Indonesia: LGBT community resisting harassment by Muslim fundamentalists

Asia Times

A month-long film festival featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) issues will open on Friday in Indonesia, the only such event screened anywhere in the Muslim world. The Q! Film Festival represents one of the largest gay pride festivals in Asia with more than 150 films, fringe events on sexuality and LGBT-themed book launches planned for six cities across this predominantly Muslim country. 

Most Indonesian Muslims profess to be moderate and tolerant, but two incidents this year show how the LGBT community continues to come under attack from fundamentalist fringe groups. In March, a planned international LGBT conference in Surabaya, East Java, organized by ILG-Asia, a branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, was forced to cancel after coming under attack from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical group of hardline fundamentalists, and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), an association of Muslim clerics. 

A 150-strong mob attacked the lobby of the hotel after Friday morning prayers and refused to leave until the police and hotel management would guarantee that the event was cancelled. In the evening, the mob conducted a floor-by-floor sweep of the hotel, going to the rooms of the 150 conference participants from 14 countries to make sure that they had left. An organizer told Gay City News how he was repeatedly punched by one of the agitators in the hotel lobby for refusing to turn over ILGA's list of conference participants. 

A month later, FPI stormed a human rights training program intended for transgender individuals at a hotel in Depok, West Java. The program, organized by the National Commission for Human Rights, had just begun when dozens of FPI members dressed in long white tunics and skull caps forced their way past police into the room. "Several people then suddenly banged on the door and shouted the name of God," a participant told The Jakarta Post. 

"Transsexuals or homosexuals will not be able to have children. This is clearly against the human rights for reproduction, and [thus], threatens human existence," Yunahas Illyas, chair of the main committee in the influential Muhammadiyah Islamic group, told the local paper Republika in justifying the attack. 

In the first two years of the Q!'s existence, organizers have also come under harassment from fundamentalist groups. "We received death threats, and there were rumors that the cinemas where films were to be screened would be burned down," said festival director John Badalu. The team pressed on and the first two festivals proceeded without incident. 

Q! organizers have linked up foreign embassies and organizations such as the Goethe Institute, Erasmus Huis, Central Culture Francaise and the Japan Foundation, giving the event some international buffer. The films screened have also been approved by Indonesia's censorship body as not running afoul of anti-pornography laws. By not charging fees for attendance, the festival is run more like an internationally endorsed arts and cultural exchange. 

Still, Badalu is reluctant to overexpose the event. "We used to be very open in announcing our events, but we realized that this might backfire. We are now very selective in choosing which media to use. We will not advertise in the mainstream Kompas newspaper about this film festival, for example, but go for niche publications to reach our own queer circle in Indonesia." 

Last month's IndigNation Pride Film Festival in Singapore, held in conjunction with the IndigNation gay pride festival, screened two features and five short films over three days. Q! will also have a wider range of offerings than its older Japan-based cousin, the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Attendance has risen steadily since the event was first held in 2002, with last year's festival drawing an audience of about 20,000. 

A delicate balance 
The LGBT community has arguably emerged more strongly with Indonesia's recent dramatic democratic gains after decades of authoritarian rule. Unlike in neighboring Malaysia, where homosexuality is illegal, Indonesia's national criminal laws do not prohibit private, non-commercial homosexual relations between consenting adults. A proposed national bill to criminalize homosexuality failed to be enacted in 2003 and no subsequent bill has been introduced, despite hard-line Islamic elements in the legislature. 

Still, the country is in some places still struggling to harmonize the principles of Islam with homosexuality. For instance, anti-homosexual laws are strictly enforced in Aceh province where Islamic sharia laws are in place for various codes of conduct, including adultery and prostitution. Under Aceh's law, homosexuality is defined as an act of "prostitution that violates the norms of common decency, religion, and legal norms as they apply to societal rule". 

