HIV/AIDS is not an unfamiliar term in rural South Sulawesi. The government officially downplays the magnitude of both real and potential HIV/AIDS-related issues, but during the time I spent in South Sulawesi, I found that HIV/AIDS education — and safe-sex practices — are promoted in some unexpected corners. To illustrate this, I will recount an event I witnessed in the town of Sengkang in South Sulawesi. This account illustrates that transgendered males, (waria) are an acknowledged part of society, and that, in some respects, local government supports their contribution to society.
When I went to South Sulawesi, I was expecting to find HIV/AIDS awareness programs. I was heartened to see that certain institutions directed funding toward marginal groups such as waria. Australia’s foreign aid body, AusAID, sponsors numerous programs to facilitate HIV/AIDS education, including waria beauty pageants. Local organisations, such as Gaya Celebes have also spearheaded HIV/AIDS awareness programs and initiated local support structures. I was, however, not expecting to find local government officials proactively discussing the relationship between HIV/AIDS and waria.
A choice of genders
While boys in South Sulawesi are expected to grow up to be strong and brave, there is an alternative for men who are not able to conform to this model, because people in South Sulawesi recognise a number of genders. Feminine women are referred to by the Bugis term makkunrai, while masculine men are referred to as oroane. Women who are more like men in their attitudes and behaviours are referred to as calalai’. Men who feel themselves to be more like women, and who do not wish to dress like men, or perform male tasks are referred to as calabai’. As national influences become more pronounced, many calabai’ prefer to be known as waria — the Indonesian-language term for women-like men.
Waria are an important group in South Sulawesi. They are renowned as wedding organisers, a role which has earned them the title of Indo’ Boting (Wedding Mother). While waria do not work as prostitutes in rural South Sulawesi, sex work constitutes a primary means of income for waria in larger cities, such as the capital Makassar. Participation in sex work, with varying degrees of understanding about safe-sex methods and compounded by an inability or unwillingness to adhere to safe-sex practices, has placed many waria in a high-risk HIV/AIDS category. As a result, many institutions consider it necessary to directly target waria as recipients of health education programs. On the other hand, government departments have often ignored the position of waria pretending that their welfare is of no concern to the general public and that funds could be better directed elsewhere. For this reason, it was surprising that local government officials in rural South Sulawesi were making the effort to target educational campaigns toward waria.
Support for the Waria Association
The government also supports waria organisations. For example, waria who live in Sengkang have an official organisation called Persatuan Waria (the Waria Association). Tofi, a waria in her late twenties, told me, the Waria Association not only receives local government funding, but its members are invited to official functions and ceremonies.
During my field work, a new president of the Waria Association was elected. I had been away from Sengkang for a number of weeks. On my return I was greeted by a man calling me from the other side of the street: ‘Serli (Sharyn), Serli, there’s lots of waria in front of the Government Building. You might want to go down and see what’s happening.’ When I arrived, a man at the gate led me across the lawn to a large building at the back. I went through the side door and was greeted by Frida, a 55 year-old waria, who was taking down everyone’s name. One-hundred-and-twenty waria had signed in, 22 of whom had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, revealed by the word ‘Haji’ in front of their name.
122 waria signed in
The election of a new president of Persatuan Waria takes place once every five years. Before the election commenced, the candidates introduced themselves. When everyone had voted, the box was shaken and then, one by one, the votes were pulled out, and týe candidate’s name was read out. The votes were tallied up on a white-board. There were six non-partisan officials sitting adjacent to the panel of candidates. The officials included the District Secretary, the head of the Department of Social and Political Affairs, representatives from both the Office of Women’s Affairs and from Family Planning and two other men. The District Secretary then gave a speech:
Waria have the support of the Bupati’s office. The Waria Association is not only supported by the Bupati’s office, but it is also funded by it. We will continue to help you develop the arts to keep traditional customs alive by giving funding and facilities so that at the next adat festival our waria can beat the waria from the province of Sidrap. We need waria, because how could we organise weddings without waria?
Turning his attention to sex and sexually transmitted diseases, the District Secretary continued:
I have three things to say: Don’t get AIDS, don’t do drugs, and long live waria! My wife’s friend’s husband left her because s/he couldn’t rid ‘hirself’ of ‘hir’ waria-ness. We all know about VCD (video compact disk) pornography. We are all Muslims and it is a sin to watch these films that show fellatio. You can get a disease around the mouth. And there are also AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases … you can sell yourself for Rp 20,000 (A$4). But is it worth it? AIDS has entered Indonesia. I have never heard a bad report about waria in Sengkang working as prostitutes, so please don’t start. It’s safer never to have sex, or to masturbate. But if you must have sex, please use a condom. They are sold quite cheaply now. There’s no need to perform fellatio. You will get a sexually-transmitted disease that will spread all over your mouth. Just masturbate!
While the District Secretary was talking, an overhead projector was turned on, showing horrifying pictures of genitals afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases. He re-emphasised the importance of condoms:
All of these diseases can be transmitted by the anus, the mouth and on toothbrushes. So just use a condom… You’re not waria if you don’t like men, but you have to be careful. Don’t destroy the reputation of waria! If one thing is changed, then everything is (adversely) affected!
When the District Secretary’s speech ended, all the waria raced up onto the stage, pushing and shoving to shake his hand and the hands of the other officials. I was struck at how supportive these government officials appeared to be of waria and waria activities. While there continues to be a high level of mis-education about HIV/AIDS, and its transmission, at least waria are included in such discussions and in the promotion of safe-sex practices.
We often get the impression that Indonesian bureaucracy is ignoring the issue of HIV/AIDS, particularly as it affects waria. But as this account shows, government officials in some sectors are proactively promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Certainly much work still needs to be done, especially in the dissemination of knowledge, but at least some government officials are willing to act.
Sharyn Graham is a lecturer at Auckland University of Technology. She can be contacted at email@example.com