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Jakarta Post

Yulianus Rettoblaut: Fighting for equal education for transgender people

  • Yuliasri Perdani

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, September 29, 2015   /  04:10 pm
Yulianus Rettoblaut: Fighting for equal education for transgender people Yulianus “Mami Yuli” Rettoblaut - JP/Yuliasri Perdani" height="383" border="0" width="510">Yulianus “Mami Yuli” Rettoblaut - JP/Yuliasri Perdani

At the age of 54, Yulianus Rettoblaut recently became the first openly transgender person in Indonesia to achieve a master’s degree. For Yulianus, it is more than a personal achievement, but part of her mission to improve the lives of transgender people in the country.

Yulianus, better known as Mami Yuli by her peers, completed her master’s degree in criminal law at Tama Jagakarsa University with a cum laude distinction.

Her academic achievement is her personal way of fighting discrimination and violence against transgender people.

“We are always perceived as immoral. Some religious groups often attack us, for example during the [2012] Miss Waria [Transgender] event,” she said at her house located in a densely populated residential area not far from the upmarket Pondok Indah residential area in South Jakarta.

“It would be stupid for us to attack them back. I believe we should fight such ill treatment with positivity, such as by proving that we can be intellectuals just like other people.”

Just a few days after her graduation day on Sept. 9, Yuli has set more goals in the near future. She will soon take her lawyer accreditation and start her doctoral study in law at a university in Jakarta.

Yuli, head of the Indonesian Transgender Communication Forum (FKWI), has set her eyes on becoming the first transgender lecturer in the country.

“Some have expressed their willingness to accept me, but they seemed unsure when I told them that I want to wear women’s clothes when giving a lecture,” she added.

She hopes that fellow transgender people will follow in her path.

“When you pursue education, people look at you differently. Because you will have improved your ability to present yourself and speak to the public, as well as enabling you to live in a better environment.”

Born in Papua to a teacher couple hailing from Maluku, Yuli spent most of her childhood in the secluded district of Asmat. Yuli felt something different within herself, but never realized it until she went to Jakarta in 1978 to attend university.

“I met some friends who introduced me to Taman Lawang,” she said, referring to a popular site for transgender prostitutes in Central Jakarta.

When she lost the scholarship and her parents died, Yuli fell into street prostitution. However, Yuli served more as a bodyguard to her fellow friends than a prostitute. She was frequently involved in fights with those who assaulted the transgender sex workers.

“At that time, transgender people in many places were the victims of violence, shootings and mutilation. No one, even the police, were there to defend us.”

Transgender and human rights activist Yulianus Rettoblaut, also known as Mami Yuli, joins a group selfie with other graduates during her graduation ceremony.(JP/Seto Wardhana)

Yulianus '€œMami Yuli'€ Rettoblaut - JP/Yuliasri Perdani

At the age of 54, Yulianus Rettoblaut recently became the first openly transgender person in Indonesia to achieve a master'€™s degree. For Yulianus, it is more than a personal achievement, but part of her mission to improve the lives of transgender people in the country.

Yulianus, better known as Mami Yuli by her peers, completed her master'€™s degree in criminal law at Tama Jagakarsa University with a cum laude distinction.

Her academic achievement is her personal way of fighting discrimination and violence against transgender people.

'€œWe are always perceived as immoral. Some religious groups often attack us, for example during the [2012] Miss Waria [Transgender] event,'€ she said at her house located in a densely populated residential area not far from the upmarket Pondok Indah residential area in South Jakarta.

'€œIt would be stupid for us to attack them back. I believe we should fight such ill treatment with positivity, such as by proving that we can be intellectuals just like other people.'€

Just a few days after her graduation day on Sept. 9, Yuli has set more goals in the near future. She will soon take her lawyer accreditation and start her doctoral study in law at a university in Jakarta.

Yuli, head of the Indonesian Transgender Communication Forum (FKWI), has set her eyes on becoming the first transgender lecturer in the country.

'€œSome have expressed their willingness to accept me, but they seemed unsure when I told them that I want to wear women'€™s clothes when giving a lecture,'€ she added.

