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

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Merlyn Sopjan

Malang in East Java is a leafy university town that likes to present itself as a cool city in terms of climate and lifestyle. Now it has a new tag that’s far from welcome – HIV Central. Duncan Graham reports:

Most Monday afternoons in the heart of Malang a curious crowd gathers at the local stadium to watch volleyball.

The games are played in the open close by a major road, so it’s an easy event to access. Prop your wheels under the trees, sit down with your mates, light up and catch the action. Yet most onlookers seem indifferent to the fine points of the game.

Their interest is the 20 or so players and it’s not always admiration for athletic skill that’s the drawcard. Instead there’s much snickering and nudge-nudge winking among the watchers focusing on the players’ tight shorts, their hairy legs and bumping bosoms.

For these athletes are transsexuals and if they care a damn that the crowds are there as voyeurs then they’re not going to give anyone a rise through recognition. This is the game with no shame.

When the final whistle blows the tables are turned. The teams run to the fence and distribute brochures to the red-faced pseudo-fans before they can kick-start an escape. The pamphlets warn of the dangers of contracting Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The players also hand out free condoms. Their particular targets are the middle-aged men who appear to be good family fellows and upright citizens, yet who somehow find time to gawk at a flesh-show on a working weekday.

“This tends to be the group that visits prostitutes but is reluctant to use condoms because they think it’s not manly, or it’s like wearing clothes while having sex,” said organizer Merlyn Sopjan. “They only think of condoms as contraceptives, not as prophylactics.

“They catch a disease and pass it on to their wife or partner who leads a monogamous life. This is the second major way that HIV is getting into the community. The first is through intravenous drug users shooting up with shared and dirty needles.

“East Java is now second only to Jakarta for the number of infected people. We’ve even overtaken Papua. Most victims are in Surabaya, but Malang is the next center.”

Merlyn is Indonesia’s current Putri Waria (Miss Transsexual) and her job till mid 2007 is to tour the country and spread the safe sex message. When she’s addressing a sophisticated and sympathetic audience that’s no great problem.

The difficulty comes in trying to reach the closed minds, those who think that sexually transmitted diseases are a Western affliction and have nothing to do with them. These are the walnut-hearts who condemn campaigners like Merlyn for allegedly encouraging promiscuity.

Critics beware; she may look demure, even delicate. She’s slim and pretty – there’s nothing butch about her figure - but this is one unfazed activist with a husky voice.

Merlyn handles criticism with straight-talk, eyeballing questioners, refusing to accept that keeping people ignorant is a proper way to cope with a serious public health issue. In one TV talk show she took audience questions without flinching, even the smutty ones about which public toilet she uses. (A woman’s, of course.)

Nor is she prepared to apologize for her situation or be coy. “God isn’t running a factory,” she said. “Humans can make mistakes, but God can’t.

“There’s a reason for people like me. If you say I’m not perfect you are criticizing God. Who’s normal? I don’t want to be treated as though I’ve got a handicap.

“I’m a Christian and I’ve never experienced discrimination in church. I’m not judged.

“Every human being has a function and purpose in life. I’m a happy transsexual – I never rebel against God.”

An Indonesian male transsexual (See sidebar) is faced with blunt choices; either she tries to hide her feelings and behave as a man – difficult in a society where close living is the norm and secrets hard to hide - or she comes out and flaunts her sexuality, staring down the tut-tutters, daring them to condemn.

Which is why so many chose to work as entertainers, as if to say: ‘If you want to leer then you can bloody well pay for it!’

“Transsexuals are better tolerated in Thailand than Indonesia where we’re still considered, like, ‘wow, look at that!‘ and sexually harassed,” said Merlyn.

“Apart from the safe-sex message I’m also pushing for transsexuals to be recognized as full Indonesian citizens, with a place in society equal to anyone else. We want the opportunity to work in ordinary jobs, to use our talents like other people.

“Public rejection is the reason so many turn to prostitution.”

Merlyn seems to have escaped some of the anguish experienced by so many transsexuals and which result in a high rate of suicide. She was born a boy in Kediri (East Java) in 1973 and no one suspected that her gender interests were different.

Instead her family attributed her feminine behavior to her status as the last child, pampered and spoilt by doting relatives.

When it later became clear she was a woman trapped in a male body she was backed by her family, even though she described her now deceased parents as “traditional, conservative Javanese.”

“I could not be doing my job as a public advocate if my family wasn’t behind me,” she said. “My father came from nothing and worked hard all his life to succeed as a businessman. I will do the same.

“I’ve learned how to become tough. There’s no role model for a person like me. I don’t want one. I have to make my own way.”