Elsewhere in Indonesia, LGBT sources said that the biggest challenge for the emerging community is how to cope with pressure and violence from hardline religious groups. 

"There is no clear distinction on the role of religion in the running of the state and daily life, so perhaps some religion groups feel called upon to fight for what they deem a right cause," said King Oey, supervisor in Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Stream), Indonesia's first organization dedicated to LGBT advocacy. 

"Indonesian society also seems to move towards a more conservative society," said Badalu. "Religions are considered more crucial, and some people feel it's getting more important to emphasize their religious identity." 

The LGBT community is also still struggling to strike a balance between self-identity and what Indonesian mainstream society considers normal. 

"Gays and lesbians in Indonesia are mostly closeted. Many have not come out open, or avoid to be found out. If we were to an international comparison, the situation in Indonesia now is probably like the US in the 1970s [when] gays and lesbians only began to come out, and one or two gay interest groups started to be more active," said Oey 

In other parts of Indonesia, the LGBT community faces indirect discrimination rather than direct opposition. Sources said negative stigmas are still attached even in urban Jakarta where many consider LGBT people who are "sick" or "need to be cured". They believe LGBT people are that way because of broken hearts, or could become “normal” again if they were married

The LGBT community is also still largely marginalized in the workplace and faces discrimination in applying for jobs. While the LGBT segment has gained influence in many Western countries through the power of the so-called pink dollar, the businessopportunities have remained largely untapped in Indonesia. 

While Indonesia's LGBT community is arguably now more visible, its awakening is not exactly new, argued Tom Boellstorff, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, in his 2005 publication, Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia. He notes that gay subjectivity appeared for the first time in mainstream media in July 1980 through a confession story in the magazine Anda. 

The first gay rights interest group to publicly proclaim itself, Lambda Indonesia, was set up in 1982. Lambda was later dissolved and reincarnated as GAYa Nusantara in 1987, which is now a volunteer-run organization that mainly raises public awareness on sexual health and well-being. It also provides 24-hour telephone counseling services. 

"Our aim is to raise public awareness and provide social support for the LGBT community, [especially] to those who have not come out in the open and thus do not have enough necessary information on coming to terms with their identity," said GAYa Nusantara chairman Rafael Hendrikus da Costa. 

Other LGBT interest organizations include Inter Medica Foundation, LPA Karya Bakti, Arus Pelangi Perempuan, and the Ardhanary Institute, with activities ranging from providing workshops to raising awareness to advocacy works. 

This year's confrontations with hardline religious groups helped to better unite the country's various LGBT groups. For instance, they recently successfully lobbied the National Commission of Human Rights to issue a public statement that publicly defended the rights of LGBT Indonesians on par with other citizens. 

Still, LGBT are often the target of ridicule and violence by government authorities, with widespread stories of transsexuals being apprehended under the public order maintenance act and beaten by police while in detention. 

"Unfortunately, the National Commission of Human Rights can issue only guidelines and do not have the necessary powers in the field. Roles of the police as the executioner of justice remain more crucial" said Arus Pelangi's Oey. "Though it is slow coming, there have been changes in attitude in the country." 

"There used to be murders of transsexuals who were conducting illegal commercial sex activities in the parks, and the authorities usually were [not very serious in handling the cases] as they were seen as sinful people that deserve their punishment,” Oey added. “But now it is not so anymore, as there are organizations [defending victims]." 

Badalu says he has a dream of one day establishing a Queer Center which would act as a multi-purpose hub for the community to pursue LGBT-related arts, learn new skills, and simply to hang out. He envisions mainstream society sharing the space to gain a better understanding about the LGBT community. Until then, Badalu and other activists hope events like the Q! festival will encourage more societal acceptance. 

"If the Q! Film Festival is attended by at least 30% of the non-LGBT community, it will be very good already as it can introduce people to the community and can slowly but surely remove the negative stigma attached to LGBT," said Oey. 

Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore based journalist. She may be contacted at