. The film also shows the circumstances and environments in which they live. You can see that Makassar is a big fishing centre, with a beach and urban areas. It also depicts everyday life in Makassar with the selling of fish, a market, children who are playing and praying Muslims. In an indirect way, the viewer is also witness to how the waria community comes into contact with the Indonesian norms and values (especially the symbolic meaning behind the Garuda and the Islamic crescent moon and star symbol).
I thought the waria identity was taken most seriously in this film and it depicted issues they seem to find important: love, and a bit of religion. It also shows the way waria struggle within a heteronormative society, which is best shown by Firman’s story.

In his last scene of the movie we see him pray in a mosque (masjid) and in a voice-over he says that he is praying to God to hear his prayers and makes him a laki laki (boy). He also says that it is impossible for him to go back to being a waria, because that was a terrible mistake. The spectator sees a picture of him as waria and hears him talk about his childhood in which he was very feminine: he had long curly hair and loved to wear make-up. In the next scene we see him teach English to his two children and he says that his life is very different now. We also meet his wife Mimi who states that it was love at first sight. Firman however seem to stress the ridiculousness of getting married to her after only three months. He also shares when he first knew how it felt to be waria: when a boy at school took him to the bathroom.

Boellstorff has stated that waria are rarely accepted in their family (2008: 166), which is illustrated by Firman’s story of his family. He states that his family was ashamed of him (malu) and that they would get mad at him and beat him. He tells that his father told him to act like a man, but that he couldn’t do it. His parents are also interviewed and his mother states that it is forbidden to be waria and that they told their son not to behave like that. She also says that she has noticed that his behaviour has changed when he got married to a woman and seem to be in disbelief that he even managed to have children. Firman says that he is now happy with his life and that he does not miss being waria. “They respect me now” he states. However, the way he said this gave me the impression that he did not got married because he wanted to, but that he gave up being a waria and started a family because that is what his family longed of him. Mimi states that Firman only hangs out with waria to exchange information about their common occupation: Firman still works in a salon. We see this scene being interchanged with scenes of him hanging out in a bar with waria where he is smiling. Firman also says that he dreams of being with men, he misses their heartbeat and body hair. He also tells that he was once in love with a man and it felt as if he wanted to die. In this scene he also asks himself if he will always distance himself from his family and if he doesn’t want to be normal. During this scene he is shaving his hair, which I though was almost symbolic for wanting, or forcing, to be normal.

In the two other films the subject position of waria is being stereotypically portrayed as a figure of comedy and sexually deviant, but are also deconstructed in a way. In “Dulu Banci” (“Once a Transgender”) this view is been deconstructed by making the subject normal. Umar runs into his ex-fiancé Ipin at the police station when he got arrested with his friends. She is a police officer and after an awkward interview to make up the report, the two drive off on her scooter. This seems to suggest that Umur will ‘reclaim’ his role as ‘real man’ and with that all the socio-cultural notions that comes with it. I thought the short film started off good by showing what life is like for a waria and how she makes a living and the risk of being arrested because of that. However, by making or rather suggesting that Umur will be normal the (re)presentation of the subject position is not taken seriously, but is being ‘forced’ back into the heteronormative society.


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Unfortunetly the video of “Dulu Banci” is also not available anymore in Indonesia.

“Realita, Cinta dan Rock ‘n Roll” (“The Reality of , Love and Rock ‘n Roll”) portrays the relationship between children and parents. However in this story the long absent father of Nugi turns out to identify as a woman, Marianna, and Nugi has to accept that his father is a waria or transsexual. During my interview with anthropologist Laura Coppens she pointed out to me that this movie is especially noteworthy, because of the socio-economic setting Nugi’s father is in. Most of the portrayals of waria or transsexual subjects are set in working-class environments, where Marianna is placed in a middle-class setting or maybe even an elite setting. I thought that this movie challenged the way waria are (re)presented in Indonesia, because even though Marianne does not identify as a male anymore, she embodies her role as a parent. In doing so she seems to appreciate the (Indonesian) family values and in addition to that she shows courage and strength. Which is something that is perceived as typically something for ‘real men’ in Indonesian society (Coppens in Michalik & Coppens 2009: 192). According to Dédé Oetomo this is not unusual behaviour of a waria, rather, it highlights the subject’s view that they are male, with a female soul and that masculinity is as equally important as femininity (Oetomo 1996a: 269). I also really liked the way her son came to accept that his father was now his mother.

Although not all (re)presentations of the waria subject position are a truthful depiction of the waria, they are important. They show Indonesians other forms of gender and sexuality and challenge heteronorative ways of thinking. For example “Realita, Cinta dan Rock ‘n Roll” challenged the heteronormative idea, or structure, of a family. They can also provoke a reflective discussion, for example Firman’s story ilustrates the way his environment restricts him from being himself, because his true (gender)identity isn’t allowed to be and is seen as deviant.
If a movie with a non-normative representation of gender or sexuality wants to create awareness, discussion or tolerance, it is important that these (re)presentions must also be allowed to circulate. The ban of depictions of everything LGBT in Indonesian media and the growing public anti-LGBT campaigns, prohibits this.

Please stay tuned for the last two blogs of this series, in which I will address the lesbi and gay subject position. I will also go into my experience of going to a gay/bro night in Yogyakarta. You can subscribe to this website or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.




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