Despite his technical background, Oni Suryaman is driven by literature. In his spare time, he writes essays, book reviews, and fiction. He also worked as a part-time translator for Indonesian publisher Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and Kanisius Publishing House. He has recently published a picture book titled I Belog, a retelling of a famous Balinese folklore, an adaptation of which was performed at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) Singapore 2017.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Third Gender
It was already midday, and the stifling, muggy, Yogyakarta air enveloped Soumi’s perspiring body. The humidity made Soumi restless. And as the restlessness dragged on, she became depressed about her lonely life — the life she had chosen on that terrible day. Indeed, anyone’s life could be difficult, for it might not always turn out to be the most rewarding. But Soumi had not deliberately chosen this life. A violent force had driven her to cross the boundary of her identity.
“Soumi, get up!” Karyo shouted from outside Soumi’s room. “It is dawn already!”
That morning, Soumi was home alone with Karyo, her mother’s husband. Soumi’s mother was staying with her cousin, whose husband had died the day before. Karyo, who served in the military, was not Soumi’s biological father. Soumi was the only child from her mother’s previous husband, and she was the only child in the family. Soumi’s mother and Karyo didn’t have children.
Soumi was used to getting up before dawn, and she quickly rose. Usually, her mother boiled the water. This morning Soumi would have to do it herself. Happy like a lovebird flying into the morning, she answered Karyo’s call and lifted the door latch.
The door slammed into her, shoved open forcefully by Karyo, who lunged at her, snorting like a bull in heat.
Caught off guard, Soumi was neither ready — nor strong enough — to fight back.
Hundreds of life’s memories tore apart all at once: the innocence of her past, the colorful fantasies of her aspirations, the passionate hopes of love to come, and the anticipation of her unknown future. Everything changed that morning. Her entire life had turned into a torn, crumpled, useless canvas.
Afterwards, in her room, Soumi smelled Karyo’s cologne. He had showered and was ready to go to work. Soumi felt nauseated. She heard Karyo leave, whistling as if nothing had happened.
Totally undone, Soumi rushed to the bathroom. She showered for a long time. She scrubbed her body over and over again as if she could never wash away the stain Karyo had left on her. But despite the endless streams of water, she could not rinse away the blotch in her heart.
Back in her room, Soumi pulled out her photo albums and scrapbooks. What good are these for? she thought, and she burned all her childhood pictures, her school diplomas, her identification card, and her birth certificate. Then she packed up what was left of her belongings, along with her heart. Soumi felt forced to leave the house she had lived in as a female, with her weaknesses and defeat.
“I don’t want to live as a female anymore!” Soumi declared to herself. “This world definitely doesn’t belong to women!”
Now Soumi would need a new identity. She considered disguising herself as a man, but she was disgusted by the male sexuality. “I don’t want to be a rapist like Karyo!” Soumi said firmly to herself. “Nor do I want to ever be raped by anyone again!”
For Soumi, the house had lost its protective meaning. She was no longer a part of the house’s story. She left a short message for her mother. “This is no longer home,” Soumi said, and, leaving the front door wide open, she left the house, as well as her sexual identity as a woman.
After trying to make a living in Malang and Surabaya, Soumi arrived in Yogyakarta. The charming city welcomed her. Soumi now had a masculine appearance. She wore her hair short and neat, and she used hair gel that made grooves in her freshly combed hair. She practiced self-defense with Thai boxing.
Soumi worked as a waitress in a modern restaurant. Her well-kept, almost delicate appearance made many people like her. She did her job well and was promoted. Soumi felt that life was finally on her side. But it all ended during the eighth month of the COVID pandemic. The restaurant could no longer survive the decreasing number of customers and the increasing cost. Soumi’s life fell apart together with the restaurant.
A year into the pandemic, Soumi stood in a long queue, drenched in perspiration. The ongoing COVID pandemic had depleted the last of her savings. She was now lined up to register for the cash subsidy the government was providing.
“Your name?” asked the unmasked officer from the Mergangsan District.
