Daniel (not his real name) has tried everything to live a “normal” life in Indonesia. At first glance, he’s nothing more than your average 25-year-old. He lives in Medan, North Sumatra, and is finishing law school in the hope of becoming a notary. He’s also married to a woman who used to be his neighbour. No one would suspect, from just looking at him, that he’s guarding a deep secret about himself.
For the sake of being considered “normal” in Indonesia, Daniel pretends that he isn’t gay. Closeted homosexuals aren’t uncommon in Indonesia, a country where being queer still carries a huge amount of stigma, but Daniel feels, deep down, like he’s been banished from his own life. With his true self suppressed, he can only dream that one day he’ll be free to live the life that God gave him—as a gay man.
“There’s nothing wrong with my life now, only that I’m not being true to myself by living in Indonesia. I have a dream of moving to Bangkok, I think that’s where my life would be normal and I could be myself every day,” he says wistfully.
Homosexuality in Indonesia
Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia—home to the largest Muslim population of any country on earth—except in Aceh Province, a semi-autonomous part of Indonesia that follows syariah law. But a bill being discussed in parliament is likely to result in laws that would criminalise homosexuality across the whole of the archipelago. Despite this, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has made a number of public statements stressing that there’s no discrimination against minorities in Indonesia. If anyone is threatened because of their sexuality, the police must act to protect them, he said in an interview(link in Bahasa Indonesia) with the BBC in 2016.
It sounds reassuring, but this often isn’t the reality for Indonesia’s LGBTQ community. In fact, the situation for LGBTQ people in Indonesia has worsened in recent years; in 2016, a government minister even declared that the LGBTQ community is a “threat” against which “a kind of modern warfare” is being waged.
There is no legal punishment for being transgender. They don’t need any ‘intervention’. If you want to help, then help them to prosper
The number of arrests of members of the LGBTQ community by religious organisations, acting as unofficial community police officers, has increased in recent years. One of the most controversial was the arrest of a group of transgender residents in Tanah Jambo Aye, North Aceh, on 27 January 2018. A total of 12 transgender residents were detained at a salon where they worked; the police forcibly cut their hair and demanded that they put on “masculine” clothing. The video of their detention and enforced head shaving went viral on Indonesian social media. Then-North Aceh Police Chief Utung Sangaji told a local newspaper(link in Bahasa Indonesia) that the increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in Aceh was a bad influence on the younger generation.
While many people in Aceh applauded the move to publicly shame the transgender salon workers, the incident was criticised in other parts of Indonesia. The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation’s (YLBHI) Chief of Advocacy, Muhammad Insur, said that the police had failed to respect the rule of law in that case. “What was the crime of the transgender residents? These people were punished because of who they are. There is no legal punishment for being transgender. They don’t need any ‘intervention’. If you want to help, then help them to prosper,” he told Indonesian website Tirto(link in Bahasa Indonesia) in February 2018.
Dealing with the social stigma
But what’s often considered worse than the legal consequences of being gay in Indonesia is the pressure that comes from both friends and family.
Daniel admits that he sacrificed his own feelings when he was forced to marry a woman he’s sexually uninterested in. But he feels that the decision had to be made, whether he liked it or not, so that the people around him wouldn’t start thinking that there was something “wrong”. He can’t imagine what would happen if people knew of his sexual orientation; he’s convinced that if his friends found out, they would mock him or, worse still, that he would be rejected by his family.
“I’m sure that I can’t stop these feelings, but I also have to think about my family,” he explains. “How would they feel if they knew I was gay, especially my mother?” His voice breaks as he says this. He looks away.
“How would they feel if they knew I was gay, especially my mother?”
Adi Sujatmika, a lecturer in the social psychology department of the University of Surabaya, explains the impact of the stigma against the LGBTQ community in Indonesia. “Mostly people don’t want to be gay in Indonesia because of social norms and religious values,” he tells New Naratif. “They think that heterosexual people consider homosexuality a sin which will be damned by God. And almost everybody wants to fit into society. Indonesia has a strong collective culture.”
Daniel reveals that he’s so desperate to be rid of his homosexuality that he’s tried several methods said to “cure” LGBTQ people, including traditional counselling, hypnosis and a visit to a ruqyah expert. Ruqyah, practised by some religious scholars, is like a form of exorcism.
Rudiawan Sitorus isn’t the one Daniel visited to “solve his homosexuality problem”, but the 35-year-old ustadz (Muslim teacher) is known as an expert in the field of ruqyah, and is a member of Community Care Ruqyah Syar’iyyah—a community group that provides training to anyone who’s considered suitable and has an interest in learning about the world of ruqyah.
Sitorus opened his own ruqyah practice in his home three years ago, and reveals that the number of LGBTQ patients has been steadily increasing. In Indonesia ruqyah is also used for anything from health problems like arthritis and asthma, to issues such as a failed business or struggling relationship—all of which are said to be caused by the same kinds of “demons” that cause homosexuality.
Sitorus says that Ruqyah Syariah, which uses recitations of verses from the Quran and the hadiths, is permissible in Islam. “I believe that LGBTQ behaviour is a sickness and that it’s caused by a physical and mental disturbance from jinn (demons) who have succeeded in controlling the patient’s body,” he explains. “Therefore we read short verses from the Quran and the hadiths, which we believe will make the jinn who control the patient afraid and they will then leave the patient’s body.”
It’s clear that Sitorus thinks homosexuality or gender incongruence (the term the World Health Organisation uses to refer to people who are transgender or genderqueer) is caused by a demon-triggered mental health disorder, as opposed to a natural part of one’s identity that cannot be “cured”. It’s a commonly held belief in many societies that don’t affirm LGBTQ identities, including in neighbouring countries within Southeast Asia.
