IT IS hard not to catch the term LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) in daily conversations in Indonesia lately.
The term is used extensively in public chatter and discussions in a number of talk shows and media publications. While in preceding decades the state’s negative attitude towards people with non-normative genders and sexual identities was sporadic, since early this year, government officials and religious organizations’ responses have seemingly become unified in deliberately promoting hatred against those in this group.
Paralleling marriage equality in the U.S. and the globalization of LGBT identity politics, the government regards LGBT movements as forms of proxy wars, in which hegemonic countries seek to control and destroy other countries’ culture through their soft powers. The proliferation of debates on LGBT issues have also led an Islamic pro-family group, Family Love Alliance [Aliansi Cinta Keluarga/AILA] to take legal steps to criminalize homosexuality and extramarital sex through revising the existing Criminal Code.
If you read the newspaper or online news on LGBT issues in Indonesia, you will likely notice how the term is now being used as a single category to address a person with non-normative gender and sexual identity, instead of an acronym describing a variety of gender or sexual identities.
For example, it surprises me when I am asked, “Are you LGBT?” instead of “Are you gay or homosexual?”
This shift in categorizing a person’s sexual identity implies the unanticipated concomitant effects of a globalized LGBT identity, in which meanings are still convoluted and unclear for many Indonesians who are not exposed to these discourses on sexuality.
So what is the LGBT all about in this most-populous Muslim country?
Besides the conflation of LGBT with mental illness, Western invention, and sexual deviance, the recently distributed poster of the Youth and Sports Ministry’s Creative Youth Ambassador Selection 2016 for example banned those with political affiliations and drug users from the competition, as well as those deemed as sexual deviants, including the LGBT. The ministry also stated that contestants must be ‘physically and mentally healthy’, denying persons with disability to join the competition.
But this criterion raises an important question. How does the committee know about a person’s sexual orientation and identity? Different from transgender people who are often more visible (which makes them even more vulnerable to violence), homosexual Indonesians are typically less overtly visible, unless they assert it explicitly.
It seems that the committee knows very well about this limitation, and hence, requires participants to submit a clearance letter from a physician to denote their sexual ‘normalcy’. The ministry’s deputy for creative youth enhancement, Eni Budi Sri Haryani, confidently argued that they could determine if applicants are homosexual, bisexual, or transgender through interviews.
However, another question arises. How do the physicians and committee know about the applicants’ sexuality, unless they disclose verbally their sexual desires, attractions, and practices? How do the physicians and committee define the LGBT, since some may engage in homosexual practices without identifying themselves as gay or lesbian?
The use of the medical apparatus to ‘certify’ a person’s sexuality reveals the old strategy of power in “abnormalizing” sexuality, a tool the state is borrowing to legitimize its power over the individual’s sexual choices. It is a powerful apparatus in that it lends credibility to the process of categorizing so-called illnesses and then suggesting “cures” for them, ultimately providing detractors a justifiable reason to denounce certain sexual orientations as a kind of sickness.
“The homosexual was now a species”, wrote French philosopher Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Rather than only being a set of desires, practices and feelings, in the late nineteenth century, sexual preference and the emergence of varying sexual identities was examined in by the medical academia as a form of science. Categorization in turn not only produced a populace sharing similar identities, but also made controls and pathologization easier to execute.
Nevertheless, Foucault reminds us that, “When there is power, there is resistance.”
The birth of the homosexual identity has fortuitously led to this group rising to the fore to challenge what they perceive as the “abnormalization” of their sexual choices by the medical faculty. As a consequence, homosexuals reclaimed and altered the negative indictments to reform their positions – when you think about it, the birth of gay and lesbian rights movements are really the result of the long and arduous struggle to resist the objectification of homosexual people.
In Indonesia though, the sudden proliferation of LGBT discourses is a new trend. Although there are self-identified LGBT communities, the national law has not acknowledged their existence. The law on pornography, for example, categorizes ‘deviant sexual intercourse’ encompassing ‘necrophilia, beastiality, oral sex, anal sex [sic], lesbian [sic], and homosexuals’ as pornographic content. Some moralistic regional policies even conflate homosexuality/homosexual practices with prostitution.
The Ministry of Social Affairs, however, does acknowledge non-normative sexual identities. Through its regulation in 2012, it classifies gay, lesbian, and waria as parts of minority groups with social problems, along with street children, homeless, and people with disability. It associates these sexual minorities with social problems, due to their social dysfunctions caused by discrimination and marginalization on the basis of their ‘sexual deviance’. However, the term LGBT has not been deployed yet.
But that has quickly changed. In 2016, the LGBT conversation has become a part of every day life, used increasingly by government and religious fundamentalist groups, and heard everywhere in public.
Those who only recently never heard of such a term now know of it. And although often attached to negative meanings, it has transformed how people perceive and see gender and sexuality issues. Internet penetration has also made it easier for those interested to learn more about LGBTs or simply general discourses on sexuality.
Although state chatter on the topic is more often than not negative, it does not mean Indonesians with non-normative genders and sexualities – whether or not they are LGBTs – cannot show some resistance.
In the case of the 2016 Youth Ambassador Competition, I should encourage Indonesians in this group to apply, because sexual practices are private realms, and as long as we do not disclose it, no physician would know it.
This ‘creative’ form of resistance would not only expose the weaknesses of the state’s strategy; it would also showcase the limits of power in trying to putting people in boxes, from which we can escape from, move beyond and turn the tide in our favour.
This is what I call the “catch me if you can” resistance.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent