Obama transgender ex-nanny now a celebrity

2012-03-08 17:42
Barack Obama's former nanny Evie at her boarding house in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara, AP)

Barack Obama's former nanny Evie at her boarding house in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara, AP)

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Jakarta - Barack Obama's former nanny, Evie, is overwhelmed by her jolt from transgender slum-dweller to local celebrity. TV crews troop in and out of her tiny concrete hovel. Estranged relatives finally want to meet. She even has a promising job offer.

Evie, who was born male but considers herself a woman, decided after enduring years of abuse and ridicule she'd be better off trying to just fit in. She stopped cross-dressing and has since eked out a living hand-washing clothes.

But since being the subject of a recent article by The Associated Press about the struggles of transgender people in this predominantly Muslim nation, the 66-year-old has been showered with attention.

It's mostly because of her long-ago connection to the now-US president — though she hopes it might generate more openness on gender issues.

Evie started caring for 8-year-old "Barry" Obama in 1969 when he lived in Indonesia's capital with his mother, Ann Dunham, who had arrived in the country two years earlier after marrying her second husband, Indonesian Lolo Soetoro.

"After living without hope for so long, like I was locked in a dark room, I now feel like the door is open," said Evie, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. "It's like the winds of heaven are blowing hope for me."

"Even my relatives who never cared about me are now coming to see me."

Looking for respect

Though many newcomers to Indonesia are surprised by the quasi-acceptance and pervasiveness of transgenders — seen on TV, working in salons — they are usually the object of scorn.

"I realise this won't last long," she said. "But I think my story might help open people's eyes so they will respect us more."

An American teacher at Saint Peter's Catholic School in Jakarta, Philip Myers, was so touched by Evie's story when he saw it earlier this week that he offered her a job as a cook and a maid.

"I really don't care if she wants to come in wearing a dress, or pants. The outward appearance is not the issue. Her heart is what's important," Myers said.

Evie was excited by the idea. But for now, she's too overwhelmed to think about it. During a break between TV interviews at her home in a tightly packed Jakarta slum on Thursday, piled high with dirty laundry she's collected from neighbours, she said she hoped he would be patient.

She also said she would love to hear from her former charge - but there has been no outreach yet from the White House.

Regular beatings

Evie played with the Obama and picked him up from school. She worked in the home as a man and says she never let young Barry see her in women's clothes, though neighbours remember seeing her leave the home in the evening dressed in drag.

The TV crews have been primarily interested in that brief period, Evie said, before Obama's family left Indonesia in the early 1970s and before she resorted to prostitution when work as household help dried up.

In the years that followed, she and her friends faced regular beatings from security guards and soldiers. They were often rounded them up, loaded into trucks, and taken to a field where they were kicked, hit and otherwise abused.

When one day, nearly 20 years ago now, she saw the body of one of her friends in a sewage canal, her beautiful face bashed in, she decided enough was enough.

She gave away all of her dresses, colourful pants and bras: She was ready to live as a man.

She kept to a quiet existence on the margins of the Indonesian capital, where neighbours have been flabbergasted by all of this week's fuss.

"They came with TV cameras and interview her as though she is a star," said Ayi Hasanah, a 50-year-old housewife who lives nearby. "Hopefully this can change her life. Because as far as I can see, her life is very hard."

Read more on:    barack obama  |  indonesia

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