JAKARTA – A dozen elderly women are gathered inside the pink house, set on a narrow dirt road in a dusty Jakarta suburb. Together they sew, bake and chat. At first sight they look like a group of benevolent grandmothers, but the sunken cheeks and deep lines on some of their faces tell stories of hardship.
All of these women are “waria,” a term used for Indonesian transgender people, and the house in the country’s capital has been hailed by activists as the world’s first home for elderly transgender residents.
The word waria combines the Indonesian for woman — wanita — and the word for man — pria. Though the term particularly refers to men who feel they are women, it is used to describe a range of gender identities, regardless of whether they have undergone gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy.
A home for elderly waria is an unexpected sight but perhaps also typical of the many contradictions in a nation where, until two years ago, the official government line on transgender people was that they were mentally ill.
As part of new moves toward acceptance, the government will in March begin supporting the home, which officially opened in November, with a basic nutrition program while offering business seed money to 200 transgender residents in the city.
However, most of the funds needed to support the home will continue to come from its founder, Yulianus Rettoblaut, a waria and prominent activist better known as Mami Yuli, who converted her own home into the shelter last year. She was inspired to take action after seeing many fellow aging waria on the streets, ill, unemployed and forced to live in squalid conditions.
“We are focusing on elderly waria because NGOs usually focus on young ones,” the 51-year-old said.
While a few waria have become local celebrities as talk show hosts or emcees, most in the nation of 240 million people — Southeast Asia’s largest populace — are cast out by relatives who would otherwise be responsible for the care of elderly family members.
“Life for them is very difficult and many live under the poverty line,” Mami Yuli said. “They often have no choice but to sleep under bridges.”
While the home is grossly underfunded, she tries to offer three daily meals to residents, who learn sewing, baking and hairdressing if they are jobless. Conditions are far from ideal — the 12 waria who live at the house sleep on old mattresses crammed into one bedroom at the top of steep, narrow stairs.
When Mami Yuli fails to raise the 350,000 rupiah ($36) a day needed to run the home, she organizes street performances where its residents sing and dance. Despite their age, they are expected to work to make a living if they can.
A devout Catholic, Mami Yuli says that 70 churches in Jakarta support the home, offering shelter during floods. But only four donate money.
Despite the huge challenges, she hopes to one day be able to accommodate all 800 of Jakarta’s elderly waria and expand her home into the vacant lot next door — if she can raise enough money or secure state support.
There are an estimated 35,000 transgender Indonesians, according to the Asia-Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health, but activists suspect the figure is much higher.
Despite being considered sacred by some Indonesian ethnic groups, waria largely remain a target of harassment and intimidation, although there are signs of increasing acceptance. Discrimination forces many into sex work, fueling an increase in HIV rates from 6 to 34 percent between 1997 and 2007 among transgenders in Jakarta, Health Ministry data shows.
Prostitution is illegal in Indonesia and the country’s Islamic clerics say it is “haram” (forbidden). But the industry thrives in karaoke bars and dark street corners, where waria can be found holding up dresses to show off breasts developed with hormones from birth control pills or via silicone injections.
Some also reveal their gender reassignment, though few waria can afford to go down this path. The surgery has been available since the 1970s, but not under the public health system.
At 70 years of age, Yoti Oktosea is a male-to-female transgender Indonesian and one of Mami Yuli’s current residents. Dressed down in knee-length shorts and a baggy T-shirt, she’s given up putting on makeup, but proudly showed a photo of herself as a young woman. In those days she was in demand as a sex worker, she said. “But things are much saggier now!” she joked.
Smartly dressed Mami Yuli also worked as a prostitute for 17 years but managed to turn her life around, becoming the first “out” waria to obtain a law degree from an Islamic university, at the age of 46.
The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are the waria’s most vocal foe, using violence and intimidation to shut down several transgender events that they say “threaten Indonesia’s Islamic values,” including the Miss Waria pageant in December.
“We had the pageant shut down and we’re willing to shut down other waria gatherings again,” FPI Jakarta chief Habib Salim Alatas said.
But signs are growing that the future might be a little brighter for this marginalized community. In 2008, the first Islamic school specifically for transgender people to pray and study the Quran opened in Yogyakarta.
The establishment of Mami Yuli’s home for the elderly is seen as another victory.