Escalating Intolerance: LGBTQ Rights in Indonesia

On October 18th, 2018, Indonesian police raided a home in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia. Once inside, they confiscated five cell phones, 25 condoms, and placed two gay men under arrest. Their crime? Running a Facebook page meant to organize meetups in their community, punishable under a law that criminalizes transmitting immoral information online. The punishment? Tens of thousands in fines and up to six years in prison. These two men are only the latest victims of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has crashed over Indonesia in the past few years. While Indonesia has never been the bastion of progress—only 3% of Indonesians believed LGBTQ people should be accepted in 2013—anti-LGBTQ action was relatively uncommon until recently.

As much of Asia moves forward, with India’s Supreme Court unanimously striking down its “indefensible” ban on gay sex and Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruling same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, Indonesia has been moving backwards. In January 2016, Indonesia’s Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir argued that the LGBTQ community should be banned from universities in order to uphold the “standards of values and morals” that make up the “moral safeguard” of universities. Barely a month later, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu warned of the dangers the LGBTQ community posed and compared suppressing the community’s supposedly threatening influence to “a kind of modern warfare” that is “dangerous as we can’t see who our foes are.” The government’s words have been undergirded by even more aggressive actions: though homosexuality in and of itself is not illegal in Indonesia, national and local governments have gradually expanded aggressive anti-LGBT rhetoric and tactics using laws such as the 2008 Pornography Law. The law criminalizes anal sex, homosexuality, and lesbianism under the guise of combating “deviant behavior.” In practice, it is used to punish individuals for acts as simple as using gay dating apps.

The politicians, police, and public are reifying this rhetoric with social and physical violence. The government is attempting to wipe all social media clean of LGBTQ symbols and imagery by forcing applications to remove options to use LGBTQ iconography for Indonesian users. LGBTQ individuals have been evicted from their homes and arrested and detained at parties. A Balinese beauty pageant promoting HIV education and equality was shut down by Islamic hardliners. Violent actions like these serve in to disrupt and criminalize the everyday existence of LGBTQ people and erase them as much as possible from the public eye. By shuttering the expression of the LGBTQ community, the government can appeal to fundamentalist bases on multiple levels. The Aceh province, a deeply religious and conservative province in northwestern Indonesia that has criminalized homosexuality, has forced LGBTQ individuals into religious counseling and called business owners to refuse employment to the community. In 2017, Indonesia apprehended 300 people because of their presumed sexual or gender identities, the largest number in the nation’s history. One lawmaker has even called for the death penalty for LGBTQ individuals.

Each action represents a broader pattern of escalating violence. “I think this is just part of a larger trend of fundamentalism with regards to the government exerting control on ‘morals,’” says Gregory Jany ‘21, president of the Indonesia Yale Association. This trend is not just limited to LGBT rights, but includes many other aspects of politics. For example, the 212 Movement – a mass protest movement lead by Islamist groups – convened the largest rallies in Indonesia’s history and successfully pushed for the downfall of Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. In an environment already rife with homophobic sentiment, it seems the LGBT community has become an easy target for religious fervor sweeping the national as a whole. 

Indonesia’s government has made surface-level promises to support the LGBTQ community. In late 2016, President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi) declared “the police must act” against bigoted groups and violence and that “there should be no discrimination against anyone” in Indonesia.  In 2017, Indonesia’s government vowed to the United Nations Human Rights Council to improve the community’s human rights situation and its Religious Affairs Minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, said that the nation should “embrace and nurture” the LGBTQ community (while simultaneously arguing that no religion supports LGBTQ action). Evidently, these motions towards tolerance have hard limits, and politicians remain unwilling to meaningfully challenge religious fundamentalism.  Beyond these performative declarations, these promises begin to crumble. In spite of all the rhetoric, “LGBTQ rights are definitely nonexistent both politically and socially,” says Stephanie Purwanto, an Indonesian student studying in the US.

