What’s behind Indonesian authorities’ desire to control LGBT sexuality?

Sexuality, since it is imbued with moral panics, has for a long time been used strategically for political purposes. www.shutterstock.com/Romolo Tavani

Indonesia’s LGBT community has been weathering “unprecedented attacks” through hateful public comments by top public officials since early this year.

But the biggest threat yet has come recently in a legal move by a conservative group, the Family Love Alliance (AILA), to criminalise any sexual activity outside marriage. The Constitutional Court is deliberating the alliance’s request to change the definitions of adultery, rape and sodomy in the Criminal Code.

The police have joined the chorus of discrimination against LGBT people by urging the government to ban online gay dating applications. The Communication and Informatics Ministry has declared it will ban the apps.

Both AILA and the police say their demands are based on a need to protect children from sexual abuse and child prostitution. In a recent police raid of a child prostitution ring, police found the gay dating apps on the suspect’s iPad.

Sexual violence against children and child prostitution in Indonesia are serious problems which the government must tackle. Yet it begs the question of why, in doing so, the police are only interested in banning gay dating apps.

Numerous social media platforms such as Facebook also provide potential platforms for crimes, including child prostitution.

Amid the rhetoric of protecting children, AILA also seems to ignore Indonesian marriage law that allows child marriage.

Impact to private lives

Criminalising extramarital sex will greatly impact the wellbeing of LGBT people in Indonesia. Their lives are hard enough in the current legal landscape, where same-sex behaviour is not criminalised under national law.

LGBT rights activism in the past four decades has slowly empowered some LGBT people to be comfortable expressing themselves, mostly in the bigger cities.

But even after decades of struggle many LGBT people in Indonesia who are born in conservative families or in highly religious communities feel they have no choice but to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity to avoid discrimination and social prejudice. This can be deeply alienating.

If AILA succeeds in its request, state control over citizens’ bodies will be repressive for both for trans and cisgender people interested in adult consensual sex with the opposite or same sex.

But while heterosexuals have the option of “lawful” sex under marriage, LGBT people, having no option to marry as marriage in Indonesia is defined as being between a man and a woman, would have no space at all for privacy in their sexual lives.

Religious conservatism, sexualised nationalism

AILA and its expert witnesses argued in the Constitutional Court hearings that extramarital sex, especially same-sex relations, violates national and religious values in Indonesia. These arguments reject the universal human rights principle of the right to privacy.

They deem universal human rights principles as foreign values that are different from the concept of human rights in Indonesia. This is reminiscent of the particularist “Asian values” argument used by the likes of the dictator Soeharto and his ilk.

AILA’s supporters have the right to their beliefs. But imposing these values on other people is religious extremism wrapped in sexualised nationalism.

Nationalism and being Indonesian in this sense are defined through heterosexuality and heterosexual family principles, what writer Julia Suryakusuma calls state ibuism, excluding others who do not fall into this category.

This is dangerous not only for LGBT people but for pluralism in Indonesia in general. It would legalise the act of “othering” and criminalise minority groups who hold different values from the majority Indonesian (Sunni) Muslim community.

Indonesia, with its hundreds of different ethnic groups spread out across thousands of islands, has always been a blend of different cultures with differing value systems, including those brought from foreign shores.

In fact, all of the six religions that the Indonesian state officially acknowledges, including Islam, are originally foreign to the people living in the islands that now make Indonesia. The word AILA does not mean anything in the Indonesian language, but it means “big family” in Arabic.

Sexual repression for political purposes

Disconcerting as it is, AILA members are practising their rights as citizens to request a review of a law that they deem in conflict with their values. It is the support from state officials for their repressive and anti-pluralist ideas that is worrying.

To understand the situation, we can look back to history. Sexuality, since it is imbued with moral panics, has for a long time been used strategically for political purposes.

In the Dutch Indies era from 1938 to1939, when colonial powers were threatened by wars in Asia and Europe, a newly created morality police – polisi susila – conducted a massive hunt to arrest homosexual men who were allegedly guilty of having sex with underage boys.

According to historian Marieke Bloembergen, the actual reason for the sudden “moral cleansing” is that the decreasing authority of the colonial government led it to target homosexuals to reassert its power and prove it could maintain order and security.

Perhaps the overemphasis on sexuality, especially gay sexuality, by Indonesian officials in the current context may be connected to a sense of declining public trust in state institutions, especially the judiciary and law enforcement institutions.

Public lack of trust in the police has also been exacerbated by their alleged involvement in drug trafficking described in the confessions by convicted drug lord Ferry Budiman, before he was executed, to a human rights activist.

The justification of “child protection” used in the anti-LGBT rhetoric also successfully spreads prejudiced sentiments and fears of LGBT people.

By conflating LGBT people with violence against children, one of the most vulnerable groups as well as the symbol of the next generation to sustain the nation-state, Indonesian state officials are able to promote an image that they are “protecting the future of the nation”.

This is a narrative that could easily win nods from the public who have difficulties in distinguishing between paedophilia and consensual same-sex relationship between adults.


This article was co-authored by Hendri Yulius, author of Coming Out. Yulius is taking his second master’s degree in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney.