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Indonesia

Breaking the transgender glass ceiling

A Catholic ex-religious brother fights to gain recognition as a woman in conservative Indonesia

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Breaking the transgender glass ceiling

Hendrika Mayora Victoria at a children's event in East Nusa Tenggara province's Sikka district. (Photo supplied) 

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Hendrika Mayora Victoria, a 33-year-old Catholic male-to-female transgender, faced an uphill struggle to become who she is now.

In March, she was elected chairwoman of the consultative body in Habi village of Sikka district in Indonesia’s predominantly Catholic East Nusa Tenggara province after beating five male candidates and one female.

As chairwoman, she has important tasks including drawing up village regulations, overseeing the use of village funds and monitoring the performance of village officials.

“I thank God for this. In this role, I can speak for marginalized people, particularly minority groups including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who often face discrimination and persecution. My voice can be heard,” the former religious brother told UCA News.

Between 2006 and 2017, the Jakarta-based LGBT rights group Arus Pelangi recorded 172 cases of persecution of LGBT people in conservative Indonesia, including intimidation, physical and verbal abuse, and maltreatment. It's thought many other cases went unreported. 

A survey conducted in 2018 by the Saiful Mujani Research Center found that 87.6 percent out of 1,200 respondents saw LGBT people as a threat and 81.5 percent said their sexual orientation was prohibited by religion.

Victoria spent more than two years taking an active part in organizing social activities held by the local community and the Church before her election to her important position.

In 2018, for example, she established Fajar Sikka, a community that helps transgender people, indigenous women and disabled workers become financially independent by imparting job skills.

“In the community, we grow together with the spirit of love,” she said.

She has also served as animator of the Pontifical Society of Children and Youth Missioners (SEKAMI) and helped run youth activities in her St. Mary Immaculate parish.

SEKAMI, the Indonesian chapter of the Pontifical Society of the Holy Childhood, has been operating in Indonesia since the 1970s. Its members range in age from four to 14.

Last year Victoria was invited to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ledalero-based School of Philosophy during which she shared her struggles in life with mostly seminarians.  

Abandoning religious life

Victoria, who was born a boy in 1986 in East Nusa Tenggara province but raised in Merauke district in Papua province from six months old, said her struggle with her identity began during her formation as a religious brother.

She said she took that path in 2008 after leaving a minor seminary in the district. “I wanted to be a religious brother because I had the spirit to serve others,” she said.

In 2015, after completing formation, she began serving Catholics in Merauke Archdiocese. 

However, the feeling that she was a woman trapped in a male body — a feeling she’d had since she was a child — grew stronger and stronger, prompting her to leave religious life in 2017. 

“I was at odds with myself. I felt like I had sinned against God. I told my superior I wanted to be a good layman. I did not tell him about my self-identity,” she said.

Being rejected by her family, Victoria went to Yogyakarta to live a life as a transgender woman. 

“I felt so insecure, though. I went through hard times. I lost everything. I became a street singer and even a prostitute. What else could I do? There are no decent jobs for transgender women like me,” she said.

“I blamed God for being unfair to me. But then I realized that I was wrong. I found God in my struggle.” 

A year later she returned to Habi, her birthplace in East Nusa Tenggara province. 

It was not as easy as she thought, though, because the initial reaction from locals and the Church was one of rejection, but she managed to overcome this through social participation

Recognition

Victoria’s active participation in various activities finally gained recognition.

Bishop Ewaldus Martinus Sedu of Maumere in Sikka district says she is “an easy-going person.” 

“I met her last year during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ledalero School of Philosophy. We had a good chat. I think what she has done so far for both the community and the Church deserves warm praise,” he told UCA News.

The bishop says the Catholic Church welcomes everyone.

Similar recognition came from Yuliana Bara, a 23-year-old Catholic university student.

“Here’s she’s managed to overcome the negative stigma surrounding LGBT people and is working hard to try and make sure LGBT people are not a marginalized community. To me, this is incredible,” she told UCA News.

“She also encourages Catholic youths to actively participate in church activities,” she said, adding that Catholic youths called her “Bunda Mayora” (Miss Mayora).

Victoria believes she has received such recognition because people see who she really is by what she does.

“I always keep the spirit of love in my heart. No matter what, I have to show God’s love in everything I do. People see what I do instead of what’s on the surface,” she said.

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