The crowd set out on foot from the intersection on Medan Merdeka Street, Central Jakarta. Thousands of people, mostly women with signs in hand, marched toward Aspiration Park in front of the National Palace, where the president works. Some protesters climbed atop a vehicle that doubled as a political stage.
In that moment, adrenaline was rushing through Stacey Nikolay’s entire body. She was taken by surprise when asked to get up and give a speech representing LGBTQ women on a public stage directly opposite to the palace. As a lesbian woman who’s had her safety threatened in public, she was understandably hesitant. Did she want to be so visible?
Stacy built up the courage to get on stage, from where she demanded for more rights. She remembers International Women’s Day 2019 as one of the proudest moments in her life.
“That was the first time I delivered a speech in front of such a huge crowd, so it’s really meaningful to me as a lesbian woman. We were given a space. The rainbow flag waved in the air until we stopped at Aspiration Park in front of the palace. So many LGBT allies were there to support us and put together a strategy,” Stacy told VICE. “For me, that was such an empowering moment.”
A similar scene took place in April, when the rainbow flag made another appearance. All eyes were on six transgender women dancing to Ariana Grande’s “Bang Bang.”
This time, Riska Carolina was the one under the spotlight. She believed in that moment she was in a safe space, as a lesbian Indonesian woman owning her identity in public.
“Whoever supports LGBT rights, let me hear your voices! When I say ‘LGBT,’ you say ‘I do!’,” she led the crowd to chanting.
None of these powerful moments took place at a Pride Parade, usually held in the month of June, around the world. Instead, Riska and Stacy took to the stage at the Women’s March, a yearly event held in support of women’s rights and allies to their cause.
On Labor Day, a similar scene took place, with LGBTQ symbols proudly displayed, signs demanding rights and equality for the LGBTQ community that constantly faces workplace discrimination. They joined the fight alongside the millions of other labor protestors.
In Indonesia, this is how LGBTQ individuals protest. They latch on to various events and protests, where they make their voices heard. Here, LGBTQ rights is too sensitive a topic to address on its own.
In Indonesia, which has never legally or officially criminalized LGBTQ groups, there has never been a proper Pride parade due to the risk of attacks by conservative reactionary groups.
In other parts of the world, Pride is celebrated in remembrance of LGBTQ groups’ defiance at the Stonewall riots. American LGBTQ groups in the 50s and 60s went head to head with a homophobic and discriminatory legal system. At the time, it was difficult to find a safe space that catered to all marginalized groups, but they gathered at a bar called Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City. The riots took place over the course of a few days.
To this day, that moment is remembered as a turning point for LGBTQ resistance not only in the U.S., but all over the world.
“The only way for us to make our voices heard is by participating or joining in events organized by other alliances and movements. It also becomes a statement that LGBTQ-related issues are intersectional issues because it can be related to other aspects of life,” said Ryan. “There are lesbians and transwomen who join women’s movements, or there are queer people who attend May Day march because they’re still considered laborers. It’s to show that LGBTQ people are still part of the community.”
In recent years, there has been a drastic change in sentiments toward the LGBTQ community in Indonesia. They now often receive insults and discrimination from the majority. This is largely due to intensified anti-LBTQ campaigns from conservative groups, to religious communities, to government officials. While social media has been able to amplify LGBTQ voices, the same tool has been used to spread hate.
LGBTQ activist Ryan Korbarri recalleds the final days when he felt the Indonesian LGBTQ community could express themselves openly in public. He cited International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOT) 2015 as that final moment.
Hundreds of people marched on the morning of a Car Free Day, which is routinely held on Sundays. Those marching in the IDAHOT 2015 parade wore rainbow colors, painted their faces, and flew rainbow flags, while dancing together and carrying around an empty banner for people to sign in support of the May 17th anti-discrimination movement.
“We got so many signatures at IDAHOT 2015. We delivered speeches at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout. People from all ranks of society joined in,” Ryan told VICE. “Some came out of curiosity, and some came just to participate.”
The situation changed drastically a year later. At IDAHOT 2016, only 20 LGBTQ activists took to the streets. Instead of signatures, what they got was verbal abuse, threats, and insults.
“We took a great deal of verbal abuse that day. People were calling us trannies, cursing LGBT individuals and whatnot,” Ryan said. “It was not a pleasant experience, and for our own safety, we chose not to hold public events anymore.”
The changes can be traced back to the implementation of Qanun Jinayat, a Sharia Criminal Code that prohibits same-sex relationships, in Aceh last 2014. According to Ryan, unfounded fears then further fostered hatred toward the LGBTQ community. Soon after, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa on the death penalty for gay people in 2015. Things got worse for LGBTQ citizens in Indonesia after the United States legalized same-sex marriage. Some Indonesians worried that the same thing would happen locally.
State officials only added fuel to the fire by making anti-LGBTQ remarks. Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education Muhammad Nasir prohibitted the formation of LGBTQ student organizations on campuses. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu saw the LGBTQ phenomenon as an impact of proxy war that is more dangerous than nuclear war. Same-sex couples in Aceh were caned if caught red-handed by the Sharia Police. Then there was an arrest of 141 gay men during a “gay party” in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta.
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“In the past, the government thought the numbers of LGBTQ people were not significant so they didn’t really care about us. It’s actually better for them to be ignorant, because it means we’re more accepted here. Queer culture was alive and well in Indonesia,” Ryan said.
“The change was marked by an increase in religious fundamentalism in Indonesia. Something must be sacrificed when religion is politicized. Like LGBTQ for example,” he added. “We had everything before. We could hold a public event because the sentiment wasn’t too bad back then. The government makes everything worse, so people also oppose LGBTQ community.”
In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report about the Indonesian government’s official statements against LGBTQ peoples. The report shows that after Independence, Indonesia never criminalized same-sex relationships. Until policy changes in 1999. After the country adopted the decentralization policy, every region was allowed their own laws, paving the way for the criminalization of same-sex relationships in some areas. Last year, as a way to crackdown on LGBTQ, the Family Love Alliance (AILA) proposed a request to the Constitutional Court to review the Criminal Code.
Given the complex context in Indonesia, it is no surprise that LGBTQ communites have resorted to joining other communities in other movements instead. But this has not completely reduced the risks. After Riska took the stage to represent LGBTQ community at the Women’s March, she said she was closely watched by the police afterwards.
“Joining in other intersectional protests doesn’t reduce the risk at all. The authorities are still very likely to monitor us,” said Riska.
But for LGBTQ people like Stacy, Ryan and Riska, while celebrations might not be what they’re like in other countries, the fight continues even with added risks.
“Pride, for me, is about how proud we are of ourselves, because we have to fight hard to get our place in public,” Ryan said. “Many of us pretend to be someone else on a daily basis, and it feels so good when we can be ourselves. For us, it deserves to be celebrated.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia