According to the Bugis gender system, a calabai is a 'false woman'. These individuals are generally assigned male at birth but later take on the role of a heterosexual female. The dressing and gender expression of calabai are distinctly feminine, but do not exactly match that of a "typical" cisgender woman.
Calabai are anatomical males who, in many respects, adhere to the expectations of women. However, calabai do not consider themselves women and are not regarded by the Bugis community as women. Nor do they wish to become women, either by accepting restrictions placed on women such as not going out alone at night, or by undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
In modern SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) terminology, calabai would presumably be categorised as male-to-female cross-dressers who identify as male. Their gender identity, however, is a separate consideration altogether and cannot be generalised. It varies from individual to individual.
Unlike another gender class, the calalai, who are anatomical females but who take on and conform to many of the norms, roles and functions expected of men, calabai have created a specific role for themselves in Bugis society.
If there is to be a wedding in Bugis society, more often than not, calabai will be involved in its organisation. When a wedding date has been agreed upon, the family will approach a calabai and negotiate a wedding plan. The calabai will be responsible for many things: setting up and decorating the tent, arranging the bridal chairs, the bridal gown, costumes for the groom and the entire wedding party (numbering up to twenty-five), makeup for the relevant participants, and all the food. Rarely does a village wedding have less than a thousand guests. On the big day, some calabai remain in the kitchen preparing food while others form part of the reception, showing guests to their seats.
Calabai in Singapore
During the "Sirri na Pesse: Navigating Bugis Identities in Singapore" exhibition held at the Malay Heritage Centre from 14 October 2017 to 24 June 2018, a poster was on display which quoted a Singaporean Bugis woman describing a calabai in her kampung as being one of their relatives too:
"Saudara Kita Juga
[Nenek saya pernah berkata] 'Dulu dekat kampung, ada seorang lelaki ni. Saudara kita juga. Pakai kebaya'. Saya berminat nak tahu. Cara nenek saya bercakap... dia tak kata: 'Oh, orang ini trans[gender]' ke apa. Dia cuma kata itu saja: 'Dia pakai kebaya' atau 'Oh, dia berjalan macam budak perempuan'. Jika tak silap saya, dia membuat pakaian untuk pelakon wanita.
- Nur Izwah Ibrahim
Our Relative As Well
'[My grandmother once said] 'In our kampong previously, there was this guy who was our relative and wore kebayas. I became interested and wanted to know more. The way my grandmother spoke ... she didn't say: 'Oh this person is trans[gender]' or whatever. She just said: he wore a kebaya or 'Oh, he walks like a girl'. If I'm not wrong, he made clothes for actresses."
- Nur Izwah Ibrahim"
One well known calabai in Singapore was Raja Hamdan bin Raja Jaafar a.k.a. Raja Zai. He was a dress designer whose clothes were featured in the fashion show scene in the 1962 Malay comedy, "Labu dan Labi".
- Sharyn Graham, "Sulawesi's fifth gender", Inside Indonesia, April to June 2001.
This article was written by Roy Tan.