This past March the Associated Press broke an unexpected story concerning Barack Obama's childhood in Indonesia. Apparently, as a young boy growing up in Jakarta, Obama's care had been entrusted to a transgender woman named Evie. American readers were shocked. What were the chances of the president having a transgender nanny -- and in Indonesia, of all places? Having worked closely with the transgender community in Indonesia for the past several years, I can say: actually, not that bad.
In Indonesia biological men who believe that they are born with the souls of women are known as "warias." The term is a melding of two Indonesian words: "wanita" ("woman") and "pria" ("man"). As a group, warias are diverse, encompassing what we in America might call cross-dressers, transsexuals, drag queens, and effeminate gay men. What unites them is an irrepressible feminine spirit.
I first learned about warias in 2005, when I saw a newspaper photograph of a gorgeous waria who had won a beauty contest in Jakarta. I knew about the "ladyboys" of Thailand, but I had no idea that transgender people could live so openly in Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population. Like many Americans I had this notion of Islam as being oppressive and particularly unforgiving toward sexual minorities. How could a community of warias possibly exist?
Three years later my curiosity as a filmmaker got the better of me. I took some Indonesian language classes and traveled to Indonesia to experience the lives of warias firsthand. Under the counsel of Dr. Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist with 20 years of field experience working with the queer community in Indonesia, I landed in Makassar, a coastal city in eastern Indonesia known for both its strong Muslim faith and historic openness toward transgender individuals.
I quickly discovered that warias in Indonesia are different from transgender women in the United States. For religious reasons, many are not interested in sex-reassignment surgeries. As one waria explained to me, "We believe we were born as men and must return to God as men." Warias also hold notions of womanhood that would dismay modern feminists; for many warias, the height of happiness is to find a "laki-laki asli," a manly man, and to spend their days looking after him.
Perhaps the most striking feature about transgender women in Indonesia is their visibility in daily life, particularly in the beauty and entertainment industries. Many Indonesians are still unfamiliar with the terms "gay" or "lesbi" ("lesbian"), but they'll undoubtedly recognize the term "waria." In many ways warias in Indonesia are the equivalent of the gay community in the U.S. One of Indonesia's biggest celebrities, whose popularity is comparable to Oprah's, is a waria named Dorce Gamalama. Dorce started off as a young boy in show business and transitioned into her waria identity as a teenager in front of millions of Indonesians.
This is not to say that life is a cakewalk for warias. Families rarely celebrate when they discover that their son is a waria. Evie, Obama's famous nanny, suffered greatly after Obama's family left Indonesia. Like other warias who lacked resources or family support, she fell into prostitution, experiencing violence from her clients and local police. Though warias may pray in mosques as men and celebrate Ramadan with their communities, they sometimes find themselves the target of Islamic extremists. To be a waria is to lead a life of extremes, one of both triumph and tragedy.
As an American entering the scene, my initial interest had been in the role Islam played in warias' lives. How did they negotiate their faith with their lifestyles? How did the members of their religious community receive them? When I approached warias with the idea of making a film on this topic, they were unenthused. "What for?" one waria asked. For them, religion was not a source of conflict in a way that an outsider might imagine. They suggested a film on a more immediate concern: how to find lasting love. This was a story overlooked by the mainstream media, which preferred to portray warias as buffoons or sexual deviants. A film on love could be a wonderful opportunity to deepen people's understanding of their community, to recast their image in the public eye.
And so our filmmaking adventure began. Waria elders came on board as advisors. A local health organization staffed by warias lent translators and story consultants. After I held introductory video lessons, several of their members also became the film crew. We traversed Makassar and its surrounding villages looking for subjects. There are warias who manage to find "husbands," sometimes sharing them with biological women. There are warias who opt to live alone. And there's even a small segment of warias who leave the fold because of family pressure, marry women, and have children. We tried to convey the full spectrum of these experiences.
The journey hasn't always been easy. I've had to learn to abide by the Indonesian notion of "jam karet" ("rubber time"), drinking sweet tea for hours until my subjects finally showed up, and to navigate the numerous languages spoken in Makassar. There were torrential rains, unbelievable heat waves, and the occasional foodborne illness. I survived, though, mostly thanks to the resourcefulness and unflagging commitment of my film crew. We kept each other safe, sane, and, most importantly, impassioned.
After four years, the film is finally finished. We hope that it will show people that there is room in Islam, as there is in any religion, for differences in appearances, lifestyles, and sexual preferences. We've also tried to give audiences a new glimpse into transgender life, one that foregoes the usual emphasis on sex-reassignment surgeries, prostitution, and alienation. Our subjects search for love and try to forge meaningful human connections, despite whatever obstacles or heartache may lie in their path. Theirs is a universal journey, one that is both beautiful and inspiring.
Tales of the Waria will premiere as part of the Global Voices series on the WORLD Channel, Sunday, June 3 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Starting June 4 the documentary will be available to view in entirety online via PBS Video (for a limited time only).
The film is part of Diverse Muslim Voices, a multi-year media initiative to build awareness and improve understanding in the U.S. of diverse Muslim societies. Funding is provided by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.