She hopes that fellow transgender people will follow in her path.

'€œWhen you pursue education, people look at you differently. Because you will have improved your ability to present yourself and speak to the public, as well as enabling you to live in a better environment.'€

Born in Papua to a teacher couple hailing from Maluku, Yuli spent most of her childhood in the secluded district of Asmat. Yuli felt something different within herself, but never realized it until she went to Jakarta in 1978 to attend university.

'€œI met some friends who introduced me to Taman Lawang,'€ she said, referring to a popular site for transgender prostitutes in Central Jakarta.

When she lost the scholarship and her parents died, Yuli fell into street prostitution. However, Yuli served more as a bodyguard to her fellow friends than a prostitute. She was frequently involved in fights with those who assaulted the transgender sex workers.

'€œAt that time, transgender people in many places were the victims of violence, shootings and mutilation. No one, even the police, were there to defend us.'€

Transgender and human rights activist Yulianus Rettoblaut, also known as Mami Yuli, joins a group selfie with other graduates during her graduation ceremony.(JP/Seto Wardhana)Transgender and human rights activist Yulianus Rettoblaut, also known as Mami Yuli, joins a group selfie with other graduates during her graduation ceremony.(JP/Seto Wardhana)

In 1997, Yuli was fed up with life on the street. '€œI was 35, and I thought that as I was aging, I could not keep fighting those violent customers forever.'€

With the guidance of a pastor, Yuli left the world of prostitution and took a hairdressing class.

In 2007, she took part in the selection process to become a commissioner at the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), believing the position would help her to defend the rights of transgender people.

'€œI, indeed, had many shortcomings,'€ she said, recalling her failure to win the post.

'€œI was competing with highly educated individuals. It was already remarkable that I, a high school graduate, made it to the final selection process.'€

The failure inspired her to enroll in an undergraduate law degree at Attahiriyah Islamic University in Bukit Duri, South Jakarta.

When asked about her university choice, she answered: '€œWe are challenged or rejected by religious fundamentalist groups. I want to study about Islam, particularly about what we can and cannot do, so that I can explain that to my friends.'€

She encountered some people who disrespected her during her studies, but thankfully, the situation only lasted for a few weeks.

Yuli set up a shelter for aging transgender individuals at Cinere in Depok, West Java, where they can have meals and learn new skills, such as cooking and sewing.

'€œThere are 813 elderly transgender people [who use the service]. But due to limited space and financial support, there is only space for 15 people, so they have to take turns.'€

Being transgender in this country is hard, Yuli said. Typically, they are disowned by their families and have limited access to education and job opportunities. '€œEven those working in informal sectors, such as in posh salons are obliged to shorten their hair.'€

An FKWI study found that 85 percent of the reputed 7 million transgender Indonesians surveyed were poor and uneducated. Most of Yuli'€™s friends only ever graduated elementary school. This condition has led some transgender people into street prostitution.

'€œI want to push the parliament and the government to ensure the basic rights of transgender people to employment, education and health care. This may sound simple, but it is crucial.'€

Yuli has made efforts to help her friends have better lives. Every night, she turns her small salon in her living room into a training space for transgender sex workers hoping to have careers as hairdressers and beauticians.

She sees herself as a role model to the younger generation of transgender people.

'€œThe Mami [sisterhood] system is very dominant in our community. So if a Mami [older sister] tells them to study, but she does not walk the talk, the young will not bother with her.'€

'€œNow, they can see Mami Yuli, who spent 17 years as street prostitute, but is pursuing a doctorate degree. They can witness how education has changed my life.'€

Some transgender individuals had decided to enroll at university after watching news reports about her accomplishment, Yuli said.

'€œI can'€™t see the results of my struggle now, but 15 years from now, we will have 3,000 transgender individuals completing doctorate degrees and holding respected positions in offices and in society.'€

After a failed second attempt to obtain a Komnas HAM post in 2012, Yuli says her fight is far from over.

'€œA thousand times I am refused, a thousand times I will try!'€

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