Jakarta leads descent into homophobia

Eid al-Fitr mass prayer in Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. The government is increasingly appeasing conservative Islam. Source: Wikimedia

Indonesia increasing crackdowns on homosexuality, prostitution and even same-sex emojis point to a drive towards conservative intolerance in the diverse archipelago.

A former communications minister recently called for gay people to be killed while a well-known psychiatric body described transgenderism as a mental disorder.

Jakarta’s sudden move against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has taken many by surprise.

Homosexuality and gay sex are not illegal in Indonesia, which has a vibrant transgender culture and tradition, which has been broadly tolerated by the public.

Transgender hairstylist Anggun, 23, says: “We don’t know why smart people are suddenly saying things like ‘homosexuality is a virus that can spread’. Even uneducated people know that’s not true.”

So why the policy shift? February saw around 100 men in the Javan city of Yogyakarta carrying placards reading “LGBT is a disease”. Earlier in the month, minister of research, technology and higher education, Muhammad Nasir, said that LGBT support groups who were offering counselling services at one of the archipelago’s principal universities were corrupting Indonesia’s youth. The largely conservative media and social media forums appear keen to follow the homophobic trend.

It seems Nasir is not a lone voice within the cabinet. Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said the gay rights movement was a form of a modern warfare pushed by western governments to undermine sovereignty. Then former communications minister Tifatul Sembiring tweeted to his million followers that the public should kill any gay people that they found.

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla asked for a cut in funding to a UN programme to end discrimination and violence against the LGBT community.

Running in parallel, and further enforcing the image of a nation becoming increasingly beholden to conservative Islamic, is Jakarta’s public crackdown against prostitution.

Bulldozers this week demolished hundreds of buildings in the capital’s largest red-light district as part of an archipelago-wide campaign to stamp out prostitution.

Jakarta’s Kalijodo district, home to thousands of sex workers, is the latest of nearly 70 red-light districts shut down in Indonesia. The government says it wants to close the 100 or so that remain by 2019.

In contrast to homosexuality, prostitution is illegal in Indonesia but it is readily available in most large cities.

Bulldozers flattened Kalijodo homes and sex-oriented businesses, which Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama wants to turn into a park.

Anas Effendi, West Jakarta’s mayor, said: “First, we need to demolish all houses and revert the land to be used for a green open space, which has been the main function of the area since the very beginning. Once it is all completed, we will rebuild the area immediately.”

A drink-driving accident that left four dead in Kalijodo in February kick-started moves to demolish the area.

The authorities gave 3,000 residents a week to clear the area with some relocated to government-subsidised apartments. Evicted sex workers were also given vocational training, the authorities claimed.

The National Commission on Human Rights criticised the military’s involvement in the clearance, claiming the presence of soldiers was to muzzle dissent.

Last month, the authorities ordered that all gay emojis, which are available on apps including Line, Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter, depicting same-sex couples holding hands and the rainbow flag, must be removed or the services would be banned from Indonesia.

“What is most worrying is that they want to fight for equal marriage rights,” he said.

Gay rights activist, Hartoyo says the LGBT community is on high alert.

“I am scared that there will be violence against us. There is a history of violence against minorities in Indonesia that were fuelled by similar kinds of statements. We need the government to protect us and the president needs to say you can’t talk to us like this.”

The world’s first and only Islamic school for transgender women, opened in 2008 to promote the Islamic faith and prayer, has also been forced to close.

Still many members of Indonesia’s gay community enjoy liberty, especially in Jakarta, as long as they remain discreet.

And Indonesia remains one of the world’s most diverse countries. The Bugis tribe on the remote island of Sulawesi recognises five genders, including bissu, which is someone who is neither a man nor a woman.

Human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis says the community should be protected under the secular constitution but fears the rise of conservative Islam is stifling Indonesia’s traditions of tolerance.

“What upsets me is that the president hasn’t stepped into the debate,” Lubis said.

The LGBT community backed President Joko Widodo’s campaign for office in the belief he would boost tolerance.

Widodo has not commented on the issue but his aide, Luhut Panjitan, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, recently told parliament: “[LGBT] might not be ‘normal’ in terms of the general rules and religion but you can’t just dismiss them like that. We have to remember that all of us also could have a relative or an offspring that is LGBT. They are part of our communities and citizens of our country and they too have to be protected.”

Rights groups will be waiting to see whether reassurances like this are just empty words or if moves will be made to restrain the more outspoken members of the Widodo’s cabinet.