JAKARTA – In the conservative Muslim city of Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta, a small house serves as a refuge for transsexuals who cannot sustain themselves when age forces them to retire from working as prostitutes or stylists or hairdressers in beauty salons.
The leader of the house project is 56-year-old Yulianus Rettoblaut, better known as Mama Yuli, a “waria” – a term that comes from joining the words woman and man in Indonesian – who has been working as an activist for more than 20 years.
Mama Yuli told EFE that she started her activism in 1996, “when I was still a prostitute. I started working on the street in 1984 and there was a lot of discrimination. Physical violence and even murders. The law always ignored us.”
The home also serves as a beauty salon and headquarters for the Warias Communication Forum in Indonesia (WCFI), an organization founded by Rettoblaut that promotes education and unity among transsexuals in addition to taking care of them as they grow older.
Homosexuality is legal across Indonesia – except for in Sharia law-ruled Aceh province – and though the LGBT community has yet to meet acceptance, it has in the past been tolerated.
However, in recent years members of this community have found themselves increasingly marginalized and even threatened by some authorities and hostile social trends.
A survey presented Thursday in Jakarta by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found that 87.6 percent of Indonesians regard the LGBT community collective as a threat.
And in the same Jakarta suburb as Mama Yuli’s shelter, two homosexual men remained in custody on Thursday after they were arrested on the weekend by police on charges of sharing pornography on social media.
Although the warias have traditionally been more accepted than gays and lesbians, since 2016 they have been subjected to more societal pressures, according to Human Rights Watch.
In the shelter, which accommodates about 15 people and is located in the conservative Muslim city of Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta, several warias spoke energetically without the residents of nearby houses paying them much attention.
Oma (grandmother) Oti, as the caretaker of the shelter is known, said that the house was built specifically for the collective seven years ago and that they organize activities together like cooking and textile production.
“We get concerned when they fall sick, no one can guarantee that someone will take care of them,” says Oma Oti.
In addition to the difficulties they face in life, the struggle for identity continues even after their deaths; many Muslim clerics refuse to bury the warias as women because in Islam the arrangement of bodies varies according to gender.
“Sometimes there are problems, especially with those who are Muslim, some have breasts and women’s bodies. In that case, we wash the deceased ourselves,” said Mama Yuli about the pre-funeral ablutions which are usually done by family members.
Mama Yuli also preaches by example in educational issues, and in 2015 completed a masters in law, in addition to currently studying for a doctorate degree at Jayabaya University in Jakarta.
“I decided to go to school to educate myself and be able to help my friends, my community. How can we understand the rights and duties of citizens if we do not teach them,” she said, adding that most WCFI members have not had secondary education.
The rise of homophobic discourses from politicians and religious leaders since 2016 has resulted in closures and police raids of leisure establishments for homosexuals and even some convictions under the Anti-Pornography Act.
For Mama Yuli, the warias have suffered more at the hands of ultraconservative groups since “homosexuals can hide, but we cannot, because we are more visible.”
As a country, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with nearly 88 percent of its 260 million inhabitants devoted to Islam, and practices a moderate form of the religion although in recent years there has been a rise in extremism.