Indonesia is in the midst of a government-incited meltdown about LGBT rights. In January, the country’s high education minister said he wanted to ban LGBT student groups from university campuses. Not long after, the defense minister said the LGBT movement was more dangerous than dropping a nuclear weapon on a capital city. One mayor, speaking to a group of new mothers, told them not to be distracted by innovations like instant noodles because it could turn their kids gay. Other politicians and government officials followed suite, as did the media, and even traditionally-moderate Islamic groups. Amy Braunschweiger talked with Kyle Knight about his new report, ‘These Political Games Ruin Our Lives’, and what this aggression means for Indonesia’s LGBT people.
I thought Indonesia’s new president was a reformer? How is this happening?
The president, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is reform-minded, at least when it comes to corruption and mass violence.
If he wanted, he could tell his ministers and political allies to stop this tomorrow. But he hasn’t. To be fair, Jokowi’s then-coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, stated during the height of the vicious anti-LGBT rhetoric that “LGBT people are Indonesian too.” He could and should have stopped there. Instead, he added that he thought homosexuality was a chromosomal disorder, and emphasized that being gay “is not what the person wants.” This statement is indicative of deep misunderstanding of LGBT people. President Widodo could have challenged this, and spoken about providing basic security and freedom of expression to LGBT people rather than be silent as his minister tried to medicalize LGBT people.
Keep in mind, Jokowi has remained silent across the board regarding abuses against minorities. Last March, Indonesian security forces and officials participated in the forced evictions religious community and then steered them into detention facilities where government officials threatened them with “religious reeducation,” “de-radicalization counselling,” and prosecutions for “blasphemy.” The most Jokowi could muster publicly was a tweet saying that building a tolerant society was important.
Is discrimination against LGBTs new in Indonesia?
We spoke with activists who opened organizations in the 1980s who had very few problems over the past three decades. There had been sporadic outbursts here, usually from the occasional militant Islamist group harassing or attacking an event. The police would show up and make sure no one was hurt, although they generally didn’t investigate further—and in most cases they encouraged the LGBT activists gathered to shut down the event. But the statements by top-level officials opened up a new level of hate against LGBT people. It’s now easy for anyone – a moderate Muslim group, a militant group, a politician hoping to be elected – to slur this group and gain popularity.
How did things get so bad so quickly for LGBT people?
It began with an anti-LGBT bylaw in Aceh province on Sumatra Island in late 2015. It snowballed nationally with the afore-mentioned anti-LGBT speeches in 2016. This was driven by government officials, but others joined in the fray.
The media loved it, and it was the hot topic in Indonesia for months. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission first banned the broadcast of LGBT campaigns. Then it ratcheted up the ban to forbid portraying being LGBT as “normal.” Then they ratcheted it up yet again to ban the broadcast of effeminate men.
Typically in Indonesia, it’s the right-wing militant Islamists who issue fatwas or edicts against the LGBT population and other minorities. Now, moderate Muslim groups are part of this crush. The Nadhlatul Ulama is the biggest Islamic group in the world, with 80 million members, and a major social service provider to Indonesians. It’s funded in part by USAID and the Global Fund, and has received millions of dollars to work with LGBT people on HIV prevention. Historically, they are anti-jihadist and preach tolerance. But in the middle of this meltdown, they threw fuel on the fire by issuing an announcement advocating the criminalization of LGBT people. They also called for the government to put an end to all LGBT activism.
Additionally, the Indonesian Psychiatric Association joined the chorus by proclaiming homosexuality a “mental illness.” Then, in early August, some professors petitioned Indonesia’s highest court to make gay sex illegal.
But is discrimination against LGBTs new in Indonesia?
There had been sporadic outbursts here, usually from the occasional militant Islamist group harassing or attacking an event. The police would show up and make sure no one was hurt, although they generally didn’t investigate further—and in most cases they encouraged the LGBT activists gathered to shut down the event. But the statements by top-level officials opened up a new level of hate against LGBT people. It’s now easy for anyone – a moderate Muslim group, a militant group, a politician hoping to be elected – to slur this group and gain popularity.
