Queerphobia in the Newsroom: Beyond the News on LGBTQIA+

Indonesian national media outlets often opt not to publish news on LGBTQIA+ issues. When they do, they tend to perpetuate the stigma on the queer community. This condition is worsened by a number of policies that explicitly forbid publishing news on LGBTQIA+ issues as well as queerphobia among the newsroom staff.

This feature is part of our Media Freedom Voices series.

Discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community increases as Indonesia is approaching election year. The majority of mass media heavily contributes to the discrimination practice, both in publishing news on LGBTQIA+ issues as well as treatment towards queer media workers. 

Tya*, a journalist who identifies as a bisexual woman and has worked in a national television station since 2012, says that it is difficult for her now to produce news on LGBTQIA+ issues, both in her previous workplace and at the place where she works now. The media where Tya worked did not have any rule regarding that in black and white, but the editors would always say no anytime a journalist proposed an idea to do a positive coverage on queer topics.

“We can’t publish, and we are not informed why we can’t publish those kinds of news. On the other hand, we can publish if the news is about a murder involving couples whose sexual orientation is allegedly of the LGBT+ spectrum,” Tya says.

The condition discourages Tya from doing any LGBTQIA+ coverage because she knows she would only waste her energy writing news that would never be published. As a journalist, Tya has no authority to determine which issue to cover and to publish.

The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), the institution that is supposed to supervise any broadcasted programs, makes it more difficult for media workers to make publications that represent the queer community by releasing circulars that forbids broadcasters such as radio and television to show LGBTQIA+ content.

KPI regularly releases sanctions and warnings towards media outlets that broadcast LGBTQIA+ content.

According to research complied by a number of human rights organisations (2023), most online media outlets in Indonesia have become an extension of politicians who want to publish their anti-LGBT statements. For example, many media outlets help spreading a statement from Medan mayor Bobby Nasution, who says that Medan is an anti-LGBT city.

Just like what Tya says, the majority of news related to LGBTQIA+ issues that are eventually published are the ones in which queer people commit criminal acts. This is the general view adopted by Indonesian mass media

Research by Konde.co (2022) shows that in publishing crime news, the majority of the media would use police statements as their main source. If the alleged perpetrator is queer, the police would relate their behaviour to their identity. Meanwhile, the media would publish the police statement as it is, without criticising or making verification to the LGBTQIA+ groups or organisations fighting for queer rights.

The dominant representation in the media paints queer people as criminals.

The media plays the role to promote anti-LGBTQIA+ policies and uses diction that perpetuate the stigma towards the already vulnerable community. 

Media’s Attitude Towards News on LGBTQIA+ Issues

Generally, national media would ignore or give no room for news on LGBTQIA+ issues. Otherwise, when they do publish articles with such content, they would blatantly echo hate and discrimination through the use of diction, sources, and framing

Arus Pelangi, an organisation that advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights in Indonesia, has had a bad experience of such discrimination when they were cited as a source by a media outlet. A national online media outlet has interviewed Arus Pelangi’s general secretary, Echa Wa’ode. But the media manipulated Echa’s statements by trimming sentences, taking them out of context, and reframing them to make it sound as if she agrees that queerness is a contagious but curable disease.

The journalist that interviewed Echa was negatively biassed against queer people, as they positioned Arus Pelangi as the organisation that “spread LGBTQ+ propaganda” in Indonesia.

A journalist queer person who had been out from the first time he worked in the media, Amahl, says that it is very rare that he encounters a media outlet that is open for issues regarding the queer community. Amahl says he experienced inconveniences during his time working in his previous workplace, which published news using phrases that undermined the LGBTQIA+ community in their news titles.

“I was annoyed, and I also voiced my disagreement. But I was a newbie there at that time, so I was reluctant to make it such an issue,” Amahl says.

A collage art of a person with a laptop and a TV screen with mouths being crossed out.
Collage by E.M. & New Naratif.

Amahl says the media outlet where he worked previously was one of the few national media outlets that were open to LGBTQIA+ issues, and quite friendly towards their workers compared to other media outlets. However, news on LGBTQIA+ issues would mostly only be published if the queer person is depicted as a suffering character, et cetera.

His experience when he reviewed Lovely Man (2011), a film about the relationship of a conservative girl and her long lost trans woman parent, proved Amahl’s statement. His initial writing originally focused on the complicated relationship between the characters, but then the editor shifted the article’s perspective to focus more on the suffering of the character as a trans woman.

“The film, in fact, tells the story about parent-child dynamics, but the media where I worked at that time shifted the title to be ‘The Suffering of a Trans Woman’,” Amahl says.

Although there are a few mass media outlets that try to be more open about LGBTQIA+ issues, the majority of published news still use cisheteronormative perspectives.

A journalist trans man, Alvi, who works at an alternative media in Indonesia, also has a similar experience. Alvi had tried to find journalists or media outlets who are willing to raise issues on Indonesia’s LGBTQIA+ communities. However, most of them only want to “sell” the sufferings of queer people.

“It was very rare that any media outlet was willing to raise the empowerment story [of a queer community]. Although not all of them, but when I meet journalist friends, especially if they’re cishetero men, they would ask, ‘How are you suffering?’” Alvi says. 

Deputy chief editor of Suara.com, one of the national online news outlets, Reza Gunadha, says that news on LGBTQIA+ issues actually does not impose any negative effect when seen from a business perspective. He says online media could no longer depend on clicks and advertisements—which are usually directed by people’s perspectives.

“Now advertisements from Google that are traffic-based (how many times people visit a news site) are at their lowest point. The downfall affects the revenue from the traffic,” Reza says.

In fact, Reza says, queerphobic broadcasts actually come from the perspectives of people in the newsroom. When a state official puts out a queerphobic opinion, journalists would not criticise the statement and would just publish it as it is.

“For example, when there is a raid on the LGBT community involving a religious leader, there are several articles from Suara.com that echo the officials’ perspective on that issue,” Reza says.

“At that time, we asked the editor to shift the angle. We have no power to contain this implicit bias. The bias is caused by social class and education. So it is hard to eliminate subjective elements in their journalistic articles,” he says. 

The Queerphobic Media Ecosystem

A number of policy and regulations stipulated in the country has helped boost the stigma and negative sentiments around LGBTQIA+ communities, as depicted by the media. However, there are other factors too. As Reza says, the majority of people who make up the media ecosystem are queerphobic, which perpetuates the discrimination against queer people.

The Journalist Association for Diversity (SEJUK) routinely creates journalism training on diversity issues, including on gender and sexuality. However, the program manager, Thowik, says that most journalists are not open to such information.

The organisation also often faces security problems during events. Many times they avoid publishing the training location to avoid a raid.

“What we fight for is the rights of fellow citizens. What we voice is one’s freedom to express oneself. We are not promoting LGBT, but we are fighting for a number of citizens who are deprived of their rights, a number of citizens who happen to be a part of the LGBT+ community,” Thowik says.

A collage art of a child hiding behind images of cameras, justice scales, and rainbow colours.
Collage by E.M. & New Naratif.

SEJUK and another journalist association, Independent Journalist Alliance (AJI), tried to intervene the problems regarding news on LGBTQIA+ issues by proposing an audience in the forming of Guidance on Publishing News on Diversity to the Press Council. It required great sensitivity in writing the LGBTQIA+ issue chapter in this guide.

Thowik remembers that a Press Council staff said that the Council would not promote a certain group because “…the Press Council is a part of the State, and the State should be neutral”.

“At that time, we said that this was related with the rights of a number of citizens, a group of people who are deprived of their rights. But he said that the group should not be promoted,” Thowik says.

However, Thowik adds, the staff’s statement did not represent the Press Council as an institution.

Besides the media and Press Council, Thowik finds that one of the biggest challenges comes from AJI. The organisation is one of the biggest journalist organisations in Indonesia. Thowik says although AJI’s national committee has a progressive perspective, many AJI activists in the regional level have shown their reluctance to be actively involved in diversity trainings because they say it goes against the values of religion and culture.

AJI Indonesia’s staff on gender affairs, Shinta Maharani, does not deny that fact. 

She saw a heated debate sparked over a research on LGBTQIA+, which AJI Indonesia published. The research focused on the influence of identity politics towards news on LGBTQIA+ issues. She says,

“When AJI Indonesia released research on how online media depict LGBT, a debate sparked among members. Several internal members were resistant. They questioned the integrity of the research because they saw an LGBT+ flag on the release shared by AJI Indonesia.”

The content published by AJI Indonesia garnered many negative comments and ended in many journalists deciding to unfollow AJI Indonesia’s social media accounts.

“It is unfortunate because we should have respected the rights of minority groups and respect diversity,” Shinta says.