Growing up in such an environment, LGBTQ people themselves might internalise such beliefs; Sitorus says his patients come to him because they want to “recover” from being gay, and believe that their behaviour can be “corrected”. For many people, ruqyah is a favoured choice of conversion therapy as it’s considered permissible in Islam, as opposed to visiting a traditional Indonesian shaman known as a dukun—a practice prohibited in the Muslim faith as shamans are said to use sorcery.
Most LGBT patients who go to Sitorus’ practice for “treatment” usually come alone—after hiding their sexual orientation from everyone around them, there’s no one who can accompany them. Others might bring one person to support them throughout the process. With privacy a major concern, LGBT patients who ask for consultations or go through ruqyah are seen by Sitorus alone.
When the process begins, Sitorus reads verses from the Quran in a loud voice, then puts his hands on the patient’s chest and back. He slaps them hard to get the jinn to leave their body, as he demands that the dreaded demons leave their mortal hosts.
“The jinn like to hide in the arteries,” he explains. “So I have to pull them out by massaging the circulatory system of the patient.”
Sitorus gives a demonstration of the ruqyah process with the help of one of his students, Mustafa. They sit cross-legged next to each other on the floor. Sitorus puts his hands on Mustafa’s back and chest and slaps him, then moves his hand up Mustafa’s chest to his throat, which Sitorus claims is the demons’ preferred hiding spot. If this were a real session, Sitorus says, the patient would writhe around, as if in pain, and start to vomit, which is meant to be a firm indication that the demons are being expelled. After the ruqyah process is complete, Sitorus washes the patient with salt water laced with bidara (Chinese date) leaves and splashes them with the water while reciting more holy verses.
An ineffective “treatment”
Although he went to a different ustadz, Daniel’s ruqyah process was similar to the one witnessed by New Naratif—he was also pummelled, massaged, and then bathed in holy water mixed with salt and bidara leaves. “But it had no effect whatsoever,” he says, shaking his head and laughing at the memory.
Sitorus claims he’s managed to cure a number of LGBTQ patients in Medan. His fame has grown, and he was even invited to act as a consultant for the local TV station, Trans TV, on a programme called Jinn Interference in the Sodom Community. He shows New Naratif the videos on his phone—episodes feature a number of purportedly gay patients going through the ruqyah process. Several of them are shouting, crying and screaming, and in one video a supposed LGBT patient is shown trying to escape from the ustadz performing the ruqyah.
It’s unclear whether the videos are staged, but the ruqyah patients appear extremely distressed. Sitorus insists that when people cry and shout, it doesn’t come from the patient themselves—they, apparently, don’t feel anything at all—but from the jinn who has been crippled with pain as a result of the ruqyah treatment.
It’s unclear whether the videos are staged, but the ruqyah patients appear extremely distressed
After the ruqyah process is complete, Sitorus follows up with spiritual guidance for his patients, explaining to them that, according to the Quran, homosexuality is a sin.
Ruqyah failed to give Daniel the “cure” he sought; he says it hasn’t worked for a number of his friends either. Despite this he still wants to seek more spiritual help, because he just can’t find a way to reconcile his homosexuality and his faith.
But homosexuality and religion is not that clear cut. According to Lailatul Fitriyah, a Muslim academic who spoke to(link in Bahasa Indonesia) the Indonesian feminist online magazine Magdalene, Islamic teachings or “fiqh” [Islamic jurisprudence] actually give a lot of space to the LGBTQ community. “An assistant in the Prophet’s house who helped to take care of his wives was known to be transgender. And many men who exhibited female characteristics became artists in the palaces of the caliphs,” Fitriyah said.
Hera Diani, the Managing Editor of Magdalene, also points out that the LGBTQ community in Indonesia has the support of a number of Muslim scholars and religious leaders who don’t see conversion therapy as either necessary or useful. “Musdah Mulia, Lailatul Fitriyah and Aan Anshori are all LGBTQ-friendly Islamic scholars. Also Ustadz Abdul Muiz Ghazali frequently counsels transgender people,” she tells New Naratif.
“I’ll probably never be ‘cured’”
Daniel acknowledges that homosexuality isn’t a mental health issue, and he’s now able to laugh about the ruqyah treatment that made no difference to his life. But for some, conversion therapy can have serious consequences.
“The potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great and include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient”
According to a report by the American Psychiatric Association, conversion therapy or “reparative therapy” like ruqyah can have a serious impact on patients, even if they voluntarily sought such therapy. The report states that “[t]he potential risks of ‘reparative therapy’ are great and include depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
Still, the pressure to conform is great. Although Daniel knows that other therapies are just as likely to fail as the ruqyah he’d already experienced, being gay in Indonesia is not something he wants to face in his life, given the stigma. He’s currently focused on starting a family with his wife, but there are obstacles as he’s not sexually attracted to her and often has problems with sexual intercourse. However, he hopes that having a baby will give him a real purpose in life and stop his homosexual desires for good.
“I know that I’ll probably never be ‘cured’”, he says. “The best I can hope for is that I can learn to control it.”
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Teguh Harahap is a freelance writer and translator based in Medan, Indonesia. Previously he worked as the editor of Koran Kindo, a weekly newspaper for Indonesian migrant workers based in Hong Kong.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Regional Editor, Deputy Editor for Bahasa Indonesia, and Consulting Editor for North Sumatra. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at email@example.com.