LGBT in Indonesia: The Monster in the Closet

Homosexuals and other ‘non-normal’ gender individuals are facing a new threat of prosecution in a country which claims to embrace differences but appears more than keen to hush any dissenting opinion. The backlash against gay society coincides with a crackdown on unorthodox religious groups and suggests that Indonesia is moving toward a period of greater social controls.

The debate on gays and lesbians suddenly heated up this year with high-level public and religious figures adding fuel to the fire, raising concerns about an inquisition against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

This represents a turnaround for Indonesia, which in the past has largely been tolerant of gender diversity. While village and small-town Indonesia have always been reluctant to accept such deviation from the norm, forcing those who see themselves as different into the cities, the higher ranks of society tended to be more accepting.

While the regime of the late President Suharto carefully controlled any political deviation, Joop Ave was a particularly visible homosexual whose sexual preference did not stop him becoming a very successful minister of tourism. He was a favorite of first lady Tien Suharto, but overstepped the mark in 1995 when he was accused of accosting a hotel employee in New Zealand, forcing him to make a rapid dash for the airport before the police pounced.

In a commentary in The Jakarta Post in 2011 in which she compared Indonesia’s relaxed attitude to sexual misdeeds to that of France, Ika Krismantari stated that “thanks to Joop’s close relation with the ruling power, the case was never processed and finally disappeared into thin air, without much public scrutiny or media exposure.”

And, she added, former State Secretary Moerdiono, a close associate of Suharto, was well known to have long-standing extra-marital affairs with a number of women, including a prominent fashion designer. Again, nothing was ever said, even though Ibu Tien was reputed to keep her own husband very much in line.


Times are changing

This unofficial policy and a public that was happy to see television talk shows regularly host LGBT guests – and even hosts – now appears to be at an end. Various ‘experts’ have been intoning about the threat to society from immorality, which is perceived as a cancer eating into the nation’s nervous system.

The new mood is accompanied by a solid dose of double standards. In Jakarta, Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has been at pains to insist that his closure of the Kalijodo red-light district was an issue of spatial planning rather than morality. That was to stave off criticism that he wasn’t doing anything about big-money prostitution elsewhere in the city. Still, he earned praise for a group that usually demonizes him, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI).

Purnama still came under attack from critics who said that rooting out a long-standing prostitution complex because it was situated on what was supposed to be green space raised the question of why hotels and malls that were built on green space hadn’t been touched. This demonstrated, said the critics, that there was one law for the rich and one for the poor.

The anti-LGBT wave of sentiment arose in late January when Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir called for bans on gay and lesbian groups on university campuses. “There are standard values and moral standards to be maintained. The campus is a moral guardian,” Nasir said.

He made the comments in response to controversy over a poster advertising counseling services for LGBT students at the University of Indonesia (UI) in Depok, West Java. The minister later retracted his statement, but it put the LGBT community in the public eye.


Anti-LGBT rally in Jakarta. Source: ANTARA

Stirring the topic further, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin encouraged the public to establish an anti-gay propaganda taskforce while Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu bluntly stated that the LGBT community was a part of a proxy war aimed to weaken the country. “It’s dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed,” he was quoted as saying by news website

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s highest Islamic authority, fanned the fire by issuing a new edict declaring LGBT groups as deviant. Lawmakers responded by announcing a plan to draft an anti-LGBT law, a move they say must be taken to “protect the nation from this deviant behavior.” An Indonesian Psychiatric Association statement described LGBT people as suffering from mental disorders, with many health professionals claiming that they could be ‘cured’.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla demanded that the United Nations Development Program cancel any Indonesian activities associated with a $8 million program conducted in cooperation with the Swedish government and USAID to provide assistance to LGBT groups in Southeast Asia.

Hendri Yulius Wijaya, a writer and researcher on gender studies, said that the issue serves as a convenient smokescreen. While the public is consumed with concern over the LGBT issue, it doesn’t have the time to think about other threats, not least the debate over the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which was raging intensely at the time. Yet while Indonesian politics is the heartland of the conspiracy theory, the moral movement appears to have developed a momentum of its own.


Going too far

Writer and academic Intan Paramaditha in a blog post published in late February argued that LGBT became a threat when it became a political movement. The concept of a movement – in Indonesian gerakan – tends to assume recruitment, expansion and opposition. It should be no surprise that the pressure on LGBT groups follows closely on the outcry over the Fajar Nusantara Movement (Gafatar). While Gafatar threatened established religious views, LGBT is seen as eroding moral standards.

Gerakan, as Paramaditha notes, is associated with rebellion. The attempted coup of 1965 is known as the Gerakan 30 September. The separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and other such groups were described as “security-disturbing movements.”

Movements of any sort tend to be painted as threats to the nation. Gafatar was accused by the military of wanting to establish a separate state, by force if necessary. With the LGBT issue, the defense minister sees it as a Trojan horse planning to erode civilizational standards, presumably believing that calling the movement part of a ‘proxy war’ will persuade Indonesia’s traditionally xenophobic society to accept the crackdown.

