Transpuanism

MAJENE, Indonesia — Oyhe and Chycong were teased as kids because their family struggled financially. Times got especially tough after their father died during their first year of elementary school, but their mother forbade her seven children to work. She wanted them to have a childhood.

Throughout their youth, the boys were also teased more frequently than other kids in town, even their own siblings, because they are identical twins. As soon as they got the chance, they enrolled in separate high schools to get away from each other and the hurtful taunting that came with looking alike.

They had already started experimenting with their appearances a few years earlier. After joining the traditional dance troupe in their village, they began using makeup to enhance their performances, distinguish themselves from one another and discover their true selves. It was around that time that they first realized that their inner and outer selves did not match…

The twins found more brotherhood in the dance troupe than the masjid (a Muslim house of prayer), but Islam also structured their process of self-discovery. Now 28 years old, both identify as Muslim and say they struggle with their faith just like anyone else. As Chycong put it, “I pray. I don’t pray five times a day, but I pray.”[1] On Fridays, they attend the masjid near their house; last Friday, Chycong came wearing a hijab (a shawl typically worn by Muslim women). Both have become adept at navigating gender identity in religious and professional spaces, although they often make different choices. When asked where in the world they most want to travel, they simultaneously replied, “Mecca.”

That trip is now financially possible for the twins thanks to makeup, and to mom. In shouldering the family’s burden of poverty, she granted them time as children to get involved in the dance troupe, gain experience in cosmetology and grow their practices into separate lucrative enterprises in Majene, a small fishing village on the coast of West Sulawesi. After years of beautifying brides in the traditional fashion of the native Mandar people and putting finishing touches on the dancers who travel around the country to represent this culture, the twins have become regionally renowned artists in high demand. They have found their niche.

Money and fame have taken the edge off the teasing, but travel can still be dangerous for people like them. Their former bullies may have accepted the twins for who they are, but outside the village, Oyhe and Chycong risk becoming the victims of hurtful gazes and hate crimes because they are what some Indonesians refer to as “banci,” “bencong,” or “waria.” The last of those words offers insight into what I mean by “people like them”—waria is a portmanteau of the words “WAnita” (woman) and “pRIA” (man). The closest equivalent in English is “transgender.”

While risks still exist and not everyone accepts Oyhe and Chycong, the story of how a little town became tolerant of transgender twins provides evidence that there is something special about South Sulawesi’s cultural legacies.

Teasing and Tolerance

The ocean is a three-minute walk away from the simple wooden house where the twins grew up, and the sea breeze that fills the air has spent years fading the yellow paint on the walls in the living room where I now sit. I’m cross-legged on the floor because all the furniture has been removed from the room. Men from the village sit similarly around its perimeter wearing their best Muslim garb and smoking so much that a cloud hangs above our heads. We’ve gathered here for an “aqiqah”—a Muslim baby-naming ceremony.

The event officially commences when one man begins to read from a small prayer book in a sing-songy voice. The book is passed around, and those who are able read the Arabic script take turns doing so. Once we’ve gone around the circle, two mothers carry their babies into the room. Their husbands follow with an open coconut in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. One by one, the men who had read from the prayer book take the scissors, cut a small length of hair from each child’s head and place it in the appropriate coconut. The blessed families then leave the room. The ceremony has concluded.

A flurry of activity follows. Oyhe and Chycong’s mother and aunt bring trays of food to set before the men, who are now seated. Some begin to eat as others smoke, chat and make jokes. But a hush abruptly falls over the room when a man near the door wearing a skull cap and possessing, at most, seven teeth, points to a picture on the wall and says in a derisive tone, “That’s Oyhe.” He smiles, anticipating a chorus of chortles.

The photo in question

“That’s not Oyhe. That’s the little sister,” retorts an older man with an impressive handlebar mustache. I had enjoyed the light lilt in his voice as he read from the book earlier, and am now silently cheering him on as he sternly scotches this attempt to mock Oyhe’s gender identity.

I am witnessing a culture clash, but only partially understand its significance. Why did Mr. Mustache speak up? And why did all the other men fall silent instead of joining in on the joke? Was it because we were in the home of Oyhe’s mother, eating her food? Was it because they knew and could distinguish between all seven of their neighbor’s children?

