Just a day after I arrived in Jakarta in the middle of June 2017, still jet-lagged and unused to the hot and humid weather, I attended the Arryman Symposium. The event was held to present the research conducted by a group of Indonesian students who were awarded a scholarship in 2016 to study at Northwestern University in Chicago, and to announce the winners of the 2017 Arryman fellowship. I was especially interested in speaking with one of the students with whom I share similar research interests, since we both work on Islam, gender, and sexuality. After everyone presented, took pictures, and applauded, I sat next to one of my friends, a well-known writer in Indonesia, and we shared the table with a middle-aged woman who initially seemed very friendly. She’d lived in several countries as the daughter of a diplomat, enjoying very different education systems.
Minutes after joining the table, my friend the writer started speaking about LGBT rights in Indonesia and the well-travelled, well-educated and lucky-to-have-many-opportunities woman, overhearing the conversation, exclaimed, “do you support LGBT rights?!” She didn’t only sound surprised but also scared. “Yes, I do, why wouldn’t I, we are all the same”, my friend replied. Her answer triggered a sudden feeling of disgust at the thought of sharing any similarity with them lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans.
I tried to speak, and religion was raised as the reason for discriminating against these individuals. The possibility of reconciling Islam and non-normative sexualities was inconceivable to the woman, who believed that being LGBT is both a personal decision and the result of receiving a bad education. She stated that would she have a gay son, she would give him the right education to take him back to “normal”.
This incident is just one of the many experiences I’ve had since coming to Indonesia for the first time in 2014, exploring the lives of LGBT Muslims in the country, and it was during my first research trip that I heard a group of women describing sexual minorities as paedophiles. They shared with the lady from that symposium the fact that they had never met LGBT people in person. Maybe she changed her mind (I don’t know), after finding out that both myself and the guy sitting next to her were gay, the same way those women ended up engaging in a reconciliatory conversation with a group of LGBT activists. The problem in Indonesia with LGBT issues today is not only a problem of ignorance, but also of political interests and religious misinterpretations.
In 2006, the Yogyakarta Principles were developed with the goal of applying international human rights law to gender identity and sexual orientation. Eleven years later, it feels ironic that it was in Indonesia where these ideas were presented – they’ve had zero consequences for the country.
In early 2016, the Minister of Higher Education stressed his desire to ban LGBT student groups from universities, this was followed by the Minister of Defence’s comparison of the LGBT community with “a bomb”, saying that the LBGT community was not only “dangerous” but also “a threat.” Add to this the banning of LGBT apps such as Grindr, and the classification of same-sex sexual orientation and transgenderism as mental disorders by the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) almost thirty years after the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders.
What has been called an “anti-LGBT crisis” has already been explored in detail, but it’s important to reflect on the influence that these statements can have in society. While in February 2016 the Tangerang mayor Arief R Wismansyah publicly highlighted the role of parents in “guiding their children away from [acts of a] violating nature”, in June 2017 I found the same conviction in the lady mentioned above. How are LGBT individuals supposed to be protected by the government when members of the administration itself are attacking these communities? At the end of April 2017, almost a year and a half since the wave of anti-LGBT bigotry started, 14 gay men were arrested and tested for HIV by force, with the results and their names being made public.
In the same month, two men accused of having sex with each other were publicly caned in Aceh, the only region in Indonesia that has formally implemented Sharia law.
Even though Indonesia doesn’t currently criminalise homosexuality, these recent events evidence an increasing hostility towards the LGBT community in the country, which could outlaw homosexual acts following the steps taken by the organisation Aliansi Cinta Keluarga (Family Love Alliance) to amend the constitution. “We are waiting for the worst”, mentioned one of the activists from the LGBT-rights organisation Arus Pelangi during a meeting in June 2017 in Jakarta.
Let me stress that this isn’t about religion, despite many using Islam as the basis to discriminate against LGBT people, but oftentimes about populism and political interests. What today is presented by some as transgressive, an imposition of “the West” or a phenomenon outside of local culture might not have been understood in the same way looking back at Indonesian history, which shows examples of gender and sexual diversity. For instance, there are five genders recognised in Bugis society. Other examples can be found from the indang dance in West Sumatra to the Eastern Javanese traditions of the ludruk, the reog in Ponorogo and the gandrung dance in Banyuwangi, where waria (a word vaguely translated as transgender women) and men dressed in traditionally women’s clothes have been important figures. It needs to be noted, however, that the presence of non-normative genders and sexualities in rituals and traditions hasn’t always meant their prevalent acceptance in society. In conversations with several LGBT people in the country today, Javanese culture has been mentioned as an example of pluralism, acceptance and accommodation of different practices and ideologies, which could be used to support their rights in the current situation. As scholars such as Wieringa (2010) have explained, after the arrival of Islam in Indonesia, religion was accommodated to the ancient Javanese transgendered practices.
Of course, that well-educated, well-travelled and still homophobic lady I met that night in Jakarta might not have read about the plural history of her country or, perhaps, never had the chance to dialogue with LGBT people. Only by educating its people in gender and sexual diversity and showing respect to its citizens will Indonesia do justice to its motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”).
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