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The extraordinary story of Indonesia's first trans doctor

January 10, 2024
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Indonesia, #trans rights, #LGBTQ+
Mami Yuli is the first trans woman in Indonesia to attain a doctorate, breaking societal stigmas. She aspires to empower her community, aiding them in overcoming injustice and discrimination.

Born in the interior of Asmat, Papua, Indonesia, 62-year-old Yulianus Rettoblaut admitted that during her adolescence, she had no understanding of what LGBTQ+ meant. She had no exposure to TV broadcasts and other media that spotlighted LGBTQ+ figures who she could look up to.

Assigned male at birth, Young Yulianus attended Catholic boarding schools in Asmat from elementary to high school. In fifth grade, she began to acknowledge feelings of attraction to people of the same gender, an experience that caused her great discomfort at the time..

Her attraction to people of the same gender during that period subjected her to frequent bullying by her peers. But despite the challenges, she began to display an increasing interest in feminine behaviours, managing to keep this aspect of her identity a secret from her family.

"In my opinion, the notion that being LGBTQ+ is the result of influence or imitation of others' behaviour is incorrect," she told FairPlanet. "I was born and raised in a village where people did not know LGBTQ+ at the time, but I could feel what it was like to fall in love with someone of the same gender."

Yulianus Rotteblaut's parents, both with a teaching background, hoped for her to pursue higher education. This eventually encouraged Rotteblaut to enroll in the economics programme at Atmajaya University in Jakarta in 1979.

However, her higher education journey lasted only four semesters. Her parents in Asmat eventually discovered the truth about her gender expression, leading her father to stop funding her education.

Sex work: a means of survival

Deciding to endure life in Jakarta was not an easy feat for Rottoblaut. Known more by the nickname Mami Yuli among peers, she worked tirelessly day and night to survive.

In Jakarta, Mami Yuli discovered the trans women's nightlife scene in Taman Lawang, an area once known for street prostitution. Realizing she wasn't alone provided comfort, as Taman Lawang became a space where she saw fellow trans women presenting themselves attractively. Inspired by peers earning a living there, she became interested in sex work.

During the day, Mami Yuli provided mobile beauty salon services, and at night, she worked as a prostitute. At one point, she even earned a living as a gang member, facing physical assault with bricks while soliciting on the streets of South Jakarta.

"Becoming a trans women in Jakarta is not easy; we are often seen as criminals," she shared. "Discrimination after discrimination is our daily bread."

From the streets to university

Wearing a striking red blouse, Mami Yuli spoke to FairPlanet about her transformative journey of leaving behind a life as a sex worker and gangster.

After spending 22 years as a sex worker, this pivotal decision, which introduced economic challenges, was sparked by a serendipitous encounter with a trans woman working as a pedicab driver.

This meeting led Mami Yuli to Father Marjito at the St. Stefanus Catholic Church in Cilandak, Jakarta, where she found guidance and embarked on what she describes as a profound spiritual path.

"Father Marjito always accompanied me; he always gave me the spirit not to despair," she said.

But despite her efforts, Mami Yuli's hardships persisted, and she often contemplated returning to her previous line of work. She felt that being a trans women in Indonesia was exceptionally challenging. The difficulties in securing employment and accessing proper education left the trans women community with limited job options.

In 2007, Mami Yuli came across a newspaper announcement for an opening as Commissioner at Komnas HAM - National Commission on Human Rights. Komnas HAM is an independent institution equivalent to other state bodies, conducting assessments, research, outreach, monitoring and human rights mediation as per Article 1 of Law Number 39 of 1999. Joining Komnas HAM, she recognised an opportunity to advocate for her fellow trans women.

With only a high school diploma, Mami Yuli's first attempt to join Komnas HAM had failed, facing rejection in the House of Representatives. Undeterred, she decided to pursue an undergraduate law degree at Attahiriyah University in South Jakarta, following the advice of Father Marjito.

After seven rejections, the university's rector personally invited Mami Yuli to discuss her interest in studying there, recognising the potential challenges she might face. Despite encountering derogatory remarks throughout her academic journey, she persevered and completed her undergraduate education.

Father Marjito played a crucial role in motivating Mami Yuli to graduate. Amid economic difficulties and discrimination stemming from the negative stigma against trans women, Mami Yuli decided to continue her educational journey up to the doctoral level.

In 2022, she attempted again to register as a potential member of Komnas HAM, only to face disappointment again.

Mami Yuli said she envisions a future where other trans women can also achieve higher education, following in her footsteps.

Shelter For Elderly Trans Women

Approximately 4,000 trans women are currently part of the Indonesian trans women Communication Forum (FKWI) led by Mami Yuli since 2005. Over 80 per cent of them are urban residents from various regions in Indonesia, including Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi (Jabodetabek), and more than 800 of them are elderly and live in poverty.

Precise statistical data on the number of LGBTQ+ individuals in Indonesia is lacking, as many do not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. But according to a study conducted in 2023 by Litbang Kompas, 86.8 per cent of trans women in Indonesia face negative stigma, 68.4 per cent experience discrimination and 69.7 per cent encounter various forms of violence, including physical, psychological, sexual and economic.

This prompted Mami Yuli and FKWI to build a shelter for elderly trans women in 2010 in Depok, West Java. Named "Anak Raja," the shelter currently accommodates 215 elderly trans women facing rejection and discrimination. It offers programmes such as short-term skills training in baking and cooking, with the crafted products sold locally.

Alongside vocational support, the women receive spiritual guidance aligned with their respective faith as well as medical assistance and care.

"Before the establishment of the Anak Raja shelter, many trans women died, were handed over to the local police office and buried en masse," Mami Yuli said. "They did not have identity cards, making the burial process difficult."

Trans women in Indonesia encounter challenges accessing government-run public facilities and often lack identification cards, which prevents them from benefiting from free healthcare services. In response, Mami Yuli and FKWI provide shelter and assistance to help trans women obtain their rights as Indonesian citizens.

Moreover, those lacking proper identification receive support in obtaining identity and family cards, enabling access to the Social Security Administration and other social assistance programmes. This is essential, as Indonesian law number 24 of 2013 only recognises two genders: male and female.

"We were born in Indonesia and raised in Indonesia," said Mami Yuli. "We also have the right to obtain citizenship rights, even though we are trans women. We are still humans."

Kak Elvi, one of the transgender women living at Mami Yuli's shelter, expressed gratitude for encountering Mami Yuli, who has been a source of inspiration and encouragement on their journey. She referred to the shelter as a 'haven' for providing not only housing but also emotional support.

"This is my new family. This is my new experience. This is my support," Eli told FairPlanet. "For me, getting to know Mami is extraordinary."

But despite the shelter's crucial role, Mami Yuli frequently grapples with resource challenges. Elvi shared a poignant account of an elderly transgender woman traveling far for food assistance, only to find the shelter low on supplies.

Mami Yuli highlights the ongoing struggle for consistent funding, which raises difficulties in financing operations. She currently gives speeches at seminars to generate income and sustain the shelter.

Championing LGBTQ+ Inclusivity and Education 

Nurdiyansah Dalidjo, a queer writer and researcher and the author of House in the Land of Spices, illuminates the experiences of Indonesia's LGBTIQ+ community in his work, striving to foster a more inclusive society where queer voices are heard and respected.

Nurdiyansah Dalidjo underscored the significance of celebrating Mami Yuli's doctoral achievement, shedding light on the limited access that trans women have to education, including doctoral studies. He emphasised the need for a more inclusive education system to address the challenges faced by the trans community. 

"It's something to celebrate [Mami Yuli's doctoral achievement], but it also serves as a reminder of how our transgender friends have very limited access, and some even have no access at all to basic education," Nurdiyansah Dalidjo told FairPlanet.

Dalidjo further stressed the historical significance of Mami Yuli's work advocating for LGBTQ+ acceptance through safe spaces, inclusive policies and acknowledgement of diverse sexuality and gender. He argued that this is essential for fostering a more accepting society in Indonesia.

Image by Dinar Syah.

Article written by:
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Mami Yuli\'s shelter for trans women.
© Dinar Syah
Mami Yuli's shelter for trans women.
Mami Yuli gives her support for Joko Widodo to become President of Indonesia.
© Dinar Syah
Mami Yuli gives her support for Joko Widodo to become President of Indonesia.
Members of Rumah Singgah by Mami Yuli.
© Dinar Syah
Members of Rumah Singgah by Mami Yuli.