Sulawesi's Trans Community Fights Back Against Increasing Hostility
Decades-old traditions in South Sulawesi, like trans beauty pageants, are being targeted by authorities. But the trans community isn't ready to give up.
People from Sulawesi's Trans Bissu community, before a performance in Jakarta. Photo via Reuters.
There were no winners crowned at a beauty pageant in Makassar, South Sulawesi, last week. The police, responding to calls by hardline Islamists, swooped in a shut the entire thing down before it could even begin. The authorities said the pageant lacked necessary permits, but the real story here has nothing to do with permits or crowd control—the real story is that this was a trans beauty pageant and the country's increasingly hostile hardliners, as well as some of those in the government, are waging an open culture war against Indonesia's LGBTQ community.
Beauty pageants have been a part of wedding culture in South Sulawesi for decades. That's exactly what was going on here. “This is my sibling’s wedding ceremony," Muhammad Amri told Detik. "The guests with the most extravagant and unique outfit was supposed to get a prize."
The local trans community used to regularly hold beauty pageants and seminars on reproductive and human rights, as well as locations where lawyers offered legal aid, throughout South Sulawesi, a province in northeastern Indonesia. That's because trans men and women have deep roots in South Sulawesi's indigenous Bugis Segeri community. The Bugis Segeri had recognized five genders for centuries—Calabai ("feminine" men dressed as women), Calalai ("masculine" women dressed as men), Bissu (genderless priests), and cis-gendered men and women. In some parts of South Sulawesi, gender fluidity has always been a part of life.
“The people of Bugis have accepted trans people, and even Bissu, because they’re a part of their culture," Halilintar Latief, an anthropologist from Universitas Negeri Makassar, told VICE. "But somehow there’s this [other] group that rejects them."
In recent years, Indonesia has turned against its LGBTQ community. It's not illegal to be homosexual in Indonesia—unless you're in Aceh, where Shariah law is practiced—but that's done little to stop some of the country's most-prominent officials from calling the LGBTQ community everything from a sign of eroding morality to a powerful weapon used by the West in a "proxy war" with Indonesia. Now, even members of communities long accepted as part of indigenous cultures are being vilified as a threat more dangerous than nuclear war.
In South Sulawesi, the effects of the nationwide crackdown have been felt since early last year, when an annual sports and arts festival held by the trans and Bissu community in Soppeng district, was shut down by police amid pressure from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. And last month an event about HIV/AIDS awareness was shut down after similar controversy.
This new wave of repression has come as a shock to a community that largely operated without controversy since the 90s, Eman Memay Harundja, an activist from Komunitas Sehati Makassar, told VICE.
“As citizens we believe that we have the rights to hold a contest or any events as long as it doesn’t violate the law,” Eman said. “But there are certain people who make a big fuss out of this, especially on social media.”
Now, it's become more difficult for Komunitas Sehati Makassar to obtain the necessary permits for events promoting local trans culture, LGBTQ rights, or HIV/AIDS awareness, Eman explained.
“Since 1998, we’ve always held a contest for a human rights ambassador or HIV/AIDS ambassador,” Eman said. “But now there’s a group of religious ormas (mass organizations) that pressure the police to ban our events. Perhaps after the police consider this a risk, so they can't give us a permit.”
It's a strange turn for a community that has always felt at home in South Sulawesi. While other parts of Indonesia hold trans beauty pageants like Miss Waria Indonesia, they do it is secret to avoid any blowback from religious hardliners until after the event wraps up. But in South Sulawesi, the trans community was allowed to operate in the open, until recently.
Now, civil servants and the local government pressure them whenever their paths cross, Eman explained.
"When we renew our ID card or make a police report, there’s always some kind of discrimination,” Eman told VICE. “We’re labeled wrong, deviant, sinful, and told to return to the 'right path.' A lot of my friends are now too reluctant to deal with such administration matters. So they have to always be assisted by someone else."
But even in South Sulawesi, there were limits for trans people's upward mobility. Raja Alam, a member of Komunitas Waria Makassar, used to dream of being a university lecturer. But she quickly realized that no one would accept her as a lecturer, even with a Master's degree.
“I think being a lecturer is about being a respected figure," Raja told VICE. "But in reality they can’t accept it if the figure is trans."
Eman, for herself, isn't ready to give up the fight for acceptance, even in the face of a harsher crackdown. Her organization has spent years connecting the community and setting up programs to fight for equal rights. A few cancelled beauty pageants isn't going to change that, she said.
“We’re there for each other,” Eman told VICE. “We get along just fine. We have programs. We’re very solid.”