Indonesia’s conservatives want to push LGBTQ people back into the margins of society and deny them legal rights. It’s an agenda that has capitalized on low levels of awareness in a society where open discussion of sexuality is often frowned upon. But it also clashes with the traditions of some cultures in ethnically diverse Indonesia that have for centuries allowed space for different genders and sexual identities.
“If the public knew in advance that there will be such an event, those who use religion as their mask could attack us. That’s why we kept it secret until the last minute,” said pageant organizer Nancy Iskandar.
“The radicals are very arrogant. I’m afraid that it could erupt into physical confrontation,” Iskandar said. “We don’t want them to step on us forever. What’s in it for them anyway? We’re not doing any harm.”
Opposition from hard-liners prevented the long-running event, which is organized by Putri Waria Indonesia Foundation and Indonesian Waria Communication Forum, from being held twice in recent years.
Indonesia’s police often side with or look the other way when Islamic hard-liners attack or intimidate LGBTQ groups, religious minorities, women’s rights groups and any cultural events they take exception to.
Fitri Pabentengi, a member of the Bugis ethic group, which recognizes five genders, said he traveled from Makassar on Sulawesi island — 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) to the east — for the pageant. In his community he is “bissu,” one of the five genders, which roughly corresponds to androgynous. Bissu are traditionally priests or shamans.
“I came all the way from Makassar to show my solidarity,” said Pabentengi. “We Indonesian waria have the same feelings, what they feel in Jakarta we also feel it in Makassar.”
About 200 people filled the small theater for the finale of the high-energy showcase of idealized feminine beauty. Thirty-four transgender women vied for the title, competing over three days, though four dropped out because they feared the event might be disrupted.
Aside from Miss Transgender, there were a slew of other titles up for grabs, including most sexy, most intelligent and most beautiful skin.
“We want to show that waria can also do positive things,” said Miss West Java, Dinda Syariff.
“People said that we are the scum of the society — that’s so not true,” Syariff said.
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