Indonesia 01 Mar 2014 00:00
Photo essay and video Video length - 7:01 "Rumah Singgah" literally means “shelter house." A project developed by Mami Yulie (aka Yulianus Rettoblaut), the 53 year-old leader of the Indonesian waria (transgender) community, the shelter hosts elderly transgender with no means of living on their own for free. 'Waria' is literally a combination of the words wanita meaning woman and pria, man. At Rumah Singgah, they create a sort of microcosm, a small community ruled by tight family-like bonds. Rumah Singgah is also Mami Yulie's home, where she lives with her own family: her foster children, her husband and sometimes her relatives.
Almost all waria in Indonesia are chased away from their families of origin when relatives find out they are transgender people. When they are young they can survive thanks to prostitution, but when they become old and sick, many are left without others to help care for them. Rummah Singgah is a space where elderly waria care for each other and are looked after by Mami Yulie and the shelter's caretaker.
“When I was at school, I used to play with the girls. I used to draw flowers, houses, weird stuff…. When I grew up and become an adult, my parents understood that I was a transgender so I was chased from home," said Mumun, the 68-year-old caretaker of Rumah Singgah. "I was ordered to go away. They didn’t want their son to be a transgender. My parents disowned me asking me to leave the house. I was beaten up with wood and bamboo sticks and fell down in the rice field. I was beaten up there, so I ran away. I left. I took a train to Bogor. When I arrived I didn’t have relatives to go to nor did I know anybody”, she said.
This is a common situation among many “waria” in Indonesia. Most of their stories starts like that of Mumun: they experienced exclusion and abandonment by their families when they came out as transgender. Their new life, the choice of becoming who they feel themselves to be, always starts on the street. Waria people consider themselves women trapped in men’s bodies. They say that their soul and heart are that of a woman, so a waria is a man with a woman’s soul. Becoming transgender is not a choice for them. It comes from the heart. Many people in Indonesia think if someone hangs out with a group of transgender, he/she can become a transgender. This only furthers the stigmatization of the waria, many of whom already live under precarious circumstances.
“The problem in the waria community is that people forget there are many old transgender," said Mami Yulie. "This is a problem because when they get sick or die, they don’t have a proper place for burial. The community rejects them. They are taken to the police, who take them to hospital and bury them in a mass grave. This happens again and again, and it prompts me to think that I have the responsibility to help them."
When transgender become old, making a living becomes very hard for them. “I am sixty eight year old now. I am too old to make a living in the evening. I am not sellable anymore,” Mumun said.
In Rumah Singgah, a lot of elderly waria have been helped to become independent, to improve their skills and to be able to create a home industry. However, the shelter’s capacity is limited. Only about ten to fifteen people can be accommodated according to a rotation system. If there are five or ten people coming in, five or ten people must leave. The great challenge of this project is to find enough financial support to pay for food, medicine, electricity and water for them all: and the transgender community in Jakarta has eight hundred and thirty one elderly waria who need to be taken care of. Residents also pray and practice their own religion at the shelter house. This vital time helps them prepare for the day when they will die. They can share their thoughts: at the shelter house, their main job is to provide peer support to each other. This process helps to create new strong family-like bonds between them, and the tiny community becomes a new big family for people who often have no one left in their life.
Mami Yulie, originally born in Merauke, Papua, moved to Jakarta when she was chased from her family home. She began her life in Jakarta working on the street as a prostitute, where she met her partner fifteen years ago. Since then they have been inseparable. Mami Yulie was the first Indonesian transgender to graduate at University. Leaving the street life behind, her biological family welcomes her again. They come to visit her and stay in Rumah Singgah from time to time.
“At this age, I have been given a long life," Mami Yulie said. "I was able to study, to appear on TV, to go in and out of government offices. This wouldn’t be possible without the will of God. He is the only one to help, me because I believe there is nothing impossible in God’s name."