BANGKOK, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - LGBT activists, facing a barrage of homophobia and hate speech by Indonesian authorities, are setting up hotlines and safehouses, while “unfriending” people on social media and deleting website directories that could expose them to violence.
Indonesia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights groups have been active for decades and have come under attack before, but usually only for one or two days at a time. This time, the anti-LGBT rhetoric began about two months ago, say activists who describe a community living in fear.
“This is the first time it’s actually lasted this long,” said Dede Oetomo, a prominent activist who founded one of the country’s oldest LGBT rights groups, GAYa NUSANTARA, in 1987.
Oetomo said the attacks began in January when Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir said LGBT people should be barred from university campuses, and have continued on an almost daily basis.
The national broadcasting commission reiterated a policy banning TV and radio programmes that make LGBT behaviour appear “normal”, saying this was to protect children and teenagers who are “susceptible to duplicating deviant LGBT behaviours”.
The Indonesia Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism as mental disorders, while Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu called the LGBT movement a “proxy war” to brainwash Indonesians.
Critics say LGBT groups receive “foreign funding”, which is true if one looks at funds from United Nations organisations like UNAIDS or Western governments and foundations, Oetomo said.
“We are supposed to be a danger to survival of the nation,” Oetomo said by telephone from Surabaya, where GAYa NUSANTARA is based. “It’s getting ridiculous in a way. It sounds like a little war.”
Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
There have been a few incidents of LGBT people being harassed, and Oetomo said LGBT groups are now working to set up safehouses and draw up evacuation plans in case of need.
In Yogyakarta, southeast of Jakarta, on Feb. 23 LGBT activists were roughed up by police, who told local media they stopped them from holding a rally to avoid a clash with a hardline Muslim group holding an anti-LGBT protest nearby.
Also in Yogyakarta, an Islamic boarding school for transgender women was shut down two weeks ago.
LEVEL OF ATTACKS “UNPRECEDENTED”
Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, though some politicians have called for criminalisation of gay sex.
Sexual and gender minorities in Indonesia have historically lived amid a tense calm, with tolerance and pluralism protecting them from violence and a sense that discretion brought safety, said Kyle Knight, LGBT rights researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“What we’re seeing now may be unprecedented in terms of its fever pitch,” Knight wrote in an email from Indonesia, where he is documenting human rights abuses related to the rise in anti-LGBT rhetoric. “This time around, government officials have even stoked the cacophony of hatred.”
Some officials - including Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan - have defended the LGBT community.
“Whoever they are, wherever they work, he or she continues to be an Indonesian citizen. They have the right to be protected as well,” Pandjaitan was quoted as saying in The Jakarta Post.
This is little comfort for LGBT rights defenders.
Kevin Halim, an Indonesian transgender woman activist with the Bangkok-based Asia Pacific Transgender Network, is troubled by “experts” promoting conversion therapy without considering the psychological damage that can be done by their words.
And many LGBT Indonesians are combing through their social media to “unfriend” anyone who might disapprove of them.
“Normally I just share everything gay about me,” said Safir Soeparna, who works for Apcom, a Bangkok-based group focusing on HIV in gay men. “Now I‘m a bit like ... will somebody use this to blackmail me? So I rechecked my ‘friend’ list and deleted people I can’t trust 100 percent.”
Several activists have also adopted new security strategies.
“My guys don’t even go to the office any more. It’s too dangerous. We’ve never really experienced this,” Oetomo said.
The staff of Arus Pelangi, which provides legal assistance for LGBT people, set up a buddy system in January because police could not guarantee their security, and started a hotline for people needing help, Chairwoman Yuli Rustinawati said.
“They have pushed us into a corner,” Rustinawati said by phone from Jakarta. “LGBT people have been pushed and are living now in fear because of the statements from the government, ministers, mayors, calling on society to beware of us.”
Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories