The emojis in question
Social conservatism in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim-majority, is rising. Things took an almost comical turn last week when the messaging app LINE removed LGBT-themed emojis from its store, citing complaints from its 30 million Indonesian users. In a post on its Indonesian Facebook page, the app producer apologized to users offended by the LGBT stickers and emoticons, which included two men holding hands and two women with a heart between them.
But this is just the beginning. Ismail Cawidu, PR spokesman for the Ministry of Communications, told local media last week the government will consult with WhatsApp—used by over half of Indonesia's 255 million strong population—to remove any gay-friendly emoticons, which are available for free on the app. Cawidu praised LINE for its speed in removing the "offending" images, which he said "could potentially cause public unrest."
The government's demands come after weeks of increasing hysteria, dubbed the "LGBT panic" by one Jakarta-based news blog, marking an unease between LGBT-identifying Indonesians and the wider community.
In late January, supporters of a LGBT group based on the campus of the University of Indonesia in Jakarta went public after the university and Higher Education Ministry banned the group. The Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies (SGRC) had caught the attention of higher education minister Muhammad Nasir after pamphlets advertising the group's services, such as counseling for depressed and suicidal LGBT youth, were circulated online. The minister contacted the university's leadership directly and was told the student group had not been officially sanctioned. Shortly after, the University of Indonesia released a statement distancing itself from the center.
In the days that followed, Minister Nasir made a string of comments to the media about SGRC, strongly asserting his ministry's position on gay rights. "LGBT is not in accordance with the values and morals of Indonesia. I forbid [the group]," he told local news portal Detik in January.
In a January blog post, SGRC co-founder Firmansyah hit back, arguing groups such as his are important on Indonesia's campuses. "We are fully aware of the high risk involved [in establishing the SGRC], as evident by the rampant media attention on our organization lately," he wrote. "We created a LGBT Peer Support Network because LGBT teens in Indonesia are more prone to suicide as a result of rejection and discrimination they received from the society."
Ridwan Kamil, the mayor of West Java's capital Bandung, also weighed in on the controversy, telling his 2.5 million constituents—including a likely sizable group of LGBT citizens—that while he supports the rights of LGBT people to exist, they should be neither seen nor heard.
Mayor of West Java's capital Bandung, Ridwan Kamil. Image via
"We cannot live as freely as we want. The fact is that there are people who are "different," he said in January. "Sexual preferences should be a private matter and cannot be exposed or campaigned about publicly because there are social behaviors that are not acceptable in Indonesia."
While a handful of Indonesia's leaders have taken a stand against the frenzy—notably Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama who characteristically dismissed the manufactured crisis as a distraction from more pressing issues, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS—there's little hope of change in the near future.
Veronica Korman, a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, told VICE that while Indonesia doesn't have explicit laws banning homosexuality—as its neighbors Singapore and Malaysia do—the current laws safeguarding human rights are "too general" to protect gay Indonesians. "The current laws, the current society, and the current government elites are all failing LGBT people," said Koman.
In Aceh, Indonesia's only province which practices Sharia law, individuals found guilty of "homosexuality" can expect 100 lashes as punishment, Veronica said. In a recent case, two women were arrested in the province last September for "hugging."
Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country's top Muslim body, issued a fatwa (a ruling on Islamic law) against non-heterosexuality in 2014, calling for the death penalty to be issued for those found in violation.
However, it's the more subtle discrimination against LGBT Indonesians, from marriage, to pornography, to adoption, to emojis, that speak to the broader entrenched homophobia in the country.
"I think we are still far, far away from having a law specifically recognizing and protecting LGBT people from discrimination," Korman said. "The LGBT community has been pushing the agenda of recognition of LGBT people to the government, but it seems like it's not working."
Chika Noya of the Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) sees the failures of the law to protect Indonesia's LGBT community as another victim of the country's legal system, widely viewed as corrupt.
Noya cited a United Nations Development Program report that found the cynical belief in law enforcement and government in Indonesia may leave "many activists not confident in laws and policies that could protect LGBT people."
A Center for Strategic and International Studies poll conducted in October 2015 found the national police and the Indonesian parliament rank as the least trusted public institutions in the country. Often seen as operating outside of the law and with their own agenda, police and lawmakers face the derision of a community supportive of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country's anti-corruption agency that routinely ranks among the most trusted, in its efforts to weed out corruption in Indonesia's government and police.
"Everything has to conform with relevant social and religious beliefs in Indonesia," Noya said. "The government always hides behind morals to cover the corruption."
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