How has the international community responded to this?
The country’s vice president actually summoned the director of the UN development agency, the UNDP, and said the UN needed to stop funding LGBT-related programs in Indonesia. And the UNDP did just that—they suspended its “Being LGBT in Asia” program, a regional initiative which aims to address and promote LGBT issues through building partnerships between the government and civil society in Indonesia. That move by UNDP made activists with the country’s more than 200 LGBT organizations activists feel abandoned. Indonesian activists are fearful, but they haven’t cowered in the face of this fresh hatred. International partners shouldn’t either.
What does this look like on the ground?
We visited five different provinces across Indonesia and documented how this government-led anti-LGBT campaign has inflicted grievous harm on Indonesia’s LGBT community. Activists have closed their offices and destroyed their files for fear of attacks by Indonesian police or militant Islamists.. In one instance, attendees at a peaceful LGBT support demonstration in Yogyakarta encountered police who had ostensibly showed up to protect them from a menacing anti-LGBT rally across town. But after less than an hour, the police beat up some protestors—telling them to go away.
In March, more than a month after the meltdown began, I interviewed a 64-year-old transgender woman who had lived in one neighborhood all her life. Her neighbors and family all used her female name after she transitioned in her 20s. They respected her. But in March for the first time in her life, she would walk down the street – the same street she walked down for 64 years – and young kids in their school uniforms would yell “LGBT, LGBT, LGBT!” at her. She said she was both amused and horrified. Amused because the kids had no idea what those letters meant. And horrified, because the young people had absorbed the message of the public hate campaign so quickly. She never felt hated or despised before—this was a very new feeling for her as an Indonesian.
I spoke with university students who had eaten at the same noodle stand for years, but who recently began hearing people saying words like “lesbian” and pointing at them. And they were scared. Not that they thought the people whispering or taunting them would pull out a knife. But they were worried that, if the government really turned against LGBT people, they couldn’t rely on classmates, neighbors and even families to defend them. It was a deep sense of isolation and foreboding—that if things took a turn for the worse, there was zero support network backing them up.
Also, starting in 2008, a transgender woman built a boarding school and mosque for other transgender women. It was a beacon of hope, and was celebrated by Muslim clerics in Yogyakarta. The school had good government relationships and a meaningful community relationships. During this crackdown, military, police, and militant Islamisists showed up and shut her down.
How can this be reversed?
First, the government can issue unambiguous statements of support for LGBT-inclusive equal rights. Second, they can reverse the recently passed Child Protection Commission decree, an edict that forbids people to even speak about LGBT issues in formats that might reach children.
There’s something else the country can do. Indonesia’s government is very decentralized and there are thousands of regional laws, some of which are written in the name of the Islamic Sharia and also anti-LGBT. But Indonesia’s home affairs minister has the power to roll back regional bylaws. He earlier said he wanted to roll these discriminatory bylaws back, but Islamists pressured him and he later backtracked, saying he only wanted to roll back laws that were bad for business.
These local laws can be so damaging. If you want a shining example of just how bad it can get, look at the one Indonesian province allowed to implement Islamic Sharia – Aceh. The political climate has deteriorated, corruption has gone up, investment has evaporated, and the human rights situation is a total disaster.
Are anti-LGBT laws bad for business?
Studies by the World Bank and economists at major universities show anti-LGBT laws drag on economic development. Additionally, most Fortune 500 companies have LGBT employees and pro-LGBT policies. If they can’t move their employees into Indonesia, they could easily choose to set up shop in another country.
How does Indonesia compare with the rest of the region in its treatment of LGBT people?
They’re being left behind. Last year, Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country to pass a non-discrimination law including transgender people. The Philippines includes LGBT people in their national anti-bullying law. The Philippines also issued a detailed and explicit LGBT non-discrimination policy for all mental-health professionals. Great progress for LGBT rights has been seen in Japan, Nepal, and India.
Indonesia should join their ranks, and instead of vilifying LGBT people, protect and support them. The government can best do this by rolling back anti-LGBT decrees and proposed laws, pledging public support for freedom of expression and diversity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.