By Rusty Shackelford
“Take off your pants or I’ll stab you and steal your cash!” … just kidding Mister…
You’ve seen them cruising in the dark, often times in the deepest depths of Bali’s hot nights. The short skirts, the thick layer of makeup caked up against mildly masculine features against the overwhelming thick odor of cheap perfume. Sometimes they roll solo, sometimes they hunt in packs. They are unmistakable to those who are vigilant and a possible predator to those who are inebriated beyond rational judgment and whose perceptions are far from accurate. They are Bali’s transvestite streetwalkers and they want you to know they aren’t all that bad.
It’s Sunday night on Jalan Dhyana Pura, arguably the central hub of Bali’s alternative lifestyle scene. This is where gay men of all shapes, sizes, religions, race, and creeds with the occasional “fag hag” in attendance mingle in a small row of bars and clubs that serves as the heart of Bali’s gay scene.
Tonight the usual sight of transvestites peddling their services next to a row of motorbikes a few meters from the clubs is unusually lacking. The street normally bustles with professional crossdressers looking for an easy score.
When inquiring about the lack availability of such providers, I was informed that they were all scared that night. Saturday had seen authorities arrive and brutalize a few transvestites.
One of the bar workers explained that “they came and forced them off the street, then they took scissors and cut clumps of their hair off before making them do push-ups and rubbing chilies in their faces”.
When asked about why these instances occur, he said it was a response to pickpocketing and petty theft by the Transvestites.
But they aren’t all bad. Marilyn, a regular professional in the business of walking the streets and offering his services, believe that it’s just a few bad apples giving the rest of his community a bad name.
Like most of the domestic immigrant population in Bali, the economics of the scene is what draws most workers to come. According to Marilyn, a professional can score over a million rupiah in a single night, but you have to be fabulous; and that can come in varying degrees.
He explained that ”like in all societies, there is a hierarchy”. The showgirls who work at the bars form the top and the petty pickpockets make up the absolute bottom with Marilyn fitting somewhere in between. And like any culture that covers such a broad socioeconomic class, you’re going to have a small criminal element.
He went on further to say that the reprisal from such small and opportunistic instances of theft are the greatest threat to his safety along with AIDS. But Marilyn explained that in his industry, AIDS is preventable, random beatings are not.
Tonight Marilyn is wearing jeans and a t-shirt; he’s too worried about what happened on Saturday night to go full drag. He said he preferred to check out the situation incognito.
These days Marilyn prefers to get his clients through Facebook, but that’s during the day. When asked about whether he ever comes home empty-handed, he remarked, “The demand is always there”.
And although there are places in his native Java where he believes it is much safer to work, he loves the freedom of being who he is in Bali. He also loves the money.
Before leaving for a night of clandestine activities, he paused for a bit and left with this little nugget of wisdom, “in the West it is legal, but in Indonesia, for the most part, it is accepted; I’d much rather be accepted than be legal.”