Why are LGBT Indonesians under siege?
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Why are LGBT Indonesians under siege?

THREE policemen were killed last week in Jakarta by suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State terrorist group.

The very next day, West Java police announced the establishment of an anti-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) taskforce. It was not until two days later did West Java police arrest three suspects linked to the bombings.

Many questioned the admittedly bizarre priorities at a time when one watchdog declared Indonesian jihadis were declaring war on the nation’s security forces.

Indonesia’s LGBT community has long been marginalised albeit tolerated, however since early last year has come increasingly under pressure from authorities – beginning with hateful comments by public officials and quickly evolving into concrete criminalisation of homosexual acts.

Aceh implemented corporal punishment against two young men for being gay for the first time last month, as stipulated in the conservative, semi-autonomous province’s 2015 anti-homosexuality law.

Elsewhere in the country, raids against gay events by police are becoming increasingly commonplace.

So why is this happening now, and can it be stopped?

The raid on Atlantis

Jakarta police raided a gay spa named Atlantis in an upmarket part of North Jakarta two weekends back, arresting and publicly parading more than one hundred half-naked men in an act of public humiliation.

It had operated for four years and was undoubtedly known about by authorities. One source that used to live in the area told Asian Correspondent that Atlantis was “close with the other ‘massage’ XXX places.”

A simple Google search for Atlantis Spa shows it was openly advertised as a gay-friendly venue, including a post on the website Travel Gay Asia, which describes the place as a “relatively new men-only Atlantis Sauna… located in one of the trendiest areas in Jakarta.”

While raids on “gay parties” have happened before, the raid on Atlantis was unprecedented in its scale.

The men arrested will have been charged under the nation’s strict anti-pornography laws, which have also embroiled the leader of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Rizieq Shihab in a scandal involving the exchange of explicit photos with a woman who is not his wife.

Some therefore speculate that the timing of the raid was calculated to show even-handedness on the part of the authorities.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Anti-Ahok radical preacher in legal hot water over porn charges

Ricky Gunawan, the Director of the Jakarta-based Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) who are defending some of those detained after the raid, told Asian Correspondent that the problem is not with the actions of the accused but with Indonesia’s anti-pornography law itself.

“It is problematic because it contains loose definitions and is prone to subjective interpretations on the part of law enforcement agencies,” he said. “This could be harmful to some people, especially vulnerable LGBT communities.”


Police show evidence collected following a raid on what authorities described as a gay prostitution ring being run out of an entertainment venue in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 22, 2017. Source: Reuters/Antara Foto/Reno Esnir

The state replaces vigilantes

A Pew poll from 2013 showed that a staggering 93 percent of Indonesians think that homosexuality should be rejected.

Nevertheless, it has never been illegal.

Waria – the Indonesian term for transgender as a blend of wanita (woman) and pria (man) – have long been tolerated and even venerated in some Indonesian communities.

As Ayunda Nurvitasari pointed out in The Magdalene last week, several ethnic groups in Sulawesi had for centuries recognised a third gender. The Toraja people historically revered and placed religious significance on transgender people who often led ceremonies and rituals.

The spread of Islamic orthodoxy has undoubtedly played a role in shifting cultural attitudes against LGBT people. In recent years, the FPI and similar hardline Islamic groups have conducted vigilante activities against Indonesia’s minorities, including those with alternative sexualities.

The FPI’s Rizieq has regularly attacked waria, during one sermon pronouncing to his audience:

“If you see your son or grandson play with dolls, burn the dolls and give them fake machetes to play with, so they can grow up to be men and not trannies.”

SEE ALSO: Can Indonesia’s LGBT rights activists fight rising hostility?

Yet since early 2016, public officials and the police have begun leading the crackdown themselves.

The Indonesian defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu last year claimed the LGBT was “a kind of modern warfare” by proxy more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

Ultranationalists and ultraconservative Muslims alike perpetuate this notion that LGBT is a foreign, liberal agenda promoted to undermine the Indonesian nation and its interests.

Dr Intan Paramaditha, a renowned novelist and Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, told Asian Correspondent in an interview that “political solidarity is strengthened by targeting LGBT.”

Now, at a time when Jakarta’s Christian, ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was battered at the ballot box and subsequently jailed for comments he made regarding the Quran, causing ethnoreligious tension and seen as a challenge to Indonesia’s pluralistic democracy – clamping down on a marginal minority may be a politically safe way of asserting unity and order.

“Perhaps the government is trying to send a message that they are invested in the same things as conservative groups,” said Intan.

Criminalising homosexuality

Legal crackdowns against the LGBT community have ranged from the somewhat petty – banning same-sex emojis on social media apps, to the violent – Aceh’s whipping of homosexuals.

Most importantly, people detained after a series of recent “gay party” raids in Indonesia have been charged under the nation’s 2008 anti-pornography law.

But Gunawan says, “In our view what they have done within the club is not a violation of the law,” and that the laws are being used to attack privacy rights.

“If it involves human trafficking, coercion, violence, underage persons [then criminal prosecution is necessary], but these are all consenting adults.”

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Aceh publicly shames couple for gay sex

Nevertheless, a Bill introduced to Indonesia’s notoriously conservative Constitutional Court by a group calling itself the Love and Family Alliance (AILA) aims to explicitly make-extra marital sex and homosexuality criminal by redefining adultery and sodomy in the penal code.

Unlike the thuggish FPI, AILA aims to impose its will through politics and the courts.

Intan says even through Indonesia’s highest court is yet to make judgement on the case, authorities are already acting as if it is law.

“The consequences are really bad because it really sends a message to ordinary people that this is normalised – that injustice is normalised, that its normal to see LGBT people as criminals.”


An Indonesian man is publicly caned for having gay sex in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia May 23, 2017. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta

Is there hope for the LGBT community?

Post-Suharto Indonesia is an unfinished project.

According to Intan, pushes by conservative groups reflect that there are contested views on how the nation should be defined.

There are also “interesting new voices”, including gay and women’s activists who are very vocal in these debates.

She says: “people that refuse the idea that Indonesia is intolerant will keep fighting.”

An activist who didn’t want to be named told Asian Correspondent that rights advocates need to focus on working behind the scenes with the government to push for desperately-needed services, rather than merely protesting and issuing public statements.

There are “lot of incongruities between what [the government] officially stated, and what they are doing behind the backdoor,” providing an opportunity for change. “Don’t always marah-marah (be angry),” they said.

But treatment of homosexuals as de facto criminals in cases like Atlantis suggests that AILA and conservative Muslims have “already won” on this issue despite not having their Bill passed into law, said Intan.

Several iconic gay clubs and spas in Jakarta continue to operate freely, but Gunawan is not optimistic about their future security.

“I don’t think this will be the last one. There will be more raids.”