Not only the victims of disasters, but also victims of the system: Celebrating International Day for DRR with Rully Mallay

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Rully Mallay (she/her) is a waria who has experience in environmental activism, disaster response, and other areas of diverse SOGIESC inclusion in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Rully became involved in the waria community when she gave up her comfortable life in the city to live and work alongside the waria to learn how best to challenge their marginalisation through activism. Following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, Rully became part of the disaster response team, a roll she continued after the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake. By living with waria communities, Rully learned about structural and systemic failures that have lead to the marginalisation of Indonesia’s waria, and offers unique insight into what ‘Good Governance’ means for diverse SOGIESC communities in disasters.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

Related to my gender identity and expression, I decided to be a waria since I was in middle school. I didn’t dress in women’s clothing fulltime yet; I only did that at home. Because of that, my mum used to take me to see a psychologist. When my dad found out about it, he expressed his disagreement. He was a Bugis. According to his culture, it’s normal for a boy being feminine. Some of my paternal family members were bissu (one of the five genders of the Bugis, encompassing all the other four). As a young person, I was very active. I was into vigorous physical exercises. I was even a pencak silat (traditional martial art) and karate athlete. I even won a gold medal at a PON (Pekan Olahraga Nasional, or National Games). So, realising that physical and psychological aspects are not always congruent. I think my mum understood that I couldn’t be changed. That’s why during the school’s farewell party, she allowed me to attend the party wearing a kebaya (traditional Indonesian blouse-dress worn by women). Since then, everyone knows I’m a waria – well back then people still used the term wadam (a compound word from “wanita, or woman; and “Adam”, the first man in the Holy Book). At school, I grew my hair long and never tucked in my shirt. Even when I worked as a teacher in Sumba from 1978 to 1987, I dressed femininely. 

How did you become an LGBTIQ+ activist?

I didn’t plan it; it happened naturally. When I served a member of district parliament in 1987 until 1993, I had a chance to study dance and music at Indonesia Institute of Arts, Yogyakarta. There, I had the opportunity to learn different perspectives on sexuality and gender. I became aware of the stigma, discrimination and stereotypes that are often attached to warias. I saw injustice towards marginalisedgroups, violence, neglect of their human rights. And then in 1993, I got involved in an NGO setting through a friend. First, I had a training on environment and disaster response from OISCA International in West Java – I ended up working for them for a few years. So actually, I started my activism in the environment. Then I decided to go back to Yogyakarta. I met fellow warias there. I was moved by their hard life. And then I decided to live like them and be with them full time. That’s how I got to understand what’s going on; what caused them to be marginalised and understood their struggle.

And then, the 2004 tsunami struck Aceh. With the support of friends I knew from past work, I went to Aceh as part of a disaster response team. After a little over a year, I went back to Yogyakarta, and not long after that, in 2006, an earthquake jolted the city. My friends and I helped build a public kitchen and relief posts for the victims. We also worked with the search and rescue team conducting disaster simulations. We all know there would be aftershocks and we need to be ready. That moment showed me that the warias are the ones who are affected the most. They are already struggling with their life due to the stigma. Their source of livelihoods, which is already very limited, are gone. Assistance during the disaster very often doesn’t reach them. That’s why the work we did Yogyakarta led me to work with issues experienced by the warias even more.

What inspires you to advocate for social change?

I have never thought of it. What I have done originates from my concern for the social situation where there is a systematic failure, a mix of the incapacity of the government and thuggery from both within and outside the waria communities which gives warias a bad reputation. Access to social services is very limited. So, when I lived with them, I busked with them and lived on the street, so then I could justify what they did to survive. I criticised government policies that are not in favour of minority groups, while I slowly build a stronger community; strengthening them in terms of organising and advocacy.

How long have you been involved in this work?

It depends on how far back we start counting. I think I would say I started focusing on LGBTIQ+ issues in 2006. But there are different timelines. For instance, in 1998 when I met the big names in the movement, such as Mami Vinolia from KEBAYA (Keluarga Besar Waria Yogyakarta, or Yogyakarta Transgender Family), Mbak (sister) Yuni, Mami Sinta, and Mbak Maryani. Immediately they became my discussion friends. Then in 2003, I started entering LGBTIQ+ communities in general, where I met even more people in the movement. But if we start counting from the time I fully transformed to be a waria, then it’s all the way back to 1978. Back then, I already talked to people about what is now called gender expression and identity.