Interrupting to ask would have been a moment-killing faux pas, but I wondered… Could it be that they have all just come to accept Oyhe for the person s/he[2] has chosen to be?

Acceptance and Inclusion

The following weeks provided a perfect opportunity to query village elders about their thoughts on the twins: after the fasting month of Ramadan, people throughout Indonesia visit one another’s homes for “silaturahim”—a rekindling of connections. I have been making such visits in this village for years now and they always involve food and politicking. I put some thought into how to broach the topic in a way that would allow me to segue naturally and ensure people wouldn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear. After some time, I set upon a single, straightforward question.

First, some context: every year, on the morning of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, nearly everyone in the village gets together at a soccer field to pray—men in front, women in back, just as prayers are divided at the masjid.

Second, a curious, conversation-worthy complication: for at least the past two years, Oyhe, Chycong and their friends have sat right in the liminal space between the men and the women, and the twins have donned attention-grabbing, matching outfits.

(Left) Last year, Oyhe and Chycong wore colorful, kurta-like garments to the soccer field for
Eid prayers. (Right) This year, the twins and several of their friends played upon the
gender binary in matching black gowns that might best be described as fabulous

This year, while visiting to the homes of village elders for silaturahim, I availed myself of conversational opportunities to pose my question: Are Oyhe, Chycong and their outfits acceptable in Mandar culture?

There was less range to village leaders’ responses than I had anticipated. Three particularly clarified the basis, and the limits, of the town’s tolerance:

A part of this town is named after Imam Haji Buk’ku, an 87-year-old man who speaks more Arabic than Indonesian and has gone on the hajj twice. In response to my question, he said matter-of-factly that what matters most is that they pray and practice Islam. Everything beyond that is between them and Allah.

Pak Buk’ku espouses a live-and-let-live attitude that builds on
his faith and his presumption that Oyhe and Chycong share it

Haswin Tambaru, the principal of a vocational school for seamanship, said he has no problem with the twins, and mentioned that Oyhe went to school with his son. “Mandar culture is inherently tolerant,” he told me, and it and Islam are “two sides of the same coin.”

I heard similar sentiments from Majene’s representative to parliament, Rusbi Hamid, who noted that Sulawesians have recognized five genders for centuries. However, right after that, he voiced disapproval of the LGBT lifestyle, which he tied to the threat of globalization.[3]

The seeming paradox of Pak Rusbi’s comments clued me in to something I hadn’t considered before: people here who have no problem with bencong, banci and waria can still demonstrate intolerance toward the anonymized LGBT community. Literally, the language matters: Indonesian words evoke thoughts of friends, but the English acronym conjures up deviant sexuality, state-sanctioned gay marriage and a Western effort to change their ways.

Art and Activism

The month after Eid is a busy one for Muslims in Indonesia. In addition to making visits to friends’ homes, there are many weddings to attend. For those who fasted for a month and “returned to purity,”  ’tis the season to get hitched—which means it is a busy season for makeup artists.

Citing the seven beauty appointments s/he had in a single afternoon, Oyhe regretfully canceled a follow-up discussion about how s/he navigates gender identity. In an effort to make amends, Oyhe digitally introduced me to Zahira, his/her transgender friend who is a makeup artist by day and an activist for life.

Among her many roles and responsibilities, Zahira is the head of SURE Mandar, an LGBT awareness group based out of the nearby town of Polewali. A charismatic and complex character dedicated to educating the public about her gender identity, Zahira identifies as a Muslim and nearly always presents as a woman—and she presents quite well, if I dare say so.

(left) Zahira frequently participates in transpuan beauty contests in South Sulawesi (right) She usually presents as a woman and a Muslim

Zahira’s activism springs from her own lived experiences. Like Oyhe and Chycong, she experienced hardship and teasing in her youth. Her parents divorced at a young age and she felt constrained by social limits on her gender expression. Unlike the twins, however, Zahira eventually dropped out of school. Years later, she now helps schools increase graduation rates by making them more welcoming spaces for all children.

 “Due to their gentle demeanor, some children are reluctant to go to school because they are bullied or even abused,” she told me. Zahira also pointed to standard lessons about the prophet Lot, sent to warn the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah to change their ways. “Well, for people struggling with their gender identity, things like that make school hell,” she said.

