Zulfikar Fahd was a bundle of nerves as he walked up to immigration officials at Canada's Toronto Pearson International Airport. He knew that everything was riding on what he said next. Zulfikar, a public relations consultant from Jakarta, had practiced the words he was about to say in the mirror on the flight over, standing in the airplane's cramped bathroom and mouthing the simple phrase that could change everything. He was in Canada to stay. He was there to claim asylum as a gay man fleeing a period of increasing hostility toward the LGBTQ community in Indonesia.
"Indonesia is a dangerously homophobic country," Zulfikar explained of his decision. "I want to live in peace, but I can't do it in Indonesia. LGBTQ people's lives are in crisis. The government has been releasing statements to condemn us. That means no protections from the state, and that's wildly unjust."
Zulfikar approached the immigration counter and told the agent he was in Canada to claim asylum. "On what basis," the agent asked. "Sexual orientation," Zulfikar responded.
"Welcome to Canada, Mr. Fahd," the agent replied, according to an account of the day written on Zulfikar's blog. "I don’t know what you’d been through, but I think you’re being very brave."
Canada has a track record of approving asylum claims of people fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation. The country quietly granted asylum to 22 gay men and women from Chechnya after working with a Russian NGO to help them escape possible detention—and torture—back home. And in 2016, a gay Indonesian couple successfully petitioned the Canadian government to grant them asylum on similar grounds.
Zulfikar decided to seek asylum abroad shortly after Jakarta Police raided a gay sauna in May of last year, briefly detaining more than 100 men for violating the country's incredibly broad anti-pornography laws that can classify everything from the production of actual porn to suggestive dances and miniskirts as illegal.
The arrests were scary enough for Zulfikar, but it was what police did next that really left him shaken.
"They forced them to strip and be seen by the reporters," Zulfikar told VICE. "Their faces and bare bodies were published [in newspapers] nationwide."
That raid was just one in an ongoing crackdown by police and vigilante groups against Indonesia's LGBTQ community.
Two gay men were caned in Indonesia's conservative Aceh province, the only province in the country that practices Sharia law, after allegedly being caught by vigilantes having sex in a private residence. Four more were recently detained during a raid by police and vigilantes in Aceh on similar accusations. Each of them faces up to 100 lashes with a rattan cane.
In Surabaya, police busted what they called a "gay sex party," at a rented hotel room.
Two women suspected of being a lesbian couple were evicted from their home in Bandung, West Java, after neighbors complained. A well-known Islamic boarding school for trans women was shut down in Yogyakarta. The same thing happened in South Sulawesi when members of a trans community long seen as a vibrant part of local culture were detained by police. The list goes on, and all of this is happening despite the fact that, outside of Aceh, it's perfectly legal to be gay in Indonesia.
"That's the most ridiculous part," Zulfikar told VICE. "The government and authorities have been treating LGBTQ people like criminals, and this is without the existence of an anti-LGBTQ law."
There's a chance the situation may get worse for Indonesia's LGBTQ community in the near future. The House of Representatives is inching closer to a years-long plan to revise the country's decades-old Criminal Code. In the latest draft of the revised laws, rights groups have identified language that could criminalize being gay through several vague articles concerning the sexual abuse of minors and prohibitions on sex outside of marriage. Those caught violating this proposed law banning sex outside of the confines of marriage could face up to nine years behind bars.
The irony here is that Zulfikar had already made up his mind to flee long before news of the Criminal Code revisions hit the press.
"I thought of fleeing Indonesia way before I heard that the new Criminal Code is being finalized in the parliament,” Zulfikar told VICE. “I only heard about it weeks before my departure date, after I had already bought my tickets and quit my job. It’s safe to say I didn’t decide to seek asylum because of the criminalization, as the conditions were pretty terrifying even without the law.”
If this proposed draft of the Criminal Code passes the House in-tact, Zulfikar would no longer be able to "date anyone in Indonesia, let alone get married and have a family. If I did that, it isn’t at all impossible that the neighbors and cops would barge into my apartment and take me away to jail.”
Zulfikar's asylum hearing is scheduled for late next month, so all he can do right now is wait… and worry. “I’m as nervous as hell," he told VICE. "I’m really gay—not pretending—and my case is valid," but still approximately only 70 percent of the asylum cases heard between 2013 and 2015 in Canada were successful. There's no guarantees when it comes to claiming asylum.
During the asylum process, Zulfikar will have to prove his sexuality with photographs, text messages, and emails of romantic or intimate relationships. He will also have to explain how he could be in danger back in Indonesia.
"The largest [radical] Islamic group, the Islamic Defenders Front, repeatedly disrupts human rights workshops and peaceful gatherings of LGBTQ people across the country, physically attacking the participants and causing harm and suffering," he explained. "Indonesia's top Islamic clerical body has revived a push for gay sex to be criminalized, saying it is not only 'deviant,' but against the country's founding principles."
While he waits, Zulfikar's life is full of the mundane tasks that always come with setting up a life in a new country. He is running around Toronto, trying to open up bank accounts, getting medical check-ups, and building a place to live. He's already preparing for a permanent life despite the fact that so much is still up in the air.
“I have my dignity," he told me. "I don’t want to give up on myself."