In 2015, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people suddenly became Indonesia’s most hated community. It seemed to come out of nowhere—even queer people themselves were surprised. Government ministers began issuing statements saying that LGBTQ people were in opposition to Pancasila, the state’s ideology; universities began banning LGBTQ students from campus; Muslim leaders wrung their hands about LGBTQ people corrupting children; one Minister even described queer people as more dangerous than nuclear war.

“This is a kind of modern warfare,” said Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu in February 2016. “It’s dangerous because we can’t see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed. Now the [LGBTQ] community is demanding more freedom. It really is a threat.”

Minister Ryamizard described the “war against LGBTQ people” as a “proxy war”, in which “another state might have occupied the minds of the nation without [us] realising it. In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang will not be affected. But in a proxy war, everything we know could disappear in an instant. It’s dangerous.”

“Catching” queerness

The trigger for the Minister’s comments was social media debate sparked by a poster from the Sexuality and Gender Resource Centre (SGRC), a student group then-associated with the University of Indonesia. The poster was a draft, released too early, and advertised peer counsellors for people with questions about sexuality and LGBTQ issues. The poster went viral on social media, accompanied by warnings that LGBTQ people were infiltrating university campuses and “converting” students to homosexuality.

“SGRC collaborated with Melela [an NGO] to have LGBTQ peer counsellors to answer questions, and give people information and [build] understanding,” explained Ferena Debineva, Founder and Chairperson of SGRC. “The people involved were basically champions [for LGBTQ issues]. They were already out and wanted to talk to you about anything—challenges, depression, or even your happy moments. They were like friends with competencies to say that ‘you are not alone and you can also be someone’.”

Ferena sighed. “We hadn’t finished the poster… And suddenly it was out there, circulating in one night, and creating a backlash. All because of the stigma towards LGBTQ people, [the belief] that providing information means teaching people about LGBTQ, which leads to making LGBTQ accepted and normal, which leads to converting people to LGBTQ.”

“The idea that LGBTQ is an ‘infection’ is based on people’s ignorance”

Misconceptions that people can be converted and “catch” queerness, as though it were an illness, are widespread across Indonesia.

“The idea that LGBTQ is an ‘infection’ is based on people’s ignorance,” said Ferena. “[People] believe that LGBTQ is a mental disability or pathological condition. The lack of understanding of religion [also contributes], so the approach is ‘prevent or cure’, which, unfortunately, is also supported by Indonesian medical professionals.”

It’s not always been like this

The strangest part of the controversy is that historically, Indonesia has been relatively accepting of LGBTQ people. Violence against queer people is rare, and while many people admit they would not want their child to be gay or transgender, different sexual orientations and gender identities have traditionally been tolerated as long as people kept their activities relatively private.

LGBTQ issues represented at the Women’s March in Jakarta in March 2017. Kate Walton

Transgender women and cross-dressing men (both referred to as waria, a portmanteau of the Indonesian words for woman [wanita] and man [pria]) frequently perform on television and at weddings as comedians, singers and dancers, and are met with uproarious applause. Some of Indonesia’s most famous entertainers are transgender or perform as the opposite gender, such as dangdut singer Dorce Gamalama and Javanese dancer Ninik Didik Thowok. Many traditional art forms also involve cross-dressing, such as ludruk, an East Javanese comedic performance in which all roles, including female roles, are played by men.

According to Dede Oetoemo, a senior LGBTQ activist, academic, and founded of GAYa NUSANTARA, waria have historically been accepted in Indonesia because they “occupy a known social niche” and don’t pose a risk to broader society; many people even prefer going to waria– or gay-owned salons for haircuts and beauty treatments. Queer language has also had a massive impact on mainstream slang, with hundreds of terms previously only used in queer communities—such as “alay” to describe something as over the top or “jijay”, meaning “disgusting”—now common across the archipelago.

One Indonesian culture even has five different genders. The Bugis people of South Sulawesi recognise cisgender men (oroane); cisgender women (makkunrai); transgender men (calalai); transgender women (calabai); and an androgynous third gender reserved for religious figures (bissu). Calalai are assigned female at birth but live as heterosexual men, dressing in traditionally masculine clothes, working traditionally male jobs such as mechanics and engineers, and living with female partners. Calabai are assigned male at birth but live as heterosexual women, and are deeply involved in traditionally feminine activities such as wedding planning. Bissu, on the other hand, are considered to possess the aspects of all genders, and perform religious duties in Bugis society. Calalai, calabai, and bissu live as they please: they able to move about freely, entering most male and female spaces, and can marry and adopt children within their community, even though this is not officially enshrined in Indonesian law. All five genders live in peace and each has an important societal role to fulfil.

A convenient political football

Nevertheless, activists point out that there has always been discrimination towards LGBTQ people in Indonesia, even before reformasi, the post-1998 “reform” period in which politics and society became more democratic, liberal and open. “The difference is that since reformasi, the previously hidden LGBTQ organisations became braver and began organising publicly,” said Agustine, founder of Ardhanary Institute, a research and advocacy organisation for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) people. “The movement became better co-ordinated and started focusing on [LGBTQ] human rights. Technology has also made the movement more visible.”

“[The reactions to this] visibility opened our eyes [and showed us] that hate and discrimination towards LGBTQ people… has actually always existed, and has become embedded in society,” Agustine continued. “This happens whenever a social or political issue intensifies in Indonesia: groups trying to gain power use sensitive issues, such as ethnic, religious or LGBTQ issues, as commodities for their own political interests. This opens up space for groups who reject plurality and diversity to act out towards minorities, persecuting them, pushing them out of communities, and becoming violent towards them.”

Yuli Rustinawati, head of LGBTQ organisation Arus Pelangi, agrees, saying the issue has become a political football. “It is beneficial [to make this a political issue],” she said. “It will be used to make a profit, to get people’s votes in elections. [Politicians] will be seen as heroes, as though they created public order, a healthy and safe society.”

“We are worried about our safety”

Some politicians are even encouraging hatred towards LGBTQ communities by equating them with radical Islam. One recent example came from the head of Parliamentary Commission VIII, Ali Taher Parasong. Commenting on the banning of extremist Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in July following a new mass organisation law, Ali was quoted by Merdeka.com as saying that the banning was inappropriate, since “radicalism doesn’t only emerge out of religious radicalism, but also secularism”. He argued that if HTI was to be banned, LGBTQ organisations should be as well, explaining that “the LGBT problem is a huge one, as are drugs, so why are other mass organisations [being banned]?”

It’s not just politicians doing this, either. “Both directly and indirectly… all elements—political parties, mass organisations, even the Indonesian Ulema Council [the country’s top Muslim clerical body]—have been pushing LGBTQ people into a corner,” Yuli explained. “They do this by [attacking us] personally, by limiting our freedom of association and by issuing fatwas and laws that threaten to criminalise us.”

“They say that LGBTQ [people] are a threat to the nation, that we are destroyers of society’s morals,” Yuli added. “And the statements made have become the weapons of intolerant groups, mass organisations supposedly acting in the name of religion, to perpetrate violence towards us. We are worried about our safety.”

Evidence of these changing attitudes can be found across the archipelago. A waria-only Islamic school for adults in Yogyakarta was forced to shut in February 2016 after repeated threats from local fundamentalist groups, despite police promises to protect the students. The school had been operating without problems since 2008. More recently, in January 2017, a four-day-long event celebrating waria and bissu in Soppeng, South Sulawesi, was disbanded by police, ostensibly because organisers did not have a permit. The head of the group told BBC Indonesia that they had tried to obtain a permit, but had been “ping-ponged” around for two weeks: “They purposely made it difficult for us.”

Further clampdowns—but not all hope is lost

The latest worrying development is a bill from the Parliamentary Legislative Body, which on 28 September agreed to ban all LGBTQ content on television, including cross-dressing and men displaying “feminine traits”.

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says the bill was successful because of bias, ignorance and belief in rampant propaganda. Lawmakers are “not learning enough about human rights, science and so on,” he argued. “They believe this nonsense [that homosexuality is contagious], but some are also doing this to appease the increasingly-conservative community.”

Also concerning is a proposed revision to the Criminal Code. The current draft Code plans to outlaw sex outside of marriage as well as the practice of kumpul kebo, where unmarried couples (of any gender) live together under the same roof. A fine and jailtime of up to one year is being discussed, and could become law as early as the end of 2017.

“We must change it so that there are LGBTQ people are not seen as imaginary ideas, ghosting around us”

Despite this, activists are tentatively positive about the future, if somewhat subdued. In late September, after much bluster, the Indonesian government accepted most of the recommendations made during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in May 2017, among which were two recommendations relating to the protection of LGBTQ people.

When asked if she thinks they can change people’s minds on LGBT, Ferena responds hesitantly: “We can at least change how [the debate] affects people, by having inclusive participation.”

“Perhaps what people are afraid of is not the LGBTQ person itself, but the imaginary ideas,” she said. “Because they don’t think they have to interact with them, so they don’t feel that LGBTQ people are as human as they are. We must change it so that there are LGBTQ people are not seen as imaginary ideas, ghosting around us.”

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Kate Walton

Kate Walton is a queer feminist activist living in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is the founder of the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group, and one of the organisers of Women's March Jakarta and Feminist Fest 2017. Kate is on Twitter at @waltonkate.