In Paramaditha’s view, “the LGBT debate in Indonesia today speaks volumes about different kinds of fear. It reflects the fear of the dissolution of heteronormative values and national morality, which, since … Reformasi, have been embedded within a conservative interpretation of religion. It also tells about the anxiety regarding the idea of the nation, now experienced as wildly polyphonic and elusive rather than cohesive.”

For her, “Gerakan suggests transgression of a safe zone, a space where a harmless entity that we can ‘tolerate’ transforms into a national other. Conservative activist Fahira Idris states that LGBT in Indonesia has metamorphosed from “individual acts” into “a massive and organized movement.” Bandung Mayor Ridwan Kamil, similar to Idris, claims that he has no problem with the private matters of LGBT individuals. What concerns him is when LGBT communities publicize their movement through social media. The fear of Gerakan LGBT is precisely the fear of what is mentioned in the Article 28 of the Constitution, ‘the freedom to associate and to assemble.’ It is the fear of publicness.”

Deviance of any sort is increasingly under pressure. The forced move at the end of February of the “Turn Left Festival” from Jakarta’s Taman Ismail Marzuki to the more secure premises of the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) represented the “tyranny of the majority,” according to Tommy F. Awuy, a specialist in culture and philosophy at the University of Indonesia.

“Movements of minorities or marginal groups have become the subject of attacks of elements who consider themselves to be defenders of normal behavior,” he was quoted as saying by Kompas. “They seek attention and try to win support from the public by oppressing these marginal groups.”


The moral agenda

The governments of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and, now, Joko Widodo have attempted to adopt the high moral ground. Yudhoyono, president from 2004 till 2014, was well known as a prude, refusing to let any singer perform at the State Palace who showed the slightest amount of skin. But Widodo is not considered so straight-laced, and images of him laughing hysterically at a performance by national trans-gender icon Dorce Gamalama have been doing the rounds of social media, with some hoping he’d inject a note of reality into the debate.

The two presidents – or their agents – have shut down dozens of websites, ordered broadcasters to stop airing programs depicting gays and demanded instant messaging applications remove all emoticons depicting same-sex relationships.

Writer and researcher Wijaya prefers to believe that it is not President Widodo who is the problem. He told a seminar hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) that the president’s ability to stake an independent position on the issue of morality was constrained by mainly conservative officials whose support he needs to govern the country.  But, in reality, if Widodo isn’t prepared to set a more liberal course on issues of personal freedoms, those freedoms will be eroded whether he agrees or not.

Meanwhile the discourse on LGBT issues has sunken to new lows this year. Arief Wismansyah, the mayor of Tangerang in Banten plumbed the depths of logic on February 25 when he claimed that the rising number of LGBT groups is a product of inadequate early childhood nutrition as parents have no time to prepare meals for their children. “Parents are so busy that they feed their children formula milk and instant food. It’s no wonder that recently there are more LGBT,” he said, as quoted by Okezone.

Nor is it only LGBT groups that are facing censorship. On February 20, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) created a storm of protest when it insisted that contestants in the Miss Indonesia contest wearing the revealing but very traditional fitted blouse the kebaya be blurred on TV screens at homes around the country.


TV station censors blurring traditional kebaya during Putri Indonesia pageant. Source:

Conservative media continue to publish heavily biased reports on the discourse, serving as loudspeakers for opponents of homosexuality. Islamic daily Republika openly denounces the existence of LGBT groups for destroying morals and spreading the ‘disease’.

Officials at the government’s Child Protection Commission (KPAI) went further by stating that homosexuality is a threat to the nation’s younger generation.

While the involvement of minors is certainly grounds for prosecution, raging public debate has tended to ignore the principle of mutual consent, the main factor in any sexual relationship. The rhetoric has the potential to drive the public to launch a witch-hunt on gays based on the wrong assumptions. Some social media users have raised illogical worries that criminals such as pedophiles and rapists would seek similar protection from the state if LGBT individuals were tolerated.


Personal security deteriorates

There are already indications that security is being impacted. Those working with the gay community say there has been a spike in harassment, stalking and online abuse, with many fearing radical groups railing against a so-called “LGBT emergency” could become violent.

Top security minister Luhut Panjaitan has tried to claim the middle ground, stating that the government will ensure the safety of members of the LGBT community. However, there is no clear line on what protection will be given, particularly against gangs of hard-liners.

Such groups in the past have used official rhetoric to justify their vigilantism, threatening the security of “deviant” or “subversive” group. For most of the time, the presence of security officers remains minimal and they sometimes cooperate with the hard-liners instead of protecting the minority.

In late January, local police joined forces with the FPI to net lesbians and gays allegedly throwing “immoral parties” in boarding houses in Bandung, West Java. In Yogyakarta on February 19, students and caretakers of the al Fatah boarding school, which caters to trans-genders, were forced to evacuate following a threat from a local radical group.

