To Australia’s north lies Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, where queer rights activists are showing a new combativeness.
In May, delegates from organisations representing workers, women, farmers, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, sex workers, and refugee organisations met in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta for the Civil Society Conference of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). They released a statement demanding that their governments “recognise, promote and protect” LGBT rights. This milestone resulted from vigorous organising by gay rights groups across Southeast Asia, including 15 in Indonesia. The conference also produced the first ASEAN Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer People’s Caucus.
The same month, activists mobilised for the International Day of Action Against Homophobia (IDAHO), which included rallies in Jakarta. Sixty-two organisations released a statement demanding protection for everyone regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Developments in Indonesia make this a much-needed protection for LGBT people there. Several years ago, the government began allowing provinces and regions to locally adopt sharia (a reactionary legal code based on Islamic religious laws), and many areas have done so. And a sweeping “anti-pornography law” that labels homosexuality as deviant took effect in 2008.
The archipelago’s LGBT movement is amongst the oldest in Asia; the country’s first openly gay organisation, Lambda Indonesia, launched in 1982. Now, however, the queer movement there is experiencing the same thing as others around the world: as it makes new advances, it is coming into sometimes violent conflict with a rising religious right.
Battle lines drawn. One of the most prominent and aggressive of Indonesia’s anti-gay right-wing outfits is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
Activists across the region were shocked last year when the FPI forced the cancellation of a conference of ILGA-Asia, the Asian section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Two hundred delegates travelled to Surabaya to meet, only to lose their venue — twice — thanks to FPI intimidation of local officials and hotel managements. This included an FPI mob performance in the lobby of a hotel while other FPI members across town vandalised the office of conference hosts Gaya Nusantara, Indonesia’s oldest issues-oriented gay rights organisation.
The FPI also threatened last year to burn down venues of the Q! Film Festival, the largest queer film festival in Asia. However, this failed to intimidate organisers and the festival went ahead in five cities.
One more event targeted by the FPI is the annual Miss Waria pageant, which FPI labels depraved. Indonesia’s large transgendered community describe themselves as waria, a term derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man). Historically, traditional Indonesian society, while strongly emphasising the family, has been accepting of waria. Today, however, the right wing is putting that tradition in peril.
The raised visibility of both the gay movement and the religious right are due in part to the same thing, the reformasi that overthrew Suharto’s repressive New Order government in 1998. Commenting on this contradiction, Dede Oetomo from Gaya Nusantara noted: “Homophobic attacks, previously unknown, have become a bitter reality. While reformasi has brought a sense of widening democratic space, the flip side is these homophobic attacks.”
It’s all about politics. The FPI is an anti-female, reactionary vigilante movement of extremist thugs that aims to crush democratic rights through bullying and violence. It has a track record of disrupting a broad range of events. It opposes minority religions and has attacked the Human Rights Commission and May Day rallies as well as media, bars and nightclubs.
Because the FPI dresses up its ideology in religious garb, a lot of media coverage, especially in Western media, portrays its attacks as showdowns between Muslims and LGBT people. But this is a false characterization.
Muslims are on both sides of the battle. For example, progressive Muslim students mobilised to defend the ILGA conference. Unsurprisingly, in a country where almost 90 percent identify as Islamic, Muslims are found across the political spectrum — in LGBT and feminist organisations, in unions and amongst the ranks of the FPI.
What’s playing out in Indonesia is not a religious battle but a political one, in which Islamic fundamentalism functions as a fully loaded weapon in defense of a shaky capitalist status quo made vulnerable by its own sins. Chief among these are corruption, militarism, and widespread poverty — more than half the population lives on less than US$2 a day.
Winning new friends. The right wing’s multi-issue agenda has created important opportunities to forge ties and build solidarity.
The left student group Pembebasan was amongst those taking to streets this year for IDAHO, proclaiming the importance of solidarity in defence of LGBT equality. Support for the Q! Film Festival came from many quarters, including from Perempuan Mahardhika, a left feminist group that linked gay and women’s oppression and called for a united movement for democratic rights.
And a broad coalition fought the introduction of the misnamed Anti-Pornography Law, producing some solid alliances.
As the movement looks ahead, there will be opportunities to utilize these alliances to win new victories. One initiative is Courage Unfolds, an Asia-wide activist campaign demanding that governments implement the Yogyakarta Principles, a set of international legal principles relating to sexual orientation and gender identity that came out of a 2006 summit on LGBT rights held in Indonesia.
As LGBT people continue to assert themselves, there is every likelihood that many will come to see a broad-based radical movement as the only answer to the fundamentalist right — and will lead in building that movement. The courage of Indonesian queers is an inspiration!