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Indonesia: Gays Fight Sharia Laws


Indonesia’s fledgling LGBT group, Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Flag), last Monday launched a national campaign against a welter of ultra-homophobic regional statutes based on Muslim Sharia law.

“Many LGBT people are arrested and detained, often without charges or clear reason, only to be released after a few days,” said Widodo “Dodo” Budi Darmo, the 35-year-old director of campaigning for Arus Pelangi, which was formed in January this year as Indonesia’s first explicitly activist LGBT group on the legal and political fronts.

“In 2004, the region of Palembang introduced a regional law that proscribes homosexuality as an act of prostitution that ‘violates the norms of common decency, religion, and legal norms as they apply to societal rule,’” Dodo — a co-founder of Arus Pelangi — told Gay City News from Jakarta. “That law says that included under the term ‘act of prostitution’ are ‘homosexual sex, lesbians, sodomy, sexual harassment, and other pornographic acts.’”

Dodo said that “this regional law was part of a chain of similar laws across Sumatra and Java that base themselves on Sharia law from the Koran,” and that “52 regions have adopted or put forward such laws.” In the special capital district of Jakarta itself, he said, “all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual people are legally considered cacat, or mentally handicapped, and as such are not protected by law. This contradiction of LGBT people falling outside the law while still being subjected to it is one of the injustices that Arus Pelangi hopes to combat.”

Some 88 percent of Indonesia’s quarter of a billion people identify as Muslims, making it the world’s largest Islamic nation. Islamic beliefs take various forms in the country — there are the orthodox, Mecca-oriented santri, and also another Muslim current called kebatinan, or Javanism, which is an amalgam of Islamic (especially Sufi) beliefs colored by indigenous animist and Hindu-Buddhist influences, as well as ethnic traditions, in a country where 300 languages are spoken.

Three-fifths of the nation’s population lives on the island of Java and Islamic precepts continue to frame public debate. There is considerable political coherence among traditionalist and modernist Muslim currents — all of them doctrinally opposed to homosexuality.

“There are many Islamic fundamentalist groups in Indonesia that thrive on premanism, or thuggery, against anyone that goes against what they feel their religion dictates,” said Dodo. “These groups — in Jakarta they are most predominantly the FPI (the Front of Supporters of Islam) and the FBR (Betawi Council Forum) — will attack the offices, workplaces, and homes of people they consider to be of particular threat to the morals and values of Islam, and that includes LGBT people.”

The International Herald Tribune noted in an October 9 article on Indonesia, “President  Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been criticized by some for failing to speak out clearly against” the “persistent [Muslim-instigated] violence.”

Last Monday, Dodo recounted, “We had a forum with the Department of Justice and Human Rights, and met with the head of the office regarding regional laws in order to push the issue of discrimination against LGBT people evidenced in those laws, and as well to attempt to break through channels in order to meet with the only two people in Indonesian politics able to quash laws still in deliberation (the minister of Internal Affairs) or already made (President Yudhoyono.)” So far, Arus Pelangi has had no success in arranging those breakthrough meetings.

Arus Pelangi also has been lobbying hard against final passage of a sweeping “Law Against Pornography and Porno-Action” that is being pushed by Islamic-oriented political parties, and could be used to stifle any pro-gay agitation or writing. This draconian, homophobic law would prohibit any writing or audio-visual presentation — including songs, poetry, films, paintings, and photographs — that “exploit the notion of persons engaging in sexual relations” or “engaging in activities leading to sexual relations with persons of the same sex.” Even portrayals of “kissing on the lips” of any gender combinations would be forbidden under this proposed legislation. Violations of this law would be punishable not only by fines but by prison terms of up to seven years as well.

“There are a few supporters within the Indonesian Parliament who are willing to help us seek equal rights for LGBT people in Indonesia,” Dodo said, “and these are mainly from the PDI-P (Party for the Indonesian Democracy Struggle) and the PKB (National Awakening Party), and though their members are few, they have greatly supported Arus Pelangi’s cause and have enabled us to come further in political discussions and alliances as a result.”

Arus Pelangi is also striving, against great odds, to have sexual orientation included in a new Minority Rights law being considered by Parliament that was originally presented as a bill on ethnic and racial discrimination.

“There has been strong opposition from various [Islamic] fundamentalist and conservative parties who have threatened to block the Minority Rights bill should the LGBT issue be inserted,” Dodo said, “but we are currently working in coalition with several [non-governmental organizations] and a few members of Parliament to further this issue.”

Less than a year old, Arus Pelangi has some 400 members — about 40 percent are lesbians, 30 percent gay men, and 30 percent transsexuals. The large number of lesbians is in part due to the success of bi-weekly lesbian discussion groups the organization runs in Jakarta which, Dodo said, “have been successful in uniting groups with little to no ties with each other previously. They’ve become a popular forum for lesbians who are open about their sexuality as well as with those who have yet to come out,” and involve discussions of everyday problems, violations of their human rights, and consciousness-raising.

Arus Pelangi has already facilitated the establishment of three autonomous branches  outside Jakarta. In Surabaya, the LGBT organization Us was formed with the support of Arus Pelangi staff, and participates in the activities generated by the Jakarta office. An Arus Pelangi chapter has started in Medan to target LGBT issues in Northern Sumatra. And in Purwokerto, a new LGBT organization has been formed as a result of Arus Pelangi’s activities in the region in response to the murder last year of Vera, a transsexual.

