The first time I saw Yulianus Rettoblaut, who goes by the nickname Mami Yuli, she was giving a speech at a talent show for trans women secretly held in Jakarta. I don’t remember much from her speech, except for the story of her journey towards earning her doctoral degree and the rejection she experienced while putting herself forward as a commissioner of a human rights-related government body.
The next time I saw her was two years later, at the Valentine’s Day celebration at the halfway house for trans women that she built in Depok, a city south of Jakarta. The location of the house isn't what I would call the most obvious choice. Depok is home to various regulations that are discriminatory towards sexual minorities—clearly an unsafe place to be for members of the LGBTQ community. It's even in the process of passing local anti-LGBT bylaws.
But the tiny halfway house has stood strong since 2010. The scant building, painted blue, is located at the end of an alleyway that’s only wide enough for one car. The one-story structure is far from luxurious, but it's home.
“Hello and welcome, please come in,” a woman named Intan told me, smiling as she fixed her dress that cascaded to the floor.
Mami Yuli was sitting on a brown faux-leather sofa. Around her were around a dozen elderly trans women, who sat in pairs giving each other massages. The rest were busy preparing food, while some were putting on makeup despite the humidity.
The mood was cheerful, but Mami Yuli told me things weren't exactly alright. The halfway house has been the subject of negative rumors around the neighborhood in these few years, such as that the house was a brothel, when in reality it's a home where trans women could come together and share skills such as sewing or giving massages, hoping that they could use them to make money.
“Look around, is this a place for prostitution?" she said. "No, this is a place for us to practice."
Mami Yuli opened the halfway house after seeing the harsh conditions that many trans women face every day. Since the house was founded, more than 4,500 elderly trans women, all of them in poverty, have come and gone. Most of them came here to run away from police raids and transphobia from the general public.
The elderly women I met in Mami Yuli's looked different from TV portrayals, where trans women flaunt their dramatic makeup looks and extravagant clothing. Many women here had short hair and dressed more "masculine" to "stay on the safe side." People could only be a trans waria—an amalgamation of the Indonesian words wanita (woman) and pria (man)—with full makeup on if they had money, Mami Yuli told me.
“The culture in Indonesia isn’t ready to accept us," Mama Yuli told me. "The dominant culture still prevails, and we’re still in the minority. If we have the money, we can wear whatever we want. All we need to do is hire a bodyguard. It’s harder for us, we need to have a title or an income. In a tough economic situation, we’re just trying to stay safe.”
Oma Elly, a 67 year-old trans woman, lived in the halfway home for eight years before she decided to live independently as a masseuse. She says that the discrimination against trans women has gotten worse over the years.
“When we go out in full makeup, it’s more dangerous for us, even though we’re literally not doing anything," Oma Elly told me with a laugh. "When we want to go to the market at dawn, as soon as we leave, the police would to arrest us for no reason. What are we supposed to do? We all experience the same discrimination and lead very hard lives.”
With Indonesia's presidential election just around the corner, the war against sexual and trans minorities has heightened. A series of incidents, ranging from anti-LGBTQ comments, public shaming, evictions to physical violence, have come not only from the conservative masses but also from the politicians and law enforcement. In the last couple of years, hundreds of people from the LGBTQ community have been arrested. Last year, the Indonesian Broadcasting Community implemented a ban on LGBTQ representation on TV, despite the fact that most television programs consistently poke fun at the community.The Minister of Defense even once said that the LGBTQ community poses more threat to Indonesia than a nuclear war.
Mami Yuli told me that the rights of trans women have been stripped bare. They've been left out from programs as simple as education, healthcare, employment and even housing. For Mami Yuli, founding the halfway house is her way of advocating for her community. Her efforts to make a change through state bodies like the National Commission on Human Rights and the House of Representatives over the past ten years have been repeatedly met with rejection and completely dismissed by multiple parties.
Based on data obtained from the Equilibrium Journal of the Muhammadiyah Makassar University Faculty of Education, transgender groups lack space in the political sphere. Only 4 percent of Indonesians said they strongly agreed to trans participation in politics, and 19 percent said they somewhat agreed. The research concluded that many Indonesians worry that the participation of the LGBTQ community in politics will legitimize the group’s rights, meaning that many Indonesians still don’t consider trans women like Mama Yuli to be equal citizens in the first place.
Mami Yuli is possibly the only openly transgender woman in Indonesia who is lucky enough to have a doctoral degree. Her desire is to create a safe space for transgender women, especially those who are elderly and have to rely on other people.
Mami Yuli told me she's grateful that her neighbors have accepted the women into the neighborhood. Sure, there are requirements. The neighbors insist the women can’t dress however they want, but at least the women have somewhere to live.
“We’re not asking for the creation of third gender or acceptance of same-sex marriage,” Mami Yuli said. “Our life is already difficult, so I don’t think we’ve ever thought of marrying someone from the same sex. We just want to get equal rights because we’re still Indonesians. We want to be able to access health and education facilities."
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.