In addition to working with schools, SURE Mandar aims to provide educational workshops for activists, legal advocates and civic leaders. Zahira even educated me. In response to my question about how waria are treated in Polewali and South Sulawesi more generally, she gently updated my nomenclature:

“Bencong, waria, banci… they are often screamed hurtfully at members of our community, and so many of us prefer the softer term, transpuan.”

“Puan” is an old Malay term for “woman.” (I am sometimes referred to at airports and fancy hotels by the male equivalent, “tuan.”) It is one of those excessively respectful honorifics Indonesians use to address those they don’t know. Affixing it to the Western morpheme “trans” struck me as an artful repurposing of a term that would be familiar to most people here.

Artful… but effective? I wondered whether “trans” might pique the same affective filters as “LGBT” and result in rejection. However, as an outsider to these communities, I stopped short of offering advice and instead asked whether there are terms in the local language for alternative gender and sexual identities. Pak Rusbi had said people here acknowledge five genders, so surely there must be culturally specific words for them.

And indeed there are. Zahira explains that in addition to “oroane” (male) and “makkunrai” (female), there are also “calabai” (men who dress as women, similar to “waria”) and “calalai” (women who dress as men)—but both have fallen out of use and out of favor. The fifth gender is “bissu.”

I’d heard of bissu before, but in a different context. It almost seems unfair to introduce them through the lens of gender, as they are considered first and foremost to be spiritual beings. With one foot in our world and the other in “dunia ghaib” (the world of spirits), and existing between the earth and the sky, bissu were chosen as advisers by the kings of the region during the pre-colonial period (circa 1600).[4]

Historically, bissu would select young people who expressed interest and demonstrated potential to apprentice for positions as kingly advisers. Even after the kingdom fell, the community continued to provide space and education for people we might recognize as gender-fluid. Perhaps it was the proximity to power that created specific words and cultural tolerance for the bissu. Whatever the cause, the prestige and then the language surrounding this community seem to have fallen away with the passage of time. Today, there is no young generation of bissu.

Older bissu may soon be much less visible if Asiz Kahar Muzakkar has his way. As a vice gubernatorial candidate, he is following in the footsteps of his father, Kahar Muzakkar, who led a violent “repentance operation” against bissu back in the 1960s. If Asiz succeeds in convincing Sulewesians to reject the bissu reality, that last vestige of a unique cultural practice will have been successfully subverted for purely political purposes.

Rejection and Alienation

Zahira, who has been pushing boundaries since she was young, now works to challenge the ideological and geographic limits that constrain members of her community. The fact that she, Oyhe, Chycong and others can safely and openly run beauty salons and educational workshops around their respective towns suggests that most rural Sulawesians are tolerant of transgender people, whatever words are used to describe them. However, a number of recent occurrences make clear that Zahira and other LGBT activists in South Sulawesi still have their work cut out for them.

“Alhamdulillah, bridal showers and wedding preparations always run smoothly,” Zahira says. “Transpuan beauty queen contests, however, are often broken up by radical religious groups.” If activists report such incidents to the police, they are often met with questions about their citizenship and gender. At least in legal terms, it looks like an unfair fight.

 South Sulawesi has recognized gender as a spectrum for hundreds of years

A culture clash in 2010 in the regional hub of Makassar serves as a case in point. A “Miss Waria” contest was abruptly canceled when hundreds of members of a conservative religious organization, the Islamic Defenders Front,[5] protested in front of Balai Kemanggulan TNI, an army building. Five soldiers were guarding the transpuan community’s contest, which had prior approval from local officials. But the head of Makassar’s police force rescinded it without providing any notice to event organizers, then allowed protesters to enter the building, claiming it was the only way to ensure the situation didn’t descend into anarchy.

What followed was not anarchy but more of an orchestrated public shaming. Protest leader Abu Bakar invited the head of the organizing committee, Andi Akbar, to stand at a podium in front of the building, bear responsibility for the event and speak publicly to the crowd of protesters. Andi kept his remarks brief: “This event was co-coordinated by the Napza Bureau of South Sulawesi. We had permission.” Abu Bakar then took the stage and made clear that if the event had been allowed to continue, he “wouldn’t have been able to keep his friends outside from engaging in anarchist activity.”[6] Clearly, reporting this to the police would have been of little use.

