Waria outreach in Yogyakarta

Editor’s note: The name “People Like Us” or “PLU” originated (at least in Asia) with the group in SIngapore in 1993. As observed by veteran Indonesian gay rights activist Dede Oetomo, the term has since spread widely throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, used by all sorts of other groups, as well as LGBT individuals to refer to themselves. This news story in the Jakarta Post refers to one such group.

Source: The Jakarta Post
1 June 2008

Bags of friendship from people like us

Daniel Rose, Contributor, Yogyakarta

May 18, 2008. In the dark, hot kitchen of her house, just meters away from the beach, Surati, 45, and three other women are preparing dinner for 45 new arrivals from Yogyakarta city.

Some of the guests occupy the semi-open common room, sitting on a wooden platform or lying around on mattresses; others chat and sing in the bamboo house in front of the main abode. Almost everyone there is under the age of 30 and describes themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender.

The troop, calling themselves PLU-Satu Hati (People Like Us-One Heart), arrived at Sundak Beach, Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta by bus, car and motorcycle, bringing bags of sembako (daily necessities such as cooking oil, sugar, and milk), secondhand clothing, and a banner that reads International Day Against Homophobia 2008. Their mission?

“We’re going to hand out over 100 bags, as well as provide free medical help to the people here tomorrow. We did the same thing in 2005, on the beach on the other side of that hill,” Uki says, pointing to a rocky hill on the west side of Sundak. At 38, Uki (last name omitted at his request) is one of the respected seniors of PLU-Satu Hati. The young ones lovingly call him Mamak-Mother. “We want to help a little, but we also have this mission to reduce homophobia by introducing people to our friends of various sexual orientations,” Mamak adds.

The sun is slowly sinking behind that same hill, but the evening sky is exceptionally clear and the moon nearly full. A number of guys and girls, and those who have decided to stay in between, are sitting on the sand, facing the horizon, singing loudly. Many of them have impressive voices.

“Just so you know, a waria friend of mine once made it to the ‘big 20’ round of a dangdut singing audition. If only the committee didn’t find out about her sexuality, she would’ve made it to Jakarta, I’m sure,” Sonya (not her real name), 29, also a waria, says.

It is tricky to translate the word waria into English because of the whole bundle of homosexual, transvestitism, and sex-for-money connotations it carries.

“Yes, some waria work as prostitutes, but that’s only because it’s so hard to find decent jobs elsewhere. Many (waria) work in beauty salons, but not all of us have the skills,” Sonya says, and quickly adds that another waria friend of hers had to choose between changing the way she dressed or leaving. She decided to quits.

Maybe it is a waste of space to write that homosexuals in Indonesia continue to come up against discrimination; many longer, more comprehensive articles on the subject have been written and published, and more are yet to come. But it is important to note that, according to the members of PLU-Satu Hati, the discrimination — and sometimes violence — stems from the public’s failure to recognize that LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons/transsexuals) deserve to be treated as positively as any other person. But it is not always their fault. “The media has long been focusing on the negative stereotypes and characteristics of LGBT. That’s why we’re doing this. To balance things up,” says Mamak.

***

May 19, 2008. Three members of PLU-Satu Hati are standing in a queue in front of four toilet stalls not too far from Surati’s house. Fresh water is not scarce here, but it is not in abundant supply either. An old woman is seen pulling bucket after bucket of water from a well next to the stalls, pouring the contents into an opening until it flows through a PVC pipe into the bathroom vessels.

The fishermen of Sundak and nearby beaches have not been able to go out to sea for around a month now, reporting “strange” weather. High tide or low tide, it has been too shallow to sail. And when some do go out to the ocean, strong winds force them to head back. For the old woman by the well, providing water for visitors is an alternative way of making money.

Parsinah, Sarilah, and Supen are among the people gradually filling the seats of the bamboo house. Asked about the meaning of gay or lesbian, they shook their heads with an apologetic shy laugh. “We are here because we got tickets,” Parsinah says. But they have seen the waria all around them, priming and preening, minutes away from delivering a performance. “They’re funny,” says Sarilah before, again, laughing.

Locals don’t immediately warm to the members of PLU-Satu Hati. Every now and again, they laugh at the men in drag lip syncing to old dangdut songs, though they aren’t averse to answering the odd question or clapping along. The emcee does try to explain what lesbian, gay, transgender, transsexual, and homophobia mean, but the blank expression on the people’s faces prompt him to fill the awkward silences with simple jokes.

With such responses, two things become clear: The people of Sundak have not been that exposed to the negative stereotypes and characteristics of LGBT portrayed by the media, and they do seem ready to accept the fact that LGBT exist. Thus if friendship is what PLU-Satu Hati offers to systematically reduce homophobia, then they have given it in the right place.

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