It is a few minutes past eight in the evening on Jalan Blora in Central Jakarta and nightlife revelers are starting to trickle onto the street, still wet and muddy from the downpour earlier in the afternoon. A piercingly loud dangdut tune pours out of one of the street’s shabby clubs, where women in tight, brightly colored outfits stand and strut by the front doors.
Just a few meters from the club, some 25 people wearing sarongs and peci , the traditional Muslim cap, sit on the floor inside a 3-meter by 10-meter vacant kiosk, chanting Islamic prayers led by a cleric. More than half are transvestites who make ends meet as sex workers in Taman Lawang, a nearby red-light district famous for its ladyboys.
On this night, the prayers are dedicated to Faisal Harahap, also known as Shakira, a transvestite who was shot to death by two unidentified men during a robbery gone awry in Taman Lawang on March 10.
Just outside the kiosk, 25-year-old Thalia Lopess sits on a wooden bench with some fellow ladyboys chatting and, at times, listening to the prayers. “I don’t want to go in. Don’t ask me why. I just don’t want to,” he says. Thalia was a roommate of Shakira ‘s and knew him well.
Thalia, who’s birth name is Eko Chandra, has been working as a prostitute in Taman Lawang for four years. At the age of 13, the eldest of four left his hometown in Medan, North Sumatra, and has since lost touch with his family.
“I didn’t want to see my family, especially my mother, get hurt by the fact that I am someone with this sexual orientation,” he says. “I decided to cut off all communication because I love them. I don’t want to be a burden for them.”
With the help of a mama-san, or madam, Thalia got a job as a prostitute in Malaysia and worked there for six years.
“I loved working in Malaysia because people were less hypocritical than in Indonesia,” says Thalia, whose adopted name was inspired by a famous Mexican actress . “Transvestites could be found 24 hours a day because there were always clients. Here, people wait until it gets dark to see us because they don’t want to be seen by others.”
Thalia says that, like most transvestites, his typical working day starts very late, often at midnight. When he finishes work around four hours later, he goes to bed and then wakes up for lunch at 3 p.m. before going back to sleep until it is time to get ready for work.
Thalia is also the Jakarta leader of Organisasi Perubahan Sosial Indonesia (Social Change Organization Indonesia), a local group that works to promote the protection and rights of sex workers in Indonesia. The organization, he says, is part of a large international network made up of similar groups. “I just got back from a meeting in Bangkok,” he says.
As a sex worker, Thalia says he earns about Rp 500,000 ($57) on a busy night and about Rp 100,000 when it is quiet.
“There are more clients on weekends and during school holidays,” he says. “Some of my clients are high school kids and university students.”
Thalia said his rates were based upon the “different types of the clients,” meaning how affluent they appear. “Students pay the least because I know they are still financially supported by their parents. Meanwhile, people who ride motorbikes pay less than those who drive cars,” he says. “For those with cars, I will charge more to a person driving a BMW or Volvo than somebody driving, say, an old Kijang van.”
He says he charges foreigners three times higher than his base rate, simply because they earn a lot of money here.
“My English is very limited but I guess ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘enough’ is enough,” he says with a laugh.
“I prefer bule clients because, apart from paying a lot more, they are more understanding. When they know I feel tired, they will stop and not be pissed off. And still be willing to pay.”
Transvestite sex workers, Thalia says, face a lot of risks on the job.
“We do risk getting sick from the cold weather, being the target of raids by public order officers, meeting jerks who refuse to pay after using our services, not to mention the discrimination we deal with from society,” he says. “I realized that all along. But I never thought that any of us would get murdered out here.
“I feel sad and disappointed because people can be really cruel to us, like animals. While I believe that all citizens have equal rights, it seems to me that people like us have no place in this country.”
The neighborhood where he and 14 other transvestites share a two-level house, Thalia says, is very tolerant. After the group members decided to be actively involved in the neighborhood’s events, people in the area learned to accept the transvestites as a part of their community.
Shakira used to rent the room next to Thalia’s in the house.
“We blend in with the people here by involving ourselves in various events, such as during Independence Day celebrations. We also offer to help when a neighbor holds a wedding party or when someone dies,” he says. “I think, wherever we live, whether or not we can be accepted by the community depends on how we interact with others.”
With around 50 transvestites walking the streets around Taman Lawang, Thalia says competition surely does exist.
“But it’s a healthy competition. There is no such thing as rivals, let alone enemies, among us,” he says. “We believe that our fortune has been written for us.”
Thalia admits he devotes a large portion of his income to buying beauty products to stay attractive.
“I tell you what — transvestites spend a lot more money on beauty products than women do. We don’t have the same hormones, but we’re trying to get what women have,” said Thalia, who underwent plastic surgery in Malaysia in order to get breasts.
His beauty products, he says, consist of everything from vitamins for his hair and nails to evening primrose oil for healthier skin. He also regularly pays someone to come to his home to cleanse his skin with brazil-nut scrubs.
“I can spend Rp 3 million on all this stuff,” he says. “It’s okay because it’s an investment. I’d rather spend my money on body-care products than on clothes.”
Although he said he is not sure when he will give up sex work, Thalia says he does have plans to retire one day.
“I’d like to run a beauty salon business after I quit this job,” he says. “I have learned the skills to become a hairdresser.”
Thalia, surprisingly, said no when asked if he ever dreamed of being born again as a woman.
“Even if I had the chance to be born again, I wouldn’t want to be a woman. I never did,” he says. “I am happy with what I am now. I think transvestites are awesome. It is two elements, a male body and female characteristics, in one being.”
Having been away from home for 12 years, Thalia says he would love to see his family again. However, he says he would wait until all of his three siblings, especially his only sister, were already married before visiting them.
“I don’t want their future husbands or wives and their families to change their mind to marry my siblings if they found out that they had a transvestite in the family,” he says.
“I wasn’t even there when my father died. I heard about it from a friend of mine who met my family when she went home to Medan several years ago,” he says.
“On Idul Fitri, I cry because I remember them. What I feel for them is no longer what you call ‘longing.’ It is way beyond that.”