Indonesia’s transgender priests face uncertain future

    An ancient tradition is slowly disappearing as many transgender youths choose to become beauticians instead of bissu

    May 12, 2015 5:00AM ET | by Kate Lamb

    Eyes thick with kohl and lips slathered in pink lipstick, the priest curled both hands through flames and called to the spirits in a language only the gods understand. The gold bracelets wrapped around one of Engel’s wrists glistened in the light of the fire, and the priest’s lips formed a tranquil, otherworldly smile. As a group of dancers stamped their feet wildly, Engel, as though possessed, stood up above the pot of fire and violently took a sharp dagger to an eye before pressing the weapon down, into the heart, and writhing on top of it on all fours.

    This breathtaking ma’giri’ ritual marked the 685th birthday of Bone, a town in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Hundreds were in the audience at the Bone Town Hall to watch the ceremony in April. At the front, rows of government dignitaries sat at elaborately carved teak tables, clapping in awe.

    Ceremonies such as this one are traditionally performed by transgender priests such as Engel, who are known as bissu. When the dagger fails to draw blood during the trance, it is taken as evidence that they are legitimate conduits to the spiritual realm.

    Perceived as a sacred fifth gender in local Bugis culture — effeminate men (calabai) and masculine women (calalai) represent the third and fourth — bissu are seen as intermediaries between the people and gods, embodying both masculine and feminine elements. This duality is believed to imbue them with the power to connect the natural and spiritual worlds. Most bissu are born male (though there are some biologically female ones) and inducted in their 20s, becoming part shaman, part priest.

    The bissu belong to an ancient tradition that predates the 13th-century arrival of Islam in Indonesia. These days, however, Engel is one of the last left. He worries that soon the bissu could be lost forever.

    “If my body is not strong enough to perform again, then who will perform?” asks Engel from his beauty salon in Bone after the ritual. “When I die, who will be the next generation?”
    Bissu, Engel, Sulawesi.

    For centuries the bissu were a permanent fixture in a dozen royal courts in South Sulawesi. They served as spiritual advisers and healers to the king, guarded regalia and performed sacred rituals during weddings and harvest time. Bissu traditionally lived in royal palaces and were given their own land and rice fields. While the number of bissu varied, each kingdom had a head and deputy bissu, and big ceremonies required the participation of at least 40 priests. Bissu were permitted under colonial rule, but when the Dutch finally relinquished Indonesia in 1949 and the royal courts were handed over to the state, transgender priests were persecuted in waves of attacks.

    “When Indonesia gained independence, the bissu lost theirs,” explains Halilintar Lathief, an anthropologist from Hasanuddin University who has studied the bissu phenomenon for decades.

    During the turbulent times after independence, the Islamic movement Darul Islam took control of swaths of territory in South Sulawesi and sent the bissu running for their lives. In the 1950s, the Islamic group Muhammadiyah banned the bissu, and in Bone, an Islamic mob decapitated the bissu leader and paraded her head around town, swinging it by her long hair, so that no one would ever dare to be one again. Later, during the brutal communist purges of 1965, people deemed to be of “deviant” sexuality were hunted down and killed. Because the bissu were suppressed for so long after independence, many people in Sulawesi are unaware that the bissu are part of the ancient Bugis culture that existed before Islam spread across Indonesia, which is now the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world.

    During these waves of attacks, many bissu went into hiding, some living in caves in the jungle. One bissu from a village near Sigeri learned to dress so convincingly as a woman that to this day no one in the village knows she was born male. “The rumor at the time was that if someone saw a lady-boy or transgender, for seven days their good deeds would not be accepted by God. They were banished,” explains Lathief. “All of that trauma lasted several generations. It is amazing there are actually any bissu these days.”

    This was the environment that Engel was born into.

    From a young age, Engel, who was born male and prefers to be identified by male pronouns, was beaten and insulted for being calabai. Today the memories are still painful to recall. “I wondered why I was born like that when there were real women and real men,” says Engel in tears. “Why had I become such bad luck for myself, for my family?”

