Tales of the Waria: Indonesia's Third Gender


‘Tales of the Waria:’ A Conversation with Director Kathy Huang by Chi-hui Yangon the Xfinity TV bloggives us a good summary of the situation of warias in Indonesia, as profiled in the 2011 film Tales of the Waria.

Back in the 1600s, before Islam even made its way to Indonesia, there was a tradition of cross-dressing priests on the island of Sulawesi. This tradition has helped the warias find more of an acceptance in modern day Indonesia. Everyone knows a waria personally or at least knows what “waria” means (as opposed to “gay” which can still befuddle some Indonesians). One of the biggest celebrities in Indonesia– on the scale of Oprah– is a waria by the name of Dorce. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that the warias are universally accepted. Religious extremists like the FPI make it their business to cause trouble for the waria community. Warias continue to be disadvantaged in areas of education, health care, and job opportunities. And though warias can make it big in entertainment or become the breadwinners of their families, parents rarely rejoice when they learn that their son is a waria. To be a waria is to live a life of contradictions. 

Tales of the Waria has been seen on PBS and several film festivals, including Outfest and Frameline. It received an audience choice award from the Barcelona Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Best Documentary from the San Diego Asian Film Festival.


Director, Kathy Huang, explains more about the film in "Tales of the Waria: Inside Indonesia's Third-Gender Community" on Huffington Post.

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 landed in Makassar, a coastal city in eastern Indonesia known for both its strong Muslim faith and historic openness toward transgender individuals.

I quickly discovered that warias in Indonesia are different from transgender women in the United States. For religious reasons, many are not interested in sex-reassignment surgeries. As one waria explained to me, "We believe we were born as men and must return to God as men." Warias also hold notions of womanhood that would dismay modern feminists; for many warias, the height of happiness is to find a "laki-laki asli," a manly man, and to spend their days looking after him.

Huang originally began with the intent of making a film about religion, but points out the complexities of understanding cultures from the outside. To Huang's credit she adapted her plan in collaboration with her subjects.

As an American entering the scene, my initial interest had been in the role Islam played in warias' lives. How did they negotiate their faith with their lifestyles? How did the members of their religious community receive them? When I approached warias with the idea of making a film on this topic, they were unenthused. "What for?" one waria asked. For them, religion was not a source of conflict in a way that an outsider might imagine.

In another interview,"Interview with Filmmaker Kathy Huang" on the Clyde Fitch Report, Huang says,

I think there have been people who have watched my film and are disappointed because they assume that they are going to come in and watch these transgender women harangued and abused by the Muslim community around them. Instead, you see something a little bit more complicated: a society where warias are both accepted and marginalized. People don’t always know how to interpret that; it’s so multi-layered, it’s not as simple as just, “Islam is bad” or “Islam is good.”

In "Q&A with Tales of the Waria director, Kathy Huang" by Mandy Hu from Hyphen Magazine, Huang says,

I think a lot of American audiences are surprised by what they see. Sometimes if I tell people about the premise of the film, their eyes widen and they say, “Life must be awful for the warias, with them being Muslim and all.” But the story is never as easy as that. We have this idea in the West that Islam is oppressive and unyielding. But the Islam you see in the film is largely tolerant. It’s not uncommon for warias to be out in the open and even celebrated.

You can view the 2 minute trailer below.

See additional short clips from the film and producer commentary on our Tales of the Waria page.

In Huang's own words,

After four years, the film is finally finished. We hope that it will show people that there is room in Islam, as there is in any religion, for differences in appearances, lifestyles, and sexual preferences. We've also tried to give audiences a new glimpse into transgender life, one that foregoes the usual emphasis on sex-reassignment surgeries, prostitution, and alienation. Our subjects search for love and try to forge meaningful human connections, despite whatever obstacles or heartache may lie in their path. Theirs is a universal journey, one that is both beautiful and inspiring.

Read the full article on Xfinity TV Blog: ‘Tales of the Waria:’ A Conversation with Director Kathy Huang by Chi-hui Yangon 

Read the full article on Huffington Post: Tales of the Waria: Inside Indonesia's Third-Gender Community by Kathy Huang

Read the full article on Clyde Fitch Report: "Interview with Filmmaker Kathy Huang" by Jesse Veverka

Read the full article on Hyphen Magazine: "Q&A with Tales of the Waria director, Kathy Huang"by Mandy Hu

Read the full article on Beyond the Box: "Tales of the Waria featured on Telegraph21"

The score to Tales of the Waria is reviewed in "Soundtrack Review: Tales of the Waria (2012)" with audio available on Spotify.

Find Tales of the Waria on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/thewaria

The official website for the film is www.thewaria.com

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