“It’s getting worse and worse. It’s become dangerous for us,” said Ryan Korbarri, general secretary of gay outreach group Arus Pelangi, as quoted by Agence-France Presse. Staff at the organization saw the need to start traveling in pairs and taking different routes home, while another Jakarta-based group, Suara Kita, shut its distinctive rainbow gate for the first time ever this year, biding its time until the heat dies down.

The incidents signal that the security of LGBT groups and other minority communities might still be compromised in the future. Rights activists have likened the current situation with the many limitations to freedom of expression imposed during the 32 years of Suharto’s New Order regime.


Legalizing the private

LGBT communities do have a political agenda. They want more equal treatment from the government that includes provision of basic rights, protection and access to public facilities and services. Same-sex marriage, high on the agenda of such groups elsewhere in the world, is well down the list. As the situation stands at the moment, homosexuals in general cannot be criminalized except in the special autonomous province of Aceh, which applies elements of shariah law.

The crackdown on LGBT groups comes as religious leaders and conservative politicians strive to bolster public morality in Indonesia, with crackdowns on prostitution and the availability of alcohol. The House of Representatives is currently discussing legislation that would ban the sale of alcohol, despite evidence that this would merely create a black market and see more people die from oplosan, homemade alcoholic concoctions that often contain deadly methanol.

Activists add that gains for LGBT rights elsewhere in the world, particularly the legalization of same-sex marriage across the entire US last June, have heightened scrutiny of Indonesia’s gay community and fanned homophobia.

Diana Teresa Pakasi, a gender and sexuality researcher from the University of Indonesia, wrote in an article published by The Conversation that the hatred and threats directed at gays and lesbians are manifestations of moral panic over homosexuality.

“Interestingly, the recent debate on the so-called ‘LGBT threat’ surfaced just days after the terrorist attacks in Jakarta. Comparing the quick and often light-hearted response to the Jakarta attacks to the longevity and hostility of the ‘LGBT threat’ discourse on social media, Indonesia seems to be more troubled by sexual matters than terrorism,” she noted.

Pakasi was referring to the January 14 attack in Central Jakarta which killed four civilians that prompted the rise of hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (WeAreNotAfraid) among Indonesia’s social media users. Online discussion about the attack quickly dissolved into the background, while the anti-LGBT fervor has lasted for over a month.

“Moral panics can serve as an indicator of what a society categorizes as good and bad. It exposes power relations in the society. Those who can label what is evil hold supremacy over the ‘evils’,” Pakasi said, adding that moral panics also serve as an important tool to maintain structural violence.

Ninin Damayanti, a Jakarta-based feminist, said the LGBT discourse poses a threat to Indonesian patriarchal society and has the potential to radically rearrange order within society. “Legalizing the rights of LGBT groups will first raise questions about the smallest patriarchal structure, the nuclear family with a husband and a wife, before pressing for adjustment of other larger structures in the society,” Damayanti told Concord Strategic.


Twisted morality

Public opposition to homosexuality reaffirms the findings of a survey on morality issued in 2014 by the US-based Pew Research Center. The Global Attitudes survey placed Indonesia as one of the least accepting countries, with 93% of nearly 1,000 respondents considering homosexuality morally unacceptable.

In general, Pew found that Indonesian Muslims were more morally righteous than people anywhere else in the Muslim world. Indonesians surveyed also rejected extra- and pre-marital sex and nearly 90% opposed abortion and alcohol consumption.

On the other hand, the public demonstrates increasing permissiveness for corruption – a plague on the country’s potential. A poll by the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) showed that public perceptions on corruption in 2015 declined to 3.59 from 3.61 in 2014. On a scale of 0 to 5, people become very permissive towards graft when the score of the index is closer to zero.


Seen but not heard

Raising issues about sexual relations in the public domain, let alone homosexuality, is still considered taboo in the world’s most populous Muslim country. While most Indonesians are tolerant to a certain degree, they also generally agree that overt displays of ‘difference’ are inappropriate.

However, the ongoing debate shows the personal can no longer avoid being political. LGBT rights supporters still have hopes that President Widodo, whose past promises include addressing human rights abuses and the championing minority groups, will at some point end his silence on the issue.

It is unlikely however that the government will see such backing as politically feasible at the moment. It dare not risk losing support from the country’s large Muslim society and old warriors such as Defense Minister Ryacudu can easily blow the threat from the ‘movement’ into life-threatening proportions. Sacrificing a relatively small minority will not lose the government any votes, but it would reinforce the power of hard-line groups, who would then be in a position to take on other perceived social ills.

While the country has gained higher economic status, it is not making much progress on accepting more liberal values. Much of society still views so-called modern values suspiciously as decades of information censorship have imprinted a perception that those values are part of a foreign “hidden agenda” to emasculate the country.

Moral rectitude appears to be the wave of the future, at least in the short- to mid-term. That may end up threatening more general lifestyle choices, such as the ability to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine. For minority groups including LGBT communities, there appears little choice but to stay inside the closet.

A version of this article was first published by Concord Review on March 2, 2016. Free trial subscriptions are available.

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