CHIANGRAI TIMES – Once, long ago, Evie looked after “Barry” Obama, the kid who would grow up to become the world’s most powerful man. Now, his transgender former nanny has given up her tight, flowery dresses, her brocade vest and her bras, and is living in fear on Indonesia’s streets.
Evie, who was born a man but believes she is really a woman, has endured a lifetime of taunts and beatings because of her identity. She describes how soldiers once shaved her long, black hair to the scalp and smashed out glowing cigarettes onto her hands and arms.
The turning point came when she found a transgender friend’s bloated body floating in a backed-up sewage canal two decades ago. She grabbed all her girlie clothes in her arms and stuffed them into two big boxes. Half-used lipstick, powder, eye makeup—she gave them all away.
“I knew in my heart I was a woman, but I didn’t want to die like that,” says Evie, now 66, her lips trembling slightly as the memories flood back. “So I decided to just accept it. … I’ve been living like this, a man, ever since.”
Indonesia’s attitude toward transgenders is complex.
Nobody knows how many of them live in the sprawling archipelagic nation of 240 million, but activists estimate seven million. Because Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world, the pervasiveness of men who live as women and vice versa often catches newcomers by surprise. They hold the occasional pageant, work as singers or at salons and include well-known celebrity talk show host Dorce Gamalama.
However, societal disdain still runs deep—when transgenders act in TV comedies, they are invariably the brunt of the joke. They have taken a much lower profile in recent years, following a series of attacks by Muslim hard-liners. And the country’s highest Islamic body has decreed that they are required to live as they were born because each gender has obligations to fulfill, such as reproduction.
“They must learn to accept their nature,” says Ichwan Syam, a prominent Muslim cleric at the influential Indonesian Ulema Council. “If they are not willing to cure themselves medically and religiously” they have “to accept their fate to be ridiculed and harassed.”
Many transgenders turn to prostitution because jobs are hard to find and because they want to live according to what they believe is their true gender. In doing so, they put themselves at risk of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Some, like Evie, have decided it’s better to hide their feelings. Others are pushing back. Last month, a 50-year-old Indonesian transvestite applied to be the next leader of the national human rights commission, showing up in a borrowed luxury vehicle with paparazzi cameras flashing as she stepped out.
Neighbours recalled that they often saw Evie leave the house in the evening fully made up and dressed in drag. But she says its doubtful Barry ever knew.
“He was so young,” says Evie. “And I never let him see me wearing women’s clothes. But he did see me trying on his mother’s lipstick, sometimes. That used to really crack him up.”
“Now when people call me scum,” she says, “I can just say: ‘But I was the nanny for the President of the United States!'”
By NINIEK KARMINI