    Engel eventually left home. He learned to dance and opened a small beauty salon. But after a constant barrage of insults as well as discrimination and ostracism from his family, he started to question what he lived for. It was then that he met an elderly bissu who taught him the traditional mantras and rituals. Today Engel prefers to dress like a woman but wears the loose robes of Arab men out of respect to his parents, making an exception only when entering a transgender beauty contest or performing a bissu ritual.

    At the celebration of Bone, government officials described the bissu as part of a unique cultural heritage. Outside the party, however, locals barely know what they are, confusing them with the sex workers who frequent the park at night.

    In Bone there are only two bissu left. A three-hour drive away in Sigeri, where there were once 40 official bissu, including a few women, there are now four. In neighboring Gowa, there are none.

    “The old ones,” Lathief says with a sigh, “are going one by one.”
    bissu, indonesia, transgender

    In the late 1990s, Lathief started a program to bring bissu who had been hiding for decades out into the open again. Though his organization Latar Nusa, he began arranging meetings between bissu and the community in Sigeri and oversaw the construction of a rumah arajang — a wooden house on stilts that stores the town regalia, and is where the head bissu is expected to live.

    In the past, bissu underwent life-threatening inauguration rituals and were required to memorize sacred texts such as the epic Bugis origin story. With the revitalization program, Lathief admits they “relaxed the rules a bit” and eased the prohibition on sexual relations. In 2002 the first bissu in decades was inaugurated and driven around Sigeri in the back of a pickup truck with a loudspeaker blasting, and since then, bissu rituals have again become a feature of public life. Thanks in part to this increased visibility, being bissu is now intertwined with gay and transgender identity.

    There are no available statistics about the number of gay and transgender people in Sigeri, but the relationship between them and the broader community is harmonious and open, particularly compared with other areas in Indonesia. Most bissu and calabai maintain a close relationship to Islam, seeing no contradiction in being both bissu and Muslim. According to salon owner and bissu Eka Kahar, “Bissu are guards of the earth that were created by Allah.” In the main street of the small town there are a number of transgender-run salons and coffee shops that are popular with everyone, including the local imam.

    Kahar, who has two diamond-studded teeth and a male partner, dresses like a man only on Fridays so that she may attend Friday prayers at the mosque. Underlining how good relations are these days, Kahar jokes that locals are so familiar with the calabai that “if someone from Sigeri hasn’t had sex with a calabai, they are not from Sigeri.”

    The new opportunities for young calabai, however, have reduced the number of them who choose to become esoteric priests. Many earn their living by working in salons or handling bridal decorations and makeup for wedding ceremonies, which can last up to three days. This work is lucrative, and by contrast, an official bissu leader is expected to live in the arajang with no monthly stipend. “Right now the calabai see the responsibility of bissu as really hard,” says Miska, a transgender English teacher. “If you are a bissu, there is a great responsibility. When there is an event, they must attend. But the calabai are busy.”
    bissu, indonesia, transgender priest

    The future of the bissu is at a crossroads. Lathief’s revitalization program wrapped up in 2003, and the last head bissu of Sigeri died in 2011. Lathief believes there is a need for a government-funded bissu school and cultural center, but with none in the works yet, volunteers such as Kahar have been teaching students at the local primary school about Bugis culture. Last month she went with Nani, a biologically male transgender priest.

    Nani, who fondly remembers cutting her trousers into skirts as a child, became a bissu at 15 after receiving a revelation from the gods. A mythical creature — part horse and part woman in red lipstick — came to him in a dream and told him that he was destined to become a bissu. Nani believes that others will continue to learn of their fates as he did his. “In the future there will more bissu,” he says, “because there will be direction from Allah.”

    Kahar, however, is not convinced. “One day, when old bissu like Nani and me are not around anymore, what will they tell people?” she asks the students. “People will say, ‘There were bissu in those years,’ and they will only say, ‘What are bissu?’”