Below a highway overpass in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, college students eat fried noodles and spicy chicken stew from brightly lit food stalls that fill this gritty space. The noise of cars and trucks rumbling overhead mingles with the sound of jets landing at the nearby airport.
A singer's voice begins to pierce this dense cacophony. She has woven palm fronds into her hair to create a headpiece that crowns her sparkly pink outfit. Diners tip her before turning back to their meals.
The busker's name is Madame Ruly and she is a fixture in the Yogyakarta community of waria — loosely, though imperfectly, translated as transwomen. The word combines two Indonesian words: "wanita," or woman, and "pria," or man. As a third gender, waria — biological men who live as women — have been part of Indonesian society for as long as anyone can remember, many years before the modern gay rights movement in the country. Yet they are often disowned by their own family members who disapprove of their children coming out as transgender.
Day-to-day survival can be a struggle. To make a living, many waria in Indonesia do sex work or sing on the street for tips. Both of those jobs are technically illegal but are often tolerated by the authorities.
Despite the obstacles they face, the waria find strength in asserting their identity. In a sense, it's unifying, "because they're marginalized by everyone," says Sandeep Nanwani, a 26-year-old doctor and a candidate for a master's in global health delivery at Harvard University. Read more via NPR