JAKARTA: For a little over a year, Yulian Rettoblaut, 51 years old, has run a home for elderly warias out of her small pink house on the western edge of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling capital. Since then, eight other aging warias have lived together in the home, and dozens more have passed through.
The term “waria” in Indonesia refers to people born male who identify as female. The term fuses two Bahasa Indonesia words: “wanita” (woman) and “pria” (man). As a group, warias are diverse, encompassing a range of identities and presentations in English, including: cross-dressers, transsexual or transgender people, drag queens, and effeminate gay men.
“It’s like a halfway house,” Rettoblaut, who is familiarly called Mami Yuli, told 429Magazine. She feels her home represents a new wave of LGBT activism in Indonesia.
“So far, we have focused on the young warias difficulties, we forgot that old warias also have many difficulties,” she explained.
Photos of the residents in their youth line the walls and the shelves in the small house are full of beauty pageant trophies.
According to data from the Communication Forum of Indonesian Warias, an NGO that Yuli directs, there are 800 elderly warias in Jakarta and surrounding areas. They estimate more than a quarter of them are living under bridges and working as beggars.
“Life is very difficult for them. They often have no choice but to sleep under bridges. That reality is very unfortunate,” Yuli explained.
“Then, I had a thought, why didn’t I use my house to accommodate them?”
While the home has limited space, itinerant visitors pass through and share in the camaraderie and work. Those who are healthy do the household chores together.
To pay rent and other daily expenses, some of the residents and guests make sandals, mats, or pastries to sell to vendors in the city.
Four churches regularly donate money to the elderly home, but they prefer to remain anonymous. In terms of the local community, there has been no resistance to the presence of a home for elderly warias in the neighborhood.
“People said it wasn’t a problem if it is just a place to accommodate some old warias, as long as it’s not the origin of prostitution in that house,” explained Yuli.
Yoti Maya, one of Mami Yuli’s residents, is almost 70 years old and has lost nearly all of her teeth.
When she was 17-years-old and presented as male, she was caught making out with her boyfriend. Her father reacted harshly and threw her out of the house, saying “Are you going to die, you want to live, you may not see me, ever!”
She spent much of her life living in the streets until she found a permanent home at Yuli’s, where she now works in the kitchen to pay her keep.
Mbok Sri, another resident, at 73, said she wants to send a message to the younger warias that prostitution is not the only option for their lives: “I said to them, waria has a limit to work ‘on street’. Be focus on your skills.”
But with prejudice against LGBT people in Indonesia so strong, almost all warias end up on the streets, many doing sex work.
“This sad reality is probably because of the difficult access for warias to have a job,” Yuli explained.
“If they don’t have money start a business, working in the salon might be another choice.”
Yuli grew up in Papua. She has known that she was attracted to men since she was 11 years old. As a young boy, he knew transsexual or transgender identities to be taboo.
Her family was furious when they found out that Yuli had started wearing women’s clothing. Her brother, a police officer, held a gun to her head and told her that she embarrassed the family.
Shortly after Yuli’s departure for Jakarta, her mother died. Her brother called her and blamed her for this incident.
“They told me that Mother died because of my inappropriate attitude,” she said.
“I never saw any warias in Papua,” she said. When she moved to Jakarta at the age of 18, she saw there are many people who have this identity in common with her. “At that time, I felt I was not alone,” she said.
Yuli worked as a sex worker for 17 years. She enrolled at university and, at age 46, became the first waria to receive a law degree from an Islamic university.
Yuli is currently renovating the house to turn two rooms into a beauty salon to provide employment for more warias and expand the upstairs bathroom for guests.
Yuli is not wealthy enough to support the elderly home on her own, and she relies on the residents’ earnings to help.
“But I will work hard because I’ve committed to help,” she said.