The men were nearly identically dressed. Matching fresh crewcuts almost hidden under baseball caps pulled down to shade their eyes, pollution masks covering their faces, and matching dark t-shirts.
You would be forgiven for thinking they were on their way to do something illegal, especially if you spoke with them and realized how on edge they were, nervously looking around and stopping their conversation whenever a security guard on his usual patrols came near.
But these men, who work to prevent HIV in vulnerable populations in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, were simply meeting the Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono and his cameraman for a pre-arranged interview about a new report, “Scared in Public and Now No Privacy,” which looks at the rising anti-LGBT hysteria in Indonesia, and what that means for public health. HIV rates among men who have sex with men in Indonesia have increased five-fold since 2007, from 5 percent to 25 percent. And while the majority of new HIV infections in Indonesia occur through heterosexual transmission, one-third of new infections occur in men who have sex with men.
For over two years now, politicians and government officials in Indonesia have been whipping up the public into an anti-LGBT fury. What started in 2016 as hateful rhetoric has now become violent actions, with raids by police and militant Islamists on places they suspect LGBT people are socializing. This has included raids on everything from gay clubs, to the private homes of suspected lesbians, to waria (transgender women) community events.
The atmosphere of fear and moves to break up safe gathering spaces is having devastating health consequences. HIV outreach workers are struggling to locate the people who need their help – which comes in the form of condom distribution, blood testing, education, and psychological counselling.
The masked men – who asked not to be named to protect their identities – had arranged to meet Harsono outside the now-shuttered T1 nightclub. The men used to work inside and outside the club – giving out condoms and educational pamphlets, and providing some counselling. There was even a mobile clinic where at-risk people could go for blood tests and counselling services.
“It turned out they’d been looking at us from a distance to check us out,” Harsono said. “They had been walking around the area to make sure it was safe.”
When the men eventually approached, they stood out because of their appearance in the business neighborhood where T1 used to be. Harsono took them into a restaurant to shield them. But it was Ramadan, so the two HIV outreach workers did not order food, and the atmosphere remained stressful.
“I was so shocked by their concealed appearance, but of course they were doing it because they were nervous,” Harsono said, adding that it seemed the men were traumatized because hundreds of LGBT people had been arrested in recent raids on nightclubs and in private homes.
“People have been sentenced to 18 to 30 months in prison after being arrested in these raids.”
In 2017, police apprehended at least 300 people perceived to be LGBT – the highest number of such arrests ever recorded in Indonesia. In some cases, if they were carrying condoms, that was used as evidence of homosexuality. That leads people to decide against carrying condoms, which only adds to the HIV epidemic.
When the clubs were open, the outreach workers were easily able to make contact with men at-risk of HIV, but now with the safe spaces shuttered and networks scattered, there are risks of an even bigger spike in HIV rates.
The fear the crackdown is causing is palpable. “A security man came by when we were discussing the film shoot, just on his normal rounds, and they were so scared,” Harsono said. “They were terrified he would come over and see them. It says so much about the feeling in Jakarta now.”
The anti-LGBT rhetoric has had a deep impact on society in Indonesia. In a 2016 opinion poll, 26 percent of those interviewed said they didn’t like LGBT people. It was the largest percentage for any group. By 2017, that number was even higher.
“In February 2016 the minister of defense even said the LGBT movement was more dangerous than nuclear war.”
But despite the shrinking space and the very real risk to their safety and freedom, some outreach workers like the two men Harsono spoke to are still trying to make a difference to communities at-risk of HIV.
“They are turning to social networks and the internet,” Harsono said, “I’m really amazed to see how these workers are adapting. They know that they can be arrested, stopped by the police, stopped by security every time they are seen to be chatting with transgender women, but they are courageous and persistent.”