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Indonesia’s LGBT community continues the struggle

Image credit: Carrie Kellenberger (Flickr: Creative Commons)

2016 has not been a good year to be a member of Indonesia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Discrimination and hate speech from some of the nation’s highest-ranking officials has increased dramatically and little has been done to address the situation so far.

In January, the Minister for Research, Technology and Higher Education called for LGBT people to be banned from university campuses for posing a threat to Indonesian culture.

Since then, some ministers seem to have been competing to see who could make the most patently ridiculous statement: the Defense Minister has said the LGBT movement is more dangerous than nuclear war, and the Tangerang Mayor warned that eating too many packets of instant noodles could turn your child gay.

The onslaught against sexual minorities has also targeted the internet—often one of the few safe spaces for young people confused or unsure about their sexuality. LGBT emojis have been removed from some social media apps, and the government has announced its intention to block Grindr and as many as 80 other apps and websites aimed at homosexuals.

Earlier this month, a gay couple in their early twenties were arrested after posting a photo of themselves kissing on Facebook. Although homosexuality is not illegal, the couple could still be charged under anti-pornography laws.

This month, the national Youth and Sports Ministry held a competition to select 10 ‘Creative Youth Ambassadors’, but explicitly limited entry to those who are ‘physically and mentally healthy, not involved in promiscuity and deviant sexual behaviour, including LGBT’. A doctor’s certificate is required to prove that competitors are not involved in ‘sexually deviant behaviour’.

The list goes on. In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in August, the organisation catalogues that more than 18 officials and government bodies issued public anti-LGBT statements between 20 March and 10 August. That is almost one per week.

Demonstrating their fundamentally misguided understanding of what the LGBT movement is, a presidential spokesperson dismissed the concerns raised in the report, stating ‘if LGBT means a mass movement to influence other parties to become like them, then there's no room here’.

This apparent fear of conversion is not uncommon in those seeking to silence LGBT voices. Also common is the refrain that being gay does not fit with ‘Indonesian culture’. Although Indonesia in fact has a long history of acceptance of different sexualities, anti-LGBT groups have actively sought to paint the LGBT movement as foreign, anti-religion and a threat to stability.

Alarmingly, the Indonesian Constitutional Court is currently considering a proposal by a group of conservative organisations calling itself the Family Love Alliance to criminalise consensual gay sex. The Court’s consideration of the proposal, which would also criminalise heterosexual sex outside marriage, indicates how powerful the conservative movement is in the country.

Despite all of this, there are two factors that should provide some hope. First is the recent appointment of Vitit Muntarbhorn, a Thai professor of international law, as the first ever United Nations Expert on Violence and Discrimination against LGBT people. Increasing the visibility of anti-LGBT speech, acts and policies could come at just the right time to address this recent trend in Indonesia.

Secondly, last week President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo finally responded to what has been going on over the past year, making a statement calling on the police to act to protect the rights of LGBT people and advocating against discrimination against any group. Jokowi has been criticised for staying silent on the recent tidal wave of hate speech directed against LGBT people. Elected partly on a human rights platform, his avoidance of the subject has been a disappointment to many. Hopefully his decision to now come out in support of the LGBT community is the sign of changing times.

Caitlin McCaffrie is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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