The bored officer looked up. “Really?”
“Yes, sir. My name is Soumi.” The officer scribbled on the registration form.
“Male or a female?” The officer scrutinized Soumi.
“Neither,” Soumi answered firmly.
The officer stopped writing. He leaned back in his chair with a righteous air. He took a deep breath, readying himself to deliver a long speech about the legal aspects of the gender entry on the government application form. A barrage of words burst from his mouth. His lecture started by pointing out the stated gender options on the registry form and went on to discuss the religious views on the matter. Bottom line, he said, Soumi had to choose between being male or female. Period!
Soumi filled out the form with difficulty. She didn’t want to remember the bitter past when she was a weak woman, but she did not refer to herself as a man either. She had affirmed to herself that she was neither man nor woman, and she had begun a fresh painting of herself on a new canvas. She felt comfortable with her new self — someone very different from her previous self, but still not a man, like Karyo, who was cruel and conceited.
“Your ID, please?” The official was losing patience with Soumi.
“I don’t have an ID. I only have the temporary resident registration card from the precinct.”
The officer abruptly ended Soumi’s application to survive. “Without a proper ID, you are not eligible for the subsidy.”
The official answers were always the same, wherever she went. She remembered the answers well from her attempts to obtain legal identity documents. Over and over again, sounding like a broken record, Soumi recited the list of the many international agreements that recognize the third gender, which is neither male nor female.
Soumi could solve the problem by obtaining relocation papers from the authorities in her former neighborhood. But for Soumi, that was impossible because Karyo still lived there and she didn’t want to face him — or her former self. The torn painting of her past should be left to deteriorate; Soumi was painting a new one.
“After you obtain the proper ID, you can come back and get the subsidy,” the official said bluntly and turned away. “Next in line!” he shouted.
In March 2021 it was five months that Soumi and her workmates had been laid off from their job at the restaurant. The pandemic had forced them to get creative to survive. The world was spinning so fast, it left its inhabitants behind. People were required to catch up with a world that had moved on without their consent, like a house that had abandoned its residents.
Soumi and her friends had depleted their savings. They tried to survive in various ways. Eating less was their first option. Soumi decided not to see the doctor when she had a fever and cough. Soumi moved to a smaller room. The boardinghouse was located in a secluded corner of a slum, but the rent was cheap. She tried to find any job she could get; her friends were doing the same. They either survived or perished.
One day, the friends all arranged to meet at the city park. The isolation necessitated by the pandemic had alienated them from one another. They needed to meet just to share their worries.
“What are you doing now, Gar?” Wulan asked Tegar. Like Soumi, she used to work as a waitress.
“I am selling betta fish, the Siamese fighting fish,” Tegar answered. He used to be the cashier. “Taking care of these small fish is cheap.”
“I make and deliver spring rolls, on order,” Wulan said.
Soumi was happy that her friends were doing their best to survive. During this pandemic, it was critical to do whatever was necessary to make enough to eat.
“Because money is so tight,” Wulan continued, “the children can’t have a vacation.”
“Yeah, we no longer have extra money for entertainment,” Tegar answered. “Our meager income is spread thin.”
“This month,” Wulan added, “we skipped breakfast, not because we eat a rich person’s diet, but to save money.”
Just as things were different for Wulan and Tegar, they were also different for Yanto. He had been the restaurant’s security guard. His athletic build had made him a good fit for the job, but, unfortunately, his immune system was not as strong as his body. He caught COVID and spent almost three weeks in the hospital. Yanto had to pawn his vehicle to pay the bills.
Their lives were in a no-win situation – if they didn’t work, they could not eat; if they did work, they risked catching COVID.
“How did it feel to have COVID, Yanto?” Tegar asked.
“Have you ever caught a really bad cold? Multiply that feeling by three, and you’ll get an idea of how it felt. First, you lose your sense of smell; then, you can’t breathe because your lungs are filled with phlegm. Unless you get oxygen, you suffocate and die.”
Tegar cringed. “Oh, gawd!”
