​There’s Never Been a Worse Time to Be Gay in Indonesia

A gay panic that started with LGBTQI emojis has escalated to a full on government crackdown.

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Apr 26 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

The emergence of a pro-LGBTQI movement among Indonesia's youth poses a larger threat than nuclear warfare—that's what the country's defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu believes. It's a statement that comes after turbulent months, which saw Indonesia's "gay panic" escalate from emojis to an outright political and cultural assault.

Ryacudu comments weren't metaphorical. He truly thinks the LGBTQI community poses a national security risk, leveraging long held suspicions around foreign influences undermining Indonesian sovereignty "under the guise of human rights concerns."

"It's dangerous as we can't see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed," the minister said. "Now the (LGBTQI) community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat."

While his words were widely ridiculed across social media in Jakarta, they've led to a doubling down of tough zero-tolerance policies towards LGBTQI citizens. The Indonesian Psychiatric Association quickly responded to Ryacudu's claims, advising LGBTQI identifying Indonesians to "maintain their mental health by guarding their behavior, habit, healthy lifestyle, and increasing their ability to adapt to their social environment."

Teguh, spokesperson for advocate group and support network Suara Kita (Our Voice), says the current anti-LGBT climate is "the worst" he's ever seen. While Indonesia's LGBT community "lived in fear" before this year's unprecedented backlash, they "could hold academic discussions in universities or gather to talk about rights, support each other, or just hang out. But he told VICE this hysteria has seen the group forced deeper underground.

Teguh points to both Islamic fundamentalist groups and politically-motivated public officials and police as the instigators of the crackdown, with the furore centered around a student-led support group at the University of Indonesia targeted by the Ministry of Education earlier in the year as the trigger.

"Now we must really be careful about what we're doing because at any time we can be raided by officials or a fundamentalist group," Teguh told VICE. "This fear makes sense, an Islamic hardliner group has already raided houses allegedly rented by a lesbian community."

Indonesia's defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu. Image via

University student Sinar and her friend Gia struggle to understand how LGBTQI has managed to strike such fear with the country's leadership. "Indonesia has always adapted to cultures," Sinar says, referring to the country's tradition of religious tolerance. "This is just the same."

And it's true, Indonesia has long enjoyed a reputation of being one of the region's more tolerant to LGBTQI people, including a quiet acceptance of transgender waria (a portmanteau of wanita and pria, the Indonesian words for woman and man respectively). Both Malaysia and Singapore have laws on their books forbidding gay and lesbian "lifestyles."

This has unraveled most spectacularly in the Central Javan city of Yogyakarta, previously heralded as home to the world's first transgender Islamic school and mosque, welcoming to trans Muslims from around Indonesia who'd been rejected from their own communities.

Hardline Islamists, widely viewed as being on the fringe of the country's mainstream moderate Islam, launched a series of protests and raids on the school. The threat of danger prompted the mosque to close its doors for the first time since it opened in 2008. Then the police got involved, targeting pro-LGBTQI activists in Yogyakarta during counter rallies that called on the government to step in and protect the rights of the community.

Related: Watch 'VICE Meets Indonesia's Trans Waria Community'

The most damning moment came as Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), Indonesia's top clerical peak body, issued a fatwa effectively "outlawing" the existence of LGBTQI Indonesians under Islamic law. MUI chairman Maruf Amin said LGBTQI "activities are forbidden in Islam and other Abrahamic religions."

He pointed to articles in the country's constitution as the legal basis for the ruling, as well as laws on marriage and an earlier MUI fatwa against gay and lesbian sex.

Linking the supposed "illegality" of LGBTQI Indonesians to the country's founding 1945 Constitution is a habit often indulged by the MUI and other conservative groups when targeting fringe minorities.

In an increasingly conservative environment, the message from MUI is clear: If you do not outwardly condemn the country's LGBTQI community, you are a bad Muslim, and a bad Indonesian.

But Jakarta's young Muslims aren't buying it. "Cuek," university student Yogi says while his friend Gaw nods. It's ignorant, irrelevant—they could not care less. He believes Indonesia's Muslim leadership are focusing on the wrong things.

"They give these statements, Indonesian people have to do this, they have to do that. They keep talking about wrong sexual behavior, but so what?" Yogi says, before pointing out that the existence of gay people is not a new thing. "This happened during the time of the Prophet. They are in our Qur'an."

"It's no crime," Gaw adds. "It's about the person and if they don't hurt anyone, what does it matter?' Although he clarifies that while he's fine with women being gay, men make him uncomfortable. Both men are hopeful things will change and get better for the LGBTQI community in Indonesia.

"Today, Indonesians are panicking. They think they've never seen LGBT people, they think they've never interacted with them," Tenguh says. "I believe when LGBT visibility increases and more information is available, Indonesia will understand and accept us. They think when they shut down anything about LGBT, our existence will vanish. But they're wrong. We're here and we still exist."

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