Onslaughts against gays and lesbians challenge Indonesia’s LGBT rights movement

Despite challenges, Indonesia’s LGBT community continues to fight for its rights. esfera/shutterstock.com

Recent onslaughts against gays and lesbians in Indonesia are a sign of a fresh wave of moral panic on homosexuality in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Following a month-long anti-gay campaign on traditional and social media, an association of mental health specialists in Indonesia declared on Sunday that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Indonesia are not cowering in silence in response. Despite the challenges, they continue to fight for their rights.

Homophobic outcry

The mental disorder verdict is the latest in a series of homophobic statements and actions by high-level officials, conservative media and Indonesian netizens in the past month.

Pronounced anti-gay sentiments surfaced in late January when the minister for technology, research and higher education, Muhammad Nasir, called for gay and lesbian groups to be banned from university campuses.

His statement came as a reaction to the existence of a counselling group for gays and lesbians, the Support Group and Resource Centre on Sexuality Studies (SGRC), at the University of Indonesia. He was quoted as saying the group was a threat to Indonesian “values and standard of morality”. The minister later retreated from his statement, but it has put the organisation and the LGBT community in the hot seat.

Indonesia’s conservative media, such as the Islamic daily Republika and the country’s active social media users, started to denounce the counselling group for destroying morals and spreading the LGBT “virus”.

The messaging app LINE has also removed LGBT-themed emojis from its store, after coming under pressure from the Communications Ministry.

The attacks against the SGRC have reached members of the LGBT community in their everyday lives. They are being disowned by their families, bullied by friends and questioned by campus officials.

Moral panics

The hatred and threats directed at gays and lesbians are manifestations of moral panic over homosexuality.

Attacks against the LGBT community in Indonesia are not new. In 2000, the Ka’bah Youth Movement, a radical Islamic youth group, stormed the commemoration of World AIDS Day attended by 350 transgender women in Kaliurang, Central Java. Ten years later, in March 2010, the Islamic Defenders Front attacked a regional meeting of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association in Surabaya.

Interestingly, the recent debate on the so-called “LGBT threat” surfaced just days after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Jakarta. Comparing the quick and often lighthearted response to the Jakarta attacks to the longevity and hostility of the “LGBT threat” discourse on social media, Indonesia seems to be more troubled by sexual matters than terrorism.

Preserving structural violence

Moral panics can serve as an indicator of what a society categorises as good and bad. It exposes power relations in the society. Those who can label what is evil hold supremacy over the “evils”.

Moral panics also serve as an important tool to maintain structural violence. This recent anti-gay uproar shows the social and political standing of LGBT people in Indonesian society is still extremely vulnerable.

The dominant heterosexist and homophobic society still holds a belief that homosexuality is a social pathology that must be abolished. Hence, LGBT people in Indonesia cannot enjoy their rights as full citizens.

LGBT rights activism

Except for sharia-ruled Aceh province, there is no law on homosexuality in Indonesia.

Indonesia has a growing number of NGOs and civil movements that focus on LGBT issues. They have so far responded to the onslaughts with dignity and courage.

  • A gay rights group in Indonesia, the LGBTIQ forum, has filed a summons – the first step towards a libel suit – against Republika for its January 25 front-page headline “LGBT a serious threat”.

  • The chairman of gay rights organisation Suara Kita, Hartoyo, has written an open letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo demanding that the government protect LGBT rights to freedom of expression.

  • The Aliansi Satu Visi, a coalition of 22 rights organisations, declared its objections to any forms of discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

  • Organisations working on issues of sexual reproductive health, such as the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association , and women’s organisations, such as the Indonesian Women’s Coallition, have also shown support for LGBT rights.

A test for LGBT movement

The struggle for LGBT rights in Indonesia still has a long way to go. For the movement to succeed in getting the state to protect LGBT people and promote their rights, LGBT groups need to build alliances with state and political institutions.

This is far from easy, especially with the rise of Islamic conservatism, which is reflected in the way numerous “Islamic” online media promote homophobic attitudes.

But if the government is serious about creating a tolerant and caring society, it should work with the LGBT community, human rights activists and the media to campaign for tolerance and respect for diversity.

It should strengthen law enforcement in relation to LGBT rights protection. The government should also investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence against LGBT people.