by Kathy Huang
Originally published on HuffingtonPost.com
The ITVS-funded documentary by Kathy Huang premieres Sunday, June 3 on Global Voices on the WORLD Channel. An online social screening and chat will be held on Monday, June 4 at 8pm ET/5pm PT with the filmmaker to discuss issues raised in the film. That event will take place here.
This past March the Associated Press broke an unexpected story concerning Barack Obama’s childhood in Indonesia. Apparently, as a young boy growing up in Jakarta, Obama’s care had been entrusted to a transgender woman named Evie. American readers were shocked. What were the chances of the president having a transgender nanny — and in Indonesia, of all places? Having worked closely with the transgender community in Indonesia for the past several years, I can say: actually, not that bad.
In Indonesia biological men who believe that they are born with the souls of women are known as “warias.” The term is a melding of two Indonesian words: “wanita” (“woman”) and “pria” (“man”). As a group, warias are diverse, encompassing what we in America might call cross-dressers, transsexuals, drag queens, and effeminate gay men. What unites them is an irrepressible feminine spirit.
I first learned about warias in 2005, when I saw a newspaper photograph of a gorgeous waria who had won a beauty contest in Jakarta. I knew about the “ladyboys” of Thailand, but I had no idea that transgender people could live so openly in Indonesia, a country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Like many Americans I had this notion of Islam as being oppressive and particularly unforgiving toward sexual minorities. How could a community of warias possibly exist?
Three years later my curiosity as a filmmaker got the better of me. I took some Indonesian language classes and traveled to Indonesia to experience the lives of warias firsthand. Under the counsel of Dr. Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist with 20 years of field experience working with the queer community in Indonesia, I landed in Makassar, a coastal city in eastern Indonesia known for both its strong Muslim faith and historic openness toward transgender individuals.
Tales of the Waria will premiere as part of the Global Voices series on the WORLD Channel, Sunday, June 3 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). Starting June 4 the documentary will be available to view in entirety online via PBS Video (for a limited time only).
Additionally, Kathy Huang sat down with ITVS to discuss her documentary Tales of the Waria and her hopes for the film’s impact on audiences: