The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, July 22, 2005



Transvestites, transsexuals and other gender-benders have long been part of Indonesia’s entertainment industry. Their ability to amuse and enchant often hides a great sadness. Duncan Graham meets one tough, clever woman in East Java:

If cruelty, rejection and hostility during childhood can determine attitudes in adult life then Lina Sutrisno has a thousand reasons to hate. Probably more.

That she shows no signs of bitterness is a tribute to her determination that nothing would halt her precious ambition: To be a woman.

For Ibu Lina was born Ano Liong Thay. A boy.

In his early school years in Malang little Ano found no pleasure in the company of knockabout boys. He had male genitalia, wore trousers and was considered by classmates and teachers to be male.

But he wanted dolls and dresses, mascara and nail polish – behavior that rapidly singled him out for derision. He didn’t realise it at the time but through some quirk of nature he was a transsexual

Ano’s parents, who ran a small general store in the Klontong market, were not sympathetic to their little lad’s situation. His mother was Christian and her son was sent to a Catholic school. And it was here that his position became most distressful when a priest and sisters rejected him as evil.

Unable to tolerate the sneers and derision from children who didn’t know better, and the adults who should have done, he fled school in second year high. He also made his first move to Islam, a religion he found more accepting and which she now embraces with grace.

After working in his parents’ shop Ano entered puberty and felt the overpowering pull of his feminine side. He grew small breasts but also facial hair. His male organs remained undeveloped but he shaved and wore women’s clothes.

His parents’ marriage broke up and he was truly alone. Aged 15 Ano changed his name to Lina, after a Roman royal called Queen Messalina, a character in a popular film of the time. It was a clear statement of independence; ‘he’ had become ‘she’. Two years later she got her KTP (identity card) with the classification ‘female.’

Lina moved to Jakarta and only there encountered people with wider knowledge and tolerance. A friend who had lived in Holland reported on European perspectives. Fortunately at that time some advances had been made overseas in the recognition and treatment of transsexuals, particularly by an American physician, Dr Harry Benjamin. She learned that surgery could help change her body and soothe her mind and spirit.

‘Surgery meant big money,’ Ibu Lina said in the beauty salon she now runs in her hometown. ‘I knew I had to strive hard to get those rupiah. I was on my own. So I learned make-up and hairdressing and became successful. I worked in Jakarta for seven years. Then I had to find a doctor who would do the operations.’

No easy task. President Suharto controlled the media and there were to be no detailed stories of sex changes littering the pages of the nation’s press. Strange things might happen in the decadent West, but Indonesians had to be protected from such information – even when needed for serious reasons by people who had been born incomplete and desperately needed to know the facts.

Slowly and by word of mouth Lina’s road led to the Surabaya surgery of Professor Dr Johansyah Marzuki. But before any operation could be undertaken Lina had to get supporting letters from specialists in a wide range of fields, from urology to psychiatry. And every one wanted a close look at her naked body, along with their fee. Once they’d peered and probed and satisfied their curiosity some then rejected her, applying personal moral strictures instead of professional counselling.

This gross embarrassment lasted for three years; it would have discouraged any lesser person. Lina wasn’t confronting some ordinary disease that could be revealed to arouse public sympathy. Instead she was facing a future of being physically incomplete and emotionally ambiguous; it was psychologically scarifying and extremely personal.

‘Everyone wants to be a woman or a man, not half and half,’ she said. ‘I had a problem and I knew I must be clever enough to get the money to solve the problem.

‘I remained determined. I didn’t care what people thought. I knew that I wanted to be a woman when I’m called to God.’

Through hormone treatment Lina grew a pair of most presentable breasts that gave her the courage to wear a bikini on the beach. But the hormones had unpleasant side effects. Eventually Ibu Lina had two operations – one to enhance her breasts, the other to remove the small male genitalia and shape it into a female form. That was in the early 1980s.

Then she started to lose body hair though the hormones had been discontinued. Now at 53 her skin is smooth and soft. She looks 13 years younger than her age, a tall and extremely feminine woman proud of her sexuality and her substantial achievements. And also with the courage and self-confidence to tell her story.

Through her long quest to consolidate her gender Ibu Lina learned much about human psychology and the powerful drive women have to retain their looks and battle ageing. Through her encounters with the medical profession she began to assist doctors working in cosmetic surgery and has built a good business specialising in the laser removal of hair, warts, birthmarks and wrinkles. Ironically her salon is only a few hundred metres from the parents’ old stall and where she endured so much public humiliation.

Ibu Lina has been married twice in a bid to fulfil her destiny as a woman but the unions were unsuccessful. She has an adopted daughter and has recently started turning her multiple talents to doll making and painting. Like many transsexuals she is highly creative. Along the way she’s built an impressive array of qualifications and skills that have customers from afar seeking her services.

She is also strongly supported by other women in business who understand how difficult it is to survive alone.

‘I know about discrimination. I can’t forget the cruelty – though I do get close to forgetting,’ Ibu Lina said. ‘ I hate cruelty. I only want love. Now I know we can finally only get true love from God. My childhood years were undoubtedly bad. However I knew what I wanted and I never cried. I was never angry with God.

‘Even now the position of women in Indonesia is not good. To succeed we must be very smart and intelligent. Where there is a will there has to be a way. I urge young people in whatever they are doing and however they have been made to value themselves above all.

‘Don’t worry about what others think – it’s not their business. No one asks to be born a transsexual – people should be more flexible in their outlook and thinking. Everyone is different. Keep an open mind. Who knows what handicap can visit you or your family? Respect difference.’


Although often incorrectly labelled waria (a combination word from wanita (woman) and pria (man)) transsexuals are not necessarily homosexuals.

Nor are they transvestites who are men with a phobia for cross-dressing. For true transsexuals the need to become totally male or female can be a life and death matter. Literally. Some researchers claim only 50 per cent survive beyond age 30; social oppression, personal shame and never-ending bigotry frequently lead to suicide.

Gender and sex are separate though often confused. In transsexuals the area of the brain that determines gender identity is in conflict with the reality of different sex organs.

Transsexuality is also known as gender dysphoria – mental trauma regarding gender. It can be experienced by people who are born either male or female. It is believed to be caused by hormone mix-ups that may be linked to the mother suffering stress at a critical time during pregnancy though the evidence is unclear. About one in 30,000 babies is born transsexual. The phenomenon also occurs in animals.

The condition should arouse compassion and understanding. In other cultures transsexuals are often revered and considered to have special mystical powers. But in the Indonesia of the 1960s positive attitudes towards the handicapped were rare. It was to take another 40 years before the nation had a near-blind man as head of State. Last century the different were to be persecuted, even by the church.

During the early days of Orde Baru there were no open bookshops full of modern texts on sexuality, no Internet to browse, no ‘Dear Doctor Love’ newspaper columns. Sex in its many manifestations was a taboo topic, particularly in regional towns.

Although society is now more open, in many communities people like Lina may still be subject to hostile stares and whispered comments – actions that can seriously damage the emotionally frail.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 14 May 05)


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