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A Trans Woman Tries to Reverse Stigma in Indonesia

Rebecca Nyuei believes that people need to stop thinking of all trans women as sex workers.

Rebecca Acacia was celebrating her last day on earth with a modest party. The tiny apartment was crowded with a small collection of friends, neighbors, and their children. She served bubur merahputih—a rice porridge that's colored red and white like the Indonesian flag—and ayam bakar with white rice. I was her neighbor and, sitting there on her white tile floor, I felt lucky to be among the few invited.

It was the end of Rebecca Acacia. It was the start of Rebecca Nyuei.

Nyuei was her mother's last name, and it marked the end of a long journey of self-discovery that started with Reki Saputra and then left her family tree to Rebecca Barbie and Rebecca Acacia before circling back around to her mother's last name.

Rebecca is a trans woman living in a country in the middle of a gay panic. Indonesian politicians have lashed out against the LGBT community in recent months, accusing them of being everything from a danger to society to the tools of a Western plot to overthrow the nation. One prominent public official said that the gay and trans community was more dangerous than a nuclear bomb. A long-standing Islamic boarding school for trans women was shut down in Yogyakarta earlier this year amid heavy pressure from hard-line Islamist groups.

But Indonesia has a complicated, and often contradictory relationship with its trans community. Trans women are stigmatized as sex workers, but many have still risen to positions of power as celebrities. Dorce Gamalama, a trans woman, once had one of the country's most popular morning talk shows. Today, she continues to work as a comedian, actress, and performer, appearing on shows and networks that reach deep into Indonesia's rural heartlands.

Reki Saputra was born a baby boy in Rejang Lebong—a semi-rural district in Bengkulu province about 100 kilometers from the southwest coast of Sumatra. Reki grew up like any other young boy, until he reached puberty and had his first nocturnal emission.

"In middle school, every boy was talking about their wet dreams, about how they were having these intimate dreams with beautiful older women," Rebecca said. "I realized that day that my wet dreams were different... I closed myself off after that."

Young Reki was bullied in school for having feminine traits and hanging out with the girls instead of the boys. Reki once tried to walk like a man when passing some ojek drivers hanging in the street. But try as he might, Reki couldn't hide his feminine walk.

Reki started to read as much as he could about sexuality. Then, one day, he thought he had it figured out.

"I found a word that people used to describe a guy who liked another guy," Rebecca said. "The word was 'gay.' In middle school, I was dead sure that I was gay."

But the word didn't feel right. Reki didn't feel like a man who was sexually attracted to other men. Reki felt like a woman.

"I realized I wasn't gay," Rebecca said. "But I felt like I wasn't supposed to think of myself as a woman, because I was born a male. Religious doctrine says that it's wrong and sinful to think of myself as a female. This made me even more conflicted in high school."

He graduated and enrolled in the Sharia banking program at the Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri in nearby Bengkulu. But by the end of the first year, Reki dropped out of school and took a job at a budget hotel. Then, fed up with small city life in Bengkulu, he moved 800 kilometers to the Indonesian capital.

In Jakarta, Reki became Rebecca. It was an important step for Rebecca. But life as a trans woman wasn't exactly easy in Jakarta. The way she saw it, there were two options for women like her: either become a street musician and beg for change, or become a sex worker.

"She was trying to study the roots of violence against women. She had a remarkable empathy for the victims of sexual violence, for the female farmers in Kendeng, and the laborers"—Veronica "Pheo" Iswinahyu

Central Jakarta's Taman Lawang was the center of the capital's trans sex worker community. Every night, the streets running near the park were lined with young trans women in short skirts and low-cut tops. It was dangerous work, but the way Rebecca saw it, the job was still better than busking for change.

She knew another trans woman who was working nights at the park. It made it easier to work her way into the tight community of sex workers—many who were suspicious of a new woman trying to work on their turf. There were gangs, Rebecca said, who would scare new arrivals away. Within a few weeks, Rebecca was earning about Rp 100,000 (USD $7.40) a night. But the park was dangerous and she was quickly looking for another place to live.