After school she studied civil engineering at the Malang National Institute of Technology expecting to be employed in the family contracting business, but instead turned to advocacy.

Three years ago in a bid to assert the rights of transsexuals she sought election as mayor of Malang. Her application was rejected by bureaucrats claiming her nomination was received too late, though Merlyn thinks there was another agenda.

Nonetheless she got the publicity, and most was positive. “I didn’t really want to be mayor,” she said. “I did this to show we're just as capable as anyone else in making a contribution to society.

“Many people have suggested I move to Jakarta and the big scene. But I’m happy here with all my networks. I wouldn’t want to have to start again.”

She’s the case manager in a Malang hospital, working on an internationally funded campaign to raise awareness of AIDS, and help keep those with the disease active in society. Retroviral drugs that control – but don’t cure – the disease are free, but the treatment isn’t.

The project is administered by the Health Department that chose to outsource the work through the local Association of Transsexuals which Merlyn chairs. There are at least 580 known HIV positive cases in the city of less than one million, with 15 part-time carers giving advice and encouraging the worried to get a blood test.

Apart from spreading information, another benefit of the public volleyball games is that men and women wracked with the problems of expressing their gender can meet others who face similar challenges.

In Jakarta and Surabaya most homosexuals, lesbians and transsexuals meet in hotel bars, usually up-market hangouts where the cost of a drink would buy a kampong family a week’s meals. There’s no discotheque in Malang for those with different sexual preferences.

There’s often great rivalry between gay men, transsexuals and lesbians and little cooperation in the campaign for pubic understanding and tolerance.

“Gays tend to see themselves as superior,” Merlyn said. “The Lesbians here are very private. I’m trying to get us to work more closely – we suffer the same problems of stigma and discrimination. We can make a better life for all if we’re together.

“We are leading in the public health campaign because AIDS was first identified in the homosexual community in Bali back in the 1980s. Others were in a state of denial, so the gays had to do their own research.

“Malang has such a big HIV problem because it’s a university city, drawing students from all across the country. There’s a lot of drug use, but the police are opposed to harm reduction programs operating overseas, like clean needle exchange and teaching users how to sterilize equipment.”

At last count there were at least 350 transsexuals in Malang, with many working in beauty salons. Only one is known to have had a sex-change operation, a procedure that has now fallen out of favor. Apart from the multiple operations and agonizing surgery involved (amputation of the penis and the fashioning of a vagina), the psychological impact can also be traumatic.

Hormone treatment can suppress male characteristics and enhance breasts, but bad side effects, including nausea, are often reported.

Being a man or woman doesn’t depend on reproductive organs – it’s also a state of mind. Merlyn’s first book was titled Don’t Look At My Genitals! a frank account of her feelings as a woman. Her second, just published is titled Woman Without V (as in vagina.) These are cathartic let-it-all-hangout diary notes of her life and emotions.

Merlyn said she’s been in relations with men, but these haven’t lasted, sometimes because her partners wanted children. She says she’d like to get married, and desires love from the opposite sex.

“I want people to know me for what I do, not who I am,” she said. “I want to dedicate my life for humanity. I feel I have a mission from God.

“I respect difference in others – I want them to do the same for me and all transsexuals. Don’t judge. Look at our capacity – at the good things that we can do in this world for everyone.”

(Sidebar one)


The Indonesian word waria (an amalgam of wanita (woman) and pria (man) tends to be used for homosexuals, transsexuals and other minority sexual groups. However these are quite different.

A homosexual is attracted to members of his or her own sex. Most female homosexuals use the word Lesbian. This is a reference to the Greek island of Lesbos where the poet Sappho wrote about love between women. ‘Gay’ is the preferred Western term and can refer to both sexes, though it’s normally associated with men.

Homosexuality is not confined to any country or culture. About ten per cent of the population is naturally homosexual.

Bi-sexuals are people who enjoy sex with men and women.

Transsexuals are people with the physical traits of one sex and the psychological make-up of the opposite sex. The condition, medically called gender dysphoria (unease), is rare. One Dutch study claims the incidence is about one in 10,000 for males, one in 30,000 for females.

(Sidebar 2)


The latest World Health Organization figures (November 2006) claim somewhere between 169,000 and 216,000 Indonesians have HIV. If the current rate of infection continues the number will jump to one million by the end of this decade.

However activists say these figures are unreliable and grossly underestimate the problem.

Health Ministry data claims that more than half of the AIDS cases are found among drug injectors.

The incidence of HIV among transsexuals is reported to be high, with some estimates of up to 22 per cent.

(First published in The Sunday Post 21 January 2007)



Carolyn said...

Well commented on Duncan.


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