Soumi walked over to Jamila. The cook at their former workplace sat alone, not engaging with the others.
“Hi, Jamila,” Soumi said. “What are you doing now?”
“I don’t have a job. It is difficult for someone my age to find a new job and start all over again.” Jamila, who had worked at the restaurant for more than ten years, lamented the situation. “We have witnessed how the restaurant where we worked lost its business.”
“But you can cook!” Soumi asserted. “The big businesses may have collapsed, but a small business might still have a chance to grow.”
“It is impossible; I need a lot of money.”
“Hey, don’t lose hope!” Soumi encouraged.
Instead of answering, Jamila went home.
The friends parted only to meet again one week later when they went to Jamila’s rented house to pay their last respects to her. The pandemic functioned as a sieve, separating the strong from the weak. Jamila was suffering from hepatitis C — and had been ever since she had been known as Jamal, an old bachelor.
Jamal had tried for many years to obtain a formal ID so that he would be eligible for the government’s health insurance subsidy to treat his hepatitis C. The treatment for his illness was expensive, and he could not afford to pay the medical expenses. The village chief had told him that it was quite possible to obtain a formal ID if Jamal would just check the box for “male” on the application.
“Your birth certificate states you are a male, right?” the village chief asked. “Just fill out the form according to the information on your birth certificate. After that, you can apply for health insurance.”
“Look,” the village chief sneered, “that thing hanging between your legs is a male sex organ — and you cannot hide your Adam’s apple either.”
But Jamal refused to accept his physical appearance. Since adolescence, he had never identified as a male. Jamal, the teenager, didn’t finish high school. He could not bear the bullying from his classmates and teachers. They called him banci — a fag.
His father often beat him, and his mother was powerless to protect him. His father could not accept Jamal’s effeminate behavior, and he believed that beating Jamal would toughen him up. If I beat him often, he’ll change and become a real man, the father thought.
But Jamal had no intention of ever being identified as a man, and he finally chose to leave home. Jamal was much more comfortable being known as Jamila. He felt better when he could cook wearing a loose long dress. He was lucky enough that he did not have to resort to becoming a prostitute. For decades, Jamila worked as a cook in small eating stalls and then moved as a chef from one restaurant to another. Jamila was an expert in mixing spices to bring out the best flavor of each component of the dish.
But now that Jamila had to depend on a government subsidy for her hepatitis C medication, she gave up. She could have obtained a formal ID as Jamal, a male, but fate had a different plan for her. Caught between gender identities, Jamila’s life quickly deteriorated. Death was the cheapest way out for a sick, unemployed, and desperate transgender.
At Jamila’s wake, Soumi reminisced about her friend. She had met Jamila in the restaurant, but their relationship was more meaningful than that of mere co-workers. Jamila enabled Soumi to move on with her life. Jamila had been a respected chef at the restaurant; she had been kind to her workmates and was like a good sister to Soumi, who had watched Jamila’s struggle to convince the government to acknowledge her choice of gender. Soumi also had watched Jamila racing against her disease’s progression, and losing the race. When Jamila finally gave in and chose the gender “male” stated on the government form, her disease had become acute.
But all through her struggle, Jamila had supported Soumi. She helped mend Soumi’s broken heart. She introduced Soumi to the transgender community and support systems. Soumi learned that God not only created night and day, but also dawn and dusk. Soumi and her friends were neither night nor day; they were people trapped inside mislabeled bodies. As individuals with conflicting identities, Soumi and her friends supported each other.
“Aren’t dawn and dusk making the universe more beautiful?” Jamila used to ask Soumi. “This world would be a dull place with only night and day.”
Soumi had taken Jamila’s words to heart when she started the new painting on the canvas of her life.
Jamila had stressed to Soumi that although the current world might not allow her to choose something other than being a man or a woman, she was still a human being who had the right to live as one of God’s creations, just like everyone else.
“I am a human being,” Soumi asserted to herself.
Soumi also remembered Jamila telling her, “There used to be transgender characters in the shadow puppet play.”
Really? Soumi had wondered then.
“The shadow puppet play simply reflects the condition of our society.” Jamila started to explain. “Men and women are both needed in this life,” Jamila said. “The character Batari Durga is indeed fearsome, but before that, she was as gentle as Dewi Uma.”
“Yes,” Soumi said softly, “Dewi Uma attained moksha and became the giantess Batari Durga to fight the lustful Batara Guru.”
Soumi had heard that story. The transformation of Dewi Uma had encouraged Soumi to become who she was now. While she rejected the weak female part of herself and tried to supplement it with the tough male part, Soumi didn’t automatically consider herself to be a man. Instead, she had slipped into the third gender to make herself comfortable with the way she felt now. She was prepared to defend herself should a Karyo attack her again.
“Everyone who lives on this earth is equal and must look after each other,” Jamila had concluded.
But Jamila’s aspiration was not fulfilled until her death. Her friends carried her body from one village to another, trying to find a village cemetery that would accept a transgender for burial. Most villages considered having a transgender buried in their cemetery a stigma. Finally, the friends found a village on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, bordering Bantul, that allowed them to bury Jamila in their cemetery. They were charged an exorbitant fee, which they had collected with great difficulty from their financially-strapped transgender friends.
“Ew, that’s a lot of money!” exclaimed Shinta, a transgender who worked as a prostitute near the Kalasan intersection. “Does it cost that much just to bury a dead body?”
The pandemic had put a financial burden on everyone. Most transgenders had to work in the service sector. When people’s incomes decreased, they cut their spending on luxuries first. People cut back on personal grooming. Pleasure seekers didn’t have enough money to pay the transgender prostitutes. There was no small change for transgender buskers.
“Aw, don’t be such a tight ass; this is for our sister Jamila,” Diana retorted, trying to keep Shinta from being stingy while she was collecting money for Jamila’s burial.
“I haven’t been able to hook up with a john for a long time,” Shinta whined.
“Oh, I don’t believe you. How much do you charge for a trick?” Dewi asked.
“It is COVID, dear, I’m having a sale.” Shinta handed over some crumpled bills.
Dewi grabbed Shinta’s money. “Go get some subsidy; the government is handing out six hundred thousand!”
“No subsidy for me, dear,” Shinta sighed. “I don’t even have an ID.”
“Ah, first you must be cured from being a queer, then you can get an ID,” Dewi shrugged.
“Yeah, who says that being a queer is a disease that has to be cured?” Shinta asked, sarcastically. “The social service says that being queer is a social disease.”
Soumi, listening to the conversation at the wake, thought, Social disease, huh …
Soumi had learned from Jamila that this attitude was the root of the problem. As long as the third gender was considered an aberration, the fate of the other Jamal–Jamilas would stay the same. All they actually needed was recognition and acceptance.
Soumi repeated Jamila’s words: “The dawn and dusk do not last long; therefore, they who are not born as day or night are limited in number.”
But that doesn’t mean we can be persecuted. Soumi’s spirits rose. “I will be like Jamila; I will spend the rest of my life striving for justice.”
Soumi remembered Jamila telling her that a tradition in Bugis, Sulawesi, recognizes five equal genders in society. In addition to man and woman, there is calalai, a woman who has the role of a man in society. There is calabai, a man who has the role of a woman. The fifth gender, bissu, is neither male nor female. Although tradition recognizes these five genders, today, many contest it.
Suddenly, Soumi heard Jamila’s voice: “People just do not understand.” It was so clear, she almost could see Jamila smiling at her.
“Jamila …” Soumi said, softly.
“Keep spreading this awareness.” Jamila’s voice continued.
“I will do it for the rest of my life,” Soumi promised.
“We are all created equal,” Jamila declared before her shadow faded away.
Soumi was overcome with her loss of Jamila, who had failed to make peace with society. With her eyes burning and tears running down her cheeks, Soumi looked at Jamila’s corpse, waiting to be buried. Soumi whispered, “Jamila, I know that you wanted to die as a woman and you did.”