- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2012

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Once, long ago, Evie looked after “Barry” Obama, the kid who would grow up to become the world’s most powerful man. Now, his transgender former nanny has given up her tight, flowery dresses, her brocade vest and her bras, and is living in fear on Indonesia’s streets.

Evie, who was born a man but believes she is really a woman, has endured a lifetime of taunts and beatings because of her identity. She describes how soldiers once shaved her long, black hair to the scalp and smashed out glowing cigarettes onto her hands and arms.

The turning point came when she found a transgender friend’s bloated body floating in a backed-up sewage canal two decades ago. She grabbed all her girlie clothes in her arms and stuffed them into two big boxes. Half-used lipstick, powder, eye makeup — she gave them all away.

“I knew in my heart I was a woman, but I didn’t want to die like that,” says Evie, now 66, her lips trembling slightly as the memories flood back. “So I decided to just accept it. … I’ve been living like this, a man, ever since.”

Indonesia’s attitude toward transgenders is complex.

Nobody knows how many of them live in the sprawling archipelagic nation of 240 million, but activists estimate 7 million. Because Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country in the world, the pervasiveness of men who live as women and vice versa often catches newcomers by surprise. They hold the occasional pageant, work as singers or at salons and include well-known celebrity talk show host Dorce Gamalama.

However, societal disdain still runs deep — when transgenders act in TV comedies, they are invariably the brunt of the joke. They have taken a much lower profile in recent years, following a series of attacks by Muslim hard-liners. And the country’s highest Islamic body has decreed that they are required to live as they were born because each gender has obligations to fulfill, such as reproduction.

“They must learn to accept their nature,” says Ichwan Syam, a prominent Muslim cleric at the influential Indonesian Ulema Council. “If they are not willing to cure themselves medically and religiously” they have “to accept their fate to be ridiculed and harassed.”

Many transgenders turn to prostitution because jobs are hard to find and because they want to live according to what they believe is their true gender. In doing so, they put themselves at risk of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Some, like Evie, have decided it’s better to hide their feelings. Others are pushing back. Last month, a 50-year-old Indonesian transvestite applied to be the next leader of the national human rights commission, showing up in a borrowed luxury vehicle with paparazzi cameras flashing as she stepped out.

“I’m too ugly to be a prostitute,” Yuli Retoblaut said, chuckling. “But I can be their bodyguard.”

The threat of violence is very real: Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights receives about 1,000 reports of abuses per year, ranging from murder and rape to the disruption to group activities. Worldwide, at least one person is killed every other day, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, which collects homicide reports.

Evie says she chose her current name because she thought it sounded sweet. But she adds, as she pulls out her national identification card, her official name is Turdi and gender male. Several longtime residents of Obama’s old Menteng neighborhood confirmed that Turdi had worked there as his nanny for two years, also caring for his baby sister Maya. When asked about the nanny, the White House had no comment.

Evie, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, now lives in a closet-sized hovel in a tightly packed slum in an eastern corner of Jakarta, collecting and scrubbing dirty laundry to pay for food. She wears baggy blue jeans and a white T-shirt advertising a tranquil beach resort far away in a place she’s never been. She speaks softly, politely, and a deep worry line is etched between her eyes.

As a child, Evie was often beaten by a father who couldn’t stand having such a “sissy” for a son.

Story Continues →