THE year 2016 has not been good for Indonesia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
It has seen an onslaught of public officials issuing openly hostile statements against the marginalized group.
In February, for example, the mayor of Tangerang, part of greater Jakarta, issued a bizarre warning that Indonesian children might become gay by consuming milk formula and instant noodles.
Then the republic’s higher education minister called for a ban on gay students in universities.
A spokesman for President Jokowi later declared in August that “there is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement.”
Indonesia’s defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu also went as far as claiming that the LGBT movement was “a kind of modern warfare” by proxy, more dangerous than nuclear weapons.
Anti-LGBT attitudes haven’t just been limited to rhetoric but also translated into public policy. In particular, the Indonesian authorities have targeted gay-friendly social media – a vital means by which LGBT people can connect in a religious and socially conservative society. In February, Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information had LGBT-themed emojis removed from the social media app LINE and has since promised to do the same for other popular messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. After revelations in September that a large child prostitution ring in Bogor had used Grindr to solicit customers, the department announced it would block Grindr and 17 other homosexual dating apps.
Most recently, a conservative civil society organisation named the Family Love Alliance moved to push laws in the Indonesian Constitutional Court to criminalise all extramarital sex, including adultery and sodomy. According to Human Rights Watch, a “combination of government officials, militant Islamists, and mass religious groups stoking anti-LGBT intolerance [has] led to immediate deterioration of the human rights of LGBT individuals” on an unprecedented scale.
Many commentators have observed that Indonesia, like many other Asian countries, actually has a long history of tolerance and even active inclusion of people with different sexual identities. Indonesia’s ‘third gender’, waria, are estimated by activists to be numbered at some seven million people. While they face discrimination in formal employment, transgender Indonesians are able to find work in industries like hospitality, beauty salons and entertainment – when current U.S. President Barack Obama lived in Jakarta as a child, he had a transgender nanny named Evie.
The waria also work in the NGO sector on sexual health issues, particularly vital given that many transgender people also work in the sex industry. In South Sulawesi, there are traditional transgender priests referred to as bissu who have played the special role of being intermediaries between the Gods and humans since the thirteenth century.
The ‘godfather’ of Indonesia’s LGBT movement Dede Oetomo established Gaya Nusantara in 1987, which has blazed the trail for activists since. After the fall of Suharto in 1998, LGBT groups have benefitted from greater political agency and freedom of speech, with some 200 organisations now working on LGBT issues.
Whilst Indonesian activists gain some influence and indeed formal training from transnational civil society organisations, author of Coming Out, Hendri Yulius says that Indonesian LGBTQI movements have been adaptive to local norms. In Indonesia, for example, LGBTQI groups have chosen to focus on the less controversial rights issues of anti-violence and access to healthcare. Given the centrality of religion to Indonesian society, they also regularly partner with religious-based organisations and leaders.
Nevertheless, modern Indonesian society has grown increasingly intolerant of the LGBT community.
In 2007, only 3 percent of Indonesians surveyed by PEW supported gay rights, while 93 percent of Indonesians in 2013 said that homosexuals “should not be accepted”. Some 95 percent of Indonesian Muslims surveyed say that homosexual behaviour is “morally wrong”.
This might be seen as partly the legacy of the Suharto era, when a particular set of conservative heteronormative values was propagated by state-endorsed women’s organisations across the archipelago – a process that theorists have deemed the ‘ibuisation’ or ‘housewife-ification’ of Indonesia. During the Reformasi era, nascent democratic freedoms also gave rise to an ‘uncivil society’ of extremists and a hard-line religious right whose violence and intimidation against groups like the LGBT community is often granted impunity by authorities. Oetomo wrote in September that “sexuality, since it is imbued with moral panics, has for a long time been used strategically for political purposes.”
According to Yulius, conservative opponents of LGBTQI organisations accuse them of “aiming to legalise same-sex marriage and destroy heterosexual family principles.” He argues western support for the Indonesian movement is detrimental to the cause, because LGBTQI people become conflated with marriage equality advocates and thus viewed as agents of unwanted foreign influence wanting to attack Indonesian culture. Grace Poore of rights organisation OutRight Action International, argues that the religious right in Indonesia has strived to make the acronym LGBT synonymous with “danger, disease, deviance, and disruption.”
Each year, Indonesia’s neighbouring city-state Singapore hosts Pink Dot, a celebration of sexual identities and diversity. This is despite the fact that in that country too, LGBTQI people face systemic official discrimination and vitriolic rhetoric from public figures.
Which leads us to ask: Are Indonesians ready to celebrate sexual diversity? Would they too dare put on a similar public display of tolerance and recognition of the country’s different sexual identities?
Yulius says this is not likely.
“I think it is quite difficult at this moment,” says Yulius, “our political position is very vulnerable.”
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent