The recent cancellation of a planned Asian-wide conference of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in Surabaya reveals how far our society is from respecting human rights — and how close it is to slipping into religious fascism.
The police, who had earlier issued a permit — which is not really required by law — chose to bow down to Islamo-fascist groups such as the notorious thugs known as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), who stormed hotels where they thought delegates of the conference were staying on Friday and demanded that all non-heterosexuals leave Surabaya. Reading journalists’ reports on the commotion and comments on news Web sites and on Facebook walls, it is obvious that any sexual orientation other than hetero is widely believed to be an illness that is contagious and immoral. Homophobia is alive and well in Indonesia.
Even the sultan of Yogyakarta, who prides himself and his city as being pluralist, issued a statement rejecting the idea of having the conference there.
Although Indonesia has aligned itself with international standards of human rights, the twisted logic of the thugs terrorizing the conference delegates is widely accepted without reservation. The FPI actually accused the conference delegates of being terrorists — morality terrorists, that is.
Unenlightened Islamic scholars and organizations, the media and most of the rest of us seemed to swallow this argument: Homosexuality is a contagious disease, and if we allow gays and lesbians to publicly exist they will corrupt our children and maybe even us. If we don’t suppress them, the thinking goes, we will incur God’s wrath like the population of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all of us will suffer.
While Islamofascists get violently excited about homosexuality, the reality is that homosexuality is not at all uncommon in Islamic communities. At traditional Islamic boarding schools, known as pesantren, where the segregation of male and female pupils is upheld at all times, it is widely known that some young men and boys engage in homosexual relationships, known as mairil . The sexual activities of the female pesantren students are much more secret and it is commonly believed that all girls are asexual until they are married.
Men who act and dress as women, on the other hand, are openly accepted by Islamic scholars, and even have this acknowledgement enshrined in classical texts of law. In a way, one could say that men who dress like women have more status and rights than women, for according to classical Islamic thinking, men who act like women can lead women in prayer, while women cannot lead men at all.
The patriarchy of Islamic culture is further evident in the fact that women who dress up and act as men are not recognized in any way except as sinners. Islamofascists are of course very hypocritical about homosexuality, and when forensic scientists found evidence that Noordin M Top played the receptive role in homosexual sex, they chose to ignore this, saying it was character assassination by the police.
To complete our hypocritical and ignorant image, we have been told over and again that homosexuality is contrary to our basic values, culture and religion. But this is a distortion of the facts. True, the mainstream interpretations of Christianity and Islam tend to condemn homosexuality, but there are alternate interpretations from within these religions.
Progressive female Indonesian Islamic scholar Siti Musdah Mulia regularly points out that one can read the Koran and find that it does not condemn homosexuality and that God is not an almighty homophobic thug. Traditionally, the leaders of East Java’s Ponorogo dance troupes — the dance that created so much fuss here when it appeared in a Malaysian tourist advertisement — have to live a disciplined life of homosexuality to retain their magical powers.
Parents traditionally offer their adolescent boys to these leaders for education and jobs, knowing full well that the young men will become the warok’s boy toys.
In the Indian epic Mahabharata, which is popularly thought of as a source of ethics and morals by most traditional Javanese Muslims and non-Muslims, the main hero, Arjuna, who is the alpha-male of the universe and is said to have hundreds of wives, is a bisexual; one of his favorite “wives” is the male Srikandi, who often assists Arjuna in his battles against evil.
All this proves that those who say that homosexuality is a foreign, Western depravity and not part of our culture are either ignorant or plain liars. And the fact that the police and government allowed the FPI to terrorize the delegates in Surabaya shows that our leaders and law enforcers do not understand the law, but will instead give in to mob pressure.
But there is a positive side to the recent harassment of homosexuals in Surabaya. The actions of the protesters there have demonstrated that gays, lesbians and transsexuals are peace-loving, law-abiding people who do not fight violence with violence. The incident also showed that our police fear the Islamofascists and need further training in handling religiously inspired mobs. The police need more education to better understand basic human rights and to function properly as enforcers of state law.
The public needs to be educated that homosexuality is not a disease and is not condemned in all interpretations of sacred texts like the Koran and the Bible. The FPI thugs unwittingly brought the discussion of gender and sexual orientation to the public, which gives us a platform to educate people on the realities of the matter. Perhaps the gay, lesbian and transgender communities here should publicly thank the FPI for helping publicize these issues, while demonstrating once again the backward thinking that governs its violent behavior.
It is time for a huge demonstration of people dressed in drag, carrying flowers and blowing kisses of thanks to the macho members of the FPI. Such gestures of love would remind us that those cowardly thugs, who always attack in packs, are also human beings with equal rights.
Author: Bramantyo Prijosusilo, an artist, poet and organic farmer in Ngawi, East Java.