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As the head of the advisory body of a small village in Indonesia, Hendrika Mayora Kelan celebrated his 34th birthday last week by distributing vegetables to his community.

Kelan is the first openly trans woman to become a civil servant in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

“I am grateful for the support people have for me as a trans woman. They have put me in charge of the village council,” Kelan told DW.

She said that at times during the election she felt inferior because of her sexual orientation. But it seemed that her reputation as a hard worker mattered more to the village.

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“As soon as I was elected, I was immediately faced with the hardships caused by the pandemic. So I immediately created a food security program, planted crops and distributed them to the community,” Kelan said.

The Habi village advisory body has important functions, including developing village regulations, overseeing the use of village funds, and monitoring the performance of village officials.

With the authority she will have for the next six years, Kelan will also attempt to adopt inclusive policies, including empowering marginalized groups such as transgender people.

Habi village in Sikka district is part of a predominantly Catholic region in Indonesia’s southernmost province, East Nusa Tenggara. There are around 320,000 people in Sikka, 9% of whom are Muslims.

Before becoming a woman, Kelan had been a religious brother in the Catholic Church. As a devout Catholic, she faced a struggle between her gender identity and her faith.

Kelan says she wants to be an example that trans women in Indonesia can be part of government without attached stigma and stereotypes

A long transition

Born in August 1986, she received the male name Henderikus. She said she felt like a girl since elementary school; put on make-up and play with girls’ toys.

“I already felt different from boys. But because of family pressure, I continued to survive as a boy.”

When she was a child her family moved to the larger island of Papua and from high school Kelan entered a Catholic seminary school and became a religious brother.

“I had the spirit to serve others,” she said.

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But during this time, she also struggled to come to terms with her identity and reconcile her faith with the feeling that being transgender was a sin forbidden by her religion.

During this time, the feeling that she was a woman trapped in a male body grew stronger and she began to struggle with depression.

“I haven’t told my bosses about my identity, but I think everyone can see my femininity,” she said.

After two years, she decided to quit church service. Slowly she started to come across as transgender and started wearing women’s clothing.

She moved to the city of Yogyakarta in Java. She volunteered to help victims of HIV / AIDS, but quickly ran out of money. She worked as a street artist and sex worker, facing beatings and harassment from officials.

In 2018, following the death of her cousin, Kelan decided to leave town and return to the village of Sikka where she was born.

Gain acceptance and an election

It was a difficult process to gain the acceptance of the inhabitants of Habi village, but Kelan managed to overcome negative attitudes towards his way of life through community activism with a local transgender group called “Fajar Sikka”.

“If there are activities or events in the village, I will persuade my friends who are trans women to involved, organize decorations, organize events or cook. Their food is delicious and loved by the community, ”she said.

People in the area started to notice that Kelan really wanted to help his community. The housewives especially appreciated Kelan’s help, and their support propelled her towards running for the village council.

“The people who nominated me know that I am a trans woman. I also said that if I was elected to help the community, I would be ready, but without changing my identity,” Kelan said.

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Power of community support

Kelan said Fajar Sikka’s support was instrumental in his success as a public servant.

Fajar Sikka was established in 2018 in Sikka District to help people who feel excluded by the community, whether due to a different sexual orientation or a disability.

With over 40 members, Fajar Sikka offers transgender people, Indigenous women and workers with disabilities a place to belong.

“I know what it’s like to be depressed and scared. I was scared and stressed. Like me, these sexual minorities have always felt guilty, despised. I slowly convinced them to accept themselves. ‘first,’ Kelan said.

For transgender people in Indonesia, being able to live in peace free from judgment and discrimination is already a major challenge.

Kelan encourages Fajar Sikka members to learn new skills and avoid being trapped by stereotypes that trans women can only work in salons, as street performers or become sex workers.

The Fajar Sikka community teaches various skills and members sell food in schools, open kiosks, become traders and start businesses.

As head of the village council, Kelan’s salary is only € 64 ($ 75.3) per month. She is also often invited to speak at webinars and can earn extra money from it.

Kelan said she wanted to help her village grow, but she also wanted to be an example that trans women in Indonesia can be part of government without stigma or stereotypes.

However, she admits, she has no ambition for a career in politics. “I will become what I should be, be it a Member of Parliament or a Regent, as long as it allows me to do what I aspire to: serve the people and help the community. Or I could become a nun.”

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