What experience do you have working in disaster settings? (personal or professional)

The most recent is disaster response and management during the COVID-19 pandemic. My experience working on the tsunami Aceh and the earthquake in Yogyakarta, in addition to the training from OISCA, has helped me prepare for the pandemic. A few weeks after the government announced the large-scale social restriction, which was misinterpreted by the grass-root communities as a total lockdown, many warias were restless; in fact, everyone was. They were afraid they might die of hunger than of the virus if the restriction continued. Therefore, together with friends from various organisations, including religious ones, I set up a mechanism so that all assistance could be pooled in one place. We build public kitchens, distributed food and necessities, face masks and hand sanitiser, which were outrageously expensive. The solution to the exorbitant price is that we bought some sewing machines to produce our own face masks. We also conducted training on making our own hand sanitiser with the help of doctors and pharmacists.

What challenges did you face as an LGBTIQ+ activist in the DRR space?

The greatest challenge is to get strong and sustainable economic and social support. I am fortunate to have siblings that are supportive of my work. They often help me financially and psychologically. Another challenge is to change the system, which doesn’t accommodate the needs of the waria communities. Recently, we met with the government officials starting from the lowest level, such as the neighbourhood leaders up to the Regent to share what my friends and I have done. We hope that they could see what is still lacking and then collaborate with us to fix that.

The theme for International Day of DRR is good governance. What is a good and inclusive DRR governance for LGBTIQ + like to you?

This is related to the government’s poor population data collection. There are many ex-convicts, homeless people, warias and other minority groups who do not have access to a KTP (National ID card). The government must see this in the context of how to treat them as equal humans. This has an implication in data collection of disaster victims. There are so many other disaster victims who are more worthy of receiving assistance, but they cannot get it just because they do not have a KTP. In my opinion, these marginalised people are not only the victims of disasters but also victims of the system.

If there was one change that you would like to see for LGBTIQ+ people in disaster settings, what would that change be?

I want to see changes in government policies. In the case of DRR, assistance should be given equally to all victims. Nobody is omitted or receives more than what they deserve based on any background, whether it’s gender, sexuality or other identities.

What are ways humanitarian and development organisations can support the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in DRR planning and response?

It’s a shame that international NGOs and donors that have worked for so long in Indonesia, which participation is very significant in the development of minority groups in Indonesia, were forced to halt their strategic programs related to LGBTIQ+. In 2016, when the anti-LGBT sentiment arose, the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia forbade them to continue any programs associated with LGBTIQ+. So, what these organisations could do now is invite us, include us, train us to be the mouthpiece for advocacy for minority groups, including LGBTIQ+ people. For example, they could train us in the legal aspects of human rights or train us to be paralegals so that we know how to defend ourselves. In relation to DRR, international organisations should actively involve us in disaster prevention & mitigation coordination activities.

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Rully Mallay (she/her) is a waria who has experience in environmental activism, disaster response, and other areas of diverse SOGIESC inclusion in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Rully became involved in the waria community when she gave up her comfortable life in the city to live and work alongside the waria to learn how best to challenge their marginalisation through activism. Following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, Rully became part of the disaster response team, a roll she continued after the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake. By living with waria communities, Rully learned about structural and systemic failures that have lead to the marginalisation of Indonesia’s waria, and offers unique insight into what ‘Good Governance’ means for diverse SOGIESC communities in disasters.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

Related to my gender identity and expression, I decided to be a waria since I was in middle school. I didn’t dress in women’s clothing fulltime yet; I only did that at home. Because of that, my mum used to take me to see a psychologist. When my dad found out about it, he expressed his disagreement. He was a Bugis. According to his culture, it’s normal for a boy being feminine. Some of my paternal family members were bissu (one of the five genders of the Bugis, encompassing all the other four). As a young person, I was very active. I was into vigorous physical exercises. I was even a pencak silat (traditional martial art) and karate athlete. I even won a gold medal at a PON (Pekan Olahraga Nasional, or National Games). So, realising that physical and psychological aspects are not always congruent. I think my mum understood that I couldn’t be changed. That’s why during the school’s farewell party, she allowed me to attend the party wearing a kebaya (traditional Indonesian blouse-dress worn by women). Since then, everyone knows I’m a waria – well back then people still used the term wadam (a compound word from “wanita, or woman; and “Adam”, the first man in the Holy Book). At school, I grew my hair long and never tucked in my shirt. Even when I worked as a teacher in Sumba from 1978 to 1987, I dressed femininely. 

How did you become an LGBTIQ+ activist?

I didn’t plan it; it happened naturally. When I served a member of district parliament in 1987 until 1993, I had a chance to study dance and music at Indonesia Institute of Arts, Yogyakarta. There, I had the opportunity to learn different perspectives on sexuality and gender. I became aware of the stigma, discrimination and stereotypes that are often attached to warias. I saw injustice towards marginalisedgroups, violence, neglect of their human rights. And then in 1993, I got involved in an NGO setting through a friend. First, I had a training on environment and disaster response from OISCA International in West Java – I ended up working for them for a few years. So actually, I started my activism in the environment. Then I decided to go back to Yogyakarta. I met fellow warias there. I was moved by their hard life. And then I decided to live like them and be with them full time. That’s how I got to understand what’s going on; what caused them to be marginalised and understood their struggle.

And then, the 2004 tsunami struck Aceh. With the support of friends I knew from past work, I went to Aceh as part of a disaster response team. After a little over a year, I went back to Yogyakarta, and not long after that, in 2006, an earthquake jolted the city. My friends and I helped build a public kitchen and relief posts for the victims. We also worked with the search and rescue team conducting disaster simulations. We all know there would be aftershocks and we need to be ready. That moment showed me that the warias are the ones who are affected the most. They are already struggling with their life due to the stigma. Their source of livelihoods, which is already very limited, are gone. Assistance during the disaster very often doesn’t reach them. That’s why the work we did Yogyakarta led me to work with issues experienced by the warias even more.

What inspires you to advocate for social change?

I have never thought of it. What I have done originates from my concern for the social situation where there is a systematic failure, a mix of the incapacity of the government and thuggery from both within and outside the waria communities which gives warias a bad reputation. Access to social services is very limited. So, when I lived with them, I busked with them and lived on the street, so then I could justify what they did to survive. I criticised government policies that are not in favour of minority groups, while I slowly build a stronger community; strengthening them in terms of organising and advocacy.

How long have you been involved in this work?

It depends on how far back we start counting. I think I would say I started focusing on LGBTIQ+ issues in 2006. But there are different timelines. For instance, in 1998 when I met the big names in the movement, such as Mami Vinolia from KEBAYA (Keluarga Besar Waria Yogyakarta, or Yogyakarta Transgender Family), Mbak (sister) Yuni, Mami Sinta, and Mbak Maryani. Immediately they became my discussion friends. Then in 2003, I started entering LGBTIQ+ communities in general, where I met even more people in the movement. But if we start counting from the time I fully transformed to be a waria, then it’s all the way back to 1978. Back then, I already talked to people about what is now called gender expression and identity.

What experience do you have working in disaster settings? (personal or professional)

The most recent is disaster response and management during the COVID-19 pandemic. My experience working on the tsunami Aceh and the earthquake in Yogyakarta, in addition to the training from OISCA, has helped me prepare for the pandemic. A few weeks after the government announced the large-scale social restriction, which was misinterpreted by the grass-root communities as a total lockdown, many warias were restless; in fact, everyone was. They were afraid they might die of hunger than of the virus if the restriction continued. Therefore, together with friends from various organisations, including religious ones, I set up a mechanism so that all assistance could be pooled in one place. We build public kitchens, distributed food and necessities, face masks and hand sanitiser, which were outrageously expensive. The solution to the exorbitant price is that we bought some sewing machines to produce our own face masks. We also conducted training on making our own hand sanitiser with the help of doctors and pharmacists.

What challenges did you face as an LGBTIQ+ activist in the DRR space?

The greatest challenge is to get strong and sustainable economic and social support. I am fortunate to have siblings that are supportive of my work. They often help me financially and psychologically. Another challenge is to change the system, which doesn’t accommodate the needs of the waria communities. Recently, we met with the government officials starting from the lowest level, such as the neighbourhood leaders up to the Regent to share what my friends and I have done. We hope that they could see what is still lacking and then collaborate with us to fix that.

The theme for International Day of DRR is good governance. What is a good and inclusive DRR governance for LGBTIQ + like to you?

This is related to the government’s poor population data collection. There are many ex-convicts, homeless people, warias and other minority groups who do not have access to a KTP (National ID card). The government must see this in the context of how to treat them as equal humans. This has an implication in data collection of disaster victims. There are so many other disaster victims who are more worthy of receiving assistance, but they cannot get it just because they do not have a KTP. In my opinion, these marginalised people are not only the victims of disasters but also victims of the system.

If there was one change that you would like to see for LGBTIQ+ people in disaster settings, what would that change be?

I want to see changes in government policies. In the case of DRR, assistance should be given equally to all victims. Nobody is omitted or receives more than what they deserve based on any background, whether it’s gender, sexuality or other identities.

What are ways humanitarian and development organisations can support the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in DRR planning and response?

It’s a shame that international NGOs and donors that have worked for so long in Indonesia, which participation is very significant in the development of minority groups in Indonesia, were forced to halt their strategic programs related to LGBTIQ+. In 2016, when the anti-LGBT sentiment arose, the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia forbade them to continue any programs associated with LGBTIQ+. So, what these organisations could do now is invite us, include us, train us to be the mouthpiece for advocacy for minority groups, including LGBTIQ+ people. For example, they could train us in the legal aspects of human rights or train us to be paralegals so that we know how to defend ourselves. In relation to DRR, international organisations should actively involve us in disaster prevention & mitigation coordination activities.