The Trans Half-Gods of Sulawesi

In the hills of South Sulawesi live an ancient band of Bissu, trans people who serve as high priests for the local Bugis community. We spent a week with what might be the last generation of trans nobility in Indonesia.

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Mar 1 2017, 10:27am

Gender nonconformity garners headlines in today's 24 hour new cycles. With many feverishly defending those who live outside male and female designations while others strip them of rights and protections. In a small corner of Indonesia, the concept of a broad gender spectrum is a centuries-old idea to the Bugis people of Segeri in South Sulawesi, but their persecution has only come relatively recently.

Segeri is one of the few villages in South Sulawesi where the Bissu traditions have endured. Among Indonesia's over 300 ethnic groups, Bugis is considered as one of the largest. With its sui generis conception of five genders and transvestite tradition that admits Calabai (feminine men dressed as women), Calalai (masculine women dressed as men), and Bissu (the non-binary priests and shaman) along with males and females. Since the 13th century, Bissu are depicted as the highest portrayal of Bugis royalty. In the past, Bissu traditionally lived in the royal palace and served as close council to kings.

Bissu carry on a centuries-old tradition that can be found in the oldest Bugis' manuscript, La Galigo. The book emphasizes the central role of Bissu within Bugis nobility, especially during the pre-Islamic era. At that time, a Bissu is seen as something between a human and a god. They performed spiritual or healing rituals during weddings and harvest periods. But in the last few decades, the adoption of Islam in Bugis culture has triggered a shift away from these half gods.

"Let history speak for itself, because gurus predicted 17 years ago, that we would be the last generation of Bissu," said Bissu Eka.

In the early years of independent Indonesia, Islamic fundamentalist took control of South Sulawesi. This sparked intense resentment towards the Bugis for their multi-gender beliefs. The Bissu were targeted and accused of practicing un-islamic rituals (musyrik). In the 1960's Kahar Muzakar of Darul Islam led Operasi Toba, a targeted purge of Bissu, sending them into the shadows and forcing them to hide in caves.

"Dead or alive, whatever happens I am still a Bissu, I'd rather die being a Bissu because I don't want to be judged as a coward. It's in my blood, I was born to serve. My life is dedicated to communicating with the ancient spirits," Bissu Eka said while talking about the past.

Recently, the South Sulawesi Police banned Bissu and transgender sports and cultural events in Soppeng after a complaint by an Islamic group. They were forced to cancel the parade because the Islamic group claimed the event was against religious values. In accordance with LGBTQ solidarity day in Indonesia, VICE Indonesia's Rizky Rahadianto and Arzia Wargadiredja spent a week with the remains of the ancient Bugis' Bissu tradition.

All photos by Rizky Rahadianto.

Maggiri, is an ancient dagger ritual that involves pressing a sharp knife against one's neck. It shows the Bissu's half-god status, to show the knife cannot pierce their skin even though they have a mortal body.

Puang Matoa Ecce of Soppeng, has chosen to live in the now empty royal palace. Ancient Bugis kingdoms saw the Bissu androgyny as the ultimate neutrality that would avoid often-inevitable royal 'affairs.'

In the 60's Islamic fundamentalists tortured Bissu during Operasi Toba. Forcibly shaving their heads, ultimately decapitating them and displaying their heads in public if they refused to dress and act like men.

Bissu Matang, in hir 80s, visits the cave they hid in during the purge. Bissu Matang never skips this monthly pilgrimage to pay honor to fellow Bissu's graves.

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