In Kathy Huang's sad and funny documentary, Tales of the Waria, transgender Indonesian women, called warias, eat at cafes, shop at malls, work in salons, and search hungrily for husbands. Many warias do all this while wearing tight clothes and pancake makeup, and few people in the world's most populous Muslim nation bat an eye.
Indonesia has a history of respect for warias (the term is a combination of the Indonesian words for "man" and "woman"). Before Islam arrived in Indonesia hundreds of years ago, cross-dressing attendants catered to royalty's needs, instilling a certain respect for warias that still exists today but is little known outside the nation.
In Huang's film -- recently screened at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- most warias are allowed to live freely as women. This isn't to say they're all happy. After her parents objected to her appearance, a waria named Firman abandoned her effeminate ways, married a woman, and fathered two children. Other warias feel the weight of a patriarchal society: The aging Mami Ria, who shared the love of a policeman with another woman, his legal wife of 18 years, goes under the knife to please her "husband," but he still discards her.
The warias insist they are much like other women in Indonesia's Islamic world: They work, they drive, they revere Muhammad.
"[Warias] pray in mosques, observe Ramadan, and have good relationships with their local imams," Huang says.
While transgender women are integrated into Indonesian society, most gays in the country are invisible, as they often succumb to pressure to marry the opposite gender.
"What's interesting is that transgender women in Indonesia are much like the gay community in America," Huang says. "Visible and active in public life."
Tales of the Waria will be screening at film festivals through 2012.