This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.
After evening prayer at the mosque, 33-year-old Syifa’s* parents asked her to lie down on a prayer rug. As they recited verses from the Quran, Syifa tried her best to contain her laughter. After all, they were trying to exorcise her gayness out of her. “It was just so dumb to me, but I tried to appreciate what they were trying to do for me,” she told VICE.
As a Muslim Syifa was no stranger to exorcisms, or efforts to expel demons and spirits that wreak havoc on wordly bodies. But Syifa was certain that she wasn’t possessed, she was just bisexual.
The process took about half an hour, after which Syifa was still bisexual. Although she is now in a relationship with another woman, she feels that her parents’ attempts to exorcise her at least gave them some peace of mind.
Syifa decided to come out after ending her two-year marriage with a man she never loved, deciding instead to spend her life with another woman. She did not want to hurt her parents’ feelings by telling them their efforts to convert her had been unsuccessful.
“[My parents] didn’t know how to handle it, but they wanted to do something because they believe that being gay is wrong,” Syifa said.
Syifa’s parents also took her to an Islamic conversion therapy centre, which has 32 branches across Indonesia, where she realised how traumatic these exorcisms can be.
Syifa heard screams and people being whipped from the room next door. Syifa, like many other Muslims, was taught that the exorcism process can be very painful. “I was lucky they didn’t do anything like that to me,” she said.
For the past three years, Indonesians have been increasingly turning to exorcisms to “cure” members of the LGBTQ community. In some cities, like Padang and West Sumatra, these exorcisms are government-sponsored.
Between November and December 2019, Padang police arrested 18 same-sex couples and forced them to undergo conversion exorcisms. “We have an exorcism expert here who specialises in the LGBT community,” Lucky Abdul Hayyi, a member of a civil society organisation that assisted the government in this operation, told local media. “Gay men are usually possessed by female demons. We also have a program that will allow transgender people to be trained by the military.”
To say that Indonesia is not LGBTQ-friendly would be an understatment. A 2017 survey conducted by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) revealed that 87.6 percent of a sample of 1,220 Indonesians perceived members of the LGBTQ community as a significant threat.
As a result, sexual minorities have faced discrimination from all ranks of society. Regional governments, police, and citizens have actively persecuted members of the LGBTQ community. President Joko Widodo has said that the police were obligated to protect vulnerable communities, including LBGTQ individuals, from physical harm. But in reality, this is not the case.
This pressure is intense enough to make some members of the LGBTQ community request exorcisms of their own accord. Ailsa, a Jakarta-based exorcism therapist, said that every week, one or two “patients” commit themselves to her centre to “fix” their sexual orientation.
But even she admits that this Islamic form of conversion therapy isn’t always successful. “Demons aren’t the cause of every issue. It’s not always mystical,” Ailsa told VICE.
Ailsa explained that an exorcism session typically involves the recitation of verses from the Quran followed by a discussion. One of her most memorable patients, she said, was a gay teenager whose sexual orientation she attributed to Korean dramas and dance lessons.
“I think his female hormones dominated his male hormones. An increase in those female hormones affected his emotions. I recommended him to find more masculine hobbies,” Ailsa told VICE.
Some exorcisms include more than just a recitation of Quranic verses. A report on anti-LGBTQ exorcisms performed in the city of Medan found that therapy sessions often involved slapping, massaging, and bathing the patients in blessed salt water.
Yuli Rustinawati, head of Arus Pelangi (one of Indonesia’s few LGBTQ non-governmental organisations), warned of the consequences that can result from the normalisation of such conversion therapy.
“The moral doctrine used against the LGBTQ community leads to unbelievable violence towards them. Then the police join in and force them to undergo exorcisms,” Rustinawati told BBC Indonesia.
SMRC researcher Sirojudin Abbas told VICE that Indonesians have a hard time differentiating between being a part of the LGBTQ community and the protection of LGBTQ rights. Many Indonesians are reluctant to associate themselves with the LGBTQ movement, even when they are aware of the discrimination the community faces and the right to refuse conversion therapy.
“As citizens, they have the right to life. But instead, they’re seen as misfits who want to force their sexual orientation down everyone's throat,” Abbas said.
Syifa said that although her family refuses to accept her as bisexual, she feels that she is on better terms with them. She now sees exorcisms as a coping mechanism for her parents. “They needed to convince themselves that they at least tried something,” Syifa said. “The exorcism was more for their benefit than mine.”
*Name has been changed to protect their privacy.