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17 July 2008

The spice girls

Indonesia’s transgender underworld

By Elizabeth Pisani

When I first met Lenny she was dressed in a jilbab, the mark of a good Muslim woman in Indonesia. She was wearing a slash of garish pink lipstick. And her penis was hidden under a long black skirt. Later, it turned out that I’d known her ten years earlier. But she wasn’t Lenny then – he was Eko, the manager of one of my favourite restaurants.

Lenny is a doyenne of Jakarta’s transgender underworld, a world in which people born as men choose to live as women and sell sex to men. Their clients are straight; they’re just looking for a bit of variety. And Jakarta’s transgenders, or waria, are happy to provide it. I was working with Lenny and her colleagues Lina and Resty on a study of HIV and sexual behaviour when we first met.

“OK, listen up!” I said, going through the questionnaire for the first time. “Section D is about paid sex with another waria. Question 1: In the last month, have you given money to another waria for anal or oral sex? Easy. Question 2: . . .”

Resty interrupted me. “What if it wasn’t me that paid?” she asked. Unpaid comes later, I said. “No, it was paid, just not by me.” Sorry? “Well, you know, when a client pays two waria to have sex together and pretends we’re lesbians.”

Hmm. A straight man pays two men dressed as women to have sex together so that he can fulfil his gay girl fantasies. Variety is the spice of life, they say. It’s no coincidence that Indonesia is home to the Spice Islands.

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Elizabeth Pisani is the author of “The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of Aids” (Granta Books, £17.99). She writes about sex and science at

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