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INDONESIA - Jul 24, 2003

Last month, Merlyn Sopjan, a 30-year-old male-to-female transgender and civil-engineering student, decided to run for Mayor of her town of Malang, East Java. Although her application was rejected for being filed after the deadline, her attempt garnered positive press. Merlyn told reporters that she wanted a role in government and the media helped spread her message that waria (a combination of the Indonesian words for woman and man) should have the same rights as every other citizen.

Indonesia has a long history of tolerating a variety of sexual and gender identities with public records describing transvestism in the royal court as far back as the 14-century: Hayam Wuruk used to dress as a woman in front of his ministers. Men still play female roles in traditional dance performances in East Java. In fact, Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, described in memoirs how he used to powder and rouge his face to perform female roles using bread tucked into his blouse for breasts.

Despite social pressure from religious conservatives, most Indonesians are relaxed about gender ambiguity. Never-the-less, transgenders are seeking to expand their job opportunities beyond the traditionally accepted roles as television stars, entertainers, beauticians, and prostitutes.

Local governments have begun to provide job training programs to help waria become more independent. Grassroots sports and AIDS prevention groups have been building self-confidence among local communities for over a decade.

For more information, read this fascinating story by Jane Perlez at the New York Times.


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