One of the most remarkable spiritual treasures of the LGBT community is that so many members of this community who have experienced terrible oppression often transform their pain into courage to protect other members of their community from going through the same anguish.
One such case is a Catholic transgender woman in the pre-dominantly Muslim nation of Indonesia. Known now as Mami Yuli, she has become an advocate for transgender people, having established a home for them to live their lives authentically in peace. UCAnews.com, an Asian Catholic news source, interviewed this woman who used to be known as Yulianus Rettoblaut, who has devoted her life to making sure that others have an easier road than she had. She stated:
“Transgender people go down the dark path. I want to be a candle that sheds light on this darkness. With this light, they know where to go.”
Mami Yuli’s story is a remarkable tale of transforming herself from someone who worked as a prostitute for 17 years to becoming a guardian angel for others who’ve experienced similar injustices. Her early life was extremely difficult, when parental rejection caused her education to end, leading to economic despair:
“She began to hit rock bottom, she says, when her parents found out she was transgendered, calledwaria in Indonesia – a melding of the two words wanita, woman, and pria, man.
“On hearing the news, her parents stopped paying her tuition fees two years into her economics degree at the Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta.
“ ‘My parents couldn’t accept me,’ she says.
“In order to survive, she dropped out of university and started to work in Taman Lawang, a public park in central Jakarta notorious for transvestite prostitutes.
“ ‘I put make-up on my face and a wig on my head,’ says Yulianus, who now calls herself Mami Yuli. ‘I got paid about 500 rupiah from each customer.’
“She survived there for just four months, she says. Competition from other transgender prostitutes was tough.
“She worked as a prostitute elsewhere and later as a bodyguard for other transgendered people in a country where intolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people is high and attacks are not uncommon.”
Though as a young adult, she said she met with negativity from priests, when she decided to turn her life around she went to confession and received affirmation from her confessor:
“After her mother died and she shunned prostitution, Mami Yuli rented a small house in Jakarta with the money she had made on the streets and became a door-to-door barber.
“Then in 1996, just before Christmas, she confessed to a priest serving in St Stephen’s Parish in Cilandak, South Jakarta.
“ ‘I told him everything I had done. He told me not to be afraid. He said God would have mercy on me if I really wanted to change,’ she says.
“Mami Yuli began attending Sunday Mass regularly and eagerly participated in neighborhood community activities.
“ ‘Parishioners didn’t have a problem with me,’ she says.”
But the hierarchy in Indonesia is not as welcoming as the parishioners have been:
“The Catholic Church’s pastoral stance against this minority is compassionate, says Archbishop Johannes Maria Trilaksyanta Pujasumarta of Semarang, Central Java.
“ ‘We see them as human beings. We love and respect them. We give them a chance to mingle with others,’ he says.
“The archbishop, who is secretary-general of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, is clear though that the Church expects those who are transgendered to convert back to their traditional gender role.”
But Mami Yuli is undeterred eventhough she lives and works in Indonesia, where in a recent survey 93% of the population expressed negative attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities. She studied law, and she became a professional advocate for LGBT people:
“In 2007, Mama Yuli applied for a commissioner’s post at the National Commission on Human Rights but failed. Two years after finishing her law degree in 2010 she again sent an application to the commission but was this time rejected for failing the health test.
“ ‘I wanted to be a commissioner because I saw many transgender people finding it hard to seek justice whenever they faced persecution or when their rights were violated,’ says Mama Yuli.
“In July, the commission called for more protection for LGBT people, asserting that the state must protect its own citizens following incidents of repression directed against this minority, sometimes by the state’s Public Order Agency, Satpol PP.”
She has combined structural advocacy with direct service:
“Mami Yuli’s house in Depok is home to 15 male-to-female transgender people aged over 50. They all make cakes which they sell in the surrounding area to make ends meet and Mami Yuli generates extra income through hairdressing and fees paid for being a spokesman for different programs.
“ ‘She gives me and other transgender people a place to live. She protects us if something happens to us,” says 70-year-old resident Yopi Uktlseya, known as Oma Yoti, who lives with Mami Yuli.
“Aged 52, Mami Yuli says she wants to spend the rest of her life trying to help what is one of Indonesia’s most ill-treated minorities.
“ ‘God uses me. He wants me to keep staying with transgender people to comfort their souls,’ she says.”
May God continue to bless this courageous woman! May her ministry flourish, and may she inspire others by her goodness, faith, authenticity, and love!
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry