JAKARTA — In a suburban part of Jakarta, we're walking down a dirt road up to a very small pink house at the end of an alley. There are chickens running around, and children playing. It's here that Indonesia's first retirement home for transsexual and transgender people — known as waria in Indonesia — is being built.
In the doorway, two elderly transgenders whose teeth are missing call out "good morning."
Inside, Yulianus Rettoblaut peers into a mirror while a friend goes about the daily ritual of applying her heavy makeup — thick white foundation, fake eyelashes, bright red lipstick and a long black wig that's tied in a bun at the back.
"I realized that I was a transgender when I was in grade five at school," says, Yulianus, who goes by Yuli. "I lived in a village in an isolated area on the island of Papua. There was no one there that was a transgender or gay. But suddenly I started feeling attracted to men when I was around 11 years old. I thought, "what is this feeling, is it an illness?""
It was not until Yuli was 17 years old that a university friend who was also transgendered took her to a Jakarta area rife with prostitution among waria that she realized there was a parallel world. "I was so confused," she says. "There were so many people like me dressed up so beautifully."
When asked how she felt when she realized there were others like her, she says she no longer felt alone. "I felt like a weight had been lifted from me because I saw that if we wear beautiful clothes and got makeup you could easily attract guys and be paid money for it! So you get satisfied, get to be beautiful and you earn money."
Hustling for money
Jobs aren't easy to come by in Indonesia if you are a man living as a woman, and 17-year-old Yuli wound up doing what many other warias do: working as a prostitute on the streets, a world she says was harsh and violent.
She was regularly abused, she says, and many customers refused to pay. To add insult to injury, Yuli and others often had to run away from the police or Islamic vigilante groups that tried to beat them.
It was during this time that she heard her parents had died. "They had heard news that I was now wearing women's clothes," Yuli says. "I think I disappointed them so much that it killed them. I didn't go home for the funeral because my family hated me. They said because of what I had done my parents had died."
Yuli's brother is a policeman who was very angry about Yuli being transgendered. "He wanted to shoot me because he said I had shamed my family," Yuli ways. "My family had high hopes for me because I got very good grades all through school."
She says her brother seemed fully prepared to pull the trigger. "Yes, he put a pistol to my head and he wanted to shoot," she says. "They shaved my head, but I managed to run away back to Jakarta. I really hated myself at that time, and I decided that I would spend the rest of my life showing the world and particularly my family that even though I am a transgender I can do good and they would be proud of me."
She went on to become the first waria to earn a law degree at a leading Islamic university and is now completing her masters studies in law. She is also a high-profile leader of Indonesia's significant transgender community, who fondly call her Mummy Yuli.
As such, she decided she should do something to support aging waria rejected by their family and society.
"As they get older, people become even more scared of waria, and we can't sell ourselves in the same way young waria can," Yuli says. "From a government perspective, they are confused about whether to put them in the male or female old people's homes, and their families certainly don't want to look after them. So I see many of them struggling, begging on the streets and living under bridges. I feel really sad seeing them like that, and no one is paying attention to this issue, and my house was not big enough to house many."
So she is now renovating her two-bedroom house that doubles as a beauty salon. Yuli shows me the construction. A second floor is being added, and the bathroom is being extended.
Yuli already has a waiting list of 800 waria who want to move in. At the moment, the house is home to three elderly waria. Photos of them as young and beautiful line the walls, and cabinets are full of their beauty pageant trophies.
Yoti Maya is nearly 70 years old and has lost all her teeth. She was disowned by her family when she was a teenager.
"My mother opened my door and found me in bed cuddling with a man," Yoti recalls. She told my dad, and he called all my family together and said, "I don't want this in my family so you must leave the house now. If you live or die, I don't care. You just have to get out of the house." I was just a teenager, and they threw me out of the house at night with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I was crying. I was young, and I didn't have a job. But I accepted my fate."
Yoti eventually found work as a chef on ships and has traveled all across Asia. She now does the cooking for this small nursing home, which also holds training sessions for elderly transgenders so they can obtain the skills to live independently.
Yuli's brother — the one who had threatened to shoot her — actually visited the old people's home recently. "He didn't come in but just walked around and started to cry," Yuli says. "He said, "I never thought you would change and become a good person. It doesn't matter that you are waria, but you have become a role model for your community and you are providing a home for those in your community in need. Our family is very proud of you.""
He told her that the family had simply not wanted to accept her as a prostitute. "He said that the past was the past, but as a brother he was very proud of me," Yuli recalls. "A few days later, I had my law graduation and he came along. He couldn't say anything at the celebration — he couldn't speak because he was just crying. Not long after that, he died. I went to his funeral, and he had left a message for me that I must continue to be a good person."