Mami Yuli worked as a prostitute for 17 years in Jakarta (photo by Katharina R Lestari)
Yulianus Rettoblaut was 35 years old when she decided to leave prostitution. It was after her mother died.
A Catholic male-to-female transgender, her parents had never accepted her decision – they were embarrassed – and Yulianus says her brother blamed her for their mother’s death.
“It made me hate myself so much,” she says.
The seventh of 11 children, Yulianus was born of two devout Catholic teachers in the majority Christian province of Papua, eastern Indonesia, on April 30, 1961.
She began to hit rock bottom, she says, when her parents found out she was transgendered, called waria in Indonesia – a melding of the two words wanita, woman, and pria, man.
On hearing the news, her parents stopped paying her tuition fees two years into her economics degree at the Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta.
“My parents couldn’t accept me,” she says.
In order to survive, she dropped out of university and started to work in Taman Lawang, a public park in central Jakarta notorious for transvestite prostitutes.
“I put make-up on my face and a wig on my head,” says Yulianus, who now calls herself Mami Yuli. “I got paid about 500 rupiah from each customer.”
She survived there for just four months, she says. Competition from other transgender prostitutes was tough.
She worked as a prostitute elsewhere and later as a bodyguard for other transgendered people in a country where intolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people is high and attacks are not uncommon.
Last year, the Indonesian Survey Circle found a staggering 80.6 percent of its sample population objected to LGBT neighbors, a significant jump from 64.7 percent in 2005, suggesting this country of more than 250 million people is becoming increasingly intolerant.
Mami Yuli says she first noticed feeling like a woman when she was 11 years old living in a dormitory at St John the Baptist Junior High School in Papua’s Asmat district.
“It was dark – no electricity. My friends rubbed me when I was sleeping. I felt so weird,” she says.
The transgendered feelings developed gradually when she was at John XXIII Senior High School in Papua. “I often had dreams of having sex with male friends,” says Mami Yuli.
Unable to fully understand what was happening to her, she met priests and even a bishop who said that being transgender wasn’t in line with the Church’s teachings.
“I could act like a boy for two months then the feelings came again,” she says. “I tried hard not to show it.”
After dropping out of university she spent 17 years in Jakarta working as a prostitute, sufficient time for her to remember what the clergy had told her.
“I wanted to better manage my own life,” she says.
Turning to the church
After her mother died and she shunned prostitution, Mami Yuli rented a small house in Jakarta with the money she had made on the streets and became a door-to-door barber.
Then in 1996, just before Christmas, she confessed to a priest serving in St Stephen’s Parish in Cilandak, South Jakarta.
“I told him everything I had done. He told me not to be afraid. He said God would have mercy on me if I really wanted to change,” she says.
Mami Yuli began attending Sunday Mass regularly and eagerly participated in neighborhood community activities.
“Parishioners didn’t have a problem with me,” she says.
She notes that not all Catholics feel comfortable with transgender people. The Catholic Church’s pastoral stance against this minority is compassionate, says Archbishop Johannes Maria Trilaksyanta Pujasumarta of Semarang, Central Java.
“We see them as human beings. We love and respect them. We give them a chance to mingle with others,” he says.
The archbishop, who is secretary-general of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, is clear though that the Church expects those who are transgendered to convert back to their traditional gender role.
“We must pay attention to transgender people. Hopefully, we can bring them back to normal life even though it’s not easy,” he says.
Shunned by society
In majority Muslim Indonesia, Islam is less sympathetic to the LGBT community.
In a survey conducted with more than 37, 000 people in 39 countries between March and May, some 93 percent of Indonesians said that society should not accept homosexuality. Only three percent of people in this Southeast Asian nation said people should be accepting.
Indonesia was the least tolerant of the Asia-Pacific countries surveyed, including majority-Muslim Pakistan (87 percent) and Malaysia (86 percent).
Only Middle Eastern countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan were less tolerant, so too Uganda, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria in Central Africa where homosexuals are routinely victimized.
Despite the overwhelming lack of acceptance by Indonesia’s more than 200 million Muslims, Mami Yuli says she did not lose hope. Facing rejection from many people around her she decided to tackle Islamic prejudice head on.
“I tried to approach Muslim clerics. It wasn’t easy. Not all of them rejected me, some with modern ways of thinking welcomed me,” she says.
She even chose the Islamic University of Attahiriyah in Jakarta to study law.
“I wanted to see for myself that Islam actually taught good things,” says Mama Yuli.
She began to fight for transgendered rights by placing herself in front of key institutions in Indonesia that might be able to make a difference.
In 2007, Mama Yuli applied for a commissioner's post at the National Commission on Human Rights but failed. Two years after finishing her law degree in 2010 she again sent an application to the commission but was this time rejected for failing the health test.
“I wanted to be a commissioner because I saw many transgender people finding it hard to seek justice whenever they faced persecution or when their rights were violated,” says Mama Yuli.
In July, the commission called for more protection for LGBT people, asserting that the state must protect its own citizens following incidents of repression directed against this minority, sometimes by the state’s Public Order Agency, Satpol PP.
In 2008, one transgendered woman drowned in the Ciliwung River in Jakarta – close to the Taman Lawang Park where Mami Yuli used to work as a prostitute – after fleeing a hail of stones thrown by Satpol PP officers. In response, it said raids were conducted to create a more comfortable living environment.
In a bid to try to help transgender rights, Mami Yuli has focused her efforts through NGOs which have been more willing to work with her, particularly those advocating LGBT rights.
Meanwhile, her stature within this minority community is growing. As well as studying for a master’s degree in law at Tama University in Jagakarsa, Depok, West Java, she is also chairman of the Indonesia Transgender Forum.
Mami Yuli’s house in Depok is home to 15 male-to-female transgender people aged over 50. They all make cakes which they sell in the surrounding area to make ends meet and Mami Yuli generates extra income through hairdressing and fees paid for being a spokesman for different programs.
“She gives me and other transgender people a place to live. She protects us if something happens to us,” says 70-year-old resident Yopi Uktlseya, known as Oma Yoti, who lives with Mami Yuli.
Mami Yuli (center) has taken in 15 other transgender people at her home in Depok, West Java (photo by Katharina R Lestari)
Aged 52, Mami Yuli says she wants to spend the rest of her life trying to help what is one of Indonesia’s most ill-treated minorities.
“God uses me. He wants me to keep staying with transgender people to comfort their souls,” she says.
Mami Yuli also sees her mission as converting ordinary people to understanding transgender. Once a week, she goes with her team to visit old widows to distribute instant noodles. Once a month, they invite young people from different religious backgrounds to a discussion program.
At Christmas and Eid they give out staples like rice, and sometimes they invite community leaders to dialogues on drugs and HIV/AIDS.
“Transgender people go down the dark path,” says Mami Yuli. “I want to be a candle that sheds light on this darkness. With this light, they know where to go.”