Shinta added that just like what SEJUK routinely does, AJI Indonesia also tries to minimise unethical news broadcasts that perpetuate negative stigma on LGBTQIA+ communities through training.

“Training is important. We invite experts on SOGIESC, including journalists with perspectives on minorities and [who knows the good practice in] broadcasting minorities,” Shinta says.

“[…] We can’t expect journalists to understand right away. It needs a process. Each individual has their own pace in learning,” she adds.

Where do Journalist Queer People Stand?

There is almost no safe space for journalist queer people in the media ecosystem. Several policies from KPI has swept them to the periphery. The circumstance is even worsened by anti-LGBT bias as well as negative sentiments within the media and journalist organisations.

The situation has caused Hedy*, a journalist queer person, to find herself in a predicament. Hedy, who is also a single mother, was caught in a pickle when the media where she works published a queerphobic piece.

“This special report published by the media where I work really took its toll on me. I’m in a dilemma, should I continue writing for this kind of media? When I write for them, does that mean I represent this queerphobic media?”

However, quitting the job means a loss of income. Hedy felt that she had no choice, although she was burning in anger because of the report. She says,

“Whenever a media decides to publish an LGBTQ+ related issue, they need to remember that there are women, queer single mothers, like me, who would be impacted, financially, if they do not solve it [queerphobic publications problem] well.”

She finally told her editor about her concern. Her editor apologised to her and even expressed sympathy, but the editor said they had no authority regarding the report.

“Especially because my media is very secretive about the editorial [team]. They do not cite the name of the Editor-in-Chief on the website. The special report also does not cite the name of the journalist,” Hedy says.

The inconvenient position the LGBTQIA+ community found themselves in within the media ecosystem is not only reflected in the published stories, but also in their work environment. Like Tya says, her coworkers never blatantly mocked her in her face, but it was just because of Tya’s senior position in the firm. But she knew that her sexual orientation was often talked about behind her back. It made her uncomfortable, and she eventually quit.

A collage art of a zipper being opened with various-coloured fruits coming out. We also see colours of rainbows, a rice paddy field, and mushrooms.
Collage by E.M. & New Naratif.

“Although many people in the media outlet where I worked are identified as queer and have come out, their life stories are still considered juicy material for gossip. It is very toxic,” Tya says.

“Meanwhile, in the media where I work now, many people—mostly cis hetero male, often ask about sexual orientation. Many try to ‘influence’ my sexual orientation and consider [queerness as] inappropriate,” says Tya, who is now working as an editor in a video-based online media.

Amahl has also had a similar experience. At that time, he joined a new beat to substitute his coworker, a journalist woman with a masculine expression.

He heard a journalist from another media comment, “What’s up with the media where Amahl works? Yesterday it was a masculine girl, now it is a feminine boy.”

“Now, if I hear something like that, I would just shake it off. But back then, I was pretty pissed,” Amahl says. 

With that kind of work environment, Amahl tried to work twice as hard as his cis hetero co-workers. He hoped that people would look at his work, not at his sexuality. Many times, it exhausted him.

On the other hand, Hedy says that the publication of queerphobic news could be seen not only as clickbait or to gain profit—as understood so far—but should also be seen as the reflection of problematic perspectives adopted by the members of the newsroom. Hedy realised that when the queerphobic report published by the media gained fierce criticism on social media. She says,

“The media where I work is housing a number of contributors and writers who have progressive perspectives. Although many times I receive commentaries from conservative readers, I never imagined that the people in the newsroom are also like that.”

The existence of journalist queer people within a media organisation does not automatically make the published news become more inclusive, especially when they are positioned at the bottom of the hierarchy. On the other hand, they often live without security and have to work to survive, just like what Hedy has to do.

What’s Next?

Unfortunately, not much can be done about the current anti-LGBT policies and general atmosphere in Indonesia. You can, however, keep raising awareness of the issue as well as what to do when things start to get critical.

If you are a journalist or a media worker, share this article to your coworkers and ask them to have a SOGIESC class. You also can learn the Press Council guide on broadcast on diversity issues. If you encounter a journalist queer person who needs a safehouse, legal aid, or psychosocial support, you can contact Consortium CRM (https://crm-consortium.org/).

*Names have been altered as per the sources’ request.

Further Discussion

Widia Primastika discusses this issue in more depth with Editorial Manager Bonnibel Rambatan in this episode of Southeast Asia Dispatches. Transcript available here.

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