Indonesia's Oldest Queer Rights Group Turns 30 Facing Difficult Future

08/30/2017 07:23 pm ET

Indonesia’s first queer rights organization, GAYa NUSANTARA, turned thirty years old this month. I took the opportunity to catch up with its founder, Dede Oetomo.

The past year was a hard one for queers in Indonesia. A series of outrageous statements by cabinet ministers and conservative Muslim clerics combined with police raids and vigilante violence to create widespread fear.

“There were all kinds of suggestions,” Oetomo recounted. “Threats to ban organizations, campaigns to promote conversion therapy through religion or pseudo psychology. They used the acronym LGBT.”

Dede laughs as he says this. In fact, he laughs when he says almost anything. His laughter is not forced. Dede is an extraordinary jovial person, and his good humor is infectious. This may have something to do with why his organization has survived for so long in such difficult circumstances.

Last May, the threats were turning to action. First, police arrested 14 people in the city of Surabaya for allegedly holding a gay party. Then two men in Aceh, aged 20 and 23, were caught by vigilantes having sex in their private residence. The men were placed on a stage near a mosque and lashed with a cane 83 times in front of cameras and a large, hostile, jeering crowd. The same week as the caning, 141 men were arrested in the capital, Jakarta, in a raid on a sauna that allegedly tolerated gay sex.

A video of the caning in front of the mob can be seen here. It is not easy to watch.

The worst fears of the early part of 2017 have not been realized, but queer organizations and people function more clandestinely than before nevertheless.

“One thing that is alarming is that there is a request for a judicial review of three sexual morality articles in the criminal code, which is now pending at the Constitutional Court. One is the sodomy article, which used to be only for pedophile acts. The conservative Islamists have requested that it be extended to all sex between two men or two women. There is also a bill in Parliament to revise the current criminal code, which was basically translated from the Dutch criminal code. The latest version apparently does have a sodomy article. So we actually face the criminalization of homosexual acts.”

The situation today contrasts sharply with the climate in Indonesia thirty years ago when GAYa NUSANTARA was launched.

“The fear that people feel today was not really present,” Oetomo remembers. “A letter to the editor of the paper might condemn us, but there was no official statement from the government or Islamic clerics. We wanted to educate the public that homosexuality was OK. By the mid nineties some news stands were selling our magazine and circulation was about a thousand. The media helped. In those days most media coverage was positive. The media was becoming our mouthpiece in a way. We could actually defend ourselves, explain, talk about the traditional representations of homosexuality or transgenderism in Indonesia.”

In those days, Indonesia was ruled by a military dictatorship which emerged from a horrific campaign of mass murder in which between one and two million people were killed. The military annihilated the Indonesian Communist Party, but left queers alone.

“We were a non-issue under the dictatorship,” Oetomo explains. “When the HIV program was set up in the late 1980s we were actually included. But by 1993 the Ministry of Health was started to get paranoid. ’Oh no, we are promoting homosexuality.’ So they stopped the program for about six years. We were left in the cold, which was actually good for us because it made us stronger, and helped us to not concentrate only on HIV.”

“We started seeing things that were not good in the late 1990s. There was an economic crisis. There was the struggle against the dictatorship. Things were brewing.”

“I can actually date it. The first organized attack on gay people was in 1997 in Jogjakarta. It took the fall of the dictatorship in 1998 for other organizations to come out.”

Since that time, Oetomo continues, “there has always been the threat of mob violence. The first was in the late 1990s, there was another in 2001, there was the attack on the Asian International Lesbian and Gay CO conference in 2010, the queer film festival was threatened a few times, some venues were shut down. So we have had 20 years of this, and the frequency has gone up.”

Much like happened in a much shorter time during the Arab Spring, Indonesia’s relatively tolerant Islamic culture during military dictatorship, which was secular, yielded to a more religious and conservative cultural wave under democracy. And this in spite of the fact that the indigenous cultures and religions of Indonesia were one of human history’s richest sexual and gender kaleidoscopes.

“You cannot be in any part of Indonesia, or actually the Malay Archipelago, without running into people who are neither men nor women. In terms of non-binary genders, we could mention Bougis culture, which until now recognizes five genders: men, women, transmen, transwomen, and a shaman gender to communicate with the gods, because you don’t know what the gods’ gender is.”

Indonesian traditional non-binary genders do not directly translate into what Westerners now call tramsmen and transwomen, but are close enough for Indonesia activists and scholars like Oetomo to use the term as a heuristic placeholder.

“Male-to-male and female-to-female relationships have always been here, somehow, in different contexts. Certainly around the Islamic boarding schools in places like west Sumatra where young men, after they reach puberty, are encouraged to sleep in the mosque. They join the male community. It could be play, but sometimes it would be deeper. It was like a phase you would go through. There’s also – which is not so nice –, what happens in the Catholic Church also happens with the molestation of boys and girls.”

“The sultans and the Balinese kings used to have 20, 30 40 concubines and they had relationships with each other in the women’s quarters in the palaces, You can see this in the some of the classical literature of Java. Their relationships were almost never exclusive. I guess these relationships would today be called ‘queer.’”

“If you go to the island of Papua and the Melanesian cultures, you will find rites of initiation involving adult men and pre-pubescent and pubescent boys, either through anal or oral sex. ‘Pedophilia,’ by our standards.”

Even though the worst fears of the early part of 2017 has gone unrealized, queer organizers in Indonesia find themselves in a precarious position. “International funding agencies are under scrutiny from the government. The Ford Foundation has had to scrap its entire sexual and reproductive health and rights program. There is a Dutch NGO that may have to move to the Philippines.”

The latest police action involved the Straits Games, Southeast Asia’s answer to the West’s Gay Games. The police shut it down in Bali last week.

In this climate, GAYa NUSANTARA’s has managed to maintain its work in suicide prevention and HIV education, testing and counseling. The HIV work is particularly urgent in Bali. Thanks to the tsunami of tourism that has flooded Bali, as well as the spread of smartphones and hookup apps, the HIV infection among gay men in Bali is now higher than in Bangkok. Four years ago it was 12%. Now it is 36%.

The worsening social climate shapes the HIV work as well. “We have this service: if you want to get tested and you are shy or unsure, you can Whatsapp our people and we meet you somewhere. We have 62 testing sites in Surabaya alone, and testing is free. We had a case of 25 top corporate managers who were gay, asking us if we could have the nurse come to a restaurant instead of them going to the clinic.”

“We don’t do things exclusively for queers. The suicide prevention is for everyone. The Q film festival has been renamed the Hundred Percent Human film festival. This is how we are living these days. You can still do activities, but it has to be under wraps.”

For once, Oetomo says this without laughing.

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