Friday, October 13, 2006

Warias of the Wasteland

Whilst returning home one evening last week after blowing the froth off a few ales on Jakarta's street of backpackers and broken dreams (Jl. Jaksa), my Bluebird hansom cab passed over the river/canal flyover that connects Menteng with the skyscrapers of Jl. Rasuna Said. On the flyover I saw several tradesmen plying their wares on another grueling nightshift. Those of you who have seen these fellows before whilst driving south of an evening will no doubt be emitting a familiar chuckle. For those not in the know however, allow me to elucidate more clearly and reveal that these gentlemen are what are generally known as lady-boys... transvestites if you will... looks like a lady... in fact it's a chap.

Now, I may be opening up a whole can of worms here and perhaps this subject is not entirely fitting for a Sunday. However, these fine bodies of men are almost certainly one of the city's minor tourist attractions. The first time I saw these charming creatures I was new in town and wet behind the ears. A friend took me for a spin around the area in a taxi and I was a little shocked. We then headed on to a club I might add, no money changed hands, I'd like to make that quite clear and our taxi doors were not breached in anyway.

The area in question is known as Taman Lawang and extends from the aforementioned flyover into the pleasant, leafy environs of Menteng. I have always considered this to be a slightly weird arrangement. Other cities and countries make sure that street walking, especially that of the gender bending variety, is confined to the cheesy side of town. Menteng though is one of the poshest, most gentrified and expensive districts in the city. Ex-president Soeharto is the area's most famous resident but no doubt other powerful politicians, businessmen and generals are also domiciled there. I can't begin to imagine how they feel when they leave their mansions of an evening to be confronted by semi-nude transsexual prostitutes being solicited by Kijang drivers.

Homosexuality is frowned on by Indonesia’s nominally Islamic population. Nevertheless, lady-boys, commonly known as Bencong, Banci or Waria, seem generally to be treated as figures of fun. They are seen as clown like individuals for people to point and laugh at rather than beat up or harass. In fact, this socially marginalized but ultimately accepted she-male pantomime goes way back into the roots of Indonesian history, to the beginning of oral (careful Simon) and written records. For example, among the Bugis ethnic group of Sulawesi there exist cross-dressing palace guards known as Bissu who predate the arrival of Christianity or Islam to Indonesian shores.

Your modern Indonesian transvestite however is not treated as an equal member of society. She will often suffer discrimination from both family and neighbors and the obligation to engage in a heterosexual marriage is strong here. She is also limited in the work available to her. Many Waria can be found working in hair salons or, of course, walking the streets of Menteng at night. Also though, she-males are often seen on television in Indonesia. At the moment, Waria are under increasing persecution from the ascendant Sharia law lobby. The 2005 Miss Waria pageant, for example, was (literally) broken up by FPI (Islamic Defenders’ Front) goons. It would seem that Indonesia's gender and sexual minorities are facing an uncertain future.

In a recent movie that I saw, two characters, in a classic display of male homophobic bonhomie, are explaining how each knows that the other is gay. Their conversation went like this:
-You know how I know you're gay? You saw the movie Maid in Manhattan.
-Really? Well, you know how I know you're gay? I saw you making a spinach dip once.
-Is that so? Well, you know how I know you're gay? You like Coldplay.
Etc etc.

Similar thoughts sometimes cross my mind about the Indonesian gay community. Something like:
-You know how I know you're gay? Because your Indonesian and gay.
I reckon that the effeminate transvestite tradition here makes your average gay man stand out more from the less camp masses when compared with his equivalent in the West who has gained more social acceptance. However, I could be wrong on this one as I don't possess the so-called Gay-dar sensing powers that homosexuals claim enable them to spot other gay men at fifty paces.

Well, I think that we've just about wrapped this subject up. All letters of complaint should be addressed to the Jakarta Post. You know how I know you're gay? You read Metro Mad.

Simon Pitchforth