“The case of Vera, a transsexual who was murdered last October 28 in Purwokerto, Central Java, has received little attention from the local police,” Dodo said. “Our staff traveled to the area, met with witnesses and the victim’s family, and received permission to take this case to court. We’ve developed a network of partners to insure the protection of witnesses, only four of whom have as yet been questioned by the police but with no concrete action as a result.”

In another horrendous case that is the focus of Arus Pelangi’s work, three transsexuals were murdered in Jakarta by the Indonesian police.

“We’ve begun investigations with the families of the victims who live in Jakarta, and have raised the issue with the National Human Rights Commission,” said Dodo, “but this case will require an extremely long process of data collection and campaigning with government authorities, as it involves charges being brought against the police. We’ve taken up cases like these, and are trying to build up our local communities and empower them to support themselves and each other, to decrease the fear experienced by LGBT people.”

In fact, it is difficult to quantify with any specificity the level of bias-related anti-gay violence in the country because, until the founding of Arus Pelangi, there was no gay group collecting such information in Indonesia. A group called Lambda Indonesia was founded in 1985, sponsored social gatherings, consciousness-raising, and issued a newsletter, but it petered out in the 1990s. Gaya Nusantara is a gay group focusing on health issues like AIDS, and operating mainly in Surabaya, East Java. Yayasan Srikandi Sejati, founded in 1998, focuses specifically on health issue of the transgendered, running a free health clinic that provides HIV/AIDS counseling and free condoms to transsexual sex workers.

“In general, the public here is not well-informed about HIV/AIDS,” Dodo said. “There is no sex education in the schools, except for that done by these other organizations with very limited means and despite hostility from school authorities. Because the other LGBT organizations before Arus Pelangi exclusively focused on health issues, they inadvertently perpetuated the notion of AIDS as a ‘gay disease’ and thus the stigmatization of the LGBT community concerning this issue. However, the stereotype of people with AIDS now leans more toward drug users and Papuans, the indigenous people living in the easternmost province of Indonesia.”

Legal and police abuse of gay people in Indonesia is hard to document, said Julie Van Dassen, Arus Pelangi’s Canadian-born international advocacy secretary, “because people often do not report cases due to their sexuality, and thus data is very hard to come by. Frequently, LGBT people are arrested for other reasons, or with no charges at all, which happens often enough in Indonesia, especially in certain regions (Aceh being the worst), and though it is obvious that they are scapegoated because of their sexual orientation, this is never formally issued as a charge, and thus hard to prove or not reported as a crime of discrimination at all.”

In addition to this, Van Dassen said, “often gays, once taken into jail, are submitted to sexual abuse far beyond that of other prisoners because of their sexual orientation. These cases are also very hard to prove, especially as many of the victims are very traumatized and remain silent out of fear of returning to jail and being subjected to abuse, rape, and beatings again.”

A good example of this police abuse, she said, is the case of Adang, a gay man who was one of many arrested in a protest against the opening of a an environmentally poisonous dump site in Bojong, Bogor, West Java.

“Adang was suffering from a mild form of tuberculosis at the time of his arrest,” Van Dassan explained. “He informed authorities of this, but received no medical attention. He was further criminalized in jail, forced to kiss, masturbate for, and perform fellatio on the guards at the prison and other inmates were encouraged to take advantage of him sexually because he was a gay man, ‘so he must love it.’ His condition worsened while in jail, he was beaten and still received no medical attention. Upon his release, after seven months in jail, he received medical attention but died three weeks later due to complications connected to his injuries and tuberculosis.”

Dodo dismisses the notion that a gay identity is a “Western” notion foreign to Asian or Islamic cultures.

“We have to make a separation between religion and sexual orientation,” he said, “because sexual orientation is natural, it’s a human right that needs to be respected and valued. My family was very open and pluralistic, so I was lucky to be raised in a family that was not too focused on religious rules or ethos. In Indonesia, religion is forced, you are not afforded the opportunity not to choose a religion — and as a result, many of the social norms, political policies, and laws are deeply rooted in Islamic ties and morals. I was not as affected by this as most others were.”

In fact, said Van Dassen, “Dodo is one of very few (three, at most) of our staff that has actually come out to his family and friends. Most of the staff, even though they are passionate enough about supporting LGBT rights to work full-time without wages for Arus Pelangi, are still afraid to come out to the people close to them.”

Van Dassen explained that “their reasons vary — some come from moderate or more conservative Muslim families and are afraid to come out and be alienated from their families; some are less afraid of the reaction of their families but more the reaction of their community and the shame it would bring upon their entire family, which could have mild to severe social and economic effects — their business would no longer be used, they would be ostracized in social circles. Still others, and this was the most shocking for me, is that some, not working in Arus Pelangi but connected to it, are ashamed to admit it to themselves. They were raised in Muslim families and feel that their natural sexual inclinations are a sin, and have no idea of what to do about it.”

 

Arus Pelangi can be contacted at Jl. Purwodadi No. 29, Menteng, Jakarta 10310, Indonesia; Telephone-Fax. 021-390-6258; or e-mail [email protected].

Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Oct. 18, 2006. The article was originally written for Gay City News, New York City‘s largest weekly gay newspaper.

 

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