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Indonesia's Transgender Community Facing Test of Faith

in INDONESIA, 28/05/2011

For Indonesian transgenders, practicing religion in public is not an easy thing, but that doesn’t stop some from trying.

Mariyani, a 50-year-old transgender hairdresser, said during a discussion on homosexuality and religion that transgender people, just like other people, wish to be able to practice their religion openly.

“If I ever had the choice, I would not want to be a transgender, but this is what God has decided for me,” Mariyani said.

“It needs to be understood that it is not true that all transgenders are bad, because there are good transgenders who actually have a strong willingness to publicly practice religion but unfortunately we are not accepted,” she said.

But Merlyn Sopjan, a Christian transgender who heads the Malang Transsexual Association (Iwama), told the Jakarta Globe that unlike Mariyani, she has never experienced rejection in her church.

“Even though there are many people who know that I am a transgender, no one stares at me every time I walk to the church and I feel so comfortable because I can practice my religion peacefully,” Merlyn said.

“I think it is because that in Christian religious rites, the male and female believers are not segregated,” she added.

“However, I have one friend who was told by the priest that he cannot join the Mass if he dresses up as a woman.”

Merlyn said she expects that transgenders will eventually be accepted within religious groups.

“As human beings who are committed to our religion, we just want to have the freedom to practice our religion as other people do,” she added.

Mohamad Guntur Romli, a prominent liberal Muslim intellectual and a graduate of Egypt’s Al Azhar University, said on Thursday that the root cause of suspicion of homosexuals in Indonesia is ignorance.

“The lack of knowledge about rights and health issues related to homosexuality has created hatred within society,” Guntur said.

“Homosexuality is being equated with a mental disorder or the homosexual community is blamed for having spread HIV/AIDS, for instance. That’s not proper information about homosexuality and this has led to homophobia among wider society,” he explained.

Guntur said religious institutions and leaders have also played a role in the stigmatization of homosexuals.

“Religious institutions and leaders often find it difficult to be sympathetic toward homosexuality,” he continued.

He said that self-righteous religious leaders and institutions see homosexuals as sinners.

“Ignorance about homosexuality has created homophobia in society and religion is being used to spread hatred toward homosexual communities,” Guntur added.

Muhammad Syukri, an openly gay man from Yogyakarta, told the Globe on Friday that obvious signs of gayness sometimes lead to rejection.

“Being gay is not as hard as being transgender ... whenever I want to practice my religion, I do not get a hard time from another believer, because I do not dress up as a woman,” Syukri said.

But as soon as he would begin acting in what is seen as a feminine way, trouble often starts. “Some people make a fun of me and actually, that is a form of harassment,” Syukri said.

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