In 2013, another such contest, “Miss Uniperes,” was broken up in similar fashion. And last January, local police shut down a bissu cultural event in the region of Soppeng even though local members of parliament had previously approved it.[7] Prior permission from police and politicians is not a reliable guarantee of protection for the transpuan community.

Make Money or Take a Stand?

A debate is raging in the living room as I write this article. My friend’s mother wants Oyhe to do the makeup for all the girls at her son Fikar’s wedding next month. But my friend insists that while Oyhe is good at doing makeup for many people, another person in the village, Prety Perez, is actually a more talented artist, and so the family should hire her to do the bride’s makeup, but Oyhe for everyone else. I smile at the thought that there is healthy competition and even specialization in the village’s beauty sector. For better or worse, there is never any mention of gender.

Oyhe and Chycong don’t use words like “transpuan,” or cite examples of oppression of people who share their identity or participate in overtly political or educational activities. They do makeup. They are not activists—they are artists.

(from l to r) Oyhe, I, and Chycong pose for a picture

Since first chatting with them last year, I’ve occasionally thought about their choice sets: how, where and when to present as women or men, why they prioritize making money over raising awareness, what they want for their own future and for other members of their community.

As I listen to my friend and her mother argue about the utilitarian function the artists should play at Fikar’s wedding, it occurs to me that for Oyhe, Chycong, Prety, Zahira and others, the politics of presentation, their day-to-day decisions, their here-and-queer existence is their activism.

Zahira’s community outreach is impressive and important, but the quiet, normalizing, entrepreneurial “activism” of transpuan such as Oyhe and Chycong has its place as well. After all, South Sulawesi officials may not be ready to stand up to anarchist bigots now, but when it comes time for them or their sons to marry after some coming Eid, the wives and mothers of those very men may prove to be some of the most effective agents for tolerance and change.


[1] All translations are my own, and are as true to the speakers’ intentions as the languages allow.

[2] In Indonesian, the third-person pronoun is gender-neutral. Thus, when I asked Oyhe what gender pronoun s/he preferred, the question didn’t compute. As Oyhe does not identify as a boy or a girl, and sometimes presents as both, I have opted to employ “s/he” in an overt attempt to point a finger at an English language convention that is a trap for people living beyond binary notions of gender.

[3] Pak Rusbi and I discussed this topic at length last year and I included his thoughts in JVC-1.

[4] I later learned that a professor at the local university, Halilinta Latief, focuses his research specifically on bissu culture, its history, and its marginalization and commodification by hardline Muslims and tourism officials, respectively. For a concise, translatable description of his work, check out: http://halilintar2011.blogspot.co.id/2011/01/pewaris-budaya-bugis-kuno-bukan.html and http://halilintar2011.blogspot.co.id/2011/01/bissu-priest-endures-shift-of-fortunes.html

[5] Often abbreviated as FPI, this same organization led rallies against Jakarta Governor Ahok, a Chinese Christian accused of blasphemy. FPI will feature prominently in a coming newsletter.

[6] https://m.tempo.co/read/news/2010/12/01/176296069/fpi-bubarkan-kontes-waria

[7] http://aruspelangi.org/siaran-pers/bubar_porseni-waria-bissu-se-sulawesi-selatan/

About the Author

Jonthon returns to Indonesia to explore the country’s educational spaces, which are increasingly affected by both foreign entrants and governmental decentralization. His particular focus is on the role education plays in the formation of identity, wherein Jonthon will examine how educational experiences lead religious and national identities to emerge, converge and diverge. In using education as a lens, Jonthon will look far beyond schools and schooling to the public pedagogies, endangered languages and subaltern knowledge that he hopes will offer others insight into “becoming-Indonesia.” The world’s fourth-most populous country (and largest population of Muslims in the world) remains a relatively unknown archipelagic nation that is changing rapidly—in ways that have implications for the regional and the global community. Jonthon has taken a leave of absence from his doctoral program at Columbia University Teachers College to accept the ICWA fellowship. He previously lived in Indonesia as a Fulbright Scholar and U.S. State Department English Language Fellow.