"I chose to be a sex worker in Taman Lawang," she said, "but I only survived a few months. It was just too much for me. The work environment made me anxious. I was really vulnerable. It was dangerous being out there in the middle of the night like that. There were just so many risk of what could happen."

Rebecca moved to the shacks that lined the railroad tracks near the Jatinegara train station. Jatinegara, a working class neighborhood in East Jakarta, was safer than Taman Lawang. It was also pretty crowded at night. She would approach the men who would gather around the dangdut carts and ask if they were looking for a woman.

But she was still desperately searching for her community. Rebecca was getting involved in political movements, attending discussion on LGBT rights, and hanging out with labor activists and farmers who were protesting the construction of a cement factory in Karst Kendeng, Central Java. Together, the groups, which seemed to have very different goals, represented the kind of liberal, left-leaning organizations that were common in Indonesia.

"She was trying to study the roots of violence against women," said Veronica "Pheo" Iswinahyu, one of Rebecca's closest friends. Together the two watched Nia Dinata's documentary Emak Dari Jambi (Mother from Jambi). In the film, a mother travels from Sumatra to visit her daughter, a trans woman. Soon the two were involved in One Billion Rising, a global movement against violence against women.

"Society perceives trans women as indecent, vulgar, and sexy. Not all of us are like that. Some of us dress normally, and even wear a hijab."—Rebecca Nyuei

"She had a remarkable empathy for the victims of sexual violence, for the female farmers in Kendeng, and the laborers," Pheo said. "She was always attending these social discussions."

On YouTube, Rebecca found a video about TransSchool—an alternative school for trans youth that combined classroom study with field work and internships. It looked a lot better than her old Islamic academy in Bengkulu. She attended the school for two years, learning a lot about the trans community and the concept of self-acceptance. She also learned the historical roots of trans women in Indonesia.

Indonesia prefers the word waria when describing a trans woman. It's an amalgamation of the Indonesians words wanita (woman) and pria (man). Butwanita was a New Order term for woman. Rebecca preferred the word perempuan instead.

"From that point on, I realized that I was a transperempuan," she said.

In 2014, Rebecca entered in the Miss Remaja Waria (Miss Trans Teenager) competition. She won.

"After that competition, I came to terms with the fact that I was female," she said. "I made peace with myself."

She decided it was time to tell her family back home. Rebecca was nervous, but her time at TransSchool taught her to be proud. To her surprise, her family was totally accepting. Relieved, Rebecca returned to Jakarta and started to work for the nonprofit Sanggar Swara, where she ran a co-op that offered poor people living on the margins access to a bank account.

"A lot of my friends came here from outside Jakarta," she said. "They ran away from home without ever getting an identity card. So they can't open a savings account at a bank. We provide an alternative for them to store their money at the co-op."

Rebecca had a new goal: becoming a mainstream Indonesian woman. Trans women are heavily stigmatized in Indonesia. She decided to fight the stigma by donning a hijab and dressing the same as many Indonesian women.

"I don't know why, but perhaps deep down in my heart, I just wanted to be a mainstream Indonesian woman who wears a hijab, make-up and high heels," Rebecca said.

She said her hijab has more to do with fighting back against negative stereotypes of trans women than religion.

"Society perceives trans women as indecent, vulgar, and sexy," she said. "Not all of us are like that. Some of us dress normally, and even wear a hijab."

But she recognizes that the veil, which is called a jilbab in Indonesia, can also offend the country's more conservative element.

"Those of us who wear the hijab hear things like, 'It's not enough that your a waria? You're also insulting religion?" she said. "I'm like, leave us alone about the way we dress. Even us breathing probably offends people."

Today, Rebecca works as a coordinator at TransSchool–where she tries to reach out to more trans women to show them that there is a community that supports them. In Jakarta, there are thousands of trans youth who have been cast out by their families. Nationwide millions more. Meanwhile, Indonesian lawmakers are debating a new criminal code that would make it illegal to be trans gendered. It all shows Rebecca that there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I don't know what goes through their minds," she said. "Even if they can't accept our differences, accept us as trans women, they could at least treat us like human beings."