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Indonesia’s LGBT youth bears brunt of hostility towards gay and lesbian community

In the Muslim-majority country, religious fundamentalists continue to frame LGBT people as enemies, helping to fuel the growing intolerance of its homosexual community

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 7:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 5:17pm

Indonesian social media was flooded with images of the 141 men, many shirtless and faces turned away from the cameras, who were detained in a raid on the men-only Atlantis sauna in Jakarta.

The incident was slammed by human rights activists worldwide in May, before it quickly faded from the news. Yet it remains one of the most public examples of Indonesia’s growing intolerance of its LGBT community.

Indonesian police make mass arrests after raid on ‘gay party’ at sauna

Unlike in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, there are no laws against homosexuality in Indonesia. So, like everyone else in Indonesia, the LGBT community should be afforded protection under human rights and equality laws.

In recent years, however, regional governments, such as in Aceh province, which practises sharia law, have introduced regulations that target perceived homosexual “behaviours” and prosecute suspected LGBT individuals under existing laws. That includes the pornography law, which was used to threaten the men in the Atlantis sauna case.

Most of the men involved in the gay party were detained. About 126 were released because officers could find no incriminating evidence (such as illicit drugs) to hold them. Nevertheless, they were subjected to inhumane treatment, including not being allowed to dress during their arrest or period of detainment.

A study by the Asia-Pacific Social Science Review released earlier this year found that, despite appearing to be less heavy-handed compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, attitudes towards diverse sexualities in Indonesia are the most negative.

Activists have long claimed these attitudes lead to discrimination, criminalisation, systemic violence and social isolation. King Oey, who leads Indonesia’s largest LGBTI rights group, Arus Pelangi, says the situation makes it difficult to reach out to the young and at risk.

“So many LGBT people live in isolation and have hidden lives. It is hard to reach all of them,” he says. But largely, it’s not the government nor religious zealots the community fears, rather the primary concern is rejection from support networks, such as friends and family, says Oey.

As if self-acceptance isn’t hard enough, young LGBT people in Indonesia have to succumb to family pressure and enter into a conventional marriage just for the sake of a respectable facade
King Oey

Cornelius Hanung from the Asean Sogie Caucus, a regional organisation standing up for sexual and gender minorities’ rights, agrees.

“The role of family and the closest circle [of friends] for LGBT people is very important in helping them achieve self-acceptance and social acceptance,” Hanung says. He adds that for younger gay Indonesians, a lack of exposure to education about sexuality from these networks can lead to the belief that it is wrong or a sin to not be straight.

Self-acceptance is no easy task, Oey says. “As if self-acceptance isn’t hard enough, young LGBT people in Indonesia have to succumb to family pressure and enter into a conventional marriage just for the sake of a respectable facade,” he says. “The lucky ones get a small bit of acceptance from social media, while the remainder get publicly lashed for showing a little affection towards their partner.

“The prospect of being disowned by your parents is the most frightening thing that makes many young people depressed in Indonesia.”

Bullying by peers is also a near daily occurrence for Indonesia’s young and gay community, says Hanung.

A study conducted by Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Central Java, in 2016 found that the LGBT community is a target for physical and verbal abuse, more than any other group. This is backed up by a report released by the Indonesian Feminist Journal, which outlined the physical and emotional abuse suffered by a young ethnic Chinese woman who identifies as a lesbian and lives in Jakarta.

Where will Indonesia’s anti-gay hysteria end?

“I experienced violence when I was 17. I was stripped after being beaten up [and] I was dragged by my family members,” the unnamed girl told the journal in 2015. “In Chinese family homes, there are photos of [our] deceased [relatives] and I was sent to ask for forgiveness.”

Another young woman interviewed by the journal reported suffering emotional abuse at her workplace. She claimed she was often referred to as a boy in the office due to her short, messy haircut, as well as the way she dressed. Colleagues demanded she act and dress like a “proper woman” if she wanted to keep her job.

Hong Kong’s Sunday girls

It’s perhaps not surprising that some seek solace overseas. Life is tough for Indonesia’s foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, having to work long hours away from home for low pay and little time off. But for some, it’s a life that offers a sexual liberation unheard of in their home country. While conservative attitudes are still common in Hong Kong, for many migrant Indonesian workers, the city is simply an easier place than home to be openly gay.

Researchers and activists in Indonesia point to statements issued by government officials and religious hardliners as a major influence on the stigma that the country’s LGBT community faces. The Yogyakarta research showed an unwillingness of the majority to be within close proximity to a “known” LGBT person, with some fearing contact would expose them to HIV.

Misleading and biased media coverage also plays a key role in distorting the public image of sexualities, Hanung says. A focus on sexuality in reports of sensational crimes ensures the alleged sexuality of suspects is linked to their criminality.

The 1996, the so-called Robot Gedek case (a nickname media gave to the murderer after noticing he moved like an “annoying robot”) shocked Indonesia. A homeless man named Siswanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, sexually assaulted a dozen young boys before murdering them and mutilating their bodies. Local media linked the nature of the crimes to his sexuality, further stigmatising the country’s LGBT community.

This pattern was repeated again last year following the murder of Wayan Mirna Salihin, a young woman who was poisoned with cyanide-laced iced coffee at a cafe in Jakarta. Salihin’s best friend, Jessica Wongso, was found guilty and jailed for the crime. Rumours about the pair’s possible lesbian romance spread across social media for months, before being salaciously reported in the press.

Indonesian woman jailed for 20 years for poisoned-coffee murder

Many in the community believe the link between LGBT identities and criminality appears to be upheld by law enforcement agencies in Indonesia – where police and the judiciary exploit laws to criminalise homosexuals. The gay sex party in the North Jakarta sauna appears to be an example. Officially, there are no laws against holding a private sex party behind closed doors, so Atlantis was raided under the guise of the “pornography law”.

Although pornography is illegal in Indonesia, the police’s logic does not hold up to scrutiny. The men did not photograph, film, record or publish any of the content from their party, and it therefore cannot be considered a pornographic act.

This is getting worse because religious fundamentalists and ultranationalists frame LGBT people as enemies. Indonesia needs to see its diversity as an asset, not as a threat
Cornelius Hanung

“These discriminatory laws and the way they have been used to persecute LGBT people, as well as the way mainstream media frames LGBT issues, perpetuates the negative stigma within our society. This is why Indonesia cannot tolerate LGBT yet,” Hanung says.

Asean Sogie Caucus and Arus Pelangi have teamed up in an effort to block an attempt by religious fundamentalists and conservative players within the government to criminalise diverse sexualities and identities through the revision of the current penal code.

A 2016 petition filed by the Aliansi Cinta Keluarga, or Family Love Alliance, to the Constitutional Court sought a judicial review of several articles of the criminal code that could result in consensual sexual activity outside legal marriage being punishable by the courts. In a country where even the most optimistic of activists don’t see marriage equality coming any time soon, this could quite literally be a death sentence.

The challenge means Indonesia’s gay and lesbian youth are facing a harder battle than others in the region, says Hanung. With recently emboldened religious hardliners and renewed intolerance battles over religion, ethnicity and sexuality, LGBT youth are set to bear the brunt of Indonesia’s next culture war.

Hong Kong law must change to recognise my true self, transgender activist says

“This is getting worse because religious fundamentalists and ultranationalists frame LGBT people as enemies. Indonesia needs to see its diversity as an asset, not as a threat,” Hanung says.