Though the aforementioned Aceh province swore to stop publicly beating criminals in April after widespread condemnation, two men accused of gay sex received 87 lashes on one day in July alone. On a national level, while Indonesia’s Constitutional Court rejected a gay sex ban in 2017, conservative groups have tried fervently to limit LGBT rights in any way they can. In 2018, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party brought anti-LGBTQ laws before parliament, and the West Javan administration formed an official anti-LGBTQ force. The reality Purwanto acknowledged manifests more visibly each day.

As anti-LGBTQ sentiment and fundamentalism spreads across the country, entities both public and private have been forced to adapt. Jokowi—generally known to be somewhat liberal —selected Ma’ruf Amin to be his running mate for his 2019 re-election campaign. Ma’ruf is the supreme leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization and chair of its top clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council. On top of that, in 2016, Ma’ruf said he wanted “a stern prohibition of LGBT activities and other deviant sexual activities and legislation that categorizes them as crime.” Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf as his running mate is also indicative of the growing political pressure to bend to religious fundamentalism, the same sentiments which drive anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Following ride-hailing firm Go-Jek’s decision to sanction its vice president for posting in support of the LGBTQ community, it is clear the private sector isn’t safe either—discrimination driven by fundamentalism has permeated all aspects of society. 

Indonesia’s crackdown is not simply a moral affront. It wreaks havoc on the country in very real, tangible ways. The inability of vulnerable populations to access HIV prevention and treatment without facing the weight of enormous stigma, in tandem with moral panic and illegal police raids making public health outreach all but impossible, has caused the infection to proliferate across the country. Only half of gay men have every been tested, and only 9% of those in need of antiretroviral drugs are taking them. Infection rates among men who have sex with men have skyrocketed 500% since 2007. In comparison, global infection rates have declined 18% since 2010. By making it impossible for LGBTQ people to publicly seek help, Indonesia has created its own health crisis. The more the government cracks down under public pressure, the worse these problems become. 

Indonesia’s economy is starting to suffer as well. Indonesia’s economy benefits greatly from the millions of tourists it draws in each year. The Ministry of Tourism set a goal to hit 20 million tourists and to double the tourism sector’s contribution to GDP from 4% to 8% by 2019. Bali is one of the top ten destinations for LGBTQ tourism and weddings in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East. The government’s violent homophobia threatens Indonesia’s burgeoning tourist sector. A majority of LGBTQ travelers surveyed report considering a country’s treatment of the LGBTQ community when picking travel destination, a sentiment many allies share. Some LGBTQ activists have called for tourists to stop visiting Indonesia entirely. Beyond the tourism sector, studies estimate that the social exclusion, stigma, and violence LGBT Indonesians face cost its economy at least between $900 million and $12 billion. Indonesia risks not only its public health and safety, but its international image and its economy if it keeps veering towards fundamentalism. Though the rest of the world should not sit idly by while Indonesia’s LGBT community suffers, they must tread carefully moving forward. In a nation where LGBTQ rights are seen as part of a “Western agenda,” too strong a response could backfire. Sanctions, a favorite coercive tool of many Western powers, might be deeply misguided in this case–economic coercion causes the constituency to rally around powerful politicians and often causes leaders to become more repressive in a show of their own strength and legitimacy while at the same time pushing most of the resulting poverty and economic distress onto the civilians they are meant to protect. Indonesia’s president is already being accused of sliding towards authoritarianism in the face of growing political capture by right-wing religious groups and diminishing free speech rights – he does not need the extra wind a heavy-handed Western intervention might beget.  Instead, support should be directed to activist and NGO groups. It was an Amnesty International campaign, for example, that laid the groundwork for Taiwan’s declaration that a gay marriage ban was unconstitutional by raising awareness and engaging in advocacy across the country. In addition to that, community engagement is crucial, Jany says: “as a student, especially at Indonesian universities, showing support for those that may be discriminated against and rejecting hate speech within the communities and groups they are part of can be a good starting point.” Outside of Indonesia, too, he notes, “it is not an issue that many people talk about.” The time is now to bring awareness to the plight of Indonesia’s LGBT community.  It is only with careful work and patient efforts on the ground that Indonesia will be able to move forward again.

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