Indonesia: LGBT Activism Under Attack in Surabaya

International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

Grace Poore and Ging Cristobal, staff members of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) were in Surabaya, Indonesia for the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Asia conference scheduled to begin in the East Java capital on March 26 and run through March 29, 2010.

One hundred and fifty activists representing one hundred organizations from sixteen Asian countries were scheduled to attend.  As participants began to arrive for the weekend’s activities, Indonesian police ordered the cancellation of the conference in response to pressure from Islamist fundamentalist groups. The conference hotel refused to permit the conference to proceed.  ILGA Asia found alternate venue, but fundamentalists tracked them there.  One of the groups occupied the hotel lobby for several days. After threats of violence and hours of negotiation, Indonesian activists were forced to leave the hotel and foreign attendees forced to disperse until they could leave Indonesia.

Grace Poore, Coordinator of IGLHRC’s Asia and Pacific Island Program, documented her experience.  This is the first part of her story.

3/23/10 – Tuesday

9:10 PM - I arrive at the Mercure Hotel to check-in and the front desk tells me that I only have a room for one night because the conference is not taking place at the hotel. They offer me complimentary lemon ice tea. I call Ging Cristobal, IGLHRC’s Project Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands. She tells me that there has been a security threat to the hotel so the conference venue is being moved. We have to wait for more details.


10:30 PM – A member of the ILGA Asia Board tells me that press coverage of the conference tipped off local fundamentalists who are now threatening to attack the Mercure Hotel. Earlier today, the hotel management told Gaya Nusantara, one of the oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations in Indonesia, based in Surabaya, about the threat and said the conference could not remain in the venue—basically kicking us out.

Gaya Nusantara is negotiating with a different hotel.

3/24/10 – Wednesday

Morning – At breakfast, I learn from members of Gaya Nusantara that there’s a problem with the conference permit.  It turns out that the Surabaya police issued a permit for the wrong dates. This is turning into a comedy of errors. One hundred and fifty people are expected, now for a conference without a permit, while fundamentalists are threatening a showdown.

Members of Arus Pelangi, a Jakarta-based organization that assists LGBT-survivors of torture and conducts national advocacy, are negotiating with federal and local police. I am comforted by this – they are seasoned in dealing with police. However, we hear that the police have links to the fundamentalists.

Noon – I check out of the Mercure Hotel and relocate to the Oval Hotel, the new conference venue. The lone figure of ILGA’s Co-Secretary General Gloria Carreaga in an empty hotel lobby is surprisingly comforting. What a welcome to Asia for her.

There’s no Internet in the rooms. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to have Skype conferences in the lobby. What if the fundamentalists show up and we can’t access Internet at all? Should I go back to the other hotel? But they kicked out our conference. I don’t want to give them my business. It’s important to be in solidarity with the local partners.

3/25/10 – Thursday

Photo by Ging Cristobal

Noon – Familiar faces from India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Philippines and China pass through the lobby of the Oval Hotel. They’ve flown into a void–nobody knows for sure whether the conference is happening. Registration is delayed and then moved to a room in the hotel basement next to the underground car park.  Two people from Arus Pelangi walk in from negotiating with police about the permit. Their eyes are puffy, faces drawn, and shoulders slumped.  I expect to be told we need to leave, conference cancelled. The ILGA Asia Board huddles in a corner.  The rest of us wait.

2:00-7:00 PM – Ging and I attend a meeting unconnected to the conference at a third hotel.  Namita Chad of the Astraea Foundation says that she’s glad that the hotel took the initiative to change the video monitor in the lobby. The day before, it said, “Meeting: Astraea Lesbian Action Foundation and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.”  It now simply reads “Meeting: Astraea Foundation.”

After the meeting, a member of that hotel’s staff tells us that she saw the news about the fundamentalist threats against the conference and about the Mercure Hotel turning us away. “Our hotel supports you,” she assures us. “Our manager called all of the staff and said that no one should talk to the media or anyone who asks about your meeting.” She sounds grave. I don’t realize the significance of her statements until that night — when I find out that 20 to 30 fundamentalist protesters had demonstrated against the conference in front of Hotel Mercure that morning.

