In 1982, Jusup Jhonny Rianto subscribed to an Indonesian queer zine called Gaya Hidup Ceria (Happy Lifestyle).
"It was like a wind from heaven," Jusup, now 62, told VICE World News.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the country, Gaya Hidup Ceria only had a print run of a few years, and Jusup was so nervous about his family knowing he was gay that he had it sent to his office.
But through the zine’s articles and personal ads, which Jusup placed using a pseudonym, he found his first partner, a new community, and gained confidence to come out. He even had an unexpected encounter with his manager, who was also living in secret and subscribing to Gaya Hidup Ceria. He approached Jusup after recognizing details about him despite the pseudonym.
“I finally admitted it. But he said not to worry. It turns out we were the same.”
He compared the zine to the gay dating app Grindr.
“Though the format was different, it was very useful for me to find partners and friends. It made my life happier,” he said.
Though far from mainstream and in small circulations, the zines point to a somewhat more tolerant time in the Muslim-majority nation. In recent years, rights groups have documented escalating crackdowns on the LGBTQ community, including a campaign against gay members of the security forces.
Same sex relations are not illegal in Indonesia, with the exception of Aceh Province, where Sharia Law is enforced and canings of gay men regularly make international headlines. But a Pew Research Center poll released last year shows that only nine percent of Indonesians surveyed agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
From the 1980s to the 2000s when publishing started moving online, there were nine queer magazines in Indonesia, according to a new non-profit called the Queer Indonesia Archive, which has been copying, scanning and uploading the retro zines in an attempt to preserve and celebrate the history. Users can also submit material to the archive through its website for possible digitization.
“The goal is to make Indonesians aware that the queer movement in Indonesia has been around for a long time and is part of society. They are among us, working as civil servants, lecturers and others. They are part of the community and should be treated as part of the community,” said Ais, the 29-year-old co-founder of the archive.
“The goal is to make Indonesians aware that the queer movement in Indonesia has been around for a long time and is part of society. They are among us, working as civil servants, lecturers and others.”
Ais, who did not wish to use his full name for fear of backlash, told VICE World News that the project was launched in 2020 with the help of an Australian named Beau Newham who works on HIV prevention support. But even some queer activists did not want to contribute material because of the associated stigma, Ais said.
"I think they are afraid of a negative reaction after being archived.”
In the future, the archive wants to create oral histories, podcasts and collect archived material from more remote queer communities in Indonesia.
When the zines first started circulating, they were still dangerous to possess, according to writer and scholar Dede Oetomo, who founded the country’s longest-running queer magazine GAYa Nusantara, which was available in independent bookstores that also sold banned volumes on other topics deemed sensitive like socialism.
“Sometimes friends were afraid to have the magazines, so they sometimes borrowed from friends, or copied them, and burned them immediately after reading them,” he said. “This is because if the magazine is brought home and found out, it will ruin your life.”
At its peak, GAYa Nusantara had about 1,000 subscribers. It ceased print publication in 2005, but came back with an online version in 2014, establishing a website and social media presence.
Despite intolerance and a surge in discrimination from authorities, activists are hopeful that establishing a broader presence on the internet will help change mindsets.
Cangkang Queer, an affiliate of advocacy group Pelangi Nusantara, regularly posts information for the LGBTQ community in Medan on Instagram. It used to have a magazine called Q Buletin, but only one issue appeared because of a lack of financial support.
“The important thing is now the goal is the same, what is being fought for is still the same as before,” said Amek, who runs Cangkang Queer but asked to be anonymous for fear of persecution.
In a prominent case from 2019, two campus journalists in Medan were threatened with expulsion from the University of North Sumatra after publishing a short story that was accused of “promoting homosexuality.”
Amek, who aims to broadcast a documentary on YouTube about the queer community’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, said internet-based platforms were now faster, more efficient and reached a wider audience than print platforms.
But even with the help of the internet, the fight is far from over.
“The struggle to achieve equal rights...will still take a long time,” Amek said.