9:00 PM – There is a security briefing in the basement of the Oval Hotel led by ILGA Asia, Gaya Nusantara, Arus Pelangi, and Institut Pelangi Perempuan, a Jakarta-based lesbian organization. They take turns outlining the situation to all conference participants.  The following is my summary of the meeting:

Permit Issue

Before they sought the permit for the conference, the organizers sought letters of approval from the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs, the National Police and the National Human Rights Commission.  The National Human Rights Commission was the only one to give their full support. From the start, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Police were uncooperative.  Police ambivalence appeared to have been reinforced when fundamentalists warned they would attempt to shut down the gathering.

We hear that Surabaya police intended to grant Gaya Nusantara the permit when the national police instructed them to deny it.

Threat of Police Shut Down

The situation is that now the organizers don’t have a permit to hold the conference. This means that the police have the right to disband the conference. How can we deal with this threat? The ILGA Board has officially announced that the conference has been canceled, which the media has publicized. Now, the international guests are here merely as tourists, so we have all the freedom to meet and travel like other tourists. However, we are advised to avoid wearing ILGA t-shirts, carrying ILGA bags, or displaying the conference program.  Basically, avoid showing anything related to the conference.

Threats by Fundamentalists

We also face threats from radical Muslim groups led by Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). I hear from an independent source that a total of seven fundamentalist groups in Surabaya have joined forces against us.  Some of these groups have been gathering force and encouraging others to take action against us.  In addition to the demonstration in front of the Mercure Hotel earlier today, there was also another demonstration at a hotel where we were supposed to have dinner tomorrow. We are not sure if the fundamentalists know that we are still meeting, but there’s a good possibility of them finding out that we are here.  There are strong indications that in the coming days, especially tomorrow, that the groups may show up at our hotel to protest – or worse.  Tomorrow is prayer day, and there’s a possibility of people getting revved up, their actions getting heated.

The Position of the Hotel

So far, the management at the Oval Hotel has been fairly cooperative, although they are worried. It’s not in their interest to tell anyone we are here.  However, they instruct that we are not to gather around the lobby, especially not near the main entrance.  Instead, we should stay in the restaurant area, which is more discreet and will be perceived as a normal place to gather.


The irony is that Surabaya is an open city.  Surabaya’s residents are used to seeing gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.  It is even common to have LGBT guests at hotels.  (We are told that the fundamentalists would not take such action against LGBT individuals but are moved to protest because we are trying to organize for our rights.)

Of course, the local organizers and ILGA Asia are not sitting idly by. Organizers are coordinating with local human rights and civil society groups which are actively taking measures to prevent anything bad from happening to us.  Significantly, a moderate Muslim group in Surabaya  says that it will give us moral and political support as needed.  In an incredible expression of solidarity, individual human rights activists and non-LGBT friends communicate that they are prepared to personally form the first barrier of defense if there’s an attack.  They are willing to endanger themselves to protect their international friends.  It’s amazing – an understatement – to have support like this from non-LGBT Indonesian organizations.

Security Measures and Instructions

All participants must pay attention to and cooperate with the security measures. There will be different security teams – a team on the main roads near the hotel to look out for police or fundamentalist presence, a team that will provide information if evacuation is necessary, and a team to ensure evacuation is done properly.

If demonstrators come toward us while we are in the hotel, we should go to our own rooms. There have been no cases where demonstrators have gone into the hotel rooms (yet). In the event that fundamentalists break into our rooms, we should attempt to escape through the emergency exits located on each floor. If we are trapped during a meeting and cannot get to our own rooms, we should rely on the evacuation team to direct us to the safest exits to get to the public areas and roads.

The decision is to attempt to work things out through negotiation and avoid violence.

Revised Program Schedule

The conference is no longer a conference but a meeting. The first day’s plenary has been canceled so that people are not all gathered in one room because this may not be safe. There will be one set of discussion groups in the morning and another in the afternoon. We will not use meeting rooms but our hotel rooms. At midnight, we will receive a phone call in our rooms telling us where to meet in the morning.


Some of the gay men and waria people use humor to lift the tension. The lesbians and FtMs from Indonesia sit stone-faced. Across from me a young South Asian lesbian who I met for the first time earlier in the day catches my eye. Fear is written all over her face. This is her first time out of the country and her first time at an international conference. She is not out to her family. Her parents don’t even know she’s in Indonesia.

This is not Aceh, where hardliners reign, it’s Surabaya! How could this be happening? Surabaya has had events for the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).  Gaya Nusantara has worked here for years. But the police have refused to grant the permit and cannot be depended on for protection.  If something happens, will anyone protect us?

Part 2: Anti